Hatshepsut, King of Egypt (1479–1458 BC)

By Barbara O’Neill.

Published on Egyptological, December 7th 2011, Magazine Edition 3.


“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth” (Maya Angelou)


In the Beginning

Most people first learn about Hatshepsut on discovering her elegant mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri. Some visitors to the site may be puzzled by the fact that the royal woman whose temple this was, is often referred to as ‘king’, for surely the Egyptian ruler had to be male? Other views on Hatshepsut go further; acknowledging that while she may have ruled Egypt as monarch, she did so as a female usurper of the role; a devious power-hungry woman. Although theories abound, we do not know why Hatshepsut, wife and daughter of Egyptian kings, stepped outside her conventional female role, crowned herself king and went on to rule alongside her stepson, Thutmosis III until her death two decades later.

Hatshepsut, Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Verne Appleby

Figure 1. Hatshepsut, Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Verne Appleby

As daughter of Thutmosis I and sister-wife to his son and her half-brother, Thutmosis II, there is little exceptional in Hatshepsut’s early life as an Eighteenth Dynasty royal wife and daughter. Upon her husband’s death, having no male child of her own, Hatshepsut acted as regent to her young stepson Thutmosis III. This is where the facts of the matter become rather murky, for instead of stepping aside upon her young charge’s maturity and allowing him to assume his role as sole ruler, Hatshepsut had herself crowned king, leaving the younger king in the background of history for approximately twenty years.

More than three thousand years after her death, scholars continue to explore Hatshepsut’s kingship, the details of which are sometimes viewed as a persistent, unsolvable problem. Why did she usurp this role when there appears to be no valid reason for her actions? Upon his step-mother’s death, Thutmosis finally became sole ruler of Egypt, proving  to be one of the most successful kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty. While the enigma surrounding Hatshepsut remains, perhaps the most illuminating information on her reign can be found within her monuments and inscriptions. For it is here where her efforts to legitimise her own actions can be found.

In this article, I will explore Hatshepsut’s legitimisation of her rule as evidenced within the components of two structures; her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri and her inscription at Speos Artemidos. The first contains a considerable amount of information within its architecture, inscriptions and imagery. The second bears an exquisitely refined legitimisation strategy, in what could be Hatshepsut’s own words. Both sites serve to illuminate how a powerful Egyptian king was able to utilise her gender, political acumen and vision, bequeathing Egypt the legacy of an accomplished rule, whilst revealing something of how she wished her kingship to be perceived.


Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple at Deir el Bahri

Djeser Djeseru

Figure 2. The mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, Djser-Djeseru. By Andrea Byrnes

Djeser-Djeseru or ‘Holiest of the Holy’, Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple built into the Theban hills at Deir el Bahri, encapsulates a carefully constructed presentation of her reign. Scholars have hypothesised as to whether Hatshepsut’s husband Thutmosis II, her official, Senenmut, or Hapuseneb, her High Priest of Amun, may have contributed to its design. Hatshepsut herself may have moulded the project, influencing the layout of this temple. Whatever the case, her reign saw an explosion of artistic creativity, with a reinterpretation of the traditional and mastery of the innovative incorporated within this structure. The first attested example of a processional avenue of sphinxes on the temple approach was one such original element, serving to highlight the temple’s importance and functioning as a ritually protective feature. Djeser-Djeseru’s design emulates that of earlier structures, in particular the Eleventh Dynasty mortuary temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II, located nearby.

The Middle Kingdom was viewed as a time of great achievement in Egypt’s history; its earliest kings had successfully reunited Egypt after the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Hatshepsut’s regard for the Eleventh Dynasty ‘founder king’ Mentuhotep II, and her decision to build her mortuary temple next to his, may have had a political objective. Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmosis I had established a similar policy of association with distant royal predecessors when he enhanced cult places which emphasised ideological links with previous kings and with the divine aspect of kingship.

The periods of disunity which preceded the Twelfth and the Eighteenth dynasties were significant events within Egypt’s cultural memory. Hatshepsut’s association of her temple with that of an earlier king, a monarch who successfully re-established mAat through the reunification of Egypt might be viewed as a politically astute decision. On the inscription from a stone artefact, believed to originate from her temple’s foundation deposit, Hatshepsut refers to Mentuhotep as her ‘father’, an intriguing indication of her regard for a king who had died five hundred years earlier. Hatshepsut’s desire to associate her kingship with that of Mentuhotep’s reflects the great reverence in which this unifier of Egypt was held. Hatshepsut went further in her emulation of Mentuhotep’s mortuary temple, drawing on Middle Kingdom texts and ideology in her coronation narrative. Many inscriptions which the king used within her temple have ancient precedents composed in, “remarkably pure Classical Egyptian” (Baines 2007).

