The Bearded Lady

The Underhill Curio

The Bearded Lady

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Ethan Underhill, MBA Class of 2016

She stepped into a male-dominated world and proved wildly successful. She established a lasting legacy of leadership in commerce and construction. She did it for over 20 prosperous years – 700 years before Homer composed his famous epics. No one could accuse Hatshepsut (described in engravings as “the Perfect Goddess,” “Lady of the Two Lands,” and “Bodily Daughter of Ra”) of meekly accepting a subordinate gender role. She is, in the words of Egyptologist James Henry James Henry Breasted, “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.”

Hatshepsut rose to power in 1479 BC after the death of her husband/half-brother (very old school) Thutmose II. She initially served as regent during the “rule” of her nephew/stepson Thutmose III in what is now classified as the New Kingdom era of Egyptian history. Since Thutmose III was approximately two years old at the time, it’s safe to assume that he needed a fair amount of assistance with his pharaonic duties. Hatshepsut eventually dispensed with the regency façade, becoming a full-fledged pharaoh. She wore the traditional attire of the position, even the distinctive false beard, and as such is sometimes depicted as a man in monuments from the latter part of her reign.

While many of her predecessors and successors expanded Egyptian wealth and power through violent conquest, Hatshepsut focused primarily on economic growth. She established lucrative trade routes, and one of her expeditions to the Land of Punt (modern location uncertain, perhaps present-day Somalia or Eritrea) returned with live myrrh trees for planting in Egypt, among other exotic treasures. It was the first attempt to transplant foreign trees in recorded history. She ushered in an era of tremendous prosperity in Egypt.

The influx of wealth enabled the undertaking of massive construction projects. One of the most spectacular that survives is the imposing Djeser-Djeresu (“Sublime of Sublimes”) building of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, an example of perfectly symmetrical construction that predates the Parthenon by a millennium. This temple complex was so magnificent that many subsequent pharaohs built their tombs in the vicinity – and so a queen first built in an area that would come to be known as the Valley of the Kings. Her reign produced so much statuary that most major museums worldwide feature Hatshepsut collections.

Bust of Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut
Bust of Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut

Years after Hatshepsut’s death, at the end of the reign of her equally prosperous successor, former baby-pharaoh Thutmose III, many prominent statues of Hatshepsut and engravings of her name were defaced. The motivation behind this vandalism remains uncertain, but some suspect it was the work of Thutmose III’s son Amenhotep II, who served as co-regent during his father’s elder years. Amenhotep may have wanted to take credit for Hatshepsut’s accomplishments, a common motivation for expunging a deceased pharaoh from history. Thutmose III served as the commander of Egypt’s armies under Hatshepsut, giving him ample opportunity to stage a coup against his aunt/stepmother, which he never attempted. In any case, the halfhearted attempt to erase her clearly failed.

So, while notorious diva Cleopatra (who was Greek, not even Egyptian!) gets credited with all the fame and sex appeal, the main thing she presided over was Egypt’s absorption into the Roman Empire. Hatshepsut was the original female pharaoh extraordinaire, and even scheming descendants and 3,474 years couldn’t extinguish her memory.

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