While many of us are familiar with the story of Cleopatra (thank you Elizabeth Taylor), and quite possibly have heard of Nefertiti, the real female super star of Egyptian history was Hatshepsut.
In thousands of years of Egyptian history, she was the only woman to rule the kingdom, not as a Queen, but as a true Pharaoh in every sense of the word. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even recognize she was a woman from her statues, as she always had herself depicted wearing the pharaoh’s ceremonial beard. She meant business, and if that meant she had to call herself king and wear a beard to be taken seriously, that is what she was going to do.
But more than simply taking charge and ruling as a true King, Hatshepsut’s superior leadership brought about one of the most prosperous and peaceful points in all of Egyptian history, known for it’s successful trade, booming economy, and many public works projects.
Her mortuary temple was designed in essence to tell the story of her life, so its walls are covered with the things she was most proud of accomplishing during her reign.
One of the most prominent themes depicted on the walls throughout the site is an expedition Hatshepsut sent to a foreign territory the Egyptians referred to as the land of “Punt”. (Scholars are still debating what part of continent the Egyptians would have been referring to on a modern day map of the world, since we have no land of “Punt” today, but most believe it was likely somewhere around what we now would now refer to as northeast Ethiopia or possibly Somalia.)
The reason that this expedition to Punt was particularly notable for the Egyptians, and a source of such pride for Hatshepsut is that it was the first expedition party in Egyptian history to successfully bring back plants and trees from a foreign land, bundled up in baskets of their native soil, to plant back in Egypt on Egyptian soil.
The text on one wall of the temple relating to her expedition to Punt reads:
“The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God’s Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold of Emu, with cinnamon wood, Khesyt wood, with Ihmut-incense, sonter-incense, eye cosmetic, with apes, monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning.”
While roaming the site, keep in mind that the majority of what you are seeing is the result of decades worth of intensive reconstruction work that began all the way back in 1911 by the American Egyptologist Herbert Winlock. For those interested, there is an excellent collection of old images pre-reconstruction HERE, to show how much work has been done at the site since then.
Let’s talk names for a moment, because this can get confusing I know. While most visitors these days refer to the site simply as Hatshepsut’s Temple or The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, the site also goes by two other names as well: “Deir el-Bahri” and ” Djeser Djeseru”. Which translate into English roughly as “The Northern Monastery” and “Splendor of Splendors” respectively.
The first of the two names, “Deir el-Bahri,” is the Arabic name for the entire general area that the site is located within, encompassing Hatshepsut’s temple in addition to an entire complex of other mortuary temples and tombs on the west bank of the nile. Think of it more like the title of a neighborhood within the Theban Necropolis, and Hatshepsut’s temple being like a house located within that neighborhood.
The second name, “Djeser Djeseru” is what Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple would have been referred to as by the Ancient Egyptians. Although, translations vary and some argue that “Holy of Holies” might be a more accurate translation than “Splendor of Splendors.”
What You Need To Know
While Hatshepsut was not the first woman to rule Egypt (or the last for that matter) she was the first female to rule Egypt as a King instead of Queen. But more than that, her rule was unprecedented for a woman in its sheer duration, spanning a period of 21 years, years marked by incredible prosperity and peace for her nation.
The daughter of Thuthmose I and Queen Ahmose, Hatshepsut married her half-brother Thuthmose II (mainly to legitimize his claim to the throne since Thutmose II was the son of a lesser wife), and together they ruled over Egypt for 14 years before Thuthmose II died just after reaching the age of 30 from disease.
Upon Thuthmose II’s death, rulership of the country technically should have passed onto his eldest son Thuthmose III, whom he had sired by one of his minor wives (ehem… harem women….) and designated as his official heir. There was just one small problem with this plan; Thuthmose III was still a small child of only about 3 years old.
Emergency meetings were held and it was quickly agreed upon that Hatshepsut should remain co-regent until the child came of age. Hatshepsut however, who had been ruling the country the past 14 years pretty damn well thank you very much, was not about to just hand over her crown to another woman’s child. So after only 7 years of ruling as co-regent, she shocked everyone by simply having herself officially crowned Pharaoh of Egypt and assuming absolute power.
As you can imagine, this did not go over very well for many people, so many scholars believe that, in an attempt to legitimize her position, she began to have herself depicted in statues and carving as a man, wearing a pharaoh’s traditional kilt and beard and often being referred to as “His Majesty, Herself.”
