Urgent Museum Notice

Image for A Female Pharaoh In A Man’s World

A Female Pharaoh in a Man’s World

Blog Category:  Education

The ancient Egyptian civilization has influenced worldwide  art and architecture for millennia. Even one of the most recognizable landmarks in Washington D.C., the Washington Monument, is an obelisk, which was prominent in ancient Egyptian architecture. These well-known colossal structures were often commissioned by the pharaoh, and while this was a traditionally male role, there were certain times in Egypt’s history when a queen or princess gained a significant amount of power. On a few even rarer occasions, a queen was the sole ruler of the Egyptian empire. It was during one of these exceptional periods that what is “considered to be the best preserved example of a New Kingdom funerary temple”¹ was built under the female pharaoh Hatshepsut.

Hatshepsut’s Obelisk at Karnak, photo by Ashley Harris, 2008
Hatshepsut’s Obelisk at Karnak, photo by Ashley Harris, 2008

As the daughter of the third pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, Thutmose I, Hatshepsut was born a princess. She later rose from princess to queen when she married her half-brother Thutmose II. During the reign of Thutmose II, Hatshepsut used the traditional descriptions and titles of a queen, including “god’s wife of Amun.” When Thutmose II died, around 1479 BCE, his young son Thutmose III came to the throne, and Hatshepsut became regent. Though Hatshepsut was effectively ruling from this time, she initially maintained her queenly designations. As her reign went on, she added new titles and was depicted conducting business normally reserved for kings. By the seventh year of their joint rule, Hatshepsut had adopted the titles of a pharaoh, including “King of Upper and Lower Egypt Maatkare.” If she was depicted along with Thutmose III, she always took precedence.
As pharaoh, Hatshepsut was able to embark on an ambitious building program that included constructing new temples throughout the empire as well adding to already established public monuments. One of these projects was her mortuary temple Djeser-Djeseru (“holy of holies”) at the site now known as Deir el-Bahri. Inspired by the earlier temple of Mentuhotep II, the ingenuity of this structure lies in its three colonnaded terraces. The walls of the temple were decorated and inscribed with the stories of Hatshepsut’s divine birth as well as her achievements, and the temple complex included shrines to the gods Hathor, Amun, and Anubis. Hatshepsut’s exact role in the design and development of Djeser-Djeseru is unclear. However, her influence is evident in how its decorations were used to legitimize her position as pharaoh and to emphasize the prosperity of her reign.

Deir-El Bahri (restored), photo by Ashley Harris, 2008
Deir-El Bahri (restored), photo by Ashley Harris, 2008

Around 1458 BCE, Thutmose III emerged as the sole ruler of Egypt. During his reign, he began to systematically erase Hatshepsut’s time as pharaoh from Egypt’s history. In some cases, her name and statues were completely destroyed, and in others they were recut to represent someone or something else. While the reason for this destruction is unclear, it is unlikely that it was an act of revenge or hatred, since these actions did not occur until later in Thutmose III’s his reign and Hatshepsut’s queenly representations were never touched. Aspects of Hatshepsut’s life and legacy will always remain a mystery, but her actions and contributions to ancient Egyptian art and architecture have made a lasting impact.


  1. Penelope J.E. Davies et al., Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), 62.


  1. Grimal, Nicolas. A History of Ancient Egypt. Translated by Ian Shaw. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1994.
  2. Hawass, Zahi. Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
  3. Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  4. Roehrig, Catharine H., ed. Hatshepsut from Queen to Pharaoh. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.
  5. Tyldesley, Joyce. Hatchepsut the Female Pharaoh. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Related Posts

  • Art Fix Friday: July 31, 2020

    Posted: Jul 31, 2020 in Art Fix Friday
    Grace Lynne Hayes debuts a new portrait of Sojourner Truth for this week’s cover of the New Yorker; A profile on Thandi Sibisi, South Africa's first Black woman gallerist; A new show on ecofeminism at Thomas Erben Gallery; and more.
    A black-and-white photograph of a light-skinned adult woman holding a newspaper with news about World War II. She wears a coat and her short, curly hair is caught in the wind.
    Blog Category:  Art Fix Friday
  • Mask Up! Five Questions with Scarlett Baily

    Posted: Jul 30, 2020 in Museum Shop
    Scarlett Baily is a Chicana visual artist, based in Mexico City, who specializes in murals, paintings, and illustration. Her designs celebrating women artists and civil rights adorn new face masks from NMWA's Museum Shop, now available for purchase.
    Blog Category:  Museum Shop
  • Director's Desk: Getting to Work

    Posted: Jul 28, 2020 in Director's Desk
    As the pandemic continues, it is exacerbating existing inequalities in race, gender, and class. Women and women artists have always faced a balancing act between career and personal pursuits.
    A light-skinned young woman with long, dark brown hair in a black, long lace sleeved dress stands confidently in a crumbling loggia. She gazes at the viewer with a serious, captivating look.
    Blog Category:  Director's Desk