Judging ancient characters based on modern day framework isn’t a smart exercise and this book falls foul of this.
Author: Kara Cooney
Length: 298 pages
Publisher: Crown (14 Oct 2014)
“Many historians will no doubt accuse me of fantasy: inventing emotions and feelings for which I have no evidence. And they will be right. As I try to get at the human core of Hatshepsut, I will put many ideas and assumptions on the page; this is the best way for me to reconstruct her decision-making process.” – Kara Cooney
When a person’s information or history has been defaced and partially deleted, any piece of new information or existing data that gives more insight into such individual’s life is valuable; especially if that person was the longest reigning female Egyptian to rule Egypt. So I was excited when I saw The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney. I wanted to learn about Hatshepsut, the woman who ruled Egypt for about 22 years.
Though the author does not specifically lay out her motivations for writing The Woman Who Would Be King, it is clear what she wants to achieve as she tells us that her Hatshepsut’s tale will teach us that “women cannot rule unless they veil their true intent and proclaim that their pretentions are not their own but only for others …sacrifice themselves to service, declare that they have been chosen by providence or destiny for such a role, and assert that they never sought such authority for themselves. If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition’s sake, she will be viewed as twofaced or selfish, her actions fuelled by ulterior motives.”
A Woman of Cunning
The Woman Who Would Be King tells us of the rise of Hatshepsut, married to Aakheperenre Thutmose (Thutmose II), who was a sickly monarch. Both they were unable to give birth to a son to inherit Thutmose’s throne, hence when Thutmose II died, the male heir to the throne was a baby borne to one of Thutmose’s concubines.
Since the heir, Thutmose III, is not old enough to ascend the throne, Hatshepsut becomes the regent. However, during her time as the regent, Hatshepsut claims the title of Pharaoh through diplomacy and cunning. Of course she does not usurp the Thutmose III’s crown, but through the shrewd use of her role as the priestess of Amen and her influence in the court, she becomes the principal ruler of Egypt.
Hatshepsut focus on the economic side of things and Egypt prospers under her. She also undertakes many architectural projects in her time as the ruler. She builds monuments and statues of herself as a man, “depicting herself as a son, not a daughter, to Thutmose I, and wearing a king’s kilt, beard, and wig, she … redefine her person to fit the patriarchal system of succession alongside Thutmose III.”
When Hatshepsut’s reign came to an end, it was said that Thutmose III did all he could blot her from the annals to claim her achievements as his. He destroyed her images across the land and even in the temples. Her name was scrapped way, “replacing them with depictions of his father and grandfather…The woman who had paved his way to a stable and legitimate kingship now had to be obliterated from the Egyptian temple landscape. His own legacy demanded it.”
The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney is an effort to put together a chronicle of Hatshepsut’s life and examine the motivations behind Hatshepsut’s actions on her way to kingship and while she ruled. Based on these benchmarks, I think the book failed. This is mainly because the author’s bias shines through and distorts the narrative. Judging ancient characters based on modern day framework isn’t a smart exercise and this book falls foul of this. Right from the preface, the author made odd statements like “Hatshepsut was, as far as we can tell, not a seducer of great generals in charge of legions, for the practical reason that there existed no men greater than she.” And this: “…what may consign Hatshepsut to obscurity is our inability to appreciate and value honest, naked, female ambition, not to mention actual power wielded by a woman.” And “Why does Hatshepsut’s leadership still trouble us today? Female rulers are often implicitly branded as emotional, self-interested, lacking in authority, untrustworthy, and impolitic. The ancient Egyptians likewise distrusted a woman with authority, and this context makes Hatshepsut’s achievement all the more astonishing.”
I'd like to think Hatshepsut’s achievements never troubles anyone today. The person particularly troubled was Thutmose III who did a “good” job of erasing her accomplishments and impact on Egypt. Ancient Egyptians may not be a fine example of women liberation compared to this age, but they weren’t the worst of that era. And going by the number of prominent women Egypt had on its roster while at its peak, it did reasonably well.
Throughout the book, the author continues this comparison with ancient women and modern women, ancient men’s behaviour versus today men behaviour, lamenting about how women throughout the length of time have been done in. This begs the question: what is this book really about? Is it about Hatshepsut, or something else? I came to this book to learn about this powerful lady, but came away with little. Unfortunately.
Upsides: Details about the Egyptian daily life made for a fascinating read
Downsides: Unfair comparisons | Read like a propaganda instead of a historical-based work……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Review copy was provided by The Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books.
@Hatshepsut’s Sphinx Image by User:Postdlf