published on 14 February 2012
Portrait of Queen Hatshepsut (Rob Koopman)

Hatshepsut was a female pharaoh in Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt who rose to prominence as ruler after the death of her husband Thuthmosis II (also Thutmose II). In what was a traditionally male dominated society, Hatshepsut used various strategies to legitimise her reign. Because Egyptians had a certain view of what a pharaoh should be, Hatshepsut, the only queen to take the title of pharaoh, although other queens had held the position, altered some aspects of her behaviour to fit in with these expectations. Hatshepsut used her ambition to establish herself as pharaoh and then to maintain a solid rule despite the Egyptian expectations that there be a male pharaoh.

From Regent to Pharaoh

After she had carried out the duties of a king for two years, in her role as regent on behalf of Thuthmosis III, Hatshepsut was driven by her ambition to assume the power, authority and title of pharaoh. Hatshepsut was the daughter of Thuthmosis I, the wife of Thuthmosis II, and when her husband died she became regent to the very young Thuthmosis III and then she became pharaoh. Very early in her reign as regent Hatshepsut showed her ambition and took full control of the government as one official, Ineni, from that period had recorded on his tomb inscription: “…the Divine Consort, Hatshepsut, settled the affairs of Two Lands by reason of her plans. Egypt was made to labor with bowed head for her, the excellent seed of the god…” (‘Ineni’ in Breasted, vol.2, 142-3).

Although three queens, Nitocris, Sobeknofru, and Twosret (Sixth, Twelfth and Nineteenth dynasties respectively) ruled as queens in their own right, with protocols like a king, only Hatshepsut assumed the double crown of Egypt and the title of Pharaoh of Egypt. Nitocris, Sobeknofru, and Twosret ruled at the end of a dynasty when there were no male heirs and their reigns were short, and as they did not fit “Maat” (ancient Egyptian concept of universal harmony), they were left off the king lists. Unlike Hatshepsut they did not hold the title of pharaoh.     

Initially Hatshepsut conformed to the process of regency. Later she took action to assume the role of pharaoh because she believed she had a stronger claim to the throne by her birthright, as her mother Ahmose was Thuthmosis I's chief wife, and Thuthmosis III was the son of a minor wife. When Hatshepsut came to power, first as regent then as pharaoh, she adopted similar policies and methods of government as those of her husband Thuthmosis II, so that there was a seamless rule from Thuthmosis II to Hatshepsut.

To achieve her goal for a successful rule in a male dominated society, Hatshepsut took various measures to legitimise her rule as pharaoh. To be accepted and to govern successfully, Hatshepsut needed to surround herself with powerful military, civil, and religious officials who would support her cause. One of these officials was the high priest of Amun, Hapusoneb, who with the priesthood of Amun-Re strongly supported Hatshepsut as the pharaoh of Egypt. With their support assured, Hatshepsut was able to justify her position as pharaoh. 

Hatshepsut & Amun

The Egyptians had known only male pharaohs and Hatshepsut, when she assumed the title of pharaoh, acted as a male pharaoh would and had to alter how she dressed.

As propaganda and self-justification were part of the New Kingdom pharaoh’s position, Hatshepsut claimed that Amun had named her as ruler of Egypt: “Amun, the Lord of Thebes; he caused that I should reign over the Black and Red Land”. Hatshepsut also gave herself a new name “Maatkare” meaning “Truth is the soul of the Sun God Re” when she became pharaoh. An inscription on a wall at Deir el-Bahri reinforced her claim to rule with Amun’s approval: “Welcome my sweet daughter, my favourite, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare, Hatshepsut Thou art King, taking possession of the Two Lands” (Millmore).

In addition to claiming Amun had given her the right to the throne of pharaoh, Hatshepsut rewrote her life story on the walls of her temple at Deir el-Bahri to claim that she had been born from a liaison between Amun and her mother Ahmose as she slept:

She waked at the fragrance of the god, which she smelled in the presence of his Majesty. He went immediately… When he came before her she rejoiced at the sight of his beauty, his love passed into her limbs…all his colours were from Punt (Bradley, 289).

