Pharaoh Hatshepsut's Temple of Deir el-Bahri in Egypt

Egypt's Gorgeous Deir el Bahri Temple Was Based on Ancient Predecessor

Queen Hatshetsup's temple. The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, is known alternatively as the Djeser-Djeseru ('Holy of Holies'), it is an ancient funerary shrine in Upper Egypt.
Queen Hatshetsup's temple. The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, is known alternatively as the Djeser-Djeseru ('Holy of Holies'), it is an ancient funerary shrine in Upper Egypt. Philip Dumas / Moment / Getty Images

The Deir el-Bahri Temple Complex (also spelled Deir el-Bahari) includes one of the most beautiful temples in Egypt, perhaps in the world, built by the architects of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Hatshepsut in the 15th century BC. The three colonnaded terraces of this lovely structure were built within a steep half-circle of cliffs on the west bank of the Nile River, guarding the entrance to the great Valley of the Kings.

It is unlike any other temple in Egypt--except for its inspiration, a temple built some 500 years earlier.

Hatshepsut and Her Reign

The pharaoh Hatshepsut (or Hatshepsowe) ruled for 21 years [about 1473-1458 BC] during the early part of the New Kingdom, before the vastly successful imperialism of her nephew/stepson and successor Thutmose (or Thutmosis) III.

Although not quite as much of an imperialist as the rest of her 18h Dynasty relatives, Hatshepsut spent her reign building up the wealth of Egypt to the greater glory of the god Amun. One of the buildings she commissioned from her beloved architect (and probable consort) Senenmut or Senenu, was the lovely Djeser-Djeseru temple, rival only to the Parthenon for architectural elegance and harmony.

The Sublime of the Sublimes

Djeser-Djeseru means "Sublime of the Sublimes" or "Holy of the Holies" in the ancient Egyptian language, and it is the best-preserved part of the Deir el-Bahri, Arabic for "Monastery of the North" complex.

The first temple built at Deir el-Bahri was a mortuary temple for Neb-Hepet-Re Montuhotep, built during the 11th dynasty, but few remains of this structure are left. Hatshepsut's temple architecture included some aspects of Mentuhotep's temple but on a grander scale.

The walls of Djeser-Djeseru are illustrated with Hatshepsut's autobiography, including stories of her fabled trip to the land of Punt, considered by some scholars likely to have been in the modern countries of Eritrea or Somalia.

The murals depicting the trip include a drawing of a grotesquely overweight Queen of Punt.

Also discovered at Djeser-Djeseru were the intact roots of frankincense trees, which once decorated the front façade of the temple. These trees were collected by Hatshepsut in her travels to Punt; according to the histories, she brought back five shiploads of luxury items, including exotic plants and animals.

After Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut's beautiful temple was damaged after her reign ended when her successor Thutmose III had her name and images chiseled off the walls. Thutmose III built his own temple to the west of Djeser-Djeseru. Additional damage was done to the temple at the orders of the later 18th dynasty heretic Akhenaten, whose faith tolerated only images of the Sun god Aten.

The Deir el-Bahri Mummy Cache

Deir el-Bahri is also the site of a mummy cache, a collection of pharaohs' preserved bodies, retrieved from their tombs during the 21st dynasty of the New Kingdom. Looting of pharaonic tombs had become rampant, and in response, the priests Pinudjem I [1070-1037 BC] and Pinudjem II [990-969 BC] opened the ancient tombs, identified the mummies as best they could, rewrapped them and placed them in one of (at least) two caches: Queen Inhapi's tomb in Deir el-Bahri (room 320) and the Tomb of Amenhotep II (KV35).

The Deir el-Bahri cache included mummies of the 18th and 19th dynasty leaders Amenhotep I; Tuthmose I, II, and III; Ramses I and II, and the patriarch Seti I. The KV35 cache included Tuthmose IV, Ramses IV, V, and VI, Amenophis III and Merneptah. In both caches there were unidentified mummies, some of which were set in unmarked coffins or stacked in corridors; and some of the rulers, such as Tutankhamun, were not found by the priests.

The mummy cache in Deir el-Bahri was rediscovered in 1875 and excavated over the next few years by French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. The mummies were removed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where Maspero unwrapped them. The KV35 cache was discovered by Victor Loret in 1898; these mummies were also moved to Cairo and unwrapped.

