Cleopatra, Nefertiti: These are the names that come to mind when thinking of the legendary female rulers of ancient Egypt. In her highly engrossing The Woman Who Would Be King, Egyptian scholar Kara Cooney shines a spotlight on Hatshepsut, Egypt’s largely overlooked, longest-ruling female pharaoh, who led her country through a period marked by peace, prosperity and architectural achievement.
Daughter of King Thutmose I, Hatshepsut was highly educated, trained in her duties from a very early age. At the death of her father, when she was 12 or 13, Hatshepsut married Thutmose II (her own brother—inter-family royal marriages were de rigueur in Egypt 3,500 years ago). Three years later, Thutmose II was dead. Hatshepsut had only one surviving child with him, a daughter, and so the crown was passed along to Thutmose III, whose mother was a lesser-born wife of Thutmose II. Because Thutmose III was only 3 years old at the time, it was clear a regent would need to rule in his stead. Hatshepsut easily stepped into the role.
It was common for mothers of young kings to rule for their sons until they came of age, so Hatshepsut becoming the regent for her stepson/nephew was nothing out of the ordinary. She was an effective, fair and respected ruler who surrounded herself with the right people. What was out of the ordinary, however, came around six to eight years later, when she announced that Amen-Re (king of the gods) had declared her to be co-king (there was no Egyptian word for “queen”). And so she shrewdly ruled Egypt alongside Thutmose III until her death, likely in her late 30s.
Though the exact reason is unknown, some 20 years after her death, Thutmose III ordered the removal of Hatshepsut’s name and likeness from all Egyptian buildings and monuments—which likely explains her obscurity in part. Though Egyptologists have managed to uncover and piece together some details of her rise to power and rule, hard facts are few and far between, something Cooney acknowledges right off the bat. While much of The Woman Who Would Be Queen is conjecture, it is informed-by-expertise, compellingly written conjecture that will draw curious readers in with its vivid depiction of life in Ancient Egypt and a truly remarkable woman.