On the west bank of the Nile, directly across the Karnak Temple Complex at Luxor, lies Deir el-Bahri, a complex of mortuary temples and tombs and the final resting place of Queen Hatshepsut.
The complex is best known today for Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, hewn from the rock at the foot of the cliffs overlooking the Nile.
Some of the tombs and mortuary temples date back to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040 – c. 1782 BCE) but the sight is best known as the tomb of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Hatshepsut. It is considered one of the most beautiful temples in the world due to its unique and innovative architecture.
What Is Deir el Bahri?
Deir el-Bahri is a complex of mortuary temples and tombs most famous for the mortuary temples of 11th dynasty Pharaoh Mentuhotep II and 18th dynasty Pharaoh Hatshepsut. In addition, it contains the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut’s heir, the conquering King Thutmosis III. Many non-royal tombs belonging to officials and artisans were discovered in the vicinity of the complex.
The Beginning of the Middle Kingdom Period Marked a New Stage of Egyptian History
Centuries before the Temple of Hatshepsut had been built, Egypt was undergoing a period of political fragmentation known as the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181 – c. 2055 BCE). The collapse of the Old Kingdom led to the establishment of two separate kingdoms in Upper and Lower Egypt. Tensions between the two kingdoms culminated in the 14th year of the reign of King Mentuhotep II, who ruled Upper Egypt from Thebes.
Mentuhotep II Reunites Egypt Under His Rule
Mentuhotep II defeated the Herakleopolis-based 10th dynasty and reunited Egypt c. 2040 BCE, ushering in a new era. The Pharaoh set about restoring royal authority by reducing the power of the nomarchs in the provinces.
Mentuhotep appointed a vizier at the head of government and numerous other officials who controlled the nomarchs and strengthened the power of the king. Having secured his power base, the King felt free to embark on a series of ambitious building projects throughout Egypt.
The Pharaohs Breaks With Old Kingdom Tradition and Builds a New Kind of Tomb
With the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, the seat of power had moved from the old capital of Memphis in the Nile Delta to Thebes. The ancient practice of pyramid building was abandoned in favor of mortuary temples, which the Egyptians referred to as ‘Temples of Millions of Years.’
– Mentuhotep II’s Mortuary Temple and Its Architectural Innovations
The Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep was the first mortuary temple of its kind to be built in Egypt. It consists of a forecourt and an entrance gate, and it’s enclosed by walls on three sides. There is a large square structure standing on a terrace. The proximity of Karnak has led Egyptologists to believe that the temple was the final destination of the bark of Amun brought annually to Deir el-Bahri from Thebes.
In the inner part of the temple cut from the rock, we find a peristyle court and a hypostyle, as well as an underground corridor leading to the tomb of the King. The debris-littered ruins of the mortuary temple were first excavated in 1859 when the empty tomb of one of the Pharaoh’s wives was discovered. While the tomb itself had been plundered in ancient times, archeologists have found several well-preserved statues of the King.
– What Makes Mentuhotep’s Mortuary Temple Unique?
Mentuhotep II Mortuary Temple followed the Old Kingdom tradition of constructing two separate temples: the high temple and a valley temple. The former was build at Deir el-Bahri, whereas the latter stood near the Nile.
The valley temple was linked to the high temple by 0.7 miles and a 150-foot wide causeway which was not preserved. The central structure was surrounded by terraces and covered walkways that represent a major architectural innovation. Mentuhotep’s mortuary temple served as an inspiration for temples that were built at Deir el-Bahri several centuries later.
Ancient Egypt’s Golden Age During the 18th Dynasty
The largely peaceful and prosperous Middle Kingdom of Egypt fell to foreign invaders in the 17th century BCE. A warlike Asiatic people, the Hyksos, who had already lived in Lower Egypt for centuries, defeated the native Egyptian dynasty and established their own in the Nile Delta.
The Hyksos dominated Egypt for two centuries. Their rule forever changed Egypt, for the Hyksos introduced the horse and chariot, as well as advanced weapons which the Egyptians would later use in their own conquests.
Egypt’s Most Powerful Dynasty Builds an Empire
Ahmose I is credited with defeating the Hyksos and reuniting Egypt once again. His heirs continued with his expansionist policy. Tuthmosis I campaigned deep into Syria and reached the Euphrates river, having already brought a large part of the Levant under his control.
It had been a time of great prosperity for Egypt. Successive kings built stunning monuments across Egypt, many of which have been preserved to this day. It would take a queen, however, to construct one of the most iconic buildings in ancient Egyptian history.
Hatshepsut: Egypt’s Most Powerful Female Ruler
One of Egypt’s most famous pharaohs entered the historical record as the daughter of Thutmosis I and the half-sister of his son and heir, Thutmosis II. Following the death of her husband and half-brother, Hatshepsut became a regent but later assumed full pharaonic powers and ruled in her own right.
