Temple activity had been bred into Thutmose III, and according to many temple reliefs, Hatshepsut and her co-king performed their royal rituals together in tandem. On great feast days, crowds would have stood in temple courtyards or before mighty pylons, watching aunt and nephew lead enormous processions. The divine barque belonging to Amen followed, with dozens of priests bearing the mighty weight of this sacred portable shrine made of Lebanese cedar, gold, and precious stones. Many times a year, the two monarchs were meant to walk from Karnak down the sacred processional way side by side, each with a staff surmounted by a ram’s head, Amen’s signature animal. Each monarch wore a tiered wig or a crown with a single uraeus on the brow and a shendyt(royal kilt) wrapped around his or her waist. During the sacred Opet festival, when the god was brought from his Karnak home to his place of rejuvenation at Luxor Temple, they had to stop at six different way stations along the route to allow Amen to rest.1 Six times they performed complex rituals of healing and transformation for the gods. All of Egypt turned out to see the spectacle, which featured dancers and musicians along with hundreds of priests and chantresses, and to devour the temple-provided bread, cakes, and beer.
Nefrure, the King’s Daughter, was likely in the presence of the two kings during most important religious occasions in Thebes. Even though she was only a bit older than Thutmose III (maybe by a year), she had probably been the God’s Wife of Amen for as long as the boy king could remember. Her duties were extensive and connected to his own. Perhaps he saw that Nefrure practiced her role as priestess with great passion—talking to the god, moving for him, and giving him his sexual pleasure. Perhaps Nefrure, like Hatshepsut before her, also believed she could speak with the gods in the heavens and comprehend the wishes of the great ones in the sky. Maybe everyone said she was gifted like her mother had been at this age. But we have little record of what Thutmose III thought of Nefrure as God’s Wife, or even as his half sister. The record keeping was in the hands of King Hatshepsut at this point, and she fashioned the public agenda to her liking and Egyptian traditions.
In accordance with Egyptian convention, Hatshepsut did not provide many details about the nature of the relationships between any of the major players. But we do know that the situation was more than a little strange—a king still too young to rule and a female king now holding the reins of power for him—and it probably elicited doubts, insecurities, and even anger from Thutmose III when he was old enough to understand the arrangement better. The two kings would share a working relationship for many years to come, but it was an association that Hatshepsut started on her own terms. By the time Hatshepsut was a king alongside him, the eightor nine-year-old boy was probably so used to her authority that her kingship may have seemed rather natural to him. At first, it was all he knew. Only later would he have questioned it.
As Thutmose III approached his teens and studied Egypt’s history, bureaucracy, and legal system, learned the more complex incantations in the temple, and communed on a deeper level with the gods, he likely would have pondered the strangeness of their joint rule. There is no record anywhere of Hatshepsut’s political transformations having been explained or justified to her young coregent, and so we have little clue as to how he may have reacted (if at all) to the vulnerable state of affairs as a child when his kingship was probably most in jeopardy.
Perhaps Hatshepsut’s replacement of Thutmose III’s names at Karnak at the beginning of her kingship can provide a small clue into the personal relationship between the two monarchs. At the time of the erasure, Thutmose III was about ten years old. Even if she was only attempting to remove Thutmose III ideologically, the action of cutting out his names seems indicative of a hope that she be recognized as the sole king after the death of her husband. And if she had been willing to consider a kingship independent of Thutmose III, then perhaps she was not emotionally attached to her nephew, or at least not as connected to his ambitions and self-worth as she would have been if he were her own son. Maybe she really was trying to go it alone, working through a trial period, pushing to see the reaction of elites and high priests. But if this was her ultimate goal, it failed. She was never able to remove her co-king entirely. Her kingship would be forever stuck in a strange, hybrid partnership between a woman and a child king. Hatshepsut had to look for new strategies to work within this compulsory relationship, ones that could maintain her superior position as Thutmose III grew older.
Coregency, or rule by two kings, wasn’t a revolutionary idea—it had long been established in ancient Egyptian politics.2 Usually, the elder king appointed one of his sons to rule alongside him as a junior king, typically serving as the leader of treacherous campaigns in foreign lands. Thus the elder king could depend upon a coregency as a means of establishing a chosen successor and of sharing royal duties, allowing the younger king to direct the army while the senior king stayed at home away from all the risks such journeys entailed. A coregency also permitted on-the-job training of a king’s son in some of the trickier aspects of political diplomacy and tactics. But most important for the coregency, the elder king always sat on the throne first, typically for many years, before appointing his preferred son to rule alongside him. It was a top-down, unequal relationship.
The coregency of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, on the other hand, was essentially upside down.3 Leaving aside the most deviant characteristic—that Hatshepsut was a woman—this coregency fits none of the customs. It was the junior king who had come to power first, only to be pushed out of the way by a senior king who ascended the throne after him. The senior king had previously acted as regent of the Two Lands during the junior king’s infancy. For a regent to take such a step and rule senior to the youngster was more than anomalous. Thutmose III’s situation was just as odd: he couldn’t even play the traditional role of the younger co-king once the bizarre new dynamic settled down into day-to-day practice. He wasn’t old enough to head up any campaigns or lead men into battle himself. He couldn’t go off on his own to act as an extension of the “primary” king. What was his practical purpose? If war became a reality, Hatshepsut would have to go herself or appoint a trusted official to oversee it. All the onus of rule was on Hatshepsut, while all the legitimacy of rule lay with Thutmose III.
