Queen Hatshepsut and Her Mortuary Temple

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Hatshepsut was the great wife of Tuthmosis II, and when he died, there was no heir that could really rule the nation. A six-year-old boy could claim the throne, but he was too young to do anything. Hatshepsut started her reign after 20 years of living with Tuthmosis II and his boring reign. She, however, was exactly the opposite of boring.

Picture shows Queen Hatshepsut's temple (Dayr el-Bahari or Dayr el-Bahri), part of the Theban Necropolis.
Hatshepsut ruled Egypt as a queen for a while, but later decided that she deserved to be the king and declared herself “King Hatshepsut”. (Image: Anton_Ivanov/Shutterstock)

The XVIIIth Dynasty in ancient Egypt was one of the most significant and prosperous eras. Women also had a high status, were respected, and could even rule. However, Queen Hatshepsut took the ruling to a new level after her husband died.

A Pharaoh’s Children

Hatshepsut was the only purely royal child of Tuthmosis I. A pharaoh had more than one wife, but there was only one great wife who was considered royal. Many of the Egyptian kings of the time gained the throne by marrying a pure-blooded royal girl. This was called the heiress theory.

The other women who bore children of the pharaoh were the other wives with full rights, but always below the great wife in rank. There was only one great wife, and no one could take her place. Children of the other wives could someday become a king, but they might have also needed the heiress condition.

Below the wives were the concubines, women who were a significant part of the palace but certainly beneath the wives. Their sons could also become the king but under rare circumstances. When Tuthmosis I died, Hatshepsut was the only purely royal child alive.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis II

Hatshepsut was 12 when her father died. Tuthmosis I had only one purely royal child, and a son from one of the other wives. The son was Tuthmosis II, who became king through marrying the 12-year-old Hatshepsut, his half-sister.

Statue of queen Hatshepsut, in Luxor, Egypt.
A man could become a king through marrying a woman with pure royal blood, and Hatshepsut was a pure child. (Image: mareandmare/Shutterstock)

After 20 years of marriage and ruling, Tuthmosis II died. He was neither a very attractive man nor a very successful and active king. He built no great obelisks and no incredible monuments. When he died, there was one daughter of pure blood, Neferu-Re. A potential king was the six- or seven-year-old Tuthmosis III, who was too young for any serious decision. But Hatshepsut, the powerful widow of the king, was still alive and well.

The Queen’s Temple

Hatshepsut became the regent in Tuthmosis III’s place. She began ruling Egypt as a queen, but later made a momentous decision about her title. She was one of the active rulers and built one of the most spectacular monuments ever.

Her temple, Djeser Djeseru, or the ‘Sacred of Sacred Places’ was built in Deir el Bahri. Deir el Bahri was an Arabic name meaning ‘the place of the northern monastery’, where Montuhotep I, the great unifier of Egypt, built his mortuary temple. Hatshepsut wanted to show how similar she was to this great ruler, even with the location and architecture.

The story of her reign on the walls confused Champollion, the decipherer of hieroglyphs, in his 1829 visit.

Learn more about prehistoric Egypt.

The Writings on the Wall

Champollion saw two kings on the walls of Hatshepsut’s temple: Tuthmosis III, one of the greatest kings of Egypt when he finally gained the throne, and King Hatshepsut. A king who stood in front of Tuthmosis wore a false beard and kilt like all other pharaohs, but was sometimes referred to as “her Majesty.”

Wall paintings at the Hatshepsut Temple, Egypt.
The walls of Hatshepsut’s temple tell a lot about her reign and her achievements.
(Image: Vladimir Korostyshevskiy/Shutterstock)

It was not until the 1850s that an Egyptologist called Lepsius figured it out: Hatshepsut declared herself king at some point in her reign. She became the first female king of Egypt, wearing the false beard of authority like other kings. Wearing the false beard did not mean that she was masquerading as a man; it was just what all the kings wore, and she wanted to show that she was also a king.

The beard of none of the pharaohs was real, and they all wore the false beard with chinstraps. The indentations on the cheek that indicate the strap holding the beard can even be seen on the Egyptian statues of pharaohs with beards.

The First Queen Who Became King

As the first queen who declared herself king, Hatshepsut deserved a mortuary temple that represented her greatness. She wrote her story as the other pharaohs did, but her name cannot be found on the walls.

She did write her name on the wall stories, but it was later replaced by three different names: Tuthmosis I, her father, Tuthmosis II, her husband, and Tuthmosis III, her nephew/stepson that later became the king.

Maybe Egypt was the right place for a woman to gain power, but not to show the future how great a pharaoh she was, or maybe the names were carved out for a different reason. Nonetheless, the temple of Hatshepsut remains one of the greatest of all time.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian thought.

Common Questions about Queen Hatshepsut and Her Mortuary Temple

Q: What is Hatshepsut known for?

Hatshepsut was the first female king of ancient Egypt. She built one of the most significant mortuary temples of the time and wrote her story on the walls of the temple.

Q: Why did Hatshepsut build a mortuary temple for herself?

Hatshepsut built a mortuary temple for herself because she wanted to show how similar she was to Montuhotep I, the great unifier of Egypt, in terms of the location and architecture of the temple.

Q: How did Hatshepsut come to power?

Hatshepsut was married to the king at the age of 12. Later, when her husband died, she came to power because Tuthmosis III was too young for the kingship. She then called herself the king and even wore the false beard of authority.

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