The Setting Sun

Now in her late thirties, Hatshepsut seems to have devoted her time as king to cult activity, either by building temples or by celebrating festivals. She was still the senior monarch, but Thutmose III had emerged as an energetic co-king. New temple scenes were ordered to show and name the junior monarch—if not to put him on equal footing with his senior king, then at least to raise his status. Now in his twenties, Thutmose III ruled as commander of the army. If he had wanted to get rid of his aunt, this would have been the time to do it, but there is no evidence that he made any such move. What did he think about being the only male king in Egypt’s fifteen-hundred-year pharaonic history to rule as the junior of a woman monarch? Did he prepare for the day when he would finally rule alone? We can only wonder. The evidence suggests that Hatshepsut and Thutmose III worked within a partnership of mutual dependence because of the strange way in which their joint rule had been formed at its outset.

The year 16 Sed festival had already changed their relationship irrevocably, and to Thutmose III’s benefit, by elevating the nature of his kingship, finally making him a visible partner. He seems to have kept his altered throne name at the jubilee—which had been changed from the original Menkheperre to Menkheperkare with Hatshepsut’s accession, but in just four short years, around year 20,1 he would have the agency to change it back, moving from “the Manifestation of the Soul of Re Is Enduring” to “the Manifestation of Re Is Enduring,” no longer separating him from the true embodiments of the sun god.

After the Sed festival, Hatshepsut began work on the artistic masterpiece of her reign: a small chapel of sparkling deep red quartzite built in the heart of Karnak Temple, which is fittingly called the Red Chapel by Egyptologists. The reliefs and texts found here represent the culmination of Hatshepsut’s conception of divine kingship. Nowhere is she represented as a woman; rather, she is always fashioned with a masculine kingly form—broad shoulders, narrow hips, muscular legs, and a masculine nose and chin—that makes her depiction on this monument almost indistinguishable from her nephew’s. Apparently the artisans who carved their figures side by side into the red stone were instructed to make the co-kings look exactly alike, as if they were replicas of the same king. There are more figures of Hatshepsut than Thutmose III in the Red Chapel, and she was still given the primary position in each scene, but something about their relationship had changed. Only her names and pronouns distinguish her from her nephew and betray her feminine nature. Thutmose III and Hatshepsut are placed symmetrically—as partners—in the relief scenes on many of the carved blocks: both oversee countless festivals and religious rites and act in concert to keep Egypt in the gods’ good graces.

Hatshepsut had to relocate the barque shrine that was standing where she intended to build her Red Chapel; it was a shrine at which she had performed countless rituals.2 All of this work to disassemble structures and construct new ones demonstrates how vital Hatshepsut felt it was to inject her presence—through the carving of her images and names—into the very core of Karnak Temple where the great god Amen dwelt and was transformed. Perhaps she was looking forward to her legacy after death, when future kings would perform cultic rituals to Amen while lamplight flickered over her many images, just as she had made offerings in the sanctuary of her forefathers. Hatshepsut wanted to leave an indelible mark on Karnak’s most sacred heart, and near her new barque shrine3she built a suite of rooms called the Palace of Truth that was decorated with her introduction into the gods’ presence and highlighted by a scene of purification by two gods who poured streams of holy water over her head and welcomed her into their holy midst.4

She called her new barque chapel “the Place in the Heart of Amen.” Some of the blocks were so dark red they appeared to be purple, the perfect color to evoke the sun as he expired and slipped below the western horizon full of the potentiality of rebirth. It was a fitting construction for the last years of Hatshepsut’s pious reign: it exemplified her claims to supernatural abilities and characteristics,5 and by representing her heir Thutmose III, it promoted her Thutmoside dynasty in the future on her terms. On this structure, she explained how and why her kingship was supported by the gods and highlighted her support of Thutmose III’s junior leadership. The walls featured a list of the king’s duties, with an emphasis on the obligations of being chief priest: how she stocked the altars with food and drink, tended the temple and palace lands, relegated duties to her priests, created and implemented laws and regulations, built temples of sandstone and granite, created statuary of herself and her co-king, constructed a proper homelike setting for each and every god according to his or her requirements (Mut liked beer, Amen needed his wife’s sexual abilities, etc.), and created the appropriate conditions for each god’s “primeval time,” or sexual rebirth. Finally, like a good ruler, she sought out economic growth to increase her empire and expand her treasuries to support the Egyptian deities.6

The Red Chapel was a culmination of what Hatshepsut believed her kingship to be, and to Hatshepsut that meant unceasing and untiring activity, always being there when the gods needed her. She used the Red Chapel blocks to highlight her piety by showing the daily meal for the god Amen in his sanctuary (perhaps this was something that she enjoyed doing, like a daily meditation that calmed her and cleared out her head): awakening the statue of the god, purifying and anointing him, changing his clothing, offering food and drink, then resealing and veiling the gilded shrine. Upon leaving, she would have erased all traces of having been there; a scene from the Red Chapel shows Hatshepsut herself sweeping the floor of her footprints as she backs out of the sanctuary.

