The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri

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The name Deir el-Bahri means ‘Northern Monastery’, indicating that the site was once used by Christian monks. Prior to the coming of Christianity, however, the site in the Valley of the Kings was a complex of mortuary temples and tombs built by the ancient Egyptians. One of the most famous of the mortuary temples at Deir el-Bahri is the Temple of Hatshepsut.

Hatshepsut is arguably one of the most formidable women in ancient Egypt. After the death of her husband, Thutmose II, Hatshepsut served as co-regent to her nephew and stepson, the infant Thutmose III, who would eventually become the 6 th pharaoh of the 18 th Dynasty. The roughly 22 year reign of Hatshepsut is generally regarded as one of Egypt’s most prosperous, and major accomplishments were achieved by this extraordinary pharaoh, including the construction of her mortuary temple in Deir el-Bahri.

Sculpture of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt

Detail, Sculpture of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, c. 1473-1458 B.C. Hatshepsut is depicted in the clothing of a male king though with a feminine form. Wikimedia, CC

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut was known to the ancient Egyptians as Djeser-Djeseru (Holy of Holies), and is said to have taken 15 years to complete, i.e. between the 7 th and 22 nd years of Hatshepsut’s reign. The construction of the mortuary temple was overseen by Senenmut, Hatshepsut’s royal architect, who, according to some, was also her lover. Regardless, Senenmut’s final product was an impressive monument that allowed the posthumous worship of Hatshepsut, and conveyed the greatness of this pharaoh. Whilst the architecture of the mortuary temple itself is noteworthy, certain features seem to stand out more than the rest.

The second terrace facade of the Hatshepsut temple, decorated with Osirian colossi with the effigy of the queen.

The second terrace facade of the Hatshepsut temple, decorated with Osirian colossi with the effigy of the queen. Wikimedia, CC

One of the features of the mortuary temple that projects Hatshepsut’s greatness is a famous colonnade known as the ‘Punt colonnade’, located on the left side of the ramp to the third level. The colonnade narrates one of Hatshepsut’s greatest achievements – her expedition to Punt. Unlike many of the pharaonic reliefs found on various Egyptian monuments, Hatshepsut’s expedition was not militaristic in nature, but one that had trade as the goal of the mission. This may be an indication of Hatshepsut’s priorities, though the pharaoh claimed that the expedition was conducted to extract tribute from the people of Punt. Nevertheless, the expedition was a success, and based on the column, numerous luxury objects and exotic goods were brought back to Egypt, including myrrh trees, gold, ivory, panther skins and apes.      

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A partially surviving relief in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut.

A partially surviving relief in the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. Wikimedia, CC

A successful trade mission to a foreign land, however, was not enough to portray Hatshepsut as a good pharaoh or indeed as a pharaoh at all. As a woman, Hatshepsut was defying the norm by being pharaoh, a position reserved by males only. Thus, she had to legitimize her claim to the Egyptian throne. This resulted in the elaborate birth story found on the mortuary temple’s ‘Birth colonnade’. According to the story on the colonnade, Hatshepsut was not a mere mortal, but had divine parentage, as the god Amun himself, taking the form of the pharaoh Thutmose I, went to Hatshepsut’s mother, Ahmose, and impregnated her with his divine breath. Amun then reveals his true self to Ahmose, and foretells that Hatshepsut will rule over Egypt. Khnum, the creator of the bodies of human children, is then instructed to form Hatshepsut’s body and ka (life force). Ahmose is then led by Khnum and Heqet to the birthing chamber and with the help of Meskhenet, Hatshepsut is born. Finally, Hatshepsut is shown suckled by Hathor, whilst her birth is recorded by Seshat. With so many gods involved in her birth, Hatshepsut was almost certain to have cemented her claim as pharaoh. As a point of interest, the same birth story can also be found in Karnak.

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Hatshepsut's mortuary temple with the cliffs in the background.

Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple with the cliffs in the background. Wikimedia, CC

After Hatshepsut’s death, towards the end of the reign of Thutmose III and the beginning of his successor’s reign, there was an effort to obliterate the memory of this female pharaoh. Numerous statues from Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple were torn down, smashed and disfigured before being buried in a pit. Her cartouches and images were also chiseled off the reliefs on the wall, including those on the ‘Birth colonnade’. It may be added that Akhenaten, who lived about a century after Hatshepsut, also jumped on the iconoclastic bandwagon, though his target was not the queen’s images, but those of the god Amun. Thus, on the ‘Birth colonnade’ at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, the images of Hatshepsut and Amun are curiously chiseled off. The attempt to completely remove Hatshepsut from history could be said to be a failure, however, as she is today remembered as one of the most successful pharaohs of ancient Egypt.

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