And so, facing problems that no Egyptian ruler had ever encountered, it fell upon Hatshepsut to manipulate this unusual situation to her own advantage and to the benefit of the Two Lands. The first practical quandary was a technical one: how to place her reign within time. For the Egyptians, counting the hours and years was not a practice of bureaucratic record keeping but of sacred ritual obligation. They were the first to invent the twenty-four-hour clock, and they used it not to record hours of labor or to organize a social calendar (dinner at eight) but to establish the exact moment that a specific incantation should be read, a sistrum rung, or a haunch of beef offered, all to keep the sun god on his onerous journey unscathed through the hours of day and night; the clock was first and foremost a religious tool. Regnal years—the length of rule for each king of Egypt—were used to measure longer stretches of sacred time. There were no absolute dates, no counting of years from the beginning of civilization; instead, time was defined by periods of divinely sanctioned rule. Thus hours of the day were measured as the sun god rose and set, and years were marked with the coming and passing of the chief ritualist—the king—on whom Egypt depended for its beneficial connection to the gods.
As we’ve already seen, Hatshepsut seems to have known that she could not count the years as her own, as any other Egyptian king would generally have done, and had to defer to Thutmose III’s dating. Thus we see no mention of “Regnal Year 8 of Hatshepsut” or the like.4 The Egyptians inscribed most monuments or stelae with “Year X, day Y of King So-and-So” to place the reader within an understood context. How could Hatshepsut, the senior king, have a regnal year 2 while her junior king, Thutmose III, was in regnal year 9? It was an existential problem for a semidivine ruler whose years of reign represented Egypt’s past, present, and future.
Hatshepsut found a solution: she diligently circumvented inscribing her own regnal dates on any monuments, including a year date only when a monument or inscription depicted both co-kings together.5 In other words, Hatshepsut required the presence of Thutmose III—in name and figure—on every dated monument and building she ever created. She could never have her own year dates because they did not fit the cultural requirements of the coregency, a reality that may have stung her, the senior partner, with its unfairness. We may see this omission as just a technicality, but to an Egyptian monarch it would mean that he had been removed from the counted and cumulative years of civilization itself.
Hatshepsut claimed the senior position in this coregency in terms of ability and age, but Thutmose III would always be senior where regnal years were concerned. With the existence of Thutmose III fundamental to her representation of herself as king, his year 5 became her year 5. It worked. In reality, she had only ever ruled as king in his presence. But at the same time, Hatshepsut’s resolution to the problem of how to date her reign was a clever ideological argument, because joint dating implied that Hatshepsut’s kingship began with the death of her husband, Thutmose II. Essentially, she grandfathered in the first seven years of her kingship by using Thutmose III’s dates.
Hatshepsut was around twenty-four years old when she became king, and as far as we know she was a smart and vigorous woman who was trying to find balance within an unprecedented situation. One of her first strategies as king was to downplay the existence of Thutmose III and attach the legitimacy of her reign to that of his father, Thutmose II. She immediately ordered the alteration of all images showing her as a queen serving Thutmose III into representations of her as the senior king. Craftsmen traveled to temples throughout Egypt carving crowns onto her head, placing her in the position of honor vis-à-vis her nephew, and adding her royal names and titles. No longer would she be depicted as subordinate to Thutmose III. Every sacred space in Egypt was changed, especially in the cultic centers of power, where an image translated into reality and to write or depict something was to make it come into existence.
Hatshepsut had another unique problem: she had no female partner. According to deeply held ideological precepts and ritual demands, an Egyptian king needed a Great Wife. Obviously, Hatshepsut couldn’t take another woman as a wife. She was one herself, and apparently the flexibility of gender could be stretched only so far in the eyes of the gods and her people. There would be no palace nurseries full of sons and daughters for Hatshepsut, no nightly visitations to the royal women’s living quarters. Some rules could be bent, but the laws of nature were insurmountable. At the very least, Hatshepsut could engage Nefrure’s services as her female counterpoint in ritual activity. And so we see Hatshepsut performing her religious duties in the temple with the God’s Wife—offering up bloody haunches of freshly sacrificed calves, striking ritual chests with sacred implements, or chanting transformational spells to the sun god on the hour—just as the older woman had done for her dead husband and likely for her father before that. Also present in many of these temple scenes is Thutmose III. It is as if Hatshepsut needed the boy king’s presence to add some normalcy to her own strange adaptations, or even to act as a surrogate, just as she required him to make sense of her regnal years. Hatshepsut was constantly reminded that fitting into this manly position of power in ideological terms demanded one clever adaptation after another.
Beyond the ritual challenges, Hatshepsut had to actively find ways to assert her strength and dominance; she was always trying to equal the accomplishments of past kings, most especially her father, Thutmose I, who had campaigned far away in Syria, even hunting elephants at Naharin and bringing ivory tusks back to Karnak as gifts for Amen. Hatshepsut decided against any manly pursuits that would expose her obvious femininity and instead looked back to any deeds of Egypt’s most ancient and revered kings that she could emulate. Whether the idea came from her quiet moments communing with Amen or was a suggestion of an ambitious courtier, Hatshepsut decided to send men to the uncharted south on a dangerous expedition, dragging deconstructed ships from the Nile city of Coptos through the bone-dry Wadi Hammamat, 120 miles to the Red Sea, where the men would rebuild the ships and launch south along the coast, for a perilous sea journey of as many as 1,000 miles—an ancient Egyptian version of a voyage to the New World. Appropriately, she cloaked this journey in religious ideology. Before her team embarked, she asked the oracle of Amen for permission to travel; this semipublic moment was meant to create maximum drama, no doubt. The god replied—either by the movements or speech of the priests holding the god’s barque—that she should “search out the ways to Punt. Open the roads to the terrace of myrrh. Lead the army at sea and on land (…) to bring the miracles from God’s country to this god, who created her beauty.”6After this divine revelation, she met with her council and decided to send the expedition under the organization of a northern treasurer named Nehesy, another one of Hatshepsut’s “new men.”7
Punt was located far to the southeast of Egypt, probably somewhere in modern-day Somalia, Djibouti, or Eritrea along the Red Sea coast.8 An expedition to such a faraway land happened rarely in Egyptian history; the trip would have been talked about by every elite family in Egypt. Hatshepsut understood how to prove her kingship’s worth to the people who mattered. She planned the journey not just to procure commodities but also to verify her rule. All previous expeditions to Punt had been ordered by kings thought to be blessed by the gods with good fortune and solid leadership skills: Sahure (Dynasty 5), Pepy I (Dynasty 6), Mentuhotep II (Dynasty 11), Amenemhat I (Dynasty 12), and Senwosret I (Dynasty 12). Hatshepsut was simply placing herself in their august company and using their ideological methods of political legitimization.