Another scene from the Red Chapel suggests that such rituals were performed for statues of the living king, a new hallmark of the New Kingdom seemingly started by Hatshepsut and continued by the likes of Amenhotep III and Ramses II.7 Thutmose III is depicted offering in front of a statue of Hatshepsut as Osiris at one of the way-station chapels on the processional avenue between Karnak and Luxor Temples. In another scene, Hatshepsut herself is represented performing rituals before her own Osirian statue. Such ritual activity reinforced the mysteries of the Egyptian monarchy at the most profound level, with the living king offering to the larger kingship, of which he was a part but still simultaneously served.

Given that cult activity was so time-consuming, particularly for a pious monarch like Hatshepsut, the female king needed support in the form of priests or priestesses in temples throughout the land.8 The royal family could not spend all their time in the temple. Instead, Thutmose III and Hatshepsut probably passed most of their days and nights in the plastered and painted mud-brick palaces along the Nile and scattered around the delta, shaded by palm trees and near pools of cool water. The junior king probably went wherever important administrative or military duties pulled him, while Hatshepsut likely preferred her beloved hometown of Thebes.

Apparently Thutmose III was constantly in transit, whether visiting the harem palace at Medinet el-Gurob at the mouth of the Fayum oasis, working with venerable elites at Memphis, celebrating Atum’s creation at Heliopolis, or inspecting the fortresses along the northwest border from his base at Perunefer. He was fulfilling the duties of the junior king, to the benefit of both himself and Hatshepsut, becoming the Thutmoside heir Hatshepsut needed. Evidence suggests that sporting activities—like hunting, archery, rowing, running, and charioteering—were important to Thutmose III and his entourage. We can only imagine the Egyptians energetically relating the zeal of their young, fit king and his manly exploits on the battlefield or hunting grounds. The previous years under Hatshepsut’s leadership had been rather thin in the area of royal sport, what with the partnership of a woman and a child king, and before that with the short-lived Thutmose II and the older Thutmose I. These last years of the joint reign must have been an exciting time for the young king to display his physical prowess. The Egyptians had not had a vigorous young man on the Egyptian throne for generations. Thutmose III fit the ideals and expectations of the royal hymns of old.

Thutmose III’s eldest son was named Amenemhat, and Nefrure—if indeed she was married to the king—was most likely to have been the boy’s mother; Amenemhat would have been seven or eight years old in Hatshepsut’s last years.9 But this child is hard to find in the ancient sources, and uncertainty swirls about him. It remains unclear how many times Nefrure became pregnant, if ever; how many times she brought a child to term; how many miscarriages or stillbirths she suffered; or any other details about her ability to bear children. Thutmose III had many other wives, most of them unnamed and unrecorded—though some, like Queen Satiah, the daughter of the treasurer and tutor Ahmose-Pennekhbet, came from the families of powerful officials—and they all would have been engaged in a high-stakes race to produce sons. Viable successors were always a necessary commodity. A king wasn’t truly accomplished until his heir was securely placed on the throne after him. Perhaps Hatshepsut dwelled upon this fact and was anxious to fill in this last remaining gap.

 Hatshepsut was now an androgynous, mature, and unmarried female king, and the long-term possibilities of claiming future rule for her direct lineage (via Nefrure) were fated to fail. Everything would have depended on the political success of just one girl. But there is indeed evidence that Nefrure, like her mother, reached a status higher than that of the typical Egyptian queen and God’s Wife of Amen. In the reliefs on the upper terrace of Hatshepsut’s funerary temple, Egyptian artisans were ordered to carve a large-scale female figure (whose name is now erased but who many think was once Nefrure); she is shown standing directly before a goddess, a kingly presumption not fit for a queen and proof for some that Nefrure was indeed raised as her mother’s heir to take over some kind of shared kingship with Thutmose III.10 Perhaps Hatshepsut was now considering Nefrure as a kind of female heir. At this point in Hatshepsut’s reign, Nefrure was labeled on a Sinai inscription as Mistress of the Two Lands and Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt—titles used by the female king Hatshepsut herself.11 The stela from the Sinai seems to be dated to Nefrure’s own regnal year, an audacity in itself—“year 11 of the majesty of the God’s Wife Nefrure”—as if she were a king in her own right.12 On the same Sinai stela, her name was followed by royal epithets like “living forever” or “stability and power like Re,” which should only follow the name or image of a king, not of a woman, no matter how highly born. All of this hints that Hatshepsut really did intend for Nefrure to become some kind of coruler to Thutmose III. It was an indication that she trusted her daughter more than anyone else to keep her legacy secure: Hatshepsut continually placed her in powerful positions, set her up for more authority in the future, and depended upon her to keep the family dynasty thriving.

