Rarely if ever have I read a book that made another culture come alive for me as vividly as Cooney does in her “biography” of Hatshepsut, one of my favorite historical figures. The “scare quotes” are for the hybrid project Cooney undertakes here: a meticulous academic history by a top expert in the field rendered not as novelistic fiction but as extrapolation. Cooney explains that the archival material is selective: Egyptians were exceptional propagandists, and were not wont to commit to papyrus – let alone stone – palace intrigue, details of personality, or the sorts of information an era focused on the unique individual would draw on for a conventional biography.
I’m comfortable in the genre of academics writing for mass audiences: those less familiar with popular science/history writing or the conventions of academia may be thrown from one side or the other. I appreciated the extensive bibliography, and will be tracking down some of the traditional academic works cited to delve more deeply into aspects of ancient Egypt that Cooney has deepened my interest in.
Cooney excels at conveying the alienness of Pharaonic Egypt – not just the tradition of brother/sister marriages, or the truly memorable and gut-wrenching descriptions of ancient ailments (there’s a bit with a tapeworm and a stick that just – *shudder*), but of the social, political, and religious consequences of very short lifespans. She explains why Hatshepsut was the first, and for millennia, the only woman to reign as sovereign* (*though she traces the ways in which the continued survival of the infant king Thutmose III was crucial to her legitimacy): the Egyptian royal system was basically a breeding factory, to cover the long odds of a newborn surviving to their healthy teens. A male king was expected to be constantly impregnating as many appropriate women as possible to maximize the chance of a blood heir, while a woman’s ability to play the biological odds of offspring survival was much more limited.
Hatshepsut had a number of factors enabling her unique place in history: a father who was a highly regarded ruler succeeding a weak dynasty, a tradition of female regency for underage male monarchs, a weak and soon dead brother-husband on the throne. Mostly, though, her achievements – a golden age of prosperity, exploration, intellectual accomplishment, architectural grandeur – was down to her skills as one of history’s greatest political manipulators, easily a peer of Rome’s Augustus in her ability to manipulate factions, generate multiple layers of propaganda aimed at different constituencies, and to get almost everyone believing that the most radical of regimes was actually deeply conservative.
I’ve always been fascinated by Roman cultural propaganda, but Cooney shows it as having nothing on the ancient Egyptian, and now I’m fascinated. Hatshepsut, apparently genuinely devout, used an evolving religious iconography and, intriguingly, gender presentation, to ground the legitimacy of her rule, moving gradually from presenting herself as a slight young woman wearing a male king’s headdress eventually to being a twin of the now-adult Thutmose III, complete with broad shoulders and beard. It’s a fascinating pictorial history.
I got this book from the library, but I’ll be buying it. It’s a keeper, likely a future re-read, and a source of good pondering of the gendered nature of power (explicitly a goal of the author’s in writing the book), the use of propaganda, and the stranger-than-science-fiction nature of a kingdom millennia past.