Bearded queen

It happened at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Eyes dazzled by the spectacle of treasures in the museum, I soaked in the information relayed by our guide, a young Egyptian woman named Dalia. Everything I had read in the history books came alive as she explained the process of mummification and took us through a short account of the rich treasures found in the pyramids.

“That’s Queen Hatshepsut,” she said, coming to halt before the bust of Hatshepsut, who ruled the country for 22 years. It was a record of sorts, since no other female pharaoh had ruled so long or been as successful as a ruler. There was peace and prosperity in the region. “She was more important than Nefertiti or Cleopatra, an extraordinary woman, and one of the most successful pharaohs of Egypt.” 

Fascinated, I looked at the arched eyebrows, aquiline nose, and the doe eyes of the bust. It was a smiling face with feminine features, but on the chin was the typical beard worn by pharaohs of Egypt.

Why did the queen wear a beard? Intrigued, I studied the other statues of the queen in the museum. Each of them showed her with a ceremonial beard — a hallmark of pharaohs.

Visionary

That was the starting point of my quest for information about the interesting queen named Hatshepsut. My exploration led me to the magnificent funerary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, which is considered an ancient architectural marvel. It reflects her knowledge of architecture as well as her desire to create a temple very different from the ones existing during her time. She called it the ‘Djeser Djeseru’, which means ‘Wonder of Wonders.’

Construction of temples was an important part of a pharaoh’s activities for not only did they create a sense of awe in the people, but also helped to elevate the ruler’s image, immortalise their names and provide employment to the subject. Each of the pharaohs thus spent considerable time, money and energy in designing these temples.

Hatshepsut commissioned hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper and Lower Egypt. The need to legitimise herself as a pharaoh saw her constructing structures that were far grander than the ones constructed by her predecessors. She was the only female pharaoh from Egypt’s golden age to build a tomb for herself in the Valley of the Kings.

The funerary temple of Hatshepsut is one of the finest temples constructed in ancient Egypt. A magnificent structure set on three levels, it is designed to merge with the rocky landscape of Thebes.

A long and elaborate ramp from the first courtyard took me to the upper level of the temple. During the time of Hatshepsut, the ramp passed through fountains, lush gardens and resin trees. Several sphinxes lined the path that led the worshippers to the higher floor, a pair of lion statues flanking the impressive entrance.

There are several chambers, colonnades, reliefs, hieroglyphs, inscriptions, altars and statues, with Hatshepsut appearing frequently in them, her chin adorned by the ubiquitous beard. The beard, I learned, was an important part of the pharaoh’s regalia. In ancient Egypt, the ceremonial beard was a symbol of a pharaoh. Since the pharaohs were regarded as children of god, the beard also conveyed divinity.

The reliefs on the walls of the funerary temple illustrate her commissioning obelisks for God Amun’s temple and ordering an expedition to Punt (now known as Somalia), which brought a rich haul of ivory, ebony, resins, gold and animals like panthers and baboons. It is all documented on the walls of her funerary temple. All that remains of her efforts is the depiction on the walls and the dried stumps of two myrrh trees brought from Punt. Incidentally, it was the first successful attempt at transplanting of trees from an alien land.

At Karnak Temple, the grandest temple in Egypt, I gaped at the enormous festival court and a pair of obelisks dedicated to God Amun by Hatshepsut.

Bit by bit, the inscriptions and illustrations pieced together the story of an ambitious woman who would be a pharaoh.

Starting young

Hatshepsut became a queen at the age of 12 when she married her half-brother Thutmose II. It is said that she was the power behind the throne. It was only after her husband died after a short reign that the young widow appointed herself as a regent to Thutmose III, her stepson, who was still a child. Not content with being a regent, in the seventh year of her reign, she took full charge of the kingdom and declared herself a pharaoh. As a woman, she had to resort to a few untruths to accentuate her suitability as pharaoh.

This she did by declaring that she had been sanctified by none other than God Amun (considered as the king of gods). She claimed that Amun had said — ‘Welcome my sweet daughter, my favourite, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare, Hatshepsut. Thou art the King, taking possession of the Two Lands.’

Hatshepsut had no wish to be known as a queen. She wanted to be a pahroah, since the pharaohs were much more powerful than kings.

Once a pharaoh, she began donning the regalia and symbols that befitted the stature. Not only did she wear the royal headdress called the nemes, and the royal apron known as the shendyt, and the false beard, she also carried the crook (heka) and flail (nekhakha), which were the symbols of pharaoh’s authority. With that, her transformation was complete.

Knowing the fickle ways of the world, Hatshepsut wondered if she, a female pharaoh, would be remembered at all. Etched in one of her obelisks at Karnak Temple are the words: ‘Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.’

After Hatshepsut’s death, her stepson, Thutmose III, embarked on a campaign to erase her name from history. Her statues were defaced, obelisk broken, and many of the hieroglyphs and illustrations scratched. The story of the female pharaoh was buried under the sands of time.

The world did not know of her existence till 1822, when Egyptologists stumbled upon the hieroglyphics on the walls of Deir el-Bahri. Strangely, it was a broken tooth that led to the discovery of her mummy. It is now known that she had problems with her teeth, suffered from diabetes and died of cancer. According to Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, “The fingernails of her left hand were painted red and outlined. She was bald in front, with long hair remaining at the back. She was a little bit fat; her face was strong, and she had a problem with her back. She had many health problems.”

Valuable information about the powerful woman is emerging with each passing day. Notwithstanding the efforts of Thutmose III, Hatsheput’s place in history is now assured, deservedly so.

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