The expedition was a success and returned in year 9 of the joint reign with shiploads of incense trees, cargo holds full of incense gum rolled into little balls, precious ebony, and woods, flora, and fauna from the rain forest. The incense was a high-value commodity used for many things—burned in braziers in the temple for the god’s enjoyment, used as a resin when mummifying the elite dead, and even chewed to dispel bad breath. The expedition members came back with amazing stories of the strange little chief of Punt and his massive and deformed wife. They described the bizarre small houses built upon stilts and the new fish and birds they had seen there.
When the ships docked to unload, it must have been an I-told-you-so moment for Hatshepsut that legitimized all her risky decisions thus far. She would later order dozens of images of the triumphant landing carved into her temple walls at Djeser Djeseru. She is shown sitting while the priceless goods are paraded and presented to her. Nehesy, the expedition leader, is there, too, monitoring the unpacking, and Senenmut stands beside him assisting Hatshepsut. The inscription informs the reader that all of these commodities were meant for her heavenly father, the god Amen, but the ideological payoff from this voyage for Hatshepsut, as his agent on earth, cannot be understated. Behind Hatshepsut in this temple relief is an image of her royal ka, understood as the spirit of kingship that moved from ruler to ruler, the sacred entity that allowed this woman to serve in Egypt’s highest office. This royal essence was believed to have permeated her soul since conception, allowing the manifestation of her masculine power in a feminine body and determining the success of all her actions. In the minds of the Egyptians, the entire Punt voyage would have failed if she wasn’t meant to be king. Hatshepsut had gambled the lives of hundreds of men, dozens of ships, and two years of preparation, plus another year or two waiting for the return of the voyage in a high-stakes public wager. If the expedition had failed, it might have given ammunition to her detractors. But the gamble paid off. Hatshepsut even commemorated the receipt of so much incense by rubbing it all over her body in a public temple ceremony: rare resins like the frankincense and myrrh of the Bible, worth their weight in gold.
With her two hands, her majesty herself put the finest myrrh upon her entire body. Her perfume is the fragrance of the god, her odor is mixed with that of Punt, her skin gilded with fine gold, shining forth as do the stars, in the great wide festival court before the gaze of the entire land.9
Thutmose III would have been roughly eleven years old when the voyage came back, the perfect age to find inspiration in the spirit of adventure and fresh knowledge such an expedition spread throughout Egypt. Indeed, this trip seems to have functioned as a kind of Napoleonic voyage for Hatshepsut, as she commissioned artisans to record images of the strange people, jungle huts on posts, forest landscapes, unusual ocean fish, and exotic commodities.
The Punt mission’s success confirmed that Hatshepsut was a shrewd stateswoman and businesswoman. Just two years after her formal accession, she had acquired in one stroke all kinds of exotica that she could use to pay off the Theban priests, her main source of ideological support. In return for the backing of her peculiar feminine kingship, she bestowed more incense on Amen’s temple than Egypt had ever seen. She even brought back incense trees, roots and all, to be planted on temple grounds at Karnak and Deir el-Bahri and probably at temples throughout Egypt, thus ensuring a steady supply for succeeding generations. Hatshepsut had quickly mastered the art of public relations—first creating a splash with her coronation, then with the successful erection of obelisks from Aswan. Now a voyage had returned from a mythical land overloaded with price less goods for all to see.
Hatshepsut always kept an eye on practical matters, and a strong professional priesthood was a vital foundation of her continued authority. Her strategy included expanding the ministry of Amen to a size Egypt had never seen before. The position of Third High Priest of Amen was created; he would act as a lieutenant to the already existing First and Second High Priests. With riches pouring into her country from conquered territories, there was every reason for her to redistribute this new wealth by giving jobs to many of her elites—to keep them content and to tie her kingship even more closely to the temple cults around the land. Hatshepsut expanded the temples’ economic health by hiring chiefs of the granary, chiefs of cattle, chiefs of the fields, construction supervisors, chiefs of the workshops, treasurers, and a bevy of mid- and low-level administrators, all of them now earning a steady and generous salary for their station under King Hatshepsut. If anyone benefited from her kingship, it was her priests and temple bureaucrats.
The professionalization of the priesthood had already begun under her father, Thutmose I, if not a bit before, but she continued the evolution on an unprecedented scale. Before, temple institutions had been run by only a few professional priests at the very top of the hierarchy. The rest of the personnel positions were filled by part-time priests and administrators who cycled in and out of service. By Hatshepsut’s reign, this system was no longer sufficient for the growing temple machine, which now demanded a complex and extensive hierarchy of priests and administrators to support growing economic holdings, lavish daily rites, and luxurious seasonal festivals. And she was happy to pay for the expansion. Like so many rulers before and after her, Hatshepsut essentially bought her ideological and military base of power.
