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.
When I read biographies of men who have explored exotic countries or started revolutions I’m often more intrigued by the lives of the wives who stand behind them—or don’t stand—than I am of the men themselves. One of my favorites is Sarah Belzoni, who spent her life following the Italian strongman who became an explorer of Egypt.
Giovanni Belzoni was a giant of a man. He was born in 1787, at a time when most European men were about five and a half feet tall, but he stood six feet seven inches. He was smart too. As a boy in Italy, he studied to be an engineer, but when he finished school, Napoleon’s troops were invading Italy, so he was forced to go to England to find work. It wasn’t easy to find work, but he did find a wife, Sarah, who may have been Irish, although no one knows for sure.
Instead of building bridges or roads, Belzoni had to take a job as a strong man in a circus to make money. Audiences gasped when he performed his closing act. He put on a harness fitted with a series of planks on either side of his shoulders. They formed a triangle of planks narrowing toward the top. One by one, other actors would climb up and sit on them. In the finale, Belzoni balanced ten or eleven men on his shoulders as he stood on stage.
Belzoni was ambitious and wanted to be an engineer, not a performer in a circus and Sarah agreed that he should give up the circus. Belzoni worked on his engineering ideas, but he had to keep performing in circuses and fairs to earn a living. He and Sarah traveled to Spain, Portugal and the island of Malta performing but looking for other jobs. In Malta, Belzoni met a man who worked for the Pasha of Alexandria. The Pasha had sent his assistant to Europe to find engineers and other workers who could build modern projects in Egypt. This was Belzoni’s opportunity. He had studied irrigation and had invented a water wheel that would raise water from wells more efficiently than a worker could. He was invited to Egypt to demonstrate his invention.
Giovanni and Sarah Belzoni traveled to 1814 taking with them a young Irishman named James Curtin to help with the work. Day after day Belzoni and Curtin worked building his machine. Some of the Pasha’s workmen worried that the new machine would be so efficient they would no longer have jobs. After four months, Belzoni was finally able to give his demonstration. His wheel pumped more water than the ones being used and it worked faster. It would make sense for the Pasha to install Belzoni’s wheel. Unfortunately, several workmen, who were afraid of losing their jobs, arranged an “accident” that caused James Curtin to get caught in the wheel and break his thigh. After that the Pasha gave up any idea of buying Belzoni’s wheel. Belzoni, Sarah, and James Curtin were stranded in Egypt.
As usual, Belzoni thought of a new scheme. He had heard of a gigantic head lying in the sand near Thebes, a city 700 km south of Cairo. Several European explorers had seen the head and knew how much money it would be worth in Europe, but no one could figure out how to move it. There were no roads in the desert. After the head was dug out of the sand, it would have to be dragged to the river. Then a boat could take it down the Nile River to Cairo and load it onto a ship to England. Belzoni decided he was just the man to do it, but he had to find someone to pay for equipment and workers.
Luckily for Belzoni, Britain had just sent a new representative to Egypt, Henry Salt. Part of his job was to find Egyptian objects for the new British Museum in London. When Salt met Belzoni, he realized had found a strong, adventurous man who could help him. Belzoni told him about his plans for the giant head. Salt provided money and wrote to the Egyptian leaders asking them to help Belzoni move the head.
Belzoni wasn’t sure what kind of equipment he would need for the work. He gathered planks of wood and logs to use as rollers for a cart and found a cheap boat to hire for the trip. On June 30, he set off with Sarah and James Curtin on the long trip up the Nile River to Thebes. By mid-July the group had reached the ruins at Thebes and for the first time they saw the massive head. The stone head had fallen off a statue of the pharaoh Ramses II and was half-buried in the sand. Because no one remembered the name of the pharaoh, the Europeans called the statue Memnon after a Greek hero. Historians believe the statue was toppled during an earthquake in 27 B.C.E. No one at that time knew how large the head was, but scientists later figured out that it weighs seven and a half tons and is 2.67 meters high.
Belzoni needed to hire local men to work with him, but that was difficult. Many Egyptians could not understand why the head would be valuable unless it was filled with gold. Belzoni finally persuaded them he really was willing to pay for their help in digging out the head and moving it to the river. He worked with them to build a flat platform of planks. Then he used other planks as levers to lift the front of the head far enough to get it on the platform. Gradually, using levers and ropes made of palm fiber, they got the head on the platform. Slowly lifting the front of the platform, they inserted one of the logs as a roller underneath and pulled the platform forward.
