This may be L.A.'s Year of King Tut, but the ongoing exhibition at the California Science Center shouldn't suggest the boy king is the only Egyptological celebrity in town. For nearly a decade, professor Kara Cooney has educated students — and the public at large — in the ancient ways of the land of the pharaohs. She's UCLA's Nefertiti of Near Eastern studies, and she's as statuesque as some of the granite likenesses she's studied in the field.
The 6-foot-tall, charismatic brunette discovered early on that she was a natural not only in the classroom but in front of the camera, and first made her mark as the host of Discovery Channel's Out of Egypt in 2009. But Cooney's milestone achievement (thus far) is a trade publication, The Woman Who Would Be King, which tells the story of Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut, not a household name like Cleopatra but a towering 18th Dynasty figure to all who have visited Egypt and beheld her colossal 3,500-year-old funerary temple near Thebes.
The book, Cooney freely admits, is not a scholarly treatise and is necessarily conjectural in much of its narrative, but it nevertheless earned Cooney a popular niche in social media (her Facebook following is impressive for an academic, at nearly a quarter million), where she holds forth on — or reposts — instructive archeological stories and findings. Cooney's book also champions a thematic focus that she has branded as her own: women of authority and power in the ancient world.
“Why does Hatshepsut's leadership still trouble us today?” she asks in its preface. “Female rulers are implicitly branded as emotional, self-interested, lacking in authority, untrustworthy and impolitic. The ancient Egyptians likewise distrusted a woman with authority, and this context makes Hatshepsut's achievements all the more astonishing. For more than 20 years she was the most powerful person in the ancient world. But when she finally died, all that she built was instantly over….”
If there is a certain timely resonance in that passage, Cooney, over a beverage at UCLA's faculty center, takes the point further. “Look, on the one hand you have the ancient Egyptians being ruled by a woman of great power and purpose — on the other, this civilization was one of the most enduring, autocratic societies in history.” She makes the troubling observation that, historically speaking, people have “liked” autocratic rule. “You may not like it or I may not like it, but others have felt protected by it,” she says.
Granted that we can all learn from history, but why does one become an Egyptologist? “That's a question Egyptologists are always asked but would never ask each other because there isn't an answer,” is Cooney's glib response. Putting it another way, she facetiously adds, “I was an upper-middle-class white chick from Texas who was told she could do whatever she wanted to do.”
From Texas Cooney went to Johns Hopkins for her Ph.D. working under another noted woman, Betsy Bryan. Once installed in L.A., one of her first major roles was co-curating the last Tut exhibition at LACMA, in 2005.
Asked how she reconciles traditional scholarship with the “popularizer” role, which she has embraced but others disdain, she says, “That's what's great about UCLA. Here the lunatics really do run the asylum — you can have it both ways.” She's preparing her next online summer extension class, “Women and Power in the Ancient World” in addition to chairing her department.
While her professional scholarship has focused on such topics as scarabs and burial practices, her advice to her students is, “Don't just stay down in the weeds. Focus on that Big Idea.” Cooney's Big Idea? She didn't say, but one safe bet would be “Women Rule.”