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Unlike most contractors, Khnum gets right to work, replying: "Her form shall be more exalted than the gods, in her great dignity of King. …"

On Khnum's potter's wheel, little Hatshepsut is depicted unmistakably as a boy.

Exactly who was the intended audience for such propaganda is still disputed. It's hard to imagine Hatshepsut needed to shore up her legitimacy with powerful allies like the high priests of Amun or members of the elite such as Senenmut. Who, then, was she pitching her story to? The gods? The future? National Geographic?

One answer may be found in Hatshepsut's references to the lapwing, a common Nile marsh bird known to ancient Egyptians as rekhyt. In hieroglyphic texts the word "rekhyt" is usually translated as "the common people." It occurs frequently in New Kingdom inscriptions, but a few years ago Kenneth Griffin, now at Swansea University in Wales, noticed that Hatshepsut made greater use of the phrase than other 18th-dynasty pharaohs. "Her inscriptions seemed to show a personal association with the rekhyt which at this stage is unrivaled," he says. Hatshepsut often spoke possessively of "my rekhyt" and asked for the approval of the rekhyt—as if the unusual ruler were a closet populist. When Hatshepsut's heart flutters this way and that as she wonders what "the people" will say, the people she may have had in mind were the ones as common as lapwings on the Nile, the rekhyt.

After her death, around 1458 B.C., her stepson went on to secure his destiny as one of the great pharaohs in Egyptian his­tory. Thutmose III was a monument maker like his stepmother but also a warrior without peer, the so-called Napoleon of ancient Egypt. In a 19-year span he led 17 military campaigns in the Levant, including a victory against the Canaanites at Megiddo in present-day Israel that is still taught in military academies. He had a flock of wives, one of whom bore his successor, Amenhotep II. Thutmose III also found time to introduce the chicken to the Egyptian dinner table.

In the latter part of his life, when other men might be content to reminisce about bygone adventures, Thutmose III appears to have taken up another pastime. He decided to methodically wipe his stepmother, the king, out of history.

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