Hatshepsut in kilt, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

Figure 3. Hatshepsut in kilt, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

By the Twelfth Dynasty, a constellation model of kingship had evolved; the mythology of which indicated that the king was born of the sun god Re through a mortal mother. Mentuhotep dedicated part of his mortuary temple to the cult of Montu-Re, a warlike deity whose divine intervention had guided the king in the successful reunification of Egypt. Hatshepsut was the first king to revive this divine association with the royal mortuary temple, assigning part of her sanctuary to a temple for the gods. Djeser-Djeseru contained five separate cult chapels with its central shrine dedicated to Amun-Re, “father of the father of all gods”, an epithet first attested from Hatshepsut’s era (Hornung 1971).

Thebes was the centre of the ‘new religion’ of the Eighteenth Dynasty, with Amun-Re regarded as principal state god at this time. An amalgamation of Amun and Re, this powerful deity was acknowledged as the source of Hatshepsut’s kingship and, through his role in her divine conception, crucial to her very existence. The blending of two powerful gods, Re with ancient connections to Heliopolis, an important religious and administrative centre which became the model for New Kingdom Thebes, and Amun, a Theban deity, described as ‘hidden but present in the heart’, created a significant source of Hatshepsut’s dynastic legitimacy. Upon her elevation to kingship, Hatshepsut added the epithet, Xnmt-imn ‘joined with Amun’ to her birth name, reflecting a pious and apparently sincere affiliation to Amun.

A mortuary temple functioned as the locus of a king’s funerary cult, where offerings and prayers would continue after death ensuring eternal life. There are multiple layers of religious, historical and ideological meaning associated with the sacred site on which Hatshepsut built her temple. Deir el Bahri’s plateau had ancient associations with Hathor who, as goddess of the West and Chieftainess of Thebes, was an important deity within Hatshepsut’s ideology of kingship. The temples of Mentuhotep and Hatshepsut share proximity with an ancient Hathoric shrine set within the cliff-face of the Deir el Bahri plateau. With the possibility that a tradition of rock-built sanctuaries determined the development of Deir el Bahri as a whole, it is within the structure of the temple she built there that Hatshepsut’s sovereignty finds its most compelling expression.

The king deployed extensive Hathoric symbolism within Djeser-Djeseru, incorporating aspects of the feminine essence of kingship in both her choice of location and through her temple’s many references to this goddess. Within her shrine to Hathor, imagery of Hatshepsut’s coronation predominates. The goddess is represented alongside the king’s divine father Amun-Re, beneath a frieze of cobras. The cobra constitutes part of a rebus forming the king’s throne name, mAat-kA-ra, establishing Hatshepsut as recipient of the life-giving powers of Hathor, a goddess essential to the rejuvenation and maintenance of the deceased king. Hatshepsut’s kingly identity and feminine gender are represented at Djeser-Djeseru in word and image. Titles she assumed on becoming king make use of feminised forms which function as an ideological overlay. Rather than attempting to disguise her gender, Hatshepsut utilised elements within her royal titulary, which took advantage of her status as a female king. Her epithets encapsulate both traditional structure and the feminine aspect of kingship. As nswt-bit, a female king, her gender allowed Hatshepsut to be described as sAt ra, daughter of Re and as Hrt, the female Horus. In their masculine form, such titles were traditional kingly epithets, innovatively and intentionally amended for Hatshepsut, providing ‘a precedent for the use of masculine pronouns’ in reference to a female king (Allen, 2009: Figure 4). Such modifications were unlikely to have been random and freely acknowledged the king’s gender.

Epithets of Hatshepsut by B O'Neill

Figure 4. Epithets of Hatshepsut

By the time Hatshepsut was constructing Djeser-Djeseru, Egypt was witnessing a development in religious ideology peculiar to the New Kingdom, featuring Amun at its core. The sovereign was now regarded as ‘son of’ and ‘image of’ the sun god. Not concerned with physical resemblance, this ideology equated a king’s divine appearance to god-like acts. Hatshepsut’s claim to be the likeness of Amun-Re, a male deity, would not have appeared incongruous; as king she was united in a fundamental kinship with her divine father.

Hatshepsut presenting nw pot to Amun Re, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

Figure 5. Hatshepsut presenting a nw pot to the god Amun Re, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

It is perhaps significant that in the New Kingdom an oracular aspect of religion first appears, masterfully captured in stone at Djeser-Djeseru where Hatshepsut’s mythical narrative of her ‘god-guided heart’, was a feature of her elevation to kingship. This new religious orientation involved belief in divine intervention, an ideology which Hatshepsut used effectively in her presentation of kingship. The course of history could be directly affected by god’s will and mAat stemmed directly from the power of god. Within her mortuary temple, Hatshepsut created a mythical narrative which emphasised her status as god-appointed king.