Between years 18 and 21, Hatshepsut ordered craftsmen to create another such image of Nefrure, this time at her Djeser Djeseru temple in Thebes, where everyone would see it, and with the title Mistress of the Two Lands, which was reserved only for the highest-ranked queens capable of political leadership.13 Whatever the real intentions of this scene, it seems to have been too much for some to take. Nefrure’s names were later removed and changed to those of Hatshepsut’s mother, Ahmes, long since dead, suggesting that depicting Nefrure in such a powerful position was considered inappropriate by influential power players. There is further evidence to the same effect: in the Upper Chapel of Anubis at the same temple, Nefrure’s images were replaced by carvings of Thutmose I, Hatshepsut’s father, modifications many believe were made during Hatshepsut’s lifetime.14 It is possible that Hatshepsut had wanted her daughter to attain a status approaching her own, a level of power that neared that of a king, but she was ultimately forced to change her plans. It is likely that Thutmose III, or the Amen priesthood, or some faction of elites resisted, fearing the creation of another strange male-female coregency, this time beyond the justification of necessity and dynastic security. Hatshepsut apparently relented, bowing to political or religious pressures and ordering the removal of all such images from her funerary temple. Or maybe no one dared speak against the senior king at all. Nefrure might have died during her mother’s reign, ruining all such hopes for an heir of her own lineage.

If Hatshepsut was really considering the elevation of Nefrure to co-king, then it suggests that there was more to her own rule than selfless protection of her dynasty; perhaps her power had developed beyond a need to serve the gods and the country. Or it raises the possibility that by the time Thutmose III had become an active co-king, she now saw this arrangement of elevating Nefrure as preferable to just letting Thutmose pass the kingship on to an heir of his choice. If she was really attempting to give Nefrure unprecedented power as God’s Wife and queen (or even co-king) alongside Thutmose III, then she was meddling with affairs of succession after her death, trying to force the selection of an heir from her chosen wife. If all of these hypotheses bear out, then Hatshepsut did finally become a revolutionary thinker, a romantic idealist who believed she could permanently change the nature of the kingship, by appending a queen, in the modern sense of the word, as a coruler. This may have been Hatshepsut’s last, best attempt to institutionalize the ongoing power of a woman, a decision she could make only after years of authority had changed her character. When she began her rise to power, it was in a mad scramble to save her dynasty. When she claimed the kingship, there is every suggestion that she was constantly negotiating and adapting her femininity to accepted traditions. But then, finally, in her last years, secure upon her throne and possibly lost in anxious ruminations, she acted on her own personal investments, attempting to institute a significant change in Egypt’s system of kingship on behalf of her daughter. The details are murky, but Hatshepsut’s orders toward the end of her reign suggest her modus operandi had shifted.

Despite Hatshepsut’s maneuvering (perceived or real) to ensure her daughter the best possible political and religious positions, all we see today are hints of Nefrure’s name, and the clear evidence of a systematic campaign to remove her from the record. Why? Nefrure was also born to Thutmose II, making her a sibling of Thutmose III. Who would harm the King’s Sister, ordering an assault on the girl most closely connected to Hatshepsut? If Nefrure’s execrations happened during her mother’s lifetime, it could indicate that the God’s Wife had fallen out of favor with one or both of the ruling kings. If her names were removed after Nefrure’s death, after another woman took over as chief queen of Thutmose III and God’s Wife of Amen, it is likely that people suffered her aspirations and presumptions only while she was alive and gladly removed any trace in her absence. But in the end, the destruction of her names implies that Nefrure’s claims to kingly power—at least in the way she was depicted as standing directly before divinities, offering to them as a king, and calling herself Mistress of the Two Lands—were seen as overreaching and something that needed to be expunged.