On another inscription at Deir el-Bahri, Amun is depicted as instructing the god Khnum to make Hatshepsut, the baby, and its Ka: “Go make her, together with her Ka, from these limbs which are in me; go, to fashion her better than all the gods…” (Bradley, 290). By claiming divine birth, Hatshepsut, in addition to declaring that Amun had stated that he wanted her to rule, was able to legitimise her rule.

As well as her godly father, Hatshepsut used her mortal father, Thuthmosis I, to support her claim to the throne. She sought to legitimise her right to be pharaoh by claiming her father Thuthmosis I, the respected and powerful pharaoh and god, had named her as his successor. When he was pharaoh, Thuthmosis I, the warrior king, defeated enemy armies and made Egypt rich and powerful. Like all pharaohs, Thuthmosis I was an absolute ruler and above human law as he was believed to be a god, and this divinity, that all pharaohs received, was depicted on an inscription from Thuthmosis I’s reign:

     …Horus Mighty Bull, Beloved of Truth,
     He of the Two Ladies, Risen with
     the fiery serpent, Great of Strength
     Horus of Gold, Perfect of Years , He who
     makes hearts live
     He of the Sedge and Bee Aakheperkara
     Son of Ra (Thuthmosis) living forever and eternity…
     (Quirke, 297)

By claiming Thuthmosis I, the strong, successful pharaoh/god, had named her his successor, Hatshepsut was able to justify her claim to the throne.

Temple of Hatshepsut

Maintaining Power

When she assumed the title of pharaoh, Hatshepsut used the strongest methods available to her to keep her position. Because the pharaoh was responsible for ensuring that Egyptian society functioned without chaos and that order in all aspects of Egyptian life was the norm, Hatshepsut exploited the concept of “Maat” to reinforce her right to rule. By not making any dramatic changes to what was expected of her in her role as pharaoh, Hatshepsut, maintained the status quo by taking action such as trade expansion, ensured the economy prospered, and restored and built monuments and temples. She also performed the religious rituals only a pharaoh could perform and had her image depicted as a conventional pharaoh in male garb thereby maintaining “Maat”.

The Egyptians had known only male pharaohs and Hatshepsut, when she assumed the title of pharaoh, acted as a male pharaoh would and had to alter how she dressed. When she became king Hatshepsut wore the traditional masculine clothing of a pharaoh but had herself depicted as a woman in king’s clothing in statues. By wearing male clothing and representing her image dressed in male clothing, Hatshepsut wanted to depict herself as a true Egyptian pharaoh with the authority of a pharaoh and not as a mere queen. Because it was considered impious to question the pharaoh’s actions, the Egyptian people accepted this behaviour.

Apart from adopting masculine garb, Hatshepsut, due to her royal background, knew what was expected of a pharaoh and how to behave as one and did not alter her behaviour while she was pharaoh. Hatshepsut ensured that she did not make any revolutionary breaks from tradition. Like the pharaohs who preceded her, she had temples, obelisks, and monuments built, participated in religious rituals, and by dressing in male clothing she strengthened her authority as a pharaoh.

Stability & Prosperity

Despite the challenges she faced in gaining and maintaining control, Hatshepsut’s rule proved to be stable and prosperous. There were many positive aspects to Hatshepsut’s reign. She ruled Egypt for 22 years and that period was one of peace and prosperity, trade expansion both internally and externally, and a greatly expanded building program. The remarkable and peaceful expedition to Punt, which was recorded on the walls of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri, was regarded by Hatshepsut as a great and significant achievement, and she also promoted trade with other countries. Because the Egyptians had not traded with Punt since the Twelfth Dynasty (Middle Kingdom), Hatshepsut claimed, “No one trod the Myrrh-terraces (Punt), which the people knew not: it was heard from mouth to mouth by hearsay of the ancestors” (Bradley, 309). The Punt expedition brought back myrrh, living myrrh trees, ebony, ivory, perfumes, resin, and wild animals such as monkeys and greyhounds.

