The Woman Who Would Be King (a book review)

This is not a book about Hillary Clinton…

Apparently, in Egyptian antiquity (that’s, like, “way back” for all you regular folks) there was the occasional woman ruler. I know, right? Totally crazy. Everyone knows that kings are dudes and that takes care of that. On the other hand, the washing machine hadn’t been invented yet so what else did a woman have to do? Might as well try her hand at kingship.

Ha, ha! Just kidding. But if you didn’t find that funny, this might be your book.

In the non-fiction work The Woman Who Would Be King, author Kara Cooney is pretty annoyed. I won’t tell you exactly with whom, but you may have guessed already. And she’s sticking it to them with this fascinating look at the enigmatic life of the female Egyptian king, Hatshepsut. Not only was Hatshepsut a bold ruler and an anomaly for her time, but she was also a prolific builder and a gender-bender. She broke with, and upended, traditions. And she did so in such a way as to leave little room for anyone to openly doubt or oppose her.

Until she died, of course. Then everyone suddenly found their toughness and pretty much flipped her the proverbial finger.

What gives the author her the authority to foist all of this on us? It could be her position as an associate professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA, which, after reading this book, showed me that she knows a @%$ lot more than I do. (What, you didn’t know that I don’t know anything? Have you been reading my blog?) Or it could be her work producing an archaeology series about Egypt on the Discovery Channel. Or it could be her work co-curating “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That’s the resume listed on the back of the book. It’s pretty good.

So, what about this Hapshetsut? What’s interesting about her story is that we don’t actually know much about her. Her mummy has never been found, or at least not positively identified, and those that came after her tried their best to erase her from history (from their own royal history to be more specific). On top of that, the author believes that modern Egyptologists have been misinterpreting what we do know based on their own biases, leaving us with a swirl of confusing viewpoints.

That means that The Woman Who Would Be King features a large quantity of conjecture. But ancient history, and even more recent history, usually does (insert Rush Revere joke here). Kara Cooney tackles this problem in the most reasonable way possible. By taking a common-sense approach, she uses her knowledge and lengthy research to construct a view of what Egyptian life was like for the ruling classes of the time. Daily life, customs, ceremonies, and other procedures seem to be consistent during any each dynasty. It’s reasonable to plug that known information into the missing pieces in order to recount the early life of Hatshepsut, how she would have been treated as a child, how she would have transitioned to working in the temple, how she would have been married off to her own half-brother, and other events that were likely to have occurred.

It gets trickier as the author enters into the reign of Hapshetsut. The problem is, she rules while another king already sits on the throne. But somewhere along the line she made the leap from acting as a regent for a child king to taking the title of king for herself. She started wars, sent expeditions to foreign lands, and enriched the elite around her like few others ever could have.

It appears that she tried to document all of this with a tremendous building program designed to cement her place as a king anointed by the gods. But, as alluded to earlier, future rulers would do their best to wipe her images away from history. So the author documents what she can and then fills in the rest with logical deductions and historical clues.

Did I mention gender bending? You know what? I think you should read the book for that. I can’t give everything away. But it’s all very intriguing and well worth the investigation. I thought Hatshepsut’s actions in this department were both clever and, ultimately, necessary.

History is written by the victors, and the victors in the ancient world tended to be men, one way or the other. Maybe Hatshepsut knew this. But did she know her history would be written by women?

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