One small item in the New York Times this week that probably escaped many people’s notice concerned Dorothy Day, a woman I’ve written about in this blog before. She has been a hero to older liberal Catholics for many years, but her mission among the poor in America has faded from memory during the more than thirty years since her death in 1980. The article this week was about a move to canonize Dorothy Day and recognize her as a saint and it is being led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the rather conservative leader of the New York diocese.
For those of us who remember the 1950s and 1960s when Dorothy Day was leading a campaign for social justice and peace, her relations with Cardinal Spellman, a predecessor of Dolan’s, were frosty to say the least. Many of her followers, if not Day herself, considered Spellman a representative of everything that was wrong with American Catholicism at the time. I remember they delighted in calling him “strikebreaker Spellman” when the Cardinal appeared in a news photo digging a grave (or at least holding a shovel) in a cemetery to show his disapproval of a strike by the gravediggers. The Cardinal and Day disagreed on labor policy and on the measures needed to defend America, although they agreed on doctrinal issues. Dorothy Day led civil disobedience efforts to protest air raid drills in the city by refusing to take shelter when the sirens went off, a position that also put her at odds with Church leaders.
Now when so many people in this country have shifted to the right on issues of social justice, death sentences, and the value of voluntary poverty, many Catholic bishops appear to be closer to Dorothy Day than they have been in the past. Certainly she would approve their efforts to remind politicians that the drive for social justice for everyone, including the homeless, undocumented immigrants, and the working poor, is as much an American value as capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit. It is good to know that Cardinal Dolan is supporting a move to recognize the importance of the work Dorothy Day did to remind the world that the Catholic Church, like America itself, is a large institution that has room for many differing viewpoints and can support a variety of visions.
Finding the Rosetta Stone was the beginning of finding Hatshepsut, but it was going to take more than one magic stone to find out who she really was. A young French scholar named Jean-Francois Champollion struggled for years to untangle the riddle of hieroglyphic writing. By 1822, a breakthrough had been made in learning how to read hieroglyphs, scholars recognized the name of Hatshepsut, but still they had no idea of who she was or what she had done. Champollion and other scholars were terribly confused because pictures of a pharaoh were accompanied by language suited to a woman. For the men who studied Egyptian history, the idea of a female pharaoh was difficult to accept. Champollion and others theorized that she must have been the wife or sister of a pharaoh.
The beautiful temple Hatshepsut had built was also unknown to Europeans. By the middle of the 1800s, Hatshepsut’s temple, Djene Djeseru, was half buried in the sand. Arab families had set up tents on the ancient terraces. Men had taken chunks of stone from the temple to build their houses. Most of the other Egyptian temples were in the same condition.
Sometime during the 1870s, not far from Hatshepsut’s temple, an Egyptian family accidentally discovered a treasure. One of their goats wandered off and when Ahmed Abd el-Rassul chased it, he heard it bleating and realized it had fallen down a deep hole on a hillside. When Ahmed climbed down to retrieve the goat, he found himself in a narrow corridor filled with coffins. These were the coffins of ancient kings and queens who had been buried with their treasures. Ahmed and his brothers started taking the vases and jewelry out, a few at a time, and selling them to dealers in the city of Luxor.
For several years the brothers kept their secret, but as valuable pieces were bought and carried back to Europe and America, people realized someone must have found an unknown source of ancient treasures. In 1881, the search led to the Abd el-Rassul brothers who were arrested and harshly questioned until they revealed the hidden supply.
The colonial authorities quickly put together a team to investigate the cache. The find was larger and more valuable than anyone had dreamed—the remains of more than fifty kings, queens, and other royalty were found. The inscriptions on the coffins and statues allowed scholars to put together a history of Egyptian royalty.
Hatshepsut’s story was becoming a little clearer. Scholars figured out the names and dates of her father and her husbands. But Hatshepsut’s reign was confused because many of her statues were defaced and her name was erased from her memorials. The reasons for this disappearance led Egyptologists centuries later to worry about the “Hatshepsut Problem” –the question of when she reigned. During the late nineteenth century, it sometimes seemed that many of the Egyptologists, almost all of whom were male, were just as eager as the unknown defacer of her statues to eliminate her from Egyptian history.
Only in recent years has Hatsehpsut been restored to her place in history. Historians have gradually built up a firm chronology of Egyptian rulers, which includes several female pharaohs. Hatshepsut was probably the most important of them all, certainly more important than Cleopatra who was a member of a Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt centuries after Hatshepsut. Art exhibits have memorialized Hatshepsut and biographies and novels have been written about her. Among the best of them is Joyce Tyldesley’s Hatchepsut: the Female Pharaoh.