The mythology of divine birth dates back to a significant literary work of the Middle Kingdom, known today as, Papyrus Westcar. Hatshepsut’s presentation at Deir el Bahri has been described as the first use of this allegory, with her interpretation attested as the earliest canonical form of the divine ‘son-ship’ of the king. Her innovative use of the strategy of divine selection was adopted by later kings, many of whom employed similar oracular pronouncements to justify their sovereignty.

Deir el Bahri - the expedition to Punt

Figure 6. Deir el Bahri (Djeser-Djeseru) - the expedition to Punt. By Andrea Byrnes

In the Punt presentation within Djeser-Djeseru, a narrative marking the success of an important trade expedition, Hatshepsut appears in a rare instance of divine emanation; a living god in the image of Amun. The particular language used in the narrative, indicates something of the significance of this event. The description of Hatshepsut’s god-like appearance employs a specific, feminised term for image, ‘snnt’ signifying that Hatshepsut represents Amun-Re in essence and action. The king is described as exalted before her audience, emanating god-like divinity. She is described as having myrrh on her limbs, radiant before the entire land on the accomplishment of a divinely inspired mission. This rare and exceptional moment of transfiguration captured within the Punt inscription emphasises Hatshepsut’s nTrj or divine-ness, as she is acclaimed for having fulfilled her promise to make her temple an incense land in the midst of Egypt in honour of Amun-Re.  This is a powerful image, with fragrance a prevailing metaphor at Djeser-Djeseru indicating the presence of god, used here in the Punt narrative and elsewhere in scenes of Hatshepsut’s divine conception.

Hatshepsut, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

Figure 7. Hatshepsut, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

Hatshepsut’s cult chapel within her temple which she intended to share with her earthly father Thutmosis I was situated close to that of the shrine dedicated to Amun-Re, her divine father. Hatshepsut’s direct descent from Thutmosis I and her divine selection by Amun formed the basis of her validation narrative within Djeser-Djeseru. There is no evidence, however that Hatshepsut was unhappy with her previous role as wife to Thutmosis II. It is possible that Hatshepsut was aware of the complexities of kingship before her husband’s death. Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, from whom Hatshepsut inherited the title of God’s Wife of Amun, operated independently both economically and ideologically from the kings she was wife and mother to. Possibly, this provided a model which Hatshepsut pursued to its ultimate conclusion, her enthronement as king of Egypt.  The title Hmt nTr or ‘God’s Wife’, clearly dominated all others on Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus from KV20; a tomb prepared for her as queen, where other epithets including ‘great wife of the king’ are greatly outnumbered by her designation as Hmt nTr. This important role may have had some impact on Hatshepsut’s elevation to kingship, providing direct access to the political influence of the powerful Priesthood of Amun. On becoming king, Hatshepsut passed the title of God’s wife to her daughter, Neferure who then provided the necessary feminine compliment in sacred rituals fulfilled by the king. Neferure appears to have played an exceptional role within Hatshepsut’s kingship, indicating a new, though ultimately short-lived feminised ideology “in the theory and practice of kingship” (Quirke 2001).

Described as one of the most beautiful structures ever built, Djeser-Djeseru remains an enduring memorial to Hatshepsut, despite the efforts of those who have tried, with varying degrees of success, to usurp, destroy or rewrite her narrative there.


The Speos Artemidos Inscription

The Speos Artemidos inscription was carved at a shrine to the goddess Pakhet, a local deity attested from nearby Beni Hasan, in Middle Egypt. The original cult-centre may have had Twelfth Dynasty origins; significant given Hatshepsut’s interest in her Twelfth Dynasty predecessors. The text composed after her elevation as king, is noted for its unique nature, unaccustomed frankness and particular style, perhaps reflecting Hatshepsut’s personal thoughts and manner of speech. Described as exceptional in its candidness, the text bears few signs of the formulaic nature of royal inscriptions, with an individual style unprecedented in this genre.

Speos Artemidos

Figure 8. Speos Artemidos. By Einsamer Schütze, 2006

The inscription is carved above the entrance to the cave-like shrine, one of two cult centres renewed for this goddess by Hatshepsut. Pakhet’s epithets include ‘great of magic’, and ‘she who scratches’. The goddess sometimes assumes the iconography of a lioness or of a fiery serpent, signifying her role in spreading fear of the king’s wrath throughout the land. Anger was the prerogative of kings and deities; an aspect of authority used in royal inscriptions as an indicator of power and of the ability to “get things done” (Tait 2009). The goddess is also represented as the uraeus of kingship, placed on Hatshepsut’s brow at her coronation, threatening to rear up and breathe fire upon all enemies.

