The Queen Who Would Be King
The upper colonnades of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari.
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
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.
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
Built at the base of the "Lover of Silence," Hatshepsut's temple is half rock-cut and half free-standing.
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
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.
"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...."
While Hatshepsut was the queen of obelisks, the king was
surely Ramses the Great, here seated before the Grand Colonnade at Luxor
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
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.
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
Stonemasons begin shaping the NOVA obelisk in Aswan.
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
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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