Ancient Egypt is the most interesting time period in the history of humanity for me. I love reading about the rituals and gods and architecture that was created by them and practiced for thousands of years. I love mummies and curses and dank tombs. I love the salacious details of palace life, including (but not limited to) the family incest that occurred to keep the royal bloodlines pure. I just love it all and that all-encompassing love of ancient Egypt that I hold in my heart is why I chose to read The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.
So who is Hatshepsut? Well, Hatshepsut was the daughter of a general who usurped Egypt’s throne when the last pharaoh failed to produce any viable off-spring and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty. She was born into a privileged position in the royal household, and 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 unheard of rule as a cross-dressing king. At just over twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of pharaoh in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays in the veil of piety and sexual reinvention, who helped to re-establish hundreds of trade routes not used for generations, build tremendous monuments to the gods and herself, and show the ancient world that just because she was female didn’t mean she couldn’t successfully rule richest, most powerful nation in the world.
The writer of The Woman Who Would Be King is Dr. Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist and Assistant Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA who has been a part of the archaeological teams that excavated at the artisans’ village of Deir el Medina, Dahshur, and various tombs in Thebes. She’s been the curator of many museum exhibitions, including one all about Tutankhamun, and she’s worked on two Discovery Channel documentary series: Out of Egypt and Egypt’s Lost Queen. She’s a lady with an immense knowledge/passion for ancient Egypt, and really, who can blame her? The ancient Egyptians were pretty great!
Hatshepsut is an amazing historical figure but until recently she’d been nearly completely forgotten by history. Why? Well, the short answer is that she was a woman who ruled during a prosperous time in Egypt’s ancient history and the patriarchal system of governance in the ancient world (and hell, even in today’s world) glazes over such women. History isn’t for women who do the job successfully, it’s for women who destroy or corrupt or just do a terrible job at leading because it’s a way to keep women from power! To only show the lows and no highs allows great female leaders to be swept under the rug! Oh, excuse me, my feminism is showing again (although all this is completely true and it’s not like I try to hide my feminist views... but I digress).
The Woman Who Would Be King shows Hatshepsut’s life in a speculative way of what she might have been doing day to day in her royal life and how she might feel about certain things. It makes the book feel a little more like a novel but the speculation can become a little tiresome as Cooney will lay something at your feet and then say (more or less) ‘or it could be the complete opposite of this’. I understand, she’s covering her tracks as to not disown herself from the community should she displease them, but books like this are about facts and discoveries and theories! Don’t cover your tracks because you’re scared of confrontation–stand proud and explain why you believe what you believe!
My final thoughts on The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt are that it’s a good historical read but I’m biased because I love ancient Egypt/women’s studies, I just want to say that straight away in case you didn’t pick up on any of that before. That being said, this is still a good book (although if you’re not interested in ancient Egypt, the politics of royalty, biographies, non-fiction, etc, then this book isn’t for you in any way). The Woman Who Would Be King is informative and written in such a way as to not just be one stuffy fact after another. It interestingly traces the unconventional life of a female king as she built one of Egypt’s most prolific/richest building periods but was then almost forgotten just a few years after her death. Cooney has shown history at its finest and given Hatshepsut life once more, for (and here comes a history lesson) in ancient Egypt, to speak the dead’s name is too make them live again.