There were very few female pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, and it is usually Cleopatra that many name when discussing the issue. However, those interested in the history of Ancient Egypt also know the name of the 18th Dynasty queen or pharaoh, Hatshepsut (but also Nefertari and Nefertiti, too). Famed for her powerful reign of more than twenty years, and for the peace and prosperity she brought to the land, the Temple of Hatshepsut is a perfect reflection of her era and her popularity. Yet, it is also evidence of technical skill of the Egyptians of that time.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE TEMPLE OF HATSHEPSUT
It is important to know a bit about the design of the time in order to greater appreciate the marvel that is the Temple of Hatshepsut. It sits beneath the cliffs of Deir el-Bahari, a location on the western banks of the Nile and very close to the Valley of the Kings. Directly adjacent to the mortuary temple of pharaoh Mentuhotep II, who was an 11th Dynasty pharaoh and the first of the Middle Kingdom, the Temple of Hatshepsut takes a many design cues from it.
Expansive and built with a triple terraced design, it is grand and quite lavish, remaining one of the best preserved of all ancient monuments. Designed by her chancellor (Senenmut), there are distinct differences between the Temple of Hatshepsut and that much earlier model. For one, the Temple of Hatshepsut features a massive colonnaded terrace that alters the centralized design. It also uses classical Theban forms with a hypostyle hall, sanctuary, chapel, sun court and more. At one time, the site featured exotic trees and plantings in the lower courtyard as Senenmut had created it as a garden for Amun.
Sadly, it is believed that there were mud brick temples to Amenhotep I and Queen Nefertari at the site, but that these may have been removed in order to place the Temple of Hatshepsut where it resides today. In fact, there is much controversy connected to Hatshepsut’s reign. Though popular and peaceful, she obtained her rule by usurping the rights of her stepson, who should have inherited the throne as a child. Because of this, many of her structures and statues were vandalized and her name even lost to time for centuries until 1800s era historians began to uncover signs of her through archaeological work in Egypt.
Today, it is considered to be in a “semi-ruined” state, though also restored and open for visits. There are a few reliefs remaining, with one depicting the divine birth of a female pharaoh (which is thought to be the first of its kind). Sadly, most of the decorative elements were stolen or destroyed.
VISITING THE STUNNING TEMPLE OF HATSHEPSUT
There is much to see at the site and because of this, it is best to go with a guide or as part of a professional tour. Reaching the site and exploring its three levels and many amazing features is really most enjoyable when accompanied by the experts. There is a ticket required to enter the site, too, and as it is in the Valley of the Kings area, it can be extremely crowded. It is a popular attraction on its own and as the peak of tourist visits occurs between 9AM and 3PM, you may wish to plan your visit later in the day to avoid many of the crowds.
Of course, the astronomical alignment of the Temple of Hatshepsut can make it a great place to be at sunrise during the winter solstice (around the 22nd of December each year). The structure was designed to allow the sun at solstice to shine directly along the rear wall of the chapel and then cross to a statue of Osiris. Light boxes also create additional effects in the days and weeks around the winter solstice and can be an interesting phenomenon to witness as an early morning visitor.
Because there are few services or affordable options for things like water or beverages, you will want to bring your own food and drink for your visit. You also need a hat, sunglasses, sun block and comfortable shoes and garments as there is much walking to be done at the site.
WHAT YOU SEE DURING A VISIT TO THE TEMPLE OF HATSHEPSUT
While approaching the temple is itself an unforgettable experience due to its enormous proportions and beautiful design, you will also be impressed at the different features on each level. The first level is where that courtyard garden was once found and though no trace of it remains it is easy to imagine how exotic and beautiful it must have been. Beyond the garden is evidence of a colonnade featuring square pillars and reliefs, though most were destroyed.
Take the wide ramp to the second level where you can see two crouching lion statutes at either side and a wide terrace with a colonnade supported by a double row of columns. The Birth Colonnade is on the second level and along one side of the ramp as it leads to the third level. This colonnade is where you find reliefs showing Hatshepsut’s birth as a divine being or pharaoh. Though heavily damaged, you can make out some of the imagery and learn how the story of her birth was explained.
Along the other side of the ramp on the second level is the Punt colonnade, depicting the pharaoh’s journey into Punt (Ethiopia), by boat. It is here that she found the trees and plants for the garden and also established trade with the chief of the people encountered. The leaders of Punt are depicted as quite obese and images of feasts and boats full of goods are easily seen.
Also on the second level is the Hathor chapel. The entire area of Deir el-Bahri is associated with Hathor and since she was the most powerful female deity it is logical that a female pharaoh would associate with her. The chapel is at the southern end of the colonnade and features a few images of the pharaoh. There is also a chapel for Anubis on this level.
The uppermost level is the third and where you find a lovely Horus statue on either side of the ramp. There is a portico, courtyard and several chapels. The sanctuary of Amun is found here, too. Greatly altered after her death, they are still quite stunning.
A day at Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is an absolute essential. Avoid the crowds by arriving very early or later in the day and make the very most of your experience by working with an expert guide or group led by an Egyptologist. As part of a visit to the Luxor area, it will become an unforgettable memory of your journey.