It took 80 men, working with ropes to insert four rollers under the platform and pull it forward. Each time it moved a few feet ahead, the men would pull out the roller at the back and move it to the front. Slowly, slowly, the head moved forward over the sand and rocks toward the river. Without knowing it, Belzoni had hit upon the same method the ancient Egyptians probably used to move the statue to where it stood. Finally, after twelve days of hard work, but statue was at the edge of the river and ready to begin its journey down to Cairo.
Many women would have rebelled at the idea of living in the blazing desert heat for weeks while their husband struggled with an impossible project, but Sarah didn’t complain. She was very interested in the Arab women of Egypt and spent her time getting to know them. When Giovanni finally succeeded in getting the massive head to Cairo and onto the ship to England, she celebrated with him.
For the next several years Belzoni worked with Henry Salt to collect antiquities, but the number of Europeans traveling to Egypt searching for Egyptian treasures was growing and the competition was keen. Belzoni traveled around the country trying to find objects the British Museum would be willing to buy. When he traveled he often left Sarah behind in whatever lodgings they had found in the city, but she was resourceful and had interests of her own. She took a trip to the Holy Land and she not only went to Jerusalem but traveled by mule to Jericho, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. Before leaving Jerusalem she disguised herself as an Arab merchant and visited the Mosque of Omar, which was prohibited for women and for non-Muslins.
Giovanni and Sarah finally returned to Europe in 1819. Giovanni had become famous, but they still were financially insecure. Giovanni wrote a book about his travels and mounted an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts, some genuine and some plaster copies of statues as well as sketches and pictures Belzoni had made. Sarah helped to organize and publicize the exhibit.
Sarah helped with Belzoni’s book too. She wrote a chapter, called modestly enough, a “Trifling Account of the Women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria” in which she described the subservient position of women. She noted that Muslim and Christian women led similar lives that were far more restricted than the lives of European women. As the wife of an explorer, Arab men were willing to treat her almost as an equal, offering her coffee to drink and a pipe to smoke. But she was amused to note that they allowed their wives nothing but water to drink and locked the pipes away where women could not touch them. We can only wish that she had written more about her travels and the insights she gained.
Giovanni Belzoni worked hard all of his life, but he died young in 1823 while trying to reach Timbuktu. Sarah lived until 1860 trying to keep Belzoni’s legacy alive, but without much success. The British government finally granted her a pension that kept her from extreme poverty in her old age, but her contributions to her husband’s work and her own personal knowledge of Egyptian life were never acknowledged. She is one of the large group of women who are the indispensible but forgotten wives of famous men.
Two of the best-known women in history are the Egyptian Cleopatra and Catherine the Great of Russia. Both have been portrayed frequently in popular culture and are known to many non-historians as well as scholars although both lived centuries ago. And even though both of them spent most of their time and efforts on ruling large and tumultuous countries, they are both remembered primarily for the men they had sex with. Their two recent biographers have had to point out that neither of them was as promiscuous as the male rulers of their times and later.
Cleopatra is one of the few rulers of ancient Egypt whose name is still widely known. She has been celebrated in stories and art for century, yet she is almost always remembered as part of a couple. Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” gave way to George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and a series of other efforts. Even the movie “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which finally let her dominate the title, treated the monarch as a lovestruck woman. Furthermore, that movie had a lasting impact on American culture by making the glamorous Taylor the permanent face of the less-beautiful but more powerful real Cleopatra.
Now Cleopatra has become for many people a glamorous figure suitable to be impersonated in Halloween costumes and dramatized in plays for children, but never really taken seriously. The transformation of this powerful ruler into just another femme fatale began soon after her death. As her biographer Stacy Schiff writes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.”
For anyone who would like to get a reasonable idea of what Cleopatra was like and the story behind her misrepresented life, read Stacy Schiff’s great biography, Cleopatra, available in every public library I’m sure, and also from most bookstores.
Another woman I’ve been reading about recently who suffers from the same problem is Catherine the Great of Russia. Although she was born a German girl named Sophia and became the wife of the heir to the Russian throne almost by accident, she dedicated her life to improving her adopted country. Starting with changing her name to Catherine and her religion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Catherine studied the Russian language and history. Although she was saddled with a mean-spirited and somewhat stupid husband, she seized control of her life and of the country she had adopted.
Her husband, Peter III, had none of her love of Russia and instead tried to follow the model of Prussian military rule. He enraged his own subjects so much that no one complained much when Catherine helped to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. It was a wise move. Catherine was an intellectual who read and corresponded with some of the leading thinkers of Europe. She introduced modern enlightenment into the rigid Russian society, although even she could not completely change the pattern of serfdom and the stubborn resistance of provincial landowners.
