Books: The Mrs Thatcher of ancient Egypt

Sue Gaisford is enthralled by an account of the ''foremost of women''
Click to follow
Hatchepsut, the Female Pharoah by Joyce Tyldesley, Viking, pounds 22.50

From the air, you might imagine it had been built by Stalin or Cecil B. de Mille. Backed by a semi-circle of towering cliffs, it imposes itself on the barren, rocky desert - vast, pillared and porticoed. A huge stone ramp sweeps from the centre of its enormous, rectangular courtyard, right over the middle of the front colonnade towards the upper terraces: the people who throng its halls seem tiny, Lilliputian. It is almost incredible that such stately splendour has survived, and that it is not better known. For this building is no modern construction: it is Djeser-Djeseru, created more than 3000 years ago to be the mortuary temple of the Female Horus of Fine Gold, King of Upper and Lower Egypt Maatkare Khnemet-Amen Hatchepsut, the One who is Joined with Amen, the Foremost of Women. Hatchepsut, for short, was a Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. The daughter of King Tuthmosis I, she became Queen-Consort of Tuthmosis II, then King in her own right, before being succeeded by her stepson-nephew, Tuthmosis III.

Besides this lovely temple, her monuments include the tallest standing obelisk in Egypt, at the heart of the Karnak temple complex, on which a series of hieroglyphics stress her relationship with her royal, but human, sire and her divine father Amen. Originally tipped with gold leaf, this cult-object was intended to represent the first beams of light to illumine the world.

At some stage after her death a serious attempt was made to deny her existence. Her image has been chiselled away from friezes, sometimes leaving Hatchepsut-shaped spaces; many statues of her were destroyed, often viciously, the eyes of the serene stone faces gouged out and fires lit upon the foreheads. Such a practice is sometimes known as dammatio memoriae: not only did it effectively re-write history, but it condemned the spirit of the deceased to "Second Death". As long as the image, or at least the name, survived, the spirit was thought to live on in the Field of Reeds: destroy all memory of the dead person and you destroy her spirit. Hatchepsut's name was written out of the King-Lists and she was virtually forgotten, until the art of reading hieroglyphics was rediscovered.

But, as Joyce Tyldesley often reminds us, nothing in Egyptology can be taken for granted. The rest of her book can best be defined as enlightened speculation. This is not, at all, to condemn it. She is happy to share her knowledge gently with those among us who know very little of the arcane customs of these ancient peopIe. She writes very entertainingly, for example, about their sexuality. There were, it seems, few rules. Some workmen chiselled a rude little drawing of her at play with her daughter's tutor. He is naked save for a leather cap, or maybe a bad haircut: she has a disturbingly hermaphroditic body and a royal head-dress.

Hatchepsut was often, officially, portrayed as a man. She almost certainly married her brother, but then many varieties of incest were perfectly acceptable, as a way of keeping the royal blood pure. Tutankhamen's young widow did write to Suppiluliuma, king of the Hittites, asking for a new husband outside the royal family of Egypt, but the prospective groom was murdered on his way to the wedding. It was more sensible to be like Rameses II, whose wives included his sister and three of his daughters.

As for the speculation, Tyldesley picks her way carefully through the defaced inscriptions, the commissioned and recycled coffins, the plundered and rearranged tombs and the lurid fantasies of previous historians. She concludes, very sensibly, that, as the outburst of iconoclasm can be firmly dated to the end of her successor's reign, Tuthmosis III was not filled with hatred of his aunt-stepmother, but was concerned to restore the idea that only a man could be a proper Pharaoh.

This is a roundabout, parenthetical kind of book, but it is very well- written, full of jokes and illustrations and highly informative. It draws parallels with many another woman - Elizabeth I, Benazir Bhutto and Margaret Thatcher - who ruled where men have usually held sway. Although Hatchapsut's own mummy has never been discovered, Tyldesley offers the intriguing idea that, entombed alongside the royal wet-nurse, the body of a stout middle- aged lady with worn-down teeth and red-gold hair could have been the Queen herself. They have discovered her eye make-up kit, and a pair of her gold bracelets adorning the arm of a later royal concubine. It makes you want to get out to the Valley of the Kings yourself, and start digging.