Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt - Kara Cooney

Summary: An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt's throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt's second female pharaoh.

Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.

(Summary and Pic from goodreads.com)

I received a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

My Review: I am a sucker for learning about awesome, strong women. I am not a rabid feminist who thinks we should rewrite history and forget all the men, but I certainly appreciate that we’re now entering a time where women are more celebrated and talked about. I love that there are so many resources now to learn about women who were great and educated and daring and bold and brave at a time when women were not expected to be so. In fact, they were looked down on if they were. I have a master’s degree, and although I wasn’t a trailblazer per se when I received my degree, there were only a few other women in my program and I could see that it wasn’t necessarily the norm for a woman to go into my graduate field. Now…that was a decade and some odd years ago, and things have changed even since then. We are quickly moving into a world where ideally we will all have the same opportunities. This has been a long time coming, really, and it has come to where we are now by many other women trailblazers. This sermon has a point, and that point is that Hatshepsut (pronounced Hat-shep-sut) was just one of those awesome trailblazing women.

I first heard about this book when the author, KaraCooney, was interviewed on the podcast Stuff Mom Never Told You. And in fact, I listened to the podcast again after I finished the book just so that I could have some more information from Cooney. I’ve read quite a few historical fiction books about ancient Egypt, and have even read a few biographies including those of Cleopatra and Nefertiti. But I’d never heard of Hatshepsut, and I feel that it is high time that there is a book about her. She was arguably the most powerful woman of the ancient world, let alone Egypt.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was its discussion of the religious ceremonies and aspects of Egyptian life. Hatshepsut was the God’s Wife of Amen, and so starting at a young age she was performing all of the rituals for the God’s rebirth each day, and this dedication and knowledge of religion and religious ceremony was one of the great sources of power she drew upon to become king. The ceremonies were most interesting and shockingly sexual (this is certainly not a bedtime read for your little tots), and I loved the cultural image Cooney was able to paint through her descriptions and writing.

Hatshepsut did many things in her life—she was extremely powerful not just as a woman, but as a king. Of course, becoming a female king was an impressive political maneuver of an intelligent and resourceful woman. One of the amazing things about this, however, is that she did it with grace, skill, and poise. She was able to accomplish a lot and didn’t need to exploit her sexuality to get there, nor become the bad woman and kill a bunch of people (hello Cleopatra!) to get where she was. She really was remarkable. I loved this paragraph in the concluding chapter: “Through all of antiquity, however, history records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power—without assassinations or coups—during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut.”

So why don’t we hear more about Hatshepsut? Why is it Cleopatra who has everything from old school movies to Halloween costumes dedicated to her? Well, the answer is complicated, and includes the obvious answer of many of her histories and buildings being destroyed by kings that came after, but Cooney addresses it a lot and I’m just going to leave you hanging because Hatshepsut is important enough that you should read this book and learn more about her.

This book was well-written and well-researched. My only complaint is that I wished there had been more about the personal life of Hatshepsut. Because of the destruction of records and her buildings and the limited personal life record keeping of the Eypgtians we don’t know much, but Cooney has covered what we do. Hatshepsut was a remarkable woman and this book brought her alive.

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Due to the sexual nature of many of the Egyptian religious practices, this book has quite a bit of discussion of sex. It is not gratuitous but it is at times graphic due to the explanations of the rituals.

1 comment:

Susan@ Reading World said...

This sounds fascinating! Great review.

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