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upper colonnades The upper colonnades of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari.
The Queen Who Would Be King
by Peter Tyson
March 10, 1999

The view from the summit of the mountain known as Meret Seger, or "Lover of Silence," which I climbed yesterday, is magnificent in almost every direction. To the north and west spread the high, desiccated hills of the Valley of the Kings, the tombs of numerous New Kingdom pharaohs punched into them. Far below to the east, a god's lawn of fields stretches to the Nile, a procession of funerary temples marching south along their bursting-green edges.

The most intriguing part of the view, however, lies due east. Directly below you—so direct that a misstep could send you hurtling several hundred feet down onto its upper terrace—stands the mortuary temple of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, one of the great obelisk-raisers. From our perch on the barren, flint-strewn summit, the temple's long entrance ramps appear to point toward the rising sun, and if you followed the line they suggested across those green fields and over the Nile, your eye on a clear day would fall on Karnak Temple, the St. Peter's of the New Kingdom.

This is exactly what Hatshepsut intended. It was all part of a master plan of monument raising designed in large measure to impress the priests and populace of Thebes.

down into Hatshepsut's temple Built at the base of the "Lover of Silence," Hatshepsut's temple is half rock-cut and half free-standing.

Why would a pharaoh have to impress his people? For one thing, Hatshepsut had wrested the throne from its designated owner, Tuthmosis III, a boy when he inherited the post upon the death of his father, Tuthmosis II. For another, despite being the self-proclaimed King, Hatshepsut happened to be a woman. She was the daughter of the first Tuthmosis, husband of the second, and aunt and stepmother of the third, so she wasn't a nobody. But she knew it was dicey pushing aside her young nephew at the beginning of the 15th century B.C.

To placate the powers that be, she went on a building spree, throwing up temples throughout Egypt and Nubia to honor various and sundry local deities. At Thebes, she ordered up the palatial mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari.

Carved into the eroded cliffs below the Lover of Silence, the triple-colonnaded temple is at once one of the masterpieces of ancient Egyptian architecture and utterly unlike any other building in the canon. For our team's purposes, Hatshepsut's most important contributions to Thebes took place at Karnak, where she put up, among many other monuments, no fewer than four obelisks.

Ramses the Great While Hatshepsut was the queen of obelisks, the king was surely Ramses the Great, here seated before the Grand Colonnade at Luxor Temple.
"The King himself [sic] erected two large obelisks for her father Amun-Re before the august columned hall, wrought very much with electrum," Hatshepsut declares on a block from her red quartzite shrine at Karnak. (Electrum is a natural alloy of gold and silver.) "Their heights pierce the sky and make illumination for the Two Lands like the sun-disk...."

To a significant degree, historians owe what little they know of obelisk raising from archaic sources to Hatshepsut. (When I asked how to pronounce her name, our avuncular driver Hagag smiled and said, "Just say 'hot chicken soup.' and you'll be close.") In an inscription at the base of her standing obelisk at Karnak, Hatshepsut describes how long it took to quarry, ship, and uplift the second pair of obelisks she raised there: "My Majesty began work on them in Year 15, second month of Winter, day 1, continuing until Year 16, fourth month of Summer, day 30, making seven months in cutting [them] from the mountain." Scholars don't necessarily believe her claim—seven months seems exaggeratedly brief—but it's the only such reference known.

We must thank Hatshepsut, too, for giving us the only insight we have on how the pharaohs transported their obelisks. Our NOVA team specifically went to Hatshepsut's temple yesterday to see the so-called "Obelisk Colonnade." Here, high on a wall of fragmentary plaster that still retains traces of yellow and red paint, I could just make out a relief depicting two obelisks laid end to end on a barge. To the right, an estimated 30 boats, with crews thought to total more than 1,000 men, tow the barge down the Nile. When we get to Aswan, we will try our hand at loading and transporting a two-ton obelisk aboard a similar kind of barge, to get an approximation of the difficulties Hatshepsut's boatbuilders faced.

Obelisk preparation Stonemasons begin shaping the NOVA obelisk in Aswan.

Unfortunately for Hatshepsut, Tuthmosis III, after reassuming his long-lost post and reigning for many years, systematically defaced her image and chipped away her name wherever they appeared at Karnak and Deir el-Bahari. (It appears to have been not so much vengeance as to put the official record straight to ensure proper succession.) Nevertheless, as I could see so clearly from our arial atop the Lover of Silence, she had achieved one of her main goals: to raise memorable monuments to Amun, "His Majesty who placed the kingship of Egypt, the deserts, and all foreign lands under my sandals."

Next: Tomorrow the team will visit the Great Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, so large it could hold several football fields. In Aswan, meanwhile, stonemasons are working round-the-clock to fashion a multi-ton granite shaft into an obelisk proper.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

Obelisk Raised! (September 12)
In the Groove (September 1)
The Third Attempt (August 27)
Angle of Repose (March 25)
A Tale of Two Obelisks (March 24)
Rising Toward the Sun (March 23)
Into Position (March 22)
On an Anthill in Aswan (March 21)
Ready to Go (March 20)
Gifts of the River (March 19)
By Camel to a Lost Obelisk (March 18)
The Unfinished Obelisk (March 16)
Pulling Together (March 14)
Balloon Flight Over Ancient Thebes (March 12)
The Queen Who Would Be King (March 10)
Rock of Ages (March 8)
The Solar Barque (March 6)
Coughing Up an Obelisk (March 4)

Photos: (1-3) NOVA/WGBH; (4) Courtesy of Roger Hopkins.

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