Hatshepsut was blessed with a keen understanding of the material and ideological sources of her power, but she also benefited from environmental and political circumstances. There is little or no evidence for famine or disastrous Nile floods during her reign (a happy coincidence from a modern perspective, but something that the ancient Egyptians would have seen as directly connected with her powers and legitimacy). What’s more, her father, Thutmose I, had already established a growing empire in both the north and the south with a strong flow of income. Hatshepsut knew how to tap into established and successful systems, but she also had the acumen to improve them. As king, she managed her investments wisely and distributed high dividends to her people. Relentless and ruthless campaigning kept the mines and quarries open, flooding the land with gold and stones—the lifeblood of a strong Egyptian kingship—which not only advertised the semidivine status of the monarch but were also distributed as royal favors to loyal officials. She reopened exotic trade networks that had been closed for generations, and her courtiers could acquire luxury goods their fathers had never dreamed of: wines and olives from the Aegean, resins from sub-Saharan Africa, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
For Egypt’s wealthy families, Hatshepsut supported bureaucratic lineages that could pass from father to son, allowing them to grow fat with dependable income, in addition to the high rents and taxation their tenants already paid on their home estates. Employing more craftsmen than ever before, she initiated massive temple projects throughout the land, relentlessly demanding work of the highest quality, which in turn created a sophisticated system of artisan training not seen for hundreds of years. Hatshepsut was responsible for a jobs program of gigantic proportions. Hatshepsut also professionalized her army, thereby enriching both the sons of elite officials and her own treasuries with the spoils of war.10
She relied on the growth of her administration to maintain her kingship, and Hatshepsut did not always bend to the will of her elites in so doing. In fact, she filled key spots with men who had little connection to the old families whose members usually filled the upper echelons of power. Senenmut was one of these new men, of course; Hatshepsut had been relying on him since she was queen to Thutmose II. Another new appointment but not necessarily a “new man” was Puyemre, the Second High Priest of Amen.11 A third newly appointed administrator was Amenhotep, a man who became Overseer of Construction at the temple of Amen. None of the fathers of these officials had held an influential position; sab, “the honorable one,” was their fathers’ only title, and it was probably bestowed on them by their sons retroactively purely as an honorific.
Hatshepsut obviously needed officials without patrician agendas. We do not know how such new men, given their humble origins, were able to train for and land these positions of power, but they formed a key element in Hatshepsut’s strategy of rule—a new class of elite for a new breed of king.
Whatever tensions may have existed between these new men and the old guard of respected and intellectual Theban families, the political realities made no allowances for petty behavior. All the evidence indicates that elites from established families worked with the new appointees. Patricians like the First High Priest of Amen, Hapuseneb, labored in ritual preparation and enactment alongside his second in command, Puyemre, even though Puyemre’s family was not born patrician. In fact, Puyemre was married to Hapuseneb’s daughter, the Divine Adoratrice Seniseneb.12 Senenmut, his new steward, and Amenhotep, the new construction overseer, attended to temple business even though no evidence connects them to patrician families either. Given all the money pouring in for ostentatious projects and extravagant festivals at Karnak, Hapuseneb needed the men. And they were likely well paid for their accommodating demeanor.
When Hatshepsut assumed the throne, Senenmut’s career took off: he was appointed Overseer of the House of Amen, which essentially made him steward of the entire Amen complex of Thebes, with economic and administrative oversight of the temples of Amen, Mut, and Khonsu and all the lands and income of these institutions.13 It was a huge promotion. The temples of Amen rivaled the richest palace institutions of the land and were counted among the largest landholders in Egypt. Many spoils of war, including proceeds from military occupations in Syria-Palestine and Nubia, went directly to these establishments, enriching treasuries with gold, precious stones, woven textiles, and grain.
As Overseer of the House of Amen, or Steward of Amen as many Egyptologists call the position, Senenmut oversaw not just the granaries of Amen but wealth of all kinds. He was the boss of the overseer of the houses of gold, the treasurers, the craftsmen and architects, and the overseer of works not just at Luxor but at Amen temples throughout Egypt. A number of highly placed officials in the Amen temple administration all reported to him, begged favors from him, and were probably somewhat afraid of him. Senenmut was essentially the CEO of Amen’s great institution.
Senenmut apparently had to give up his work as Nefrure’s tutor to take the new position, and Hatshepsut’s old tutor Senimen was asked to care for the girl in his stead.14 Senenmut still kept his title as her tutor, which gives us some idea of the importance he attached to the position, but undoubtedly his extensive duties did not allow him to focus on the training of one girl, no matter how prominent. The thousands of men in the employ of the god Amen-Re and the mass of riches in the god’s treasuries were now his main priority.
Perhaps Senenmut felt it was acceptable to relinquish his close watch on Nefrure because she was growing up. Perhaps she had made a smooth transition to God’s Wife of Amen and was able to occupy her position without contest and without Senenmut’s overt protection. For her part, Hatshepsut must have thought it fitting to shift Senenmut’s attention to more pressing matters. She had trusted him with the care of her palace economy, and now she was asking him to manage and influence the balance sheet of Amen’s riches and his priesthood. Senenmut seemed to excel at both big-picture and detail-oriented organization, skills that were particularly useful for a treasurer of Egypt’s most influential temple. He probably did not rock the boat too much in his new post. Hatshepsut’s power relied on her continuing influence over the Amen priesthood. Who better to assign as the Amen temple’s moneyman than her most trusted personal financier?
As large a role as Senenmut may have played in the lives of Hatshepsut and Nefrure, he had no formal connection to Thutmose III. Nonetheless, the young king would have seen the old man in the presence of Hatshepsut and Nefrure from the earliest moments of his childhood, conducting business in the audience hall, engaging the regent in discussions over treasury matters, or working with priests to administer Nefrure’s income from her lands. Thutmose III may have even recognized Senenmut as one of the key players in Hatshepsut’s concentration of power within her own palace walls.