The retrospective use of models of success was a consistent feature of Egyptian history. Aside from their admiration of Middle Kingdom kings, the rulers of the Eighteenth Dynasty looked to their own founders, systematically prolonging glories of the wars of liberation, with which the New Kingdom had begun. Ruling almost seventy years after earlier kings had ended Hyksos rule and reunified Egypt, Hatshepsut may have discovered a means to accumulate symbolic capital from these events. References to the past served to highlight the king’s role in re-establishing order and in the maintenance of mAat through her restitution of local shrines and temples. The inscription’s references to the long-settled Hyksos period are unlikely to indicate that this event concerned Hatshepsut politically. Nevertheless, the text describes something of the resulting chaos and of Hatshepsut’s efforts in support of local cults, commencing with restoration of the temple of the mistress of Cusae (Qis) a goddess associated with Hathor. Hatshepsut’s focus on this region might reflect its earlier strategic position as border area between Hyksos and Theban domains during the wars of unification. Such focus offers a glimpse of the king’s astute political awareness, as the area remained strategically important, connecting roads from the western desert oases with trade routes south towards Nubia.

Hatshepsut’s Speos Artemidos inscription presents an exceptional exploration of a divinely conceived kingship. Her restoration efforts equate the king’s actions with those of Re, her ancestral prototype in the sun god’s creation of temples throughout Egypt. Hatshepsut emphasises the strength of her dominion, assuring benefits to those who are loyal and swift vengeance on dissenters as abominations of the gods. She sets out her intentions to restore and build temples and shrines; to instigate foreign trade missions, settle any internal opposition and improve conditions for her military; important functions of an effective king. Hatshepsut combines shrewd political foresight with personal piety in her promise to build a temple for Thoth; perhaps an indication that her kingship was supported by two powerful cults. It is Thoth who presents the king before the ennead of Karnak as they acknowledge Hatshepsut as a divinely-appointed king. The inscription continues as Hatshepsut addresses her enemies, her loyal nobles, the priesthood and finally, the ‘common people’, as Thoth proclaims, ‘as Amun is at the head of the ennead, so the name of Maatkare is at the head of the living for ever’ (Goedicke 2004).

The Speos Artemidos inscription has been described as a global address, an historical source of unmatched importance, setting out Hatshepsut’s political agenda early in her reign. Her programme as king focuses on elements important to every ruler; her people, her commercial interests and her military. Hatshepsut’s inscription functions as pious dedication, as an outline of her accomplishments and of future political aspirations. She seeks the perpetuity of her name, that trade routes be expanded, monumental construction undertaken and significant shrines renewed. This was an important decree, the purpose of which was Hatshepsut’s presentation, as predestined saviour of the country, restorer of law and order, and legitimate descendant of the sun-god Amen-Re.


An Enduring King

Hatshepsut with the White Crown, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

Figure 9. Hatshepsut with the White Crown, Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Verne Appleby

The historical events, which initiated the process of Hatshepsut’s elevation to kingship, remain the subject of much speculation. Her actions were perhaps, as much a dynastic defence-mechanism as an act of personal ambition, the details lost in time, resulting in a fundamentally amicable co-regency with Thutmosis III.

Hatshepsut’s prosperous, largely peaceful rule, as attested within Djeser-Djeseru and at Speos Artemidos, exemplifies a productive, competent kingship. The scholar, Jan Assmann has said that we now know infinitely more about ancient Egypt than have all the experts of the past, and yet we are less sure of what to do with that information. Occasionally however, the archaeological record allows ‘specific and personalised insight’, into royal life in New Kingdom Egypt, (O’Connor 1994). Hatshepsut’s narrative within her mortuary temple and through the Speos Artemidos inscription does this eloquently, revealing something of the life and achievements of an extraordinary king.


“Hatshepsut, King of Egypt” by Barbara O’Neill is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial License.



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Dr. J. Tyldesley http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/hatshepsut_01.shtml

Papyrus Westcar:




Photographs of Hatshepsut statuary, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Photographer: Vernon Appleby

Photographs of Deir el Bahri (Djeser Djeseru): Photographer Andrea Byrnes

Photograph of  Speos Artemidos: Photographer Einsamer Schütze

Epithets of Hatshepsut as king:  Barbara O’Neill