Catherine reigned for more than thirty years and changed the country dramatically. Besides introducing Western ideas and developing closer ties with other European countries, she also extended the country to the East. It was during her reign that Russia began to explore Alaska and to establish a presence there. Yet, what is she remembered for in popular culture? It’s mostly for her lovers who helped her politically and made her personal life endurable. They were certainly close colleague and some of them were important political allies, but Catherine’s achievements didn’t depend on them.
Male monarchs are seldom defined by their lovers, but female rulers are. Anyone who reads Robert Massie’s recent biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman will come to understand how much more there is to know about her.
Perhaps as we enter this Mother’s Day weekend we ought to think about not only loving the mothers in our lives but looking at them as the individuals they are. Partners and children are an important part of most women’s lives, but they are not the only thing. If we love and respect our mothers, our spouses, and our daughters, we should look at them as individuals and not define them only in their relationships with the men in their lives. Cleopatra and Catherine the Great are not typical women, but they are emblematic of the problem of viewing women solely through the lens of their emotions. We certainly owe all women more than that.
I admire women who follow their own path and have some impact on the world—the ones who stick to their path and don’t get sidetracked when their efforts are thwarted. Amelia Edwards was one of those. How difficult it must have been for a woman growing up in the early Victorian period to live such an independent life. True, she was born into a well-educated middle class family and was given a good education by her mother, which made her life easier than it was for less fortunate women.
Amelia had a flair for writing and and began publishing short stories by the time she was twelve years old. Then she turned to novels, publishing her first one in 1855. She soon became one of the most popular writers in England especially after the appearance of her novel about bigamy, Barbara’s History in 1864. Her novels mirrored the concerns of many English women of the mid-nineteenth century—love, marriage and family—but her own life was more unusual. She seemed uninterested in marriage, and by the time her parents died when she was 30, she was set in her pattern of spinster life and determined to enjoy it.
Travel was what attracted her, so she set off with a friend to visit Europe. They enjoyed the new sights and Amelia, of course, wrote about their trip. The result was one of her long-lasting books Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys which recounted their tour through the Dolomites, which at the time was seldom visited by tourists. Both the book and the tour were a success and Amelia turned her attention to travel writing and gave up novels.
Europe was not enough, however, for the travelers. During a sketching tour of France, she and her companion found nothing but wet weather and talked about moving further south to find sunshine. According to Amelia’s account, they decided to go to Cairo without much thought, “Never was distant expedition entered upon with less premeditation.” Without any special knowledge, skills or equipment, they arrived at Shepherd’s hotel in Cairo on November 29, 1873. It was an arrival that would change Amelia’s life.
Like most tourists, their first trip out of Cairo was to see the Pyramids, at that time an easy hour and a half’s drive from the hotel. At first sight, the Pyramids were not impressive but, “when at last the edge of the desert is reached and the long sand slope climbed…the Great Pyramid in all its unexpected bulk and majesty towers close above one’s head, the effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming.” Amelia was enchanted and determined at once to take the long trip up the Nile to see more of Egypt. She would spend the rest of her life traveling, researching, and writing about Egypt.
There is no question but that Amelia’s book A Thousand Miles up the Nile reached thousands of readers and made the subject of ancient Egypt an important part of the popular culture of England and America. From that time until this, pyramids, mummies, tombs and treasure have spawned books, movies, plays and paintings around the world.
Amelia Edwards popularized Egyptian culture, but she did not falsify it. She was interested in expanding scholarly studies of pharaohs and for this reason she started the Egyptological Society for which she became a tireless fundraiser. At that time Egyptology was not an established scholarly field, so the untrained amateur could meet experts and exchange ideas. Amelia became a friend and sponsor of the great Flinders Petrie, one of the founders of Egyptology. As the field developed, scholars became more rigid and as so often happens, they gradually pushed out the amateurs. University men were not hospitable to women who “invaded” their field even thought they might rely on them for funding.
Amelia Edwards was no doubt disappointed in being pushed out of the control of the Society she had founded, but in the end she got her own way. After the years she had spent writing and publicizing Egypt, she suffered a blow when her companion of thirty years died. Their relationship was never a public one, but it seems likely that they were lesbian lovers who had a successful and happy union. Amelia did not recover well from her loss. She died a few years later, but was able to leave enough money to secure the future of the Egyptological Society and the position of her friend Flinders Petrie as the first Professor of Egyptology at the University of London. Her spirit lingers on.