If Senenmut was not an intimate of Thutmose III, it does not seem to have affected his career as a high official under Hatshepsut. The inscriptions Senenmut had carved on his statues during Hatshepsut’s kingship bragged about his access to her. He claimed to be a “confidant of the king” and “the Chamberlain who speaks in privacy” and “one vigilant concerning what is brought to his attention, one who finds a solution every single day.” The quartzite statue with this long inscription, now in the British Museum, also includes the assertion “The king made me great; the king enhanced me, so that I was advanced before the courtiers: and, having realized my excellence in her heart, she appointed me Chief Spokesman of her household.”15 On another statue, Senenmut maintained he was one “whose opinion the king has desired for himself, who pleases by means of what he says.”16
There is every reason to believe that Hatshepsut’s faith and trust in Senenmut were strong, if not absolute. According to one statue now in Berlin, he was the “judge of the gate in the entire land,”17 thus he decided who entered the throne room and who communicated with the king. If Hatshepsut had an essential message to give to an official, Senenmut was likely the one to deliver it. Even going so far as to impinge on others’ authority, Senenmut claimed control over the taxes of Upper and Lower Egypt, as well as other payments into and out of the palace treasuries. His responsibilities were similar to those of a vizier,18 according to his own description of them, which is strange because he never actually held that title. But perhaps Senenmut worked from the precedent Hatshepsut had set for practicing the duties of an office that one did not hold. After all, she had practiced the powers of a king for seven years without being formally crowned. In exercising powers for which he did not have official authority, Senenmut seems to have made some enemies, likely including the southern vizier, Useramen, since it was his official territory upon which Senenmut was encroaching. But even if Useramen had wanted to destroy this new man, Senenmut’s favor was ironclad, and all evidence suggests that Hatshepsut’s reprisal would have been swift and severe. In fact, there is no evidence that anyone acted against Senenmut, at least not while Hatshepsut was alive.
Senenmut may have been an ambitious man from the start, one who was willing to step on the toes of other officials, but it could have been equally true that Hatshepsut was a clever politician who created an administration with built-in redundancies—just as during her regency she had played Ahmose Pennekhbet and Senenmut against each other. In the case of Senenmut and the vizier Useramen, Hatshepsut once again assigned multiple men to perform some of the same duties. Her officials may have encroached on one another’s territory and annoyed fellow administrators, but in the end such overlap formed a system of checks and balances that prevented anyone from gaining too much power independent of the king. Hatshepsut really had been bred for palace politics.
Throughout her reign, Hatshepsut created a convoluted web of intersecting responsibilities between officials and between spheres of power that allowed her to infiltrate every aspect of temple, financial, and military activities. She even overlapped the administrations of great institutions, which permitted the commingling of resources. For example, when she appointed her most trusted palace official, Senenmut, as Overseer of the House of Amen, she automatically linked all of that temple wealth and influence back to her court and to herself. By assigning an unmarried, presumably childless man to be Steward of Amen, she was essentially diverting power away from the elite Theban families and back toward herself—almost in the same way the Ottoman Empire would rely on gelded men to hold offices during their lifetime so that they could not be passed down to the next generation.19
This arrangement seems to have suited Senenmut well. His economic powers gave him access to grain, gold, and a pool of skilled and unskilled labor both abroad and in Egypt. He managed hundreds of master craftsmen, and he could easily acquire anything he desired: a well-cut statue of the hardest royal stone, an intricate broad collar, an inlaid walking stick of imported ebony, or the softest and finest royal linens of the highest thread count. His landholdings must have been augmented exponentially during Hatshepsut’s kingship, thereby increasing his own income in agricultural products, which were the chief commodities of payment in ancient economies. He probably had a villa in Thebes and another in Armant, where we think he grew up. Senenmut undoubtedly traveled in high style aboard his own barge, equipped with every luxury, that sailed up and down the Nile on his mistress’s errands.
Neither Senenmut nor any of his early acquaintances had ever dreamed that he could achieve such a high level of influence by working directly and closely with the one woman now in charge of it all. He was not humble about advertising his success. To commemorate his rank and prestige, Senenmut started a systematic campaign to position his image in every place of honor possible: he commissioned statues, stelae, rock art, shrines, temple reliefs, a tomb chapel, and a burial chamber. No official had ever commissioned as many statues as Senenmut—not any official during the reign of the wise and relentless Senwosret III, who ruled in the Middle Kingdom, and not any administrator during the reign of Khufu, who marshaled hundreds of thousands of men to build his great pyramid during the Old Kingdom. No Egyptian administrator or general had ever deigned to proclaim his worth so publicly vis-à-vis his king, but Senenmut was fearless. He made sure his statues were strategically located in the most conspicuous spots.
His private artistic production was unprecedented, innovative, and completely devoted to establishing himself as one deserving of not just praise but awe among his peers. There were limits, though. Senenmut was apparently prohibited from showing himself in King Hatshepsut’s presence in his statuary.20 Representing himself next to the king would be placing himself on her level, as a god. But he could still show himself as tutor to her eldest offspring—even if it was only when she was a small girl. He took a liking to having himself depicted with Princess Nefrure and commissioned many three-dimensional images of himself with the child, because they broadcast his intimate connections to the royal family.
