Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

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

Review 2.24

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. [Source]

It becomes clear quite early on in The Woman Who Would Be King that author Kara Cooney is personally outraged by the near erasure of Egyptian King Hatshepsut from the annals of history. And well she should be; the only reason that Egyptologists were able to recover any traces of Hatshepsut’s reign at all is that she built so profusely during her reign that her successors were simply incapable of finding and destroying all of her iconography.

Every book lover still mourning the loss of the Library at Alexandria can probably sympathize.

Still, precious little information has survived as to what Hatshepsut’s personal life was like, or what her motivations were for seizing the throne. Cooney explains this in the introduction, and admits that large areas of her biography on Hatshepsut’s life are based, by necessity, on conjecture. And it’s true that she resorts to using the word “perhaps” at an irritatingly frequent pace. We simply cannot know the circumstances under which Hatshepsut was crowned King. What we’re left with is speculation, which Cooney uses to fill in the gaps in the historical record as best she can.

There are a few less savory aspects of life in ancient Egypt that cannot be denied. Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, and give birth to at least one daughter. Inbreeding was standard practice within royal bloodlines at the time, and she may have been the product of inbreeding herself. Also, far from the gilded surfaces and cool stone palaces we picture from films, life in this time period was short and hard. Disease was as common as sand, and the royalty in the palace would not have been immune from lice, boils, malaria, and worms. Cooney accepts these facts as further proof of Hatshepsut’s exceptionalism and, in truth any woman who survived into adulthood and through childbirth in ancient Egypt was most definitely worthy of high praise. And Hatshepsut managed to do it all while holding a kingdom together.

After her death, all of Hatshepsut’s statues and icons were torn down, and her face was replaced in many other reliefs. The exact reason for this systematic destruction is just one of a thousand things we will never know about Hatshepsut’s reign. I enjoyed that Cooney did not take an extreme feminist slant as this stage, as she noticeably did in the introduction. While it is incredibly likely that Hatshepsut’s successors were threatened by her status as a female king, it may have had more to do with the shaky line of succession left in the new King Thutmose III, and his desire to avoid civil war that led to Hatshepsut.

I’ve always loved stories about ancient Egypt. Growing up, Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game was one of my favorite childhood books. However, this biography was accessible to anyone, regardless of prior knowledge of Egyptian society. I was familiar with a lot of it, but ended up learning a ton more.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Woman Who Would Be King here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition is narrated by the author and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

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