LUXOR, Egypt – If the glory of the Old Kingdom pharaohs rested in their pyramids, that of the New Kingdom lied in their grandiose temples.
Burial still demanded elaborate pomp and circumstance, but by the early Middle Kingdom, nobles and kings had come to the realization that massive pyramids would catch the eye of gravediggers and inevitably be sacked within weeks of the funeral.
So following in the example of their Middle Kingdom predecessors (who hollowed their burial chambers deep into cliffs west of the Nile), the New Kingdom pharaohs opted for discreet tombs carved into solid rock in the barren, desert landscape necropolis of the Valley of the Kings, just west of their great city Thebes (modern-day Luxor).
Here, their burial chambers swept by the desert sands and far from any living creatures, the New Kingdom pharaohs of the 18th through 20th dynasties (covering a range of 500 years, from the 16th through the 11th centuries BC) rested at the end of long, thin corridors extending as deep as 150 meters into the hillside.
The entrances to the chambers were carefully concealed in order to ensure their eternal sanctity and the mortuary temples were built along the banks of the river at some distance from the tombs.
The temples, which in life provided the pharaohs a venue for worshipping their patron deity and served as a mortuary chapel after their death, were elaborate and sumptuous, to befit both the king and the gods.
And of all the royal mortuary temples, none was so elaborate or ornate as that of Hatshepsut, the fourth of only seven women to take the pharaonic throne in ancient Egypt (the other six were, in chronological order, Meryt-Neith of the early dynastic period; Nitocris of the sixth Dynasty; Sobeknofru of the 12th Dynasty; the beautiful Nefertiti of the 18th Dynasty, who allegedly co-ruled with her husband Akhenaton and is believed to have briefly held his throne after his death in 1336 BC; Twosret of the 19th Dynasty; and, of course, Cleopatra during the Ptolemaic period).
Queen Hatshepsut, who succeeded her husband and half-brother Thutmose II and theoretically ruled jointly with his infant son Thutmose III (born from a concubine named Isis), came to power fortuitously because there were no apparent legitimate heirs.
Her name, which translates to “Most Foremost of Nobel Ladies,” seemed to suit her, as she is credited for having successfully reestablished trade routes between Thebes and the Land of Punt, which was located to the South in what is today Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and northeast Ethiopia. Although Egypt allegedly had first developed trade with Punt in the time of the Old Kingdom during the reign of Khufu in the Fourth Dynasty, by the end of the Middle Kingdom and start of the Hyksos domination (led by a line of Semitic Asiatics from the Syrian and Mesopotamian uplands to the northeast), all commercial interchange with that region had eroded.
But as of a result of Hatshepsut’s new trade routes, the already opulent Temples of Luxor and Karnak in Thebes were made even more luxurious with the import of gold, ivory, resins, pelts, perfumes, incense and exotic animals.
Hatshepsut, who unlike her male predecessors and successors, was not obsessed with war and conquest, preferred to focus on building commercial ties with her neighbors, and even led an expedition to Punt in 1493 BC, during which time she managed to bring back several saplings of myrrh trees, which she subsequently had planted at her temple just over the hill from the Valley of the Kings and directly across the Nile from Karnak. The planting of those myrrh trees constituted the first-known successful attempt at transplanting foreign fauna.
But while Hatshepsut may have preferred a policy of peaceful commercial diplomacy over warfare, she did not shy away from confrontation when it was necessary. During her 17-year reign, she is believed to have mounted several military campaigns in Nubia, the Levant and Syria.
She was also a wise and politic ruler, strategically legitimizing her reign with a fervent campaign of word-of-mouth propaganda that her father Thutmose I had named her as his direct heir at the time of his death and squelching any possible chauvinistic objections to her gender by donning male clothing and wearing a wooden beard to assert her “masculine” virility. Upon taking the throne in 1473 BC, she even officially changed her name from the feminine Hatshepsut to the masculine Hatshepsu.
And just in case there was further doubt about her legitimacy, she invented a sacred myth that the god Amon-Ra (the king of all ancient Egyptian gods) had spoken to her, stating she was his favorite child and the proper king of both Upper and Lower Egypt.
Her temple, Deir el-Bahari, rises from the valley floor in three colonnaded terraces connected by ramps.