Even though the evidence suggests that Senenmut was in his fifties or beyond by this time, his statues always show him in an idealized and youthful way, with a full face, wide eyes, and a soft, smiling mouth. Some of the portraits from his tomb, however, show him as a timeworn man with a hooked nose, lines etched into the skin around his mouth, a flabby, weak chin, and fleshy lips. If these latter images are to be believed, he was not a handsome man.21
Whatever he really looked like, he wanted the world to know that he was not only Hatshepsut’s favorite but also an innovator in his own right. He prized new ideas. His statuary included poses that Egyptians had never seen before, and not just one new form, like the squatting figure holding the princess in the folds of his garment, but multiple novel types.22 In another innovative composition, he is kneeling behind the snake goddess Renenutet, the mistress of Armant, his hometown; her reptile coils fold in on themselves like a gathered ribbon. Another statue shows him offering a coil of surveyor’s rope in homage to his pious temple-building work, a bold new design that could have elicited gasps when it was put in place along a visible temple processional way. He even created a cryptogram of Hatshepsut’s name and had a statue commissioned of him holding the sign-puzzle he had invented. On another statue, he claimed to have created “images which I have made from the devising of my own heart and from my own labor; they have not been found in the writing of the ancestors.”23
Such originality may not seem that astounding given his position of power, but Egyptian culture valued a certain kind of conservatism. Innovation, particularly among nonroyal elites, was practiced only sparingly. Officials were supposed to be followers of the king’s lead, not fashion trendsetters. Senenmut may have been seen by some as breaking with protocol when his statuary contained more originality than that of his mistress, but Hatshepsut had her own penchant for the unusual. It seems that they both valued breaking the mold. Apparently Hatshepsut never put a stop to his displays, even though they were unprecedented in scope. The very existence of such personal monuments placed in the public sphere implies that the relationship between Senenmut and Hatshepsut was probably closer than we will ever know.
A bold and motivated pair, they were blessed by the gods with political abilities that allowed them to hold great positions of authority. Aware of his lower origins and his lack of Theban family influence at court, Hatshepsut likely relied on Senenmut exactly because he had no outside interests or private agenda to divert him from her own interests. His lack of family connections made him less likely to betray her or to overlook her wishes in favor of his own gain. With no strong ties to other elites through birth or marriage, Senenmut himself had no one else to trust besides Hatshepsut. They seem to have been mutually dependent: she took advantage of his reliance on her, and he apparently used her lack of trust in others for his own advancement.
As soon as Hatshepsut became king, Senenmut claimed prime real estate in the west Theban hills for his own tomb chapel just overlooking her Deir el-Bahri funerary temple; it was a grand space to be painted with images of himself in the company of his mother, father, and siblings, all seated before ample food, drink, and wealth for the afterlife. This tomb was also meant to link him to Hatshepsut’s fortune in life and after death, because its proximity to her funerary temple allowed him to serve her in the afterlife. On its summit, he had a statue of himself carved from the live rock, with the King’s Daughter Nefrure snugly in his embrace. His mother was buried under his tomb forecourt accompanied by riches she had never known as a young woman; he moved the body of his father, who had died long before Senenmut took up high office, to join his mother.24 He even had one of his horses buried at his tomb site, on the slope of the hill just under the forecourt.25 The horse was buried fully wrapped in a huge wooden coffin. Dragging a dead horse to the top of the Sheikh abd el-Gurna hill for burial must have involved some advance planning, not to mention a great deal of labor. Senenmut wanted his horse in the afterlife, and he found a way to make it happen.
Senenmut’s preparation for death involved another extravagance. Instead of just cutting a burial chamber under his tomb chapel as most officials did, he chose a different location altogether. Not only did he lavish his funds on different localities for chapel and tomb, a privilege normally retained for kings, but he opted to have his corpse interred in the sacred Asasif valley, next to Hatshepsut’s funerary temple.26 This was perhaps the very first time a nonroyal individual separated his tomb (where his body was buried) from his tomb chapel (where relatives offered food and comfort to his soul). At this time, only kings did this: for example, Thutmose I and Thutmose II were buried deep in the Valley of the Kings while their temples for cult rituals lay in the desert fringes, near the Nile inundation. After he had done it, other officials followed his lead. Senenmut had created a new burial trend.
And Senenmut’s innovations did not stop there. Within his burial chamber in the Asasif, which was made up of a series of descending staircases and chambers that were meant to remain secret after his burial, he commissioned exclusive liturgical texts for the walls that no official had previously dared to carve into stone. He also asked his craftsmen to paint on his tomb ceiling the first astrological chart ever recorded. No burial chamber of any elite had ever been so elaborate. In this way, Senenmut communicated his exclusive access to these texts to other officials and priests, broadcasting his worth in this life and the next.
Hatshepsut entrusted Senenmut with oversight of a tremendous number of building projects during her reign. No doubt he must have had architectural opinions and passions that she valued, because there is no evidence that he had any actual education in engineering. Despite this lack of formal training, he always seems to have been at the forefront of the next big thing in terms of form and design. Indeed, Hatshepsut asked him to direct construction of what was to be her greatest and most innovative temple achievement: her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, which was planned as an astoundingly creative, and nontraditional, tiered temple of three layers fronted by colonnades and dozens of statues of Hatshepsut as the god Osiris.27 Its appearance was inspired by Mentuhotep II’s Middle Kingdom temple in the adjacent site, but the architect, whoever he was (or she, if it was Hatshepsut’s design), transformed it into a radically new structure never before seen in Egypt. Hatshepsut would call this temple Djeser Djeseru, meaning “Holy of Holies,” and it was meant to promote the sanctity of her kingship. This most sacred cult place was dedicated to her depicted as an eternal Osiris king after death and as a solar falcon who traversed the heavens. It is the first surviving Temple of Millions of Years, the name the Egyptians gave to a king’s funerary temple.28 Even today, as one travels along the west bank of the Nile, amid the expected pylons and colonnaded sun courts of other great temples built centuries before and after, Deir el-Bahri is unmistakable—instantly unique, somehow modern and ancient at the same time. It stands as an unparalleled and iconic achievement.
