Valley of the Kings I – The Sublime of Sublimes


Deir el-Bahri

Pharaoh Hatshepsut is considered by most to be the greatest Pharaoh  of all time.  The undisputed success of Hatshepsut’s peaceful  22-year reign from 1478 – 1456 BCE, is all the more impressive because the Pharoah was a woman.  It is no accident that the Valley of the Kings is nearby; successive Pharaohs sought to associate their legacies with hers by spending eternity in tombs in close proximity to her magnificent temple at Deir el-Bahri.

Hatshepsut married her half brother as a male was preferred to rule the kingdom but he died prematurely leaving her as regent for her two-year- old stepson. In the second year of his reign Hatshepsut seized the royal titulary and as king of Upper and Lower Egypt ruled the country for at least two peaceful decades.

Her accomplishments and vision are unmatched. Hatshepsut established trade networks that had been disrupted during a foreign occupation of Egypt, building the wealth and prosperity she would use to fulfill her vision of a great Egypt.  She organized the first anthropological mission of all time.  She brought back with her from the Land of Punt (Somalia today) 31 myrrh trres, which were transplanted at her temple, and  frankincense. She ground charred frankincense into kohl eyeliner which came to be so associated with Egyptian beauty.  Thank you, Hatshepsut!

Statue of Hatshepsut from
Deir el-Bahri now in Cairo Museum
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Hatshepsut’s greatest efforts went into building projects which not only elevated her name and honored the gods but employed the people. The scope and size of Hatshepsut’s constructions, as well as their elegant beauty, attest to a very prosperous reign. We had already seen her magnificent constructions and obelisks at Karnak. Following the tradition of many pharaohs, the masterpiece of Hatshepsut’s building projects was a mortuary temple. She built hers here at Deir el-Bahri. The focal point was the Djeser-Djeseru or “the Sublime of Sublimes”, a colonnaded structure of perfect harmony built nearly one thousand years before the Parthenon. Djeser-Djeseru and the other buildings of Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri complex are considered to be significant advances in architecture.

The terraced temple of Queen Hatshepsut (built c. 1470 bce), was uncovered (1894–96) beneath monastery ruins and subsequently underwent partial restoration. A fuller restoration of the third terrace, sanctuary was started in 1968 by a Polish archaeological  mission.  The temple was built with statuary, reliefs and inscriptions with her burial chamber carved out of the cliffs which form the back of the building.


A pregnant Hatshepsut, wearing
her false Pharaoh’s beard

In all her projects, campaigns, and policies she relied on the advice and support of one of her courtiers, a man named Senenmut, whose relationship with the queen remains mysterious. Van de Mieroop notes that, “he was a man of undistinguished birth who rose to prominence at court.” I was reminded of Catherine the Great of Russia. Leadership can be an isolating, lonely place for a woman. I suspect Hatshepsut, like Catherine, always had a “favourite” at court.

Still, ancient Egyptian culture was very conservative, and efforts to erase Hatshetsup from history were ultimately successful.  Her name was erased from her monuments to remove all evidence of her reign. Later scribes never mention her and her many temples and monuments were often attributed to later pharaohs.

Her rediscovery is a great story in itself.  Her existence only came to light fairly recently in history when the orientalist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832 AD), most famous for deciphering the Rosetta Stone, found he could not reconcile hieroglyphics indicating a female ruler with statuary obviously depicting a male. Until these hieroglyphics were found in the inner chambers of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri; all public recognition of her had been erased.

In 1903, Howard Carter, the British archeologist made famous by his discovery of the tomb of Tut Ankh Amen nearly two decades later, had discovered a tomb (KV60) in the Valley of the Kings with funerary furniture believed to be Hatshepsut’s.  The tomb also contained two female mummies, one identified as Hatshepsut’s wetnurse, and the other unidentified.

In the spring of 2007, the unidentified body was finally removed from the tomb by Dr. Zahi Hawass and brought to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum for testing. This mummy was missing a tooth, and the space in the jaw perfectly matched Hatshepsut’s existing molar, found in the DB320 canopic jar.

“The discovery of the Hatshepsut mummy is one of the most important finds in the history of Egypt,” Mr Hawass said. “Her reign during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt was a prosperous one, yet mysteriously she was erased from Egyptian history. Our hope is that this mummy will help shed light on this mystery and on the mysterious nature of her death.”

The full story:

Sadly, Hatshepsut’s death due to bone cancer may have been the result of her use of a carcinogenic skin lotion, not only underscoring her femininity and humanity, but also her timelessness.  Ideals of beauty and eternal youth are no less predominant today than they were 3,500 years ago.

Hatshepsut seated, a profoundly
feminine depiction, at the Met.
Aerial view, at dawn

Shortly after leaving Hapshetsut’s magnificent temple, we stopped to see the Colossi of Memnon.  More Ramses II colossi?  No!  These depict Amenhotep III who reigned from 1389 – 1351 BCE.  60 feet tall, these are believed to have guarded Amenhotep’s mortuary, a temple which was even larger than Karnak in its day.  Other statues are being discovered on the site; one can be seen in the background of the second image.  The statues were damaged in an ancient eathquake and since ancient times the statues reportedly burst into “song” from time to time.   Considered good luck, we hoped to hear the sound, but it was not to be today.  We felt pretty lucky anyway.



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