Profound Visionary and Prolific Builder

This is part 4 of Hatshepsut: Queen of the Pharaohs. Parts 1-3 are available if you missed them.

Pharaoh’s word was law. The idea of democracy or group rule would have seemed absurd to the ancient Egyptians. As part God ruling on this earth, the Pharaoh could dream and be quite sure that those dreams would come true. Hatshepsut’s dreams involved growth; she was a builder. 3,000 years after her reign, structures she constructed still stand and still impress. She was a profound visionary and prolific builder. Her monuments stretch from the far north to the southern reaches of Elephantine, where the Germans found the Satet Temple in the 20th century and where buildings are turning up at regular intervals. Like any major Pharaoh, Hatshepsut wanted to leave her mark on the temple of Amen-Ra in Karnak. Egyptian leaders of this era felt indebted to this God who they believe resided in the temple. They went out of their way making additions to the building that they thought would be pleasing to the deity. Perhaps her most spectacular addition to the temple was the great obelisk.

Obelisks were symbols of the sun god and commemorate the relationship of the god to a reigning monarch. They were miracles of ancient construction ingenuity, some of them rising over 100 feet in length. Many of them were quarried hundreds of miles up the Nile from Aswan where the Pharaohs had massive quarries. Using primitive tools and backbreaking labor, they were cut from solid rock. The carving of obelisks was extremely difficult because of the very weak bronze tools Egyptians used at the time. It seems that obelisks were quarried using enormous blocks of granite that were simply pounded against the stone of the quarries until depressions could be sunk in all around the outlines of the obelisk. Eventually, the shape of the obelisk itself would take form. Even though they were made of granite, they were extremely fragile. One mistake in cutting them could wipe out the entire project.

Senenmut's Record-defying Feat


Hatshepsut's alleged consort

Legend has it, Senenmut oversaw the quarrying of Hatshepsut’s obelisks. He managed to do this within seven months and advertised this record-defying feat on a graffiti that he left on Sehyl Island in Nubia. Once quarried, the huge structures were moved to the river’s edge and floated downstream to Thebes.This may have been the most treacherous part of the entire undertaking. Moving the obelisk into a boat must have been a very tricky operation, if that's how this was accomplished. The Nile was much swifter and dangerous in ancient times than it is today. One mistake in balancing the boats and running the river could sink the whole project in a manner of seconds. Once safely at Thebes, though, the obelisks were brought to the temple at Karnak with much fanfare.

One could imagine, because of the size of Hatshepsut’s obelisks, that the celebration surrounding it was stupendous. And then, the most delicate job of all was at hand: raising the huge needle without snapping it. The theory is that obelisks were tipped up on end by dragging them up enormous sand ramps until they would begin to balance on a single point along the center of their length. Then they were allowed to slip carefully into their great bases. One groove was caught along one edge made in the base and once that edge of the obelisk hit that groove then it was, more or less, in position. The tip could then be dragged upright by a series of ropes attached. It’s believed Hatshepsut had the top of her obelisk covered with plates of gold so that it would shine with the burning intensity of the sun, symbolizing for all to see her royal link with the Gods.

Across the river from Thebes, she had an ongoing building project that was an awesome mortuary palace dedicated to her name. She allowed her architects free reign to invent. In the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III becomes one of the high points in the history of Egyptian architecture. She wouldn’t be buried here. That ceremony would take place in a tomb dug into the nearby mountains. But this temple would serve as a symbol of her reign for all eternity. The temple remains today as one of the most beautiful and unique structures in all antiquity. It’s a beautiful work of art. The concept of the temple at Deir el-Bahari is considered to be the most advanced and beautiful throughout the whole of Egyptian architectural history. We see these sorts of things continuing in temples throughout Egypt. On the walls, artists depicted the story of her greatest accomplishments.

Off to the side and deep below the temple complex, Senenmut built his tomb. The fact that it was constructed so close to Hatshepsut’s temple is one factor fueling speculation about their possible love affair. Dr. Peter Dormand of the University of Chicago has spent years researching Senenmut’s life. Amazingly, the chamber as well as the painting and carvings in it remains almost unchanged after over 30 centuries due to the perfect climate in Luxor. This is a site few tourists ever get to see. In it, an extremely well preserved informal portrait of Senenmut dating back from over 3500 years ago was discovered in the tunnel of the chamber. The portrait was rendered on a smooth surface and may have been painted by one of the last workmen to leave the tomb. It shows his head, his shoulders, and his title, “Great Steward of Amen-Ra”.

udjat eye

Eye of Horus

Deep underground, the tomb becomes more elaborate. His body isn’t interred there but the chamber itself, much like the painting in the tunnel, remains in almost pristine condition. Senenmut’s burial chamber has as it’s focus a beautifully carved funeral false door stelae. The most prominent feature is a pair of Udjat-eyes or the protective eyes of Horus. A less elaborate Udjat eye is on the back of the U.S. one dollar bill. Above this is the representation of Senenmut back-to-back with his hands raised in a gesture of adoration. These representations are completely intact. The ceiling is really one of the great wonders of the tomb. It’s the earliest such astronomical ceiling from Egypt. There are figures with red disks on their heads representing the Lunar Day deities of every lunar month and there is also a representation of the lunar calendar.

Continue to part 5 of Hatshepsut: King of Pharaohs.