Thursday, January 28, 2016


Ever since reading Child of the Morning, Pauline Gedge's 1976 novel about Hatshepsut, Egypt's remarkable and mysterious eighteenth-dynasty woman pharaoh, who ruled successfully for almost twenty years and whose name and image were chiseled from many of her monuments by her successor, I've been curious about her. While I'm not consumed by ancient-Egypt-philia, I am, like many people, interested and curious (and yes, I have seen all the "Mummy" movies possible, beginning with Boris Karloff when I was about ten years old). I also read and thoroughly enjoyed Stacy Schiff's "Cleopatra: A Life," so of course I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, an associate professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at UCLA.

Unfortunately, in writing this book Cooney faced significant disadvantages. Unlike Pauline Gedge, she was not writing fiction, and while there is abundant resource material on Egypt in this period, it is not the sort that lends itself to illuminating Hatshepsut's actual personality. Her mummy was not even identified until 2007. As an academic who does not want to be dismissed for playing fast and loose with the historical record or making unsupported and unsupportable claims, she relies on phrases like "it is quite likely," "may have," "probably," or "we do not [or cannot] know." While I respect her honesty,  I can't say that acknowledging all these limitations makes for compelling reading, and my curiosity and interest remain unsatisfied.

While Gedge was free to imagine, for example, a romantic relationship between Hatshepsut and Senenmut, her chief advisor, Cooney must admit that no evidence for such a relationship exists. More's the pity, if the reader is looking for a compelling personal drama.  Stacy Schiff had it much easier with Cleopatra, whose life, both political and personal, was amply documented as well as full of political and sexual intrigue.

This is not to say that Cooney's book is dull; it's not, if you read it for what it is, a brave scholarly attempt to reconstruct a woman about whom very, very little is actually known. Cooney is a fine writer and she does provide information and insight on ancient Egypt that will probably be new to most readers. As a scholar, she is meticulous; the endnotes suggestions for further reading run to 52 pages. But by the end of the book, Hatshepsut remains a vague figure who, "it is quite likely" "may have" or even "probably" possessed certain traits as an individual, but "we do not [or cannot] know."

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