Gracefully suited to its natural setting, Deir el-Bahari (which literally means “The Northern Monetary”), was designed and constructed by her royal steward and architect Senenmut (believed to have been her lover) and is considered to be one of the most splendid constructions of the New Kingdom temples.
The long horizontals and verticals of its colonnades and their rhythm of light and shadow replicate, in manmade symmetry, the patterns of the soaring and rocky pink and lavender cliffs above. The pillars of the colonnades, which are alternately rectangular and beveled at the edges, are esthetically proportioned and spaced.
In its heyday, the temple was adorned with more than 200 round statues that were intimately associated with the queen and her accomplishments.
Every feat of her reign (including her purported sacred appointment by the god Amon-Ra) is intricately detailed in low relief carvings and glyphs behind the colonnades, and the delicate craftsmanship is so exquisitely detailed that even the fish species in the drawings can be clearly identified. Remnants of some of the brightly painted reliefs can still be seen today along the northern court of the temple.
Although Deir el-Bahari today is surrounded by dust and barren soil, during Hatshepsut’s lifetime its terraces were garlanded with lush gardens of frankincense trees and other rare plants that she brought back from Punt. At the foot of the stairwell leading up to the temple, there are two petrified stumps of trees that local guides will tell you are remnants of Deir el-Bahari’s now-vanished orchards, although their authenticity is questionable.
But despite her great accomplishments in bringing prosperity to Thebes and her tactful efforts at diplomacy within her cabinet, Hatshepsut did have her fair share of enemies, among them her successor and step-son Thutmose III, who felt she had usurped his rightful crown during his infancy. When she died in 1458 BC, he ordered that every image and cartouche of her be chiseled off the stone walls of her temple and at Karnak and Luxor (and replaced with overlaid images of himself) and demanded that all historical accounts of the time be rewritten to obliterate her from public records.
In the end though, Thutmose III’s revenge backfired because among the orders he issued to abolish her memory was the encasement of the two 320-ton obelisks she had erected at Karnak inside a walled chamber, along any statues of the late queen. Protected from the harsh, sandy winds of the west Nile and the other elements, these pieces managed to survive the wear and tear of the subsequent millennium in pristine condition.
In the centuries ahead, Deir el-Bahari itself was slowly swept under the sands of time and was not revealed again in its current magnificence until 1881, when archeological excavations began under the French Egyptologist Edouard Naville.
Since then, there have been several successful (and some botched) restoration projects at Deir el-Bahari, including the most recent, the third terrace and portico by a team of Polish-Egyptian archeologists in 1990.
Sadly, in November of 1997, the temple was the site of a brutal terrorist attack by the extremist group Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, resulting in the death of 62 people. But even such heinous acts of violence cannot erode the beauty and splendor of Deir el-Bahari, or the magnanimous legacy of Hatshepsut, the longest-reigning female pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
Check out the Egyptian Tourist Authority website at http://en.egypt.travel/attraction/index/temple-of-hatshepsut.
Where to stay: The premier hotel in Luxor is the Winter Palace, a five-star luxury hotel built in 1886 as a retreat for the royal family and currently operated by the French Sofitel chain. Just south of Luxor Temple along the east side of the Nile and beautifully framed by lush, tropical gardens, the stately Winter Palace is where archeologist Howard Carter announced the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and where Agatha Christie wrote her famed “Death on the Nile” in 1937. It has also hosted a Who’s Who list of royalty and dignitaries, including Princess Diana of Wales and Albert I of Belgium. Even if you do not have the budget to stay in one of the Winter Palace’s 92 rooms, drop by for a traditional afternoon tea in the Victorian Lounge or a Pimm’s at the Royal Bar. Located at Corniche el Nil Street (www.sofitel.com/gb/hotel-1661-sofitel-winter-palace-luxor).
The Steigenberger Nile Palace, in the heart of Luxor’s business district overlooking the Nile, is also a great option. It has 323 well-appointed rooms and four restaurants, including a great Thai restaurant and a Lebanese bistro. Located at Khaled Ben el-Walid Street (www.steigenberger.com/en/hotels/all-hotels/egypt/luxor/steigenberger-nile-palace).