Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Pharaoh Hatshepsut and the Calcite Sphinx

Most people have heard of the Cleopatra VII, the enigmatic last pharaoh of Egypt. But did you know that Cleopatra was not the first female pharaoh? Cleopatra was preceded by about 1500 years by Hatshepsut, one of the most powerful and long-reigning pharaohs in Egyptian history. Had the two queens -- or, female kings, if you will -- lived contemporaneously, they just might have gotten along.

Both Hatshepsut and Cleopatra had to deal with a number of the same issues. Both were a threat to the men of their lineage who thought that they should be king instead. Both were smeared by their successors, leading to widespread inaccuracies in the historical records. And both dealt with these political slippery slopes by disguising themselves as men.

Indeed, we almost didn't learn Hatshepsut existed. Because her stepson almost successfully erased her from the historical record, we lost track of this powerful pharaoh for, oh, about 3400 years. It was only in the 19th century that translators of Egyptian heiroglyphs became increasingly annoyed by all of the female pronouns on the reliefs of a number of temples--not the least of which is the enormous complex at Dier al-Bahari we now recognize as the burial temple of Hatshepsut herself. Of course, we can't blame the historians for not recognizing at first that this temple was built by a female pharaoh. Not only was Hatshepsut's reign unusual, but she chose to build the temple in the Valley of the Kings, rather than the nearby Valley of the Queens. Why? 

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Dier al-Bahari, Egypt
In all probability, because of semantics. There was no word in Hatshepsut's language for "queen regent," and so, a "queen" strictly referred to the wife of a king. But Hatshepsut wasn't having that, so she referred to herself as a powerful king, even taking the identity of Osiris, husband of Isis, as her patron god.

But perhaps the most interesting of Hatshepsut's contributions is the calcite sphinx in Memphis. Thought to be an image of the pharaoh herself, this sphinx is the largest statue of pure calcite ever discovered. In contrast, the vast majority of statues in in the region are comprised of limestone, which was much more abundant in the time of the pharaohs. Why does this matter, you ask? Because limestone is less stable than calcite. So when the tombs and monuments of ancient Egypt finally wear to the ground, it is likely that the only thing left on this earth will be a single statue of a female pharaoh.

No wonder she's smiling.

The Calcite Sphinx at Memphis
This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in the third Katrina Stone novel, in progress by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel, in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California.