Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 9.
Whenever I look back at history, I always have to remind myself that my own frames of reference usually don’t provide the most appropriate context for understanding centuries-old events. It’s tempting to take the isolated bits of information we have and extrapolate wildly, creating stories and heroes and villains with roots more in our imagination and contemporary values than in our maddeningly incomplete archives of the past.
One reason I admired the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on Hatshepsut was that it gently reined me in whenever I was ready to leap into a flight of fancy. Such flights were tempting because Hatshepsut is a perfect subject for imaginative exploitation: She was a female pharaoh who ruled over a period of great prosperity during Egypt’s 18th dynasty. But even after the museum carefully acknowledges what we still don’t know about her, that which remains is fascinating.
Hatshepsut was the daughter of the pharaoh Thutmose I and later the chief wife of her half-brother Thutmose II. When Thutmose II died shortly after becoming pharaoh, his heir was Thutmose III, the baby son of a junior wife. Thutmose III was too young to ascend to the throne, so Hatshepsut became regent. After a few years, she elevated herself to king and officially served as co-ruler with her nephew for nearly two decades, well after he came of age.
To position herself as king, Hatshepsut often adopted the trappings of the pharaoh, despite the fact that many of the symbols were explicitly masculine. In some sculptures, for example, Hatshepsut wears the pharaoh’s ceremonial beard. The Egyptian language was similarly unprepared for a female ruler but forced to adapt. The text accompanying the exhibit explains that the hieroglyphs on many of the artifacts form a linguistic jumble of masculine and feminine words when describing Hatshepsut.
Hatshepsut — along with her advisor and chief architect Senmut, the high priest of Amun — led Egypt through a period of cultural revival. She restored important temples and monuments that had been destroyed by the Hyksos, sponsored major new artistic and architectural works, and reestablished trade with peoples to the east, north and south. The exhibit displayed some of the fruits of this prosperous time. For someone with little education in art beyond a single college appreciation class, this Egyptian art is wonderfully recognizable, so I enjoyed looking through the glass cases of jewelry, statuary and reliefs. The familiar painted figures — their heads in profile and torsos facing forward — made me smile in recognition and in appreciation for the distinctive way in which Egyptian artists stylized the human body.
Egyptian art also features numerous animals, many of them representing gods and goddesses. The most interesting to me was the representation of a hippopotamus, goddess of fertility, on a statue of Hatshepsut from a private chapel in her temple at Deir el-Bahri. The exhibit explained that such pharaonic statues traditionally featured a bull’s tail to symbolize procreative power, so the hippopotamus must have been a way of making the same point within a feminine context. The statue is beautiful. Other statuary downplays the fact that Hatshepsut was a woman, but this one clearly represents her a woman king, proudly wearing the royal headdress without hiding behind a ceremonial beard.
About twenty years after Hatshepsut left the throne (whether she died, abdicated or lost a power struggle is unclear), Thutmose III destroyed all representations of her as king. The exhibit cautions us not to make too much of this: After two decades, Thutmose was probably reacting to some sort of political pressure rather than a personal grudge. But whatever the motivation, the erasure effectively wiped Hatshepsut from the history books until an archaeologist in the 1800s noticed use of feminine words in unexpected places and rediscovered the story of the female king.
The Metropolitan exhibit uses objects from its own collection as well as some from American, European and Egyptian museums to tell that story, fragmented and incomplete though it may be. Many of the pieces are from Hatshetsup’s time but not linked directly to her, but the most relevant pieces, particularly the statuary, are a wonder to behold. Tantalizing but compelling, the exhibit convincingly demonstrates the majesty of Hatshepsut’s reign. She might not have been unique — ancient Egypt had a few other female rulers, the most famous being Cleopatra — but the peace and prosperity she brought to Egypt make her truly remarkable.