Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our September recommendation is offered by Annalisa Azzoni, Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible.
Professor Azzoni recommends Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.
In The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt, Cooney brings back to life a prominent and long forgotten historical figure, the first female long-time ruler of ancient Egypt. An Egyptologist and social historian, Cooney draws on her ample knowledge of the social world of ancient Egypt to ground her account of the extraordinary life of this woman who for over two decades managed skillfully to wield political and religious power over ancient Egypt yet is much less known in the modern world than Cleopatra. Cooney’s ability to narrate deftly Hatshepsut’s story so that if can be appreciated by this scholar who has been teaching about Hatshepsut for the past 15 years, as well as by the general public, for whom she has made this book particularly accessible. This is a remarkable feat, as this thin line is rarely walked in such a masterful way. The resulting portrait of Hatshepsut is surprisingly intimate and human, detailing the everyday life, with the help of archaeological and textual data, and painting a vivid picture of Hatshepsut religiosity, its connections with her ambitions and her sense of purpose, relatable in a way that is rarely found in scholarly treatments of this historical figure. This is also why I am particularly drawn to this book: in this unapologetically personal work, Cooney reflects on why this powerful ruler was ultimately rejected and then forgotten for more than two millennia. Although under her authority Egypt saw a period of prosperity, with remarkable buildings and monuments so impressive for us still today, she was vilified by those who followed her, who literally erased her very name and portrait from public displays to obliterate her memory. When, through archeological discovery and decipherment of ancient documents, the records of her life resurfaced, historians have much denigrated her and her ambition to that power which is too often identified with masculinity and was not for her to achieve. Even though the book is written with historical intent, its reverberations are remarkably modern and relevant to our context. Cooney’s candid and insightful reflections on Hatshepsut’s unique ways of addressing the implicit ambiguity of navigating a traditionally masculine role in a female body offer significant thought on the difficulties women, ancient and modern, encounter when they dare to aspire to political power. Cooney’s discussion and compelling arguments regarding the complexity of Hatshepsut’s choice to represent herself with overtly masculine body and attire in a number of occasions shows that the intricacies of gender roles and their representation are not just a modern concern but a human concern throughout history. In her balanced portrait, Cooney manages to set the record straight against those who have demonized Hatshepsut while at the same time avoiding the trap of transforming her into “a selfless, first wave feminist.” Finally, Cooney’s reflections on how Hatshepsut “remains an important example of humanity’s ambivalent perception on female authority” are as relevant in Eighteenth Dynasty’s Egypt as they are today in America. In Cooney’s words “her unprecedented success was rewarded with short memory, while the failures of other female leaders from antiquity will be forever immortalized in our cultural consciousness.”