Hatshepsut chose the site of Deir el-Bahri not only because of the dramatic half-moon of high cliffs underneath the pyramid-shaped mountain, but also because it was a popular destination for the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, a sacred procession that brought the gods’ statues to Egypt’s divine ancestors buried within the cliffs and beneath the hills on the west bank of Thebes. In short, this was the most public spot in western Thebes.
The Beautiful Feast of the Valley was a kind of carnival celebrated at the beginning of summer, when the Nile was at its lowest point, when the land itself seemed to be dying and families were anxious about having enough grain to make it to the next harvest.29 In the Valley Feast, priests bore the statue of the god Amen in a gilded carrying shrine on their shoulders beyond the gates of his home temple at Karnak, placing him on his sacred Nile barge so that he could cross the river and visit the sacred ancestors on the west bank in the land of the dead. It was a means of connecting with death itself, which to the Egyptians was not a final end but a pregnant beginning to a new re-creation. Thousands of men from the army and navy accompanied the god along the way, protecting his movements and reveling in his triumph. Everyone drank too much and partied too hard. Musicians played the lute and banged the drums. Young girls wearing only small girdles around their hips danced, and acrobats performed backbends and flips, all for the god’s erotic enjoyment. It was a time when the Egyptians pondered the shortness and unpredictability of life and celebrated the possibility of new beginnings. One of Hatshepsut’s first and most ambitious projects, her funerary temple, was constructed at a Valley Festival site. Clearly from the earliest years of her reign, she understood the value she could gain from these religious celebrations.
A temple here in the Asasif would set her up for maximum visibility among the people who mattered most, not to mention the gods of Thebes. The place was already sacred to the deified king Mentuhotep II, who, some five hundred years before, had reunified Egypt after a long period of civil war. Its cliff faces were also thought to be the realm of the goddess Hathor, the mistress of the western mountains, a daughter of the sun god known for her sexuality and violent protection. An ancient and sacred spot for centuries, the location was well chosen. Hatshepsut would project her most profound political-religious claims in the text and relief planned for this structure.
Hatshepsut began construction at Deir el-Bahri immediately after her coronation (although many argue it started even before).30 The project was ambitious, and the temple work would continue until the end of her reign. The plan of the structure—the ramps leading the participant ever higher, the massive platforms on which thousands of spectators could stand, the colonnaded porticoes serving as stages visible to the crowds below—was meant to showcase Hatshepsut’s highly visible annual festival celebrations to further broadcast her unassailable kingship.31 She would use the city of Thebes as a giant stage to display her piety to the Egyptian world.
During Hatshepsut’s coregency with Thutmose III, the money, time, and labor spent on festival activity exploded. It may be hard for us to understand why this investment was necessary, but in a world where seasons of planting, harvest, and inundation ruled life and death, it was imperative to bring the gods into daily life to help things along. The more a king invested in festivals of cyclical renewal, the more prosperity the gods bestowed. But if the gods were ignored, bad floods would result, and that meant meager planting and poor harvest, which led in turn to drought, pestilence, disease, and death. Festivals were viewed as a way to physically invite the gods into public spaces where the people could appease them and give them gifts of food, music, and incense, as much as was needed. The statues of the gods were taken out of their sanctuaries and placed into mobile shrines that were carried aloft beyond their temple walls and out of doors, so that the gods could visit other temples and family members, engage in sexual activity, and revel in the adoration of the pious Egyptian people. Such intensification of festivals would have been a drain on earlier New Kingdom treasuries, but apparently Hatshepsut could afford it. The power of kingship was renewed in the process of many such celebrations, another reason, perhaps, for Hatshepsut to emphasize such ritual activity.
The whole population stopped their work to witness the movement of the gods and to participate in the revelry, drinking and eating to excess, dancing and singing, communing with divinity. For example, in the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, the god Amen crossed the Nile to visit the tombs of kings, ancestors, and dead gods, so that he could link with that most sacred potentiality of rebirth after death. Thebans followed the procession, partaking in massive feasts at the tombs of their own ancestors, in a weeklong banquet akin to Mexico’s Día de los Muertos.
Across the river, during the Opet festival,32 the god Amen left his sanctuary at Karnak to visit the temple at Luxor and thus meld with a manifestation of himself linked to sexuality and self-creation. It was during Hatshepsut’s reign that we see the first evidence of the Opet festival, also known as the Festival of the Residence, when the sexualized manifestation of the god Amen left his temple of Ipet-Sut at Karnak for his enclosure at Ipet Resut, his residence to the south. Opet was celebrated at the beginning of fall, after the Nile inundation waters had receded and planting had begun. According to the people of Thebes, the success of their crops depended on Amen’s renewed sexual potency.
The festival was shrouded in mystery; no priest or king ever explicitly recorded the rituals that took place inside of the temple, but they appear to have been definitely sexual in nature. Hatshepsut and Thutmose III would have been initiated in such secret knowledge and might have facilitated the strange mysteries of Amen-Bull-of-His-Mother’s mounting and impregnating his own mother with his own future self. During the later public procession, crowds followed along and watched with rapt attention the god’s regenerative journey and thus the renewal of their own crops and livelihoods. By injecting her presence into these festivals, Hatshepsut was essentially saying that her rule was necessary to keep the sun rising and setting and the Nile flooding. During her reign, these religious occasions lasted for more days, included more participants, and grew in overall importance. Just the architectural evidence alone proves that she spent more money on these events than all previous New Kingdom kings combined.