Hatshepsut lost all ambitions for her daughter when Nefrure’s names were erased. If the execrations happened in these last years of Hatshepsut’s life, this massive political defeat must have been a devastating end to all the female king’s plans and ambitions, perhaps even hastening an early death. Indeed, Nefrure’s presumptive claims of royal titles are enough for some Egyptologists to whisper that Hatshepsut did not die a natural death at all15 but was helped to a premature end because her presumptions for Nefrure were made out of personal ambitions that were likely antithetical to the agenda of her partner on the throne.

Senenmut’s role in Nefrure’s fall is unknown. According to the sources, Senenmut was the overseer of the ongoing work at Djeser Djeseru, and ostensibly he was the one who supervised the creation of Nefrure’s images and possibly even the one who subsequently had to see to their removal. Because Nefrure had the potential to be a great future patron to Senenmut, just as her mother had been, he may not only have protected her but also actively promoted her interests. If she were to fall from grace, Senenmut would have tumbled as well.

 A few circumstantial clues point to tensions during the later years of Hatshepsut’s reign. Carved repeatedly at her temple of Djeser Djeseru is the phrase “he who shall do her homage shall live, he who shall speak evil in blasphemy of her Majesty shall die.”16 This statement is not typically found on a New Kingdom funerary temple, leading us to wonder what criticisms people were actually whispering about Hatshepsut’s reign. Despite such a warning, there is no evidence that Hatshepsut killed any of her officials for noncompliance. To the contrary, the fact that Nefrure’s names may have been replaced during Hatshepsut’s reign indicates that she was not able to get her way all the time, and that she may have bent to the will of the majority who longed for traditional models of kingship.

There can be no doubt that Hatshepsut’s unprecedented power came at a price, literally, and during her reign officials were well compensated, spending more money on conspicuous displays of statuary and tombs than during any previous period in the New Kingdom. The number and size of the elites’ tomb chapels in western Thebes testify to the rapid uptick in wealth among her officials, riches they could only have earned under her watch. Officials commissioned numerous temple statues of themselves and competed with one another for the most unusual and impressive tomb chapel paintings and secret religious inscriptions.17 To be sure, Hatshepsut ruled over a time of prosperity and expansion for Egypt, but this boom of nonroyal construction represented something more. The elites understood the unusual nature of the current kingship, as well as the affluence of the nation’s financial situation; they combined the two to create a perfect recipe for their personal enrichment, one that verged on bureaucratic blackmail. This new breed of king was dependent upon their approval, and collectively they seem to have taken advantage of their clout, asking for more tombs, more statues, more sacred texts—more than previous officials ever felt they could demand. These men formulated new rules of style and convention and reveled in their creativity and one-upmanship.18 Hatshepsut likely created her own monsters—nobles she bought off and had to keep compensating and elevating.19

Luckily for Hatshepsut, Egypt’s current state of prosperity could support such payoffs to loyal men. Without gold from Nubia and the Eastern Desert, sacred stones from her quarries, turquoise from the Sinai, cedar from Lebanon, ebony from sub-Saharan Africa, electrum from the Eastern Desert, ivory, and panther skins from Punt, stores of grain from rich harvests, and trade with Phoenicians and Cretans of the Aegean, it is unlikely that Hatshepsut ever could have gained as much power as she did. She did not create her position as female king through bullying or charm; she bought it.

Hatshepsut also commodified her ability to talk to the gods. Many officials had their pious monarch painted into their tomb chapels because she could speak to divinity on their behalf.20 These “loyalist” depictions provide some clue as to the coercions and inducements that transpired during Hatshepsut’s reign, implying that there was something material and political to be gained from having a figure of Hatshepsut in one’s tomb and that an individual would thrive from showing the king such respect and demonstrate his favored status at court. There is no evidence that any officials refused to display such loyalty or, on the other end of the spectrum, that they were compelled to do so by force or threat; rather, it seems an oft-deployed tactic, and royally bestowed honor, to win and keep the king’s favor. Her officials knew that they needed to stay on her good side, or at the very least everyone was happy to ride the gravy train and toe the line.

For her part, Hatshepsut seemed eager to stay in the gods’ good graces. The empire was growing—extending from parts of Palestine to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in modern-day Sudan—and its products were designated by Hatshepsut to be the gods’ bounty. Prisoners of war were plentiful, and the institution of slavery had recently been revived as a more significant part of the Egyptian economy. Spoils from the campaigns in Kerma had been extensive.21 Egypt was so prosperous that temples of mud brick, which had previously been periodically rebuilt when the unbaked bricks denuded, were now being constructed entirely of stone. Now, instead of growing vertically as time went on, temples grew horizontally in giant sprawls of stone, at Hatshepsut’s command. With eachpassing reign, kings continued to add structures and elements to Karnak Temple, eventually turning it into the largest surviving religious complex in the world.

It is a happy coincidence that Thebes, the best-preserved site for archaeology, was also Hatshepsut’s ancestral home, her most favored holy city, and the focus of most of her building projects. Elite families swirled about in a cheerful concoction of co-option and payoffs; they endorsed Hatshepsut’s nontraditional coregency because it benefited them in the here and now, but ostensibly had no intention of continuing such female kingships in the future. However, during her reign, her courtiers were more than happy to bow to her demands in exchange for jewels, tombs, statues, homes, livestock, lands, and the marriage of their daughters to her male counterpart, the junior king. She communicated her message to her elites—through endless reliefs and obelisks, through her trading expedition to Punt, through celebrations such as the Valley Festival, the Opet festival, the Sed festival—and it was a simple one: I am god, and thus I am also money. Follow me, and you will be rich.

Many men did follow her. Hapuseneb, the First High Priest of Amen, did not even feel compelled to include the image or name of Thutmose III in his tomb, keeping all his displays of loyalty to Hatshepsut alone.22 Senenmut also focused on his service to Hatshepsut and was allowed to have his image carved into many of her temples, thus displaying to everyone his intimate level of access.23 Her vizier Useramen was granted the privilege of the secret incantations from the Amduat for his burial chamber, a text that the kings after Hatshepsut jealously reserved only for their own use. 24

 It was time for Hatshepsut to prepare for her own final end in the eternal west, and she opted for the grandeur and innovation that we’ve come to expect from the female king. She had long ago abandoned her tomb as King’s Daughter and King’s Wife in the inconspicuous Wadi Sikkat Taka el-Zeida, choosing instead to be buried as a king in the majestic royal cemetery established by her father, Thutmose I. Not only did she follow him to the hidden Valley of the Kings, but in keeping with her father’s creative example, she also separated her tomb from her funerary temple; each was built in a different Theban location. Until the late Seventeenth Dynasty, kings had buried themselves in richly marked graves that were usually topped with gold-capped pyramids, and the temple structures for the cult of the dead king were directly attached to that grave.25 Hatshepsut’s father, however, had hit upon an ingenious solution ostensibly meant to ward off tomb robbery or to create another layer of secrecy and mystery around the king’s tomb. Thutmose I had decided to inter his body in a secret cliff-side tomb within the huge, naturally pyramid-shaped mountain at western Thebes—today we know it as the Valley of the Kings. It was a bold plan conceived by a confident monarch. His son Thutmose II followed suit, it seems, and King Hatshepsut also adopted this new burial scheme. There remains debate over whether she cut a tomb of her own or simply added a new burial chamber to that of Thutmose I.26 Either way, it was in an Amduat-adorned27 burial hall that Hatshepsut intended to share eternity with her father. His coffin would be placed inside the first sarcophagus she had commissioned for herself on becoming king; she had it almost entirely reinscribed for Thutmose. Having so carefully reworked the piece, it must have been a terrible shock when Thutmose’s coffin turned out to be too big to fit inside: the scars of the hurried hacking-out of additional stone to make more space can still be seen. Hatshepsut ordered another sarcophagus for her own ultimate interment alongside Thutmose I, and a near-duplicate was ordered for Senenmut.28

Her funerary temple of Djeser Djeseru was also finished during her lifetime, so she had the luxury of adding elements that were not completely necessary, little embellishments that she (or Senenmut, the building’s architect) enjoyed. At the foot of the long avenue leading from the funerary temple to the edge of the desert, Hatshepsut added a valley temple to receive her body before it was to be carried to the funerary temple itself. This valley temple was one of the last structures built by Hatshepsut, and work appears to have been ongoing when she died. Archaeologists found tools lying in the fill, seemingly left by their owners, who abandoned the site the moment they found out that the king had flown to heaven, perhaps sensing that the valley temple would not be finished by Thutmose III.29

Work on Egyptian royal tombs and temples always seems to have continued to the very last moment of a ruler’s death. It was almost as if the Egyptians thought the process of preparing for the afterlife could stave off the end itself. And when a monarch died, the next king typically did little more than ensure that the previous king’s sepulcher was capable of housing a body—any other outstanding details were left unfinished. The new king’s interests, along with his predecessor’s funds, were now