This Temple Honours the Egyptian Queen Who Ruled as King

Hatshepsut's temple is one of the world’s most striking architectural masterpieces, but perhaps even more noteworthy is the woman who commissioned it.

Published 23 Jul 2018, 14:01 BST
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic Creative
This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centred around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action.

Beneath the sheer, stark cliffs of Deir el Bahri, the mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut reveals one of the most extraordinary reigns in Egyptian history.

Stepped platforms, pillared porticoes, and vibrant reliefs set against the desert backdrop make it one of the world’s most striking architectural masterpieces, but perhaps even more noteworthy is the woman who commissioned it.

The eldest daughter of King Thutmose I, Hatshepsut first assumed the role of queen regent during the 18th dynasty after the death of her husband, Thutmose II. Although her stepson, Thutmose III, eventually came of age, she adopted the title of pharaoh and ruled for more than two decades.

She was one of ancient Egypt's first female pharaohs.

A statue of Hatshepsut depicts her with a lion's mane and pharaoh's beard.

Today, evidence of Hatshepsut’s achievements can still be seen from Nubia to Beni Hasan. In Thebes, she erected towering obelisks and built roads in honor of Amun, king of the gods and patron of pharaohs. Her statues also evolved, depicting her with a male body in full pharaonic regalia, including the traditional beard, shendyt kilt, and head cloth—a declaration of power.

But the crowning jewel was her mortuary temple, strategically placed on the west bank of the Nile next to the Temple of Mentuhotep II to reinforce her position among kings. Known as Djeser Djeseru, or “holy of holies,” her temple was decorated with scenes from her reign and housed shrines to Anubis, god of the dead; Hathor, goddess of fertility; Amun, king of gods; and Re, god of the sun.

Hatshepsut died in 1458 B.C.E. and was buried in the Valley of the Kings. Although she went to great lengths to be remembered after her death, Thutmose III carried out a sweeping campaign to destroy her legacy 20 years later. He crushed her statues, defaced her images, and erased her cartouche. Some say it was an act of vengeance, others believe it was to ensure a smooth succession of his own son to the throne. A third theory proposes that he didn't want the rule of kings—Thutmose I, II, and III—interrupted by a woman. Between 1923 and 1931, the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art excavated fragments of her destroyed statues, which were dumped into pits in front of the temple.

Whatever the reason, Thutmose’s efforts were successful and Hatshepsut's pioneering reign was slowly forgotten. When scholars deciphered hieroglyphics in the early 19th century, they were finally able to read the inscriptions on her temple and piece together the story. Today, her legacy lives on in her surviving architectural achievements throughout Egypt.

What to See

The temple is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.—go early in the morning to avoid high temperatures. Hatshepsut’s temple is just one of many archaeological wonders that make up Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Stay a few days, and descend into the vividly painted tombs in the Valley of the Kings, wander the sprawling Karnak Temple Complex, and catch the sunset at the Temple of Luxor.

When to Go

If you can handle the summer heat, go from May to September to avoid the masses. Winter temperatures are milder, but you may encounter high-season crowds.

Where to Stay

One of the best ways to see the sights is on a Nile River cruise. The Sanctuary Nile Adventurer takes you on a stress-free tour of the sights with an experienced Egyptologist. You can also establish a home base at the historic Winter Palace Luxor or get off the beaten path at the boutique Beit Sabée near Medinet Habu.

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