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‘To rule oneself is the hardest thing’

South African author Marié Heese won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa Region Best Book for The Double Crown: Secret Writings of the Female Pharaoh (Human & Rousseau). It is the story of Hatshepsut, as told by the pharaoh herself. This is an extract.

I am the chosen of the gods. I have always known that. This knowledge has been the source of my strength and my power, and it is the reason why I know that those who now seek my death and desire to usurp my throne shall not succeed.

Yet I have decided that I must make a secret record with details about those whom I do not trust. I shall give the scrolls that I produce into the keeping of my scribe, the faithful Mahu. If I die a wrongful death, he must hand them to someone in power who will avenge me. Mahu will have to decide who the right person might be. I shall ensure that there will be sufficient evidence to see to it that the guilty, if such there are, suffer the just punishment of the gods and do not reap great benefits from treason.
Also I intend to write down the truth regarding my time as Pharaoh, ruler over the Two Lands. It is so that the main events of my reign are engraved upon the walls of the funerary temple at Djeser-Djeseru that my devoted Senenmut built for me, and upon the steles I have had erected. The living stone will bear witness to my deeds. But I fear that those who seek my death, should they succeed, might even attempt to destroy that proud record. Although I am certain that I can prevail, I shall nonetheless ensure that another record exists on the humble material created from papyrus, a record that Mahu could hide if needs be and that would survive. For those who would take my life would also steal my name, and so they would deprive my spirit of its home in the Afterlife. I will not let them take either my life or my immortality. I will not.

Following this prologue, Hatshepsut’s life story unfolds in flashbacks, from scroll to scroll. An excerpt from the Sixth Scroll follows.

The Sixth Scroll
The reign of Thutmose I year 16

After the mourning period had passed and my mother had been buried in her great tomb for some months, my father one day called me to his office at the administrative palace. When I arrived, he was standing at the window looking out at the water clock that he had had installed in the courtyard. I waited quietly, then made an obeisance when he turned to me. His face was thinner than ever and looked very drawn.

“Your brother Thutmose has been ill again,” he said, abruptly.

“I know,” I said. “Inet has been much concerned. But he is better.”

My father drummed his fingers against the window frame. “He is a fragile reed,” he muttered. “He has no strength.” Then he walked to his gilded chair with its legs ending in lion’s paws and sat down heavily. “Prepare for a journey of some weeks,” he told me. “We leave tomorrow. We go to Abydos.”

After the stifling sadness of the past months, it lifted my spirits to be out on the noble river. As we sailed northward, the rowers speeding us on with powerful, rhythmic strokes, my father spoke to me as if I was a child no longer, but had an adult understanding. “It may be that Thutmose your brother grows in strength,” he said. “But on the other hand, it might be that he goes to the gods too early. I myself must make that journey soon.”

I protested: “But Majesty, you are not old …”

“I am being consumed from the inside,” he said shortly, his hand on his shrunken abdomen. “I am hardly able to eat anything.”

“But the physicians … the priests …”

“Have tried everything they know, but nothing has much effect.

“No, I must go to the Afterlife quite soon. And I am tormented by the fear that everything that I have built up, with much trouble and care, the unity I have achieved, the prosperity I have brought about, the boundaries I have extended and defined …” — a spasm of pain twisted his mouth, but he drew in a sharp breath and mastered it — ‘that everything will be lost, will be destroyed, if there is no strong Pharaoh to follow me. So, Hatshepsut, my daughter, I believe that it may fall to you to hold Khemet.” His dark, somewhat sunken eyes held mine intently.

“I will do it, Father,” I said, standing very straight, trembling at the significance of his words.

He leaned forward. “You desire power, do you not?”

“I … no, that is, I …”

“Let us have no lies, daughter. No pretence. Do you? Desire power?”

I gulped. “Yes, Father, yes, I do.”

“You should remember that it is easy enough to be ruled. To be a ruler, that is far more difficult.”

I nodded, not trusting my voice.

“What Pharaoh must desire, above all else, is the wellbeing of Khemet. Pharaoh’s power, and the exercise thereof, must have one aim and one aim only: to maintain Ma’at. Ma’at is all.”

“Yes, Father.”

“A just ruler, one who follows Ma’at, will have the love of his people. And the love of the people is a precious thing, a resource in adversity.”

I was not sure that I understood this, but I repeated: “A resource. Yes, Father.”

“And you must learn to take counsel from able men. But do not let them rule you. Pharaoh rules; he will take counsel when he asks for it. Yet ask for it often, listen with care, and then decide.”

“I hear, Father.”

“And one thing more. Mark this, my child. To rule others is a burdensome task. To rule oneself is the hardest thing of all.”
This last was beyond me. But I nodded as if I had grasped his words.

He sighed and shook his head. I knew what he was not saying: that he feared greatly for the Black Land, being left to a fragile king and a girl child. But I was certain that I could be strong, that I would not disappoint my father, would not let the Black Land suffer or diminish. I would hold Khemet.

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