Disclaimer: ARC via the publisher and Netgalley.
When you think of an Egyptian female ruler, who do you think of?
If the answer is Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, Dr. Kara Cooney wants to talk to you.
I have to admit that Dr. Cooney annoyed me a bit in the introduction. I swear if I saw the phrase “twenty-two years of experience” again I was going to smack someone. (I was reading this on my Kindle, so I couldn’t throw it).
But after reading this excellent book, I can see why she might feel that she has to defend her background. This is because some people will say that this book is too much (a) guesswork (b) conjecture or (c) romanticized. It is and isn’t a and b; as for c, well that’s just the first bit, and she doesn’t do it again until the very end (and you could argue that she doesn’t even then).
Cooney’s book, in case you can’t tell from the title, is a biography of Hatshepsut a female pharaoh who ruled even though her step-son was old enough to rule on his own. Because Hatshepsut is an ancient Egyptian first hand source material isn’t as common as say the letters of Elizabeth I, so in fairness, any writer about Hatshepsut’s life is making guesses at many points. Dr. Cooney is very clear when she is speculating, and furthermore, she lets the reader follow how she forms her conclusions. She presents evidence (with nice, detailed footnotes that contain even more information), and presents both sides (or all legitimate sides) of an issue then offers her conclusion. When, for instance, she is discussing Hatshepsut’s emotional and physical love life, she places it in context of Egypt and physical love instead of simply recycling the whole did she or didn’t she with Senemut debate (and she points out there, we have no way of truly knowing).
Cooney’s thesis, in part, is that Hatshepsut should be better known, and known more for simply having a relatively peaceful reign where she just sat on the throne, and she is correct, too, when she points out the strangeness of celebrating Cleopatra but not Hatshepsut who kept her throne without using seductive wiles (though, perhaps that answers the question why). Further, she argues that Hatshepsut’s reign and success might have set the tone for the role of women in later dynasties. It is a convincing argument, at least to this non-Egyptologist.
The soul of the book besides Hatshepsut’s rule is Hatshepsut and religion. While the story of Hatshepsut’s conception is known by those who know the king’s history, Cooney places it a great context not only of other Pharaoh’s (making the story sound more common than other popular histories). Additionally, she focuses on the religious functions and duties of the pharaoh. She gives a more complete view of the time so the reader not only knows about Hatshepsut, but also about the era that gave birth to her and in which she ruled.
My only criticism is that I would have found more space spent on why the moderns ignore Hatshepsut to be a plus, considering the strong points she makes in the beginning about how we moderns view the ancients. I agree with her, I just wish there had been a bit more detail in these sections that come at the beginning and end.
This book is highly recommended for fans of Ironside’s She-King series as well as any interested in Egyptian history.