Hatshepsut enacted her festival rituals in stone buildings of great size and opulence instead of the temporary or mud-brick structures used before her reign. She thought in terms of a broad plan, not single buildings. Her ambitious constructions created massive festival processions that stretched for many miles along ways now paved in stone. It took more than a dozen years of continuous dusty and noisy construction work that was halted probably only to celebrate religious ceremonies, but Hatshepsut essentially turned Thebes into one giant stone ritual space stamped repeatedly with her names and imagery.
She was the first king to build extensively in sandstone, and its hardness allowed her to construct larger and taller buildings than ever before, bridging wider spans than had been possible with the limestone used by previous kings. Sandstone also had its religious associations. The quarries of Gebel el-Silsila were located south of Thebes,33 directly adjacent to the river, and were bathed by the Nile when it flooded its banks every summer. Sandstone cut from these banks was thought to be connected to the source of new life, of creation from nothing, and any temples built of this precious resource would be imbued with the hallowed powers of the annual inundation.
Although Hatshepsut’s most innovative (and lasting) structures were built at Thebes, she was systematic in her construction efforts and injected her divine presence into religious activities all over Egypt, from north to south—temples for Ptah at Memphis, for Thoth at Hermopolis, her Speos Artemidos shrine for Pakhet at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt, temples for Khnum and Satet at Elephantine, Monthu at Armant, Ptah at Thebes, and numerous constructions in Nubia.34 But in the end, Thebes was her base of ideological power, and some of her most vital constructions for the legitimization of her kingship were erected at Karnak in the heart of Amen’s domain, where Amen had picked her to rule all those years ago, actualizing the event in stone to make it ritually real for her people.
Her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri—Djeser Djeseru—was the centerpiece of her overall scheme at Thebes. Its sightline connected to a new pylon gateway she was constructing on the north side of Karnak Temple. Standing on the topmost terrace of her funerary temple and looking east, one could see her obelisks and pylons at Karnak directly across the river. Everything at Deir el-Bahri was planned on this axis, including the sanctuary of her funerary temple. In fact, the sanctuary was precisely oriented so that on the winter solstice the sunlight streamed through a window to bathe the statue of Amen, the hidden one, inside.35
Farther north, Hatshepsut had a rock-cut shrine built to the goddess Pakhet, “the one who scratches,” a lioness and fierce protector of her father, the sun god. Inside, Hatshepsut left a lengthy and radical treatise on her kingship. The temple, now called the Speos Artemidos by Egyptologists, gives us some idea of why Hatshepsut spent so much time and money building ritual spaces out of stone; she was of one mind with the gods.
My divine mind is looking out for posterity, the king’s heart has thought of eternal continuity, because of the utterance of him who parts the ished-tree, Amun, lord of millions, and I have magnified the Order he has desired. For it is known to me that he lives on it: it is my bread, and it is of its dew that I drink. I was in one body with him, and he has brought me up to make the awe of him powerful in this land. I am one whom Atum-Khepri, who made what is—made know[ledgeable], one whom the Sun has fated as established for him.
She continues with a section on how temple building is akin to marking herself as the chosen one.
The temple of the mistress of Qusae, which had (completely) fallen into dissolution—the earth having swallowed its noble sanctuary, children dancing on its roof(s), no tutelary goddess causing fear, the lowly reckoning defenselessness in (her) absence, nor her days of appearance having ever (be)en experienced—I hallowed it, built anew, fashioning its Leading Serpent of gold […] in order to defend its town in the processional bark.… My incarnation gives clarity of vision to those who shoulder the god.
Next, the text includes a rare claim that links Hatshepsut’s success with the creator god himself.
Every [god] says to himself: “One who will achieve eternal continuity has come, whom Amun has caused to appear as king of eternity on Horus’s throne.” So listen all you elite and multitude of commoners. I have done this by the plan of my mind. I do not sleep forgetting, (but) have made firm what is ruined. For I have raised up what was dismembered beginning from the time when Asiatics were in the midst of the Delta (in) Avaris, with vagrants in their midst toppling what had been made. They ruled without the Sun, and he did not act by god’s decree down to my (own) uraeus-incarnation. (Now) I am set on the Sun’s thrones, having been foretold from ages of years as one born to take possession. I am come as Horus, the sole uraeus spitting fire at my enemies. I have banished the gods’ abomination, the earth removing their footprints.36
Hatshepsut used all of her ingenuity to negotiate a difficult path as a female king. She was approaching thirty years of age, was ruler of the most powerful land in the Mediterranean and Africa, and shared the throne with a boy who would soon grow into a man. She had triumphantly received a successful expedition from Punt. The Nubian and Eastern Desert mines were creating a steady stream of gold at the expense of indigenous populations and society’s unwanted. Trade with Syria-Palestine was booming, with timber from Lebanon, wine from Crete, poppy products from Persia and beyond, and luxury goods brought in from places as far off as Babylon, Anatolia, and Afghanistan. The quarries were churning out stone for new statuary. All over Egypt, hammers and chisels rang out as they met stone; men were laboring in her name and building temples that would forever link Hatshepsut’s reign to Egypt’s current prosperity. In temples north and south, people saw new priests hired and old, neglected festivals reinstated. By all appearances, everything seemed in order and on track for Hatshepsut.
Except that it wasn’t. Her nephew and co-king Thutmose III was now thirteen or fourteen years of age and acquiring more knowledge and confidence every day. Hatshepsut’s mother, Ahmes, may have died around this time, leaving her motherless and with no ties to her old life as princess and queen. And her daughter Nefrure would soon grow into a young woman ready to conceive an heir. Changes were coming. Hatshepsut would need to adapt to an extent that she had never imagined when she was scurrying around the royal nurseries as a small girl. Something would soon oblige her to take extraordinary steps with regard to how she depicted her feminine self.