With pictures of the damage caused by Sandy, the storm of a century, facing us from every media outlet, I can’t help thinking of New York City and all the places I love there. Growing up, I learned much of my history from the statues and pictures in the museums and books from the public library. It was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I was introduced to ancient Egypt and became intrigued with its secrets—a fascination I have never lost.
One of the most impressive statues at the museum is a massive granite statue of Hatshepsut, who was once the ruler of Egypt, the most important country in the ancient world. Somehow she disappeared from history and was forgotten for centuries. The statue we can now see shows a figure seated on a throne wearing the royal headdress and short pleated kilts usually worn by male
royalty in ancient Egypt, but the body is that of a woman, and the inscriptions running down the side of the throne use a female name and title. Hatshepsut’s story has puzzled historians for centuries. She built the largest temple on the banks of the Nile River with paintings on the walls and statues at the entrance. She must have been an important ruler, but her name is not found in the early official lists of Egyptian pharaohs. How can such a powerful woman disappear from history?
Well, as has happened with many women over the centuries, it seems to be the men in her life that originally caused her to disappear. She had been born the daughter of a powerful pharaoh, Tuthmosis I and, like many royal Egyptian women, she married her brother, Tuthmosis II, who inherited the throne. When he died after a short reign of six years, Hatshepsut became regent for their young son who was to become Tuthmosis III. After spending several years as a regent, she apparently decided to rule as a pharaoh in her own right; she was after all of royal blood and knew the job well. She had a long and successful reign during which Egypt was peaceful and became a wealthy country. After she died Thuthmosis III succeeded her.
At some point in the half century after her death, many statues of Hatshepsut were defaced so she was no longer recognizable. Her name was chiseled off many of the stone statues and when later rulers drew up the list of Egyptian monarchs, they simple left her name off. Perhaps it was too humiliating to admit that a woman had ruled the country so successfully. At any rate, Hatshepsut’s disappearance was effective.
The Egyptian empire lasted for thousands of years, but eventually it disappeared. Many Egyptians became less interested in the arts and religion of the pharaohs. They forgot the old traditions and the Egyptian gods. Egypt became part of the Roman Empire and was one of many Roman colonies. In the year 391, the Emperor Theodosius decided there should be no pagan temples in the empire. All the temples built by Egyptian pharaohs were closed. Inscriptions written in hieroglyphs were hidden. Much of the history of the country was lost.
Two centuries or so later, Arabs invaded Egypt bringing the Islamic religion and the Arabic language. As the years went by, Egyptians began speaking Arabic instead of Egyptian. And still the years rolled on. Villagers took stones from the pyramids to build their homes. Tomb robbers stole gold and jewels from burial places. In their eagerness to find treasure, robbers overturned coffins and dumped carefully wrapped mummies onto the earthen floor. The bones of pharaohs and commoners mingled together in heaps of rubbish.
Not all memories of Egypt were lost. Greek and Roman historians had written accounts of some of the pharaohs. The pyramids were still visible above the sand. Europeans gradually began traveling to Egypt to find trade routes to India so they could buy spices there. The Bible told stories about Egypt and started scholars wondering whether they could find traces of the ancient civilization there.
In 1735, Richard Pococke, an English clergyman, went to Egypt to study its monuments. He made maps showing where the known monuments and pyramids were located. Perched on his donkey, or sitting under a spindly palm trees at an oasis, Pococke sketched the people and places he saw. He stumbled upon Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el Bahri but had no idea which pharaoh might have built it. No one could read the inscriptions on tombs and statues.
More than fifty years after Pockocke’s trip, in 1798, an invading army brought more scholars to Egypt. Napoleon Bonaparte decided to conquer Egypt and claim it and the trade routes it controlled for France. Unlike many generals, he wanted to study and preserve the history of the country not just conquer it. He brought with him scholars and artists as well as soldiers.
In the city of Rosetta, a French soldier discovered a stone inscribed with three different types of writing. This remarkable stone, known forever after as the Rosetta Stone, contains the same information written in three different languages. One section was written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols, one in a more modern version of Egyptian writing, and one in Greek. Here at last was a key to unlock the secrets of Egyptian inscriptions. Translating the hieroglyphic writing would be difficult, but it was a first step toward unraveling the secrets of the pharaoh who had disappeared from history.
In my next post I’ll trace the next step in the mystery.