During her reign Hatshepsut was responsible for an expanded and vigorous building program throughout Egypt with the significant support of her chief architect Senenmut. Among these were the construction and repair of monuments at Karnak to honour Amun and her father Thuthmosis I and the construction of her temple at Deir el-Bahri: “I am his daughter in very truth, who works for him and knows what he desires. My reward from my father is life, stability, dominion upon the Horus Throne of all the Living, like Re, for ever” (Tyldesley, 154). The style of architecture of Hatshepsut’s reign also influenced the building styles of later pharaohs of the New Kingdom such as Ramses II.


Defacement of Images

Although Hatshepsut’s ambition, which drove her to assume the throne and deny Thuthmosis III’s ambition to rule solely, was believed to be a possible reason for the defacement of her images, there was no evidence to indicate why, when, or who defaced Hatshepsut’s images, statues, paintings, and monuments. Some historians believe Thuthmosis III may have defaced her images for political reasons, fearing that his co-regency with Hatshepsut had affected his legitimacy to rule. Because Thuthmosis III and Hatshepsut had enjoyed an amicable relationship and successful co-regency, some historians believe that the defacing had to do with Hatshepsut having offended “Maat” and not because Thuthmosis III hated her. The hatred and revenge, caused by Hatshepsut delaying his sole rule, which supposedly motivated Thuthmosis III to attack Hatshepsut’s images, is not borne out by any evidence, and it has been suggested that this motive was more the expression of the bias of some archaeologists against a female pharaoh: “What was written about Hatshepsut… had to do with who the archaeologists were… gentlemen scholars of a certain generation” (Renee Dreyfus in Wilson). Thuthmosis III’s sole rule proved to be very successful.

Other historians believe the defacement and destruction had to do with destroying Hatshepsut’s Ka (spirit) after her death. The fact that not all the images of Hatshepsut were destroyed indicates that, if Thuthmosis III was responsible for any defacement, he acted out of political expediency, not hatred, as by retaining many of her images he ensured her spirit would not perish: “Thuthmosis allowed certain of Hatshepsut’s images and cartouches to remain because ‘she was his own flesh’….and she had not deprived him of the crown” Redford in (Bradley, 323).

The pharaoh was regarded by Egyptians as being an absolute ruler who owned all the land and people of Egypt, who in his role as chief priest was able to communicate with the gods, and he was believed to be a god. In addition to being a supreme ruler and of divine birth, the pharaoh was responsible for the fortunes of the military, for ensuring that Egypt prospered economically, for maintaining the peace within Egypt, and for ensuring that the law was applied fairly to all the Egyptian people. To the Egyptian people the pharaoh in his role as ruler/god was the most important element in their society, and through his actions he ensured that society continued to exist in an ordered, peaceful, and successful manner.


After coming to power upon the death of her husband Thuthmosis II, first as regent then as pharaoh, Hatshepsut validated and consolidated her position as pharaoh by claiming divine birth and also claiming that Amun and her father Thuthmosis I had chosen her to be pharaoh. By gaining the support of influential officials from the military and civil bureaucracies and particularly from the priesthood of Amun-Re, Hatshepsut further consolidated the legitimacy of her reign. During Hatshepsut’s reign Egypt experienced a period of great prosperity, expansion of trade, peace, and prolific building programs. Without any evidence to validate who, why, or when Hatshepsut’s images, statues, writings and monuments were either defaced or destroyed, blame for such defacement cannot be attributed to Thuthmosis III.

In all aspects of her behaviour Hatshepsut, the only queen to claim the title pharaoh, ensured that she met the expectations of the Egyptian’s view of that role. Hatshepsut was driven by her ambition which enabled her to establish herself as pharaoh and then maintain a solid, stable rule, despite the Egyptian expectations of having a male ruler; however, she was not ruthless as her ascendancy to pharaoh was executed peacefully and her reign of 22 years was one of peace and prosperity.  

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