She even went through the effort of taking on a new name Maatkare (which translates roughly as “Truth is the soul of the Sun God”, “maat” standing for order and justice as established by the gods) and creating elaborate back stories for herself and having them publicly displayed on the walls of her public works projects, stating her divine origin as the daughter of the God Amun and that her father Thuthmose I had made her his co-ruler and heir during his reign prior to her marriage to Thutmose II.
In the end, her greatest claim to the throne was the prosperity that she brought to her people through her commitment to securing the countries borders, supporting trade, and creating more public works building projects than any other pharaoh in history… well… save Rameses II.
Part of which included the restoration of the temple of Mut at Karnak where she commissioned her builders to create two matching twin obelisks to mark the entrance to the Temple, one of which is still standing in the complex today, the remains of the second are there still as well but have fallen over and can be seen lying on it’s side in the complex.
Erased From History
There are a variety of theories on why Hatshepsut was all but erased from Egyptian history, left off the infamous “Kings List” at Abydos, had the majority of her public works defaced and her statues demolished.
A popular theory often told to tourists is that when Thuthmose III eventually did assumed power after Hatshepsut’s death (which may have been brought about by cancer) after waiting 22 years to claim a throne that should have been rightfully his since he was 3, he was a bit upset with the woman and went on a rampage to have her name erased from history as his revenge against her.
This theory doesn’t hold for many modern historians though, since Thuthmose did not begin his systematic campaign to erase Hatshepsut’s legacy until nearly the final decade of his 32 year reign. At which time he had the majority of her monument ascribed to her immediate predecessors Thutmose I and Thutmose II, her cartouches chiseled off stone walls and all images of her removed, smashed, disfigured and finally buried in a pit. At Karnak, there was even an attempt to wall up her obelisks, a plan which thankfully failed.
Whatever the reason, (many historian’s best guess at this point is that it had something to do with ensuring the succession of power after Thutmose’s death, while others think it may have had more to do with erasing the precent of a strong female leader) this erasure lead to Hatshepsut being all but forgotten from history, and very little was known about her existence until 1822 when scholars were finally able to decode and read the hieroglyphics on the walls of her Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahri.
Close Your Eyes And Picture An Oasis
Something I think is important to keep in mind when viewing or visiting any ancient Egyptian site, but particularly Hatshepsut’s temple, is how lush, green and colorful the site would have been during its day.
Because where we may see a dry desert filled with generally colorless stone architecture, the ancient Egyptians themselves would have experienced something very different.
And while it’s easy to see that the walls would have been brightly painted from the small remnants of pain that still remain. It’s often harder to imagine that, for instance, the lower levels of Hatshepsut’s temple would have featured a variety of pools and gardens filled with fragrant trees, creating a lush oasis that would have filled all five of your senses.
Visiting The Site
While we visited this site as part of our tour itinerary with the Steam Ship Sudan, this site is relatively easy to visit on your own. Your biggest challenge will simply be getting to the site.
As I’ve mentioned before in other articles, the west bank of Luxor is not the most tourist friendly of locations, which is why many tourists choose to hire a guide for the day, or hire a car to drive them around to the the various sites. However, if you’d like to go it on your own, you have a few options. If you’re staying on the east bank, you’ll need to walk down and take the public ferry across to the west bank. From there it’s a good 4 mile walk to the site. Alternatively you can rent a bike near the ferry HERE and ride over to the site.
Personally, I would try to hire a car once I’d crossed the river to drive me around to the various sites (there are usually a fleet of cars for hire waiting at the ferry landing). If you do so, be aware that you will want to hire the car for the day, and not just to drop you off at a particular site, as there are very few (or no) cars at the site available to take you back once you get to your destination and want to return home.
There are also a plethora of group tours leaving from the East bank of Luxor daily that you can pay to join and are often well worth the fee, if only for the organized transportation they provide to the various sites and awareness of where to go to purchase the ticket you need to buy to enter.
Alternatively, if you are visiting the Valley of the Kings that day, and are feeling up for a walking adventure, there is also a half-hour walking trail through the Valley of the Kings over a mountain pass that will take you to the temple site as well for those gung-ho exercise eccentrics among you.
Lastly, there is a small cafe on site with a small variety of snack and beverage items. However don’t plan on finding lunch here. If you’re looking for a good place to eat on the West Bank of Luxor, we highly enjoyed our meal HERE at Africa.