Even though the length of her reign remains unclear, Egyptologists agree that her reign was one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in Egyptian history. Hatshepsut built a mortuary temple in Del el-Bahri, itself a part of the Theban Necropolis.
Monumental Architecture in Honor of the Gods
Hatshepsut commissioned numerous construction projects throughout Egypt. Temples dedicated to Amun, Hathor, Horus, and other important deities, emphasized the Queen’s link with the gods and legitimized her rule in the eyes of her subjects.
Hatshepsut’s eagerness to increase her prestige is also evident in the great attention given to the restoration of the existing monuments such as temples and obelisks in both Upper and Lower Egypt. Hatshepsut’s Deir el Bahri Temple stands as a crowning achievement of the Queen’s reign.
A Jewel in the Desert: Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple
Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri was probably designed by the Queen’s architect Senenmut, the Overseer of Works, who may have also been her vizier. The main feature of the temple is the three terraces, each ending in a portico.
A 0.62-mile long causeway connected the high with the valley temple. The terraces, in turn, were accessed by 121 ft long ramps. The lower terrace measures 390 by 75 ft and contains 82 ft wide porticoes with 22 columns each. The middle terrace is 246 by 300 ft with two porticoes, the west, and the north, containing 22 and 15 columns, respectively, each arranged in two rows.
On this terrace, we find the depiction of the famous expedition to the Land of Punt, initiated by Hatshepsut. The south-west and north-west corner of the middle terrace contains the shrines of Hathor and Ra. A smaller shrine dedicated to Anubus can be found at the north end.
– Amun’s Shrine: The Sacred Heart of the Temple
Hatshepsut dedicated her temple to the state god Amun, whose cult seat was in Karnak, Thebes, and who was associated with the majesty of Egypt and pharaonic power. Amun’s shrine is located at the back of the temple, and it is where the sacred ceremonies were performed by the high priests and the pharaoh.
– Queen’s Final Resting Place Is Located in the Nearby Valley of the Kings
Deir el-Bahri guards the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, where most of the subsequent 18th and 19th dynasty pharaohs were buried. Pharaoh Hatshepsut tomb is located in the easternmost part of the valley.
The tomb was expanded and re-cut on several occasions, most notably during Hatshepsut’s own life, to accommodate the burial of her father Thutmose I and the Queen herself. Hatshepsut’s heirs build their own tombs in the valley due to its favorable position and the proximity of Thebes and Deir el-Bahri.
Hatshepsut and Thutmosis III: A Troubled Relationship
In many ways, Hatshepsut established a pattern of royal burials to be followed by her successors on the throne. Other 18th dynasty pharaohs sought to emulate her grand monuments, but her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri stands alone as a unique piece of architecture.
Hatshepsut may have enjoyed a reign of 21 years, a time of unparalleled prosperity during which Egypt remained at peace with its neighbors and traded extensively with Nubia and the Levant. The Queen probably succumbed to bone cancer while she was about 50 years old.
Thutmosis III Attempts To Erase Hatshepsut’s Memory
Hatshepsut’s successor, Thutmosis III, ordered her name removed from the pharaonic record in what may have been an attempt to delegitimize her rule. Her cartouches and statues were pulled down or smashed, and even her mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri was vandalized. Egyptologists have put forth several theories as to Thutmosis’ motive for removing his aunt’s name from historical records.
The oldest and the most popular theory among older Egyptologists claimed Thutmosis was acting out of personal vendetta against Hatshepsut, who sidelined him and took the throne for herself instead of satisfying her with the position of a regent.
This theory has been largely rejected by modern Egyptologists because it fails to explain why the Pharaoh waited two decades to exact his revenge. According to another theory, Thutmosis decided to exclude Hatshepsut from the royal record on the basis of her sex. A successful female pharaoh could establish a dangerous precedent encouraging other royal women to claim the throne in their own right.
Thutmosis’ motive remains a mystery, however, and there seems to have been no evidence of a systematic effort to erase Hatshepsut’s memory.
The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri stands out as an example of the creative genius of ancient Egyptians. It marked the beginning of a new and glorious age of Egyptian history. This is why Deir el-Bahri is one of the most important ancient Egyptian accomplishments:
- The construction of the Mortuary Temple of Mentuhotep marked a departure from the architectural style of the Old Kingdom
- It foreshadowed the rise of the cult of Amun as the most important god in the Egyptian pantheon
- The temple displays some of the finest examples of ancient Egyptian art
- It is one of the best-preserved Egyptian temples predating the Ptolemaic period
The funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri offers us a unique glimpse into the past and stands as a reminder of the greatness of Ancient Egypt.