Anatomical Studies

In the early 20th century, Australian anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith examined and reported on the mummies, publishing photos and great anatomical detail in his 1912 Catalogue of the Royal Mummies. Smith was fascinated by the changes in embalming techniques over time, and he studied in detail the strong family resemblances among the pharaohs, particularly for the kings and queens in the 18th dynasty: long heads, narrow delicate faces, and projecting upper teeth.

But he also noticed that some of the mummies' appearances did not match the historical information known about them or the court paintings associated with them. For example, the mummy said to belong to the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten was clearly too young, and the face didn't match his distinctive sculptures. Could the 21st dynasty priests have been wrong?

Who Was Who in Ancient Egypt?

Since Smith's day, several studies have attempted to reconcile the identities of the mummies, but without much success. Could DNA resolve the problem? Perhaps, but the preservation of ancient DNA (aDNA) is affected not only by the age of the mummy but by the extreme methods of mummification used by the Egyptians. Interestingly, natron, properly applied, appears to preserve DNA: but differences in preservation techniques and situations (such as whether a tomb was flooded or burned) have a deleterious effect.

Secondly, the fact that New Kingdom royalty intermarried may cause a problem. In particular, the pharaohs of the 18th dynasty were very closely related to one another, a result of generations of half-sisters and brothers intermarrying.

It is quite possible that DNA family records may never be precise enough to identify a specific mummy.

More recent studies have focused on the recurrence of various diseases, using CT scanning to identify orthopedic irregularities (Fritsch et al.) and heart disease (Thompson et al.).

Archaeology at Deir el-Bahri

Archaeological investigations of the Deir el-Bahri complex were begun in 1881, after objects belonging to the missing pharaohs began to turn up in the antiquities market. Gaston Maspero [1846-1916], director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service at the time, went to Luxor in 1881 and began to apply pressure to the Abdou El-Rasoul family, residents of Gurnah who had for generations been tomb robbers. The first excavations were those of Auguste Mariette in the mid-19th century.

Excavations at the temple by the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EFF) began in the 1890s led by French archaeologist Edouard Naville [1844-1926]; Howard Carter, famous for his work at Tutankhamun's tomb, also worked at Djeser-Djeseru for the EFF in the late 1890s. In 1911, Naville turned over his concession on Deir el-Bahri (which allowed him sole excavator's rights), to Herbert Winlock who began what would be 25 years of excavation and restoration. Today, the restored beauty and elegance of Hatshepsut's temple is open to visitors from around the planet.

Sources

  • Creasman PP. 2014. Hatshepsut and the Politics of Punt. African Archaeological Review 31(3):395-405.
  • Fritsch KO, Hamoud H, Allam AH, Grossmann A, Nur El-Din A-H, Abdel-Maksoud G, Al-Tohamy Soliman M, Badr I, Sutherland JD, Linda Sutherland M et al. 2015. The Orthopedic Diseases of Ancient Egypt. The Anatomical Record 298(6):1036-1046.
  • Harris JE, and Hussien F. 1991. The identification of the eighteenth dynasty royal mummies: A biological perspective. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1:235-239.
  • Marota I, Basile C, Ubaldi M, and Rollo F. 2002. DNA decay rate in papyri and human remains from Egyptian archaeological sites. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 117(4):310-318.
  • Naville E. 1907. The XIth Dynasty Temple at Deir El-Bahari. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
  • Roehrig CH, Dreyfus R, and Keller CA. 2005. Hatshepsut, From Queen to Pharaoh. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Shaw I. 2003. Exploring Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Smith GE. 1912. Catalogue of the Royal Mummies. Imprimerie de Linstitut Francais Darcheologie Orientale. Le Caire.
  • Vernus P, and Yoyotte J. 2003. Book of the Pharaohs. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Zink A, and Nerlich AG. 2003. Molecular analyses of the Pharaos: Feasibility of molecular studies in ancient Egyptian material. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 121(2):109-111.

For Middle Schoolers

  • Andronik CM. 2001. Hatshepsut, His Majesty, Herself. New York: Atheneum Press.
  • Baker RF, and Baker III CF. 2001. Hatshepsut. Ancient Egyptians: People of the Pyramids. Oxford: Oxford University Press.