This Can’t Be What It Seems to Be

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.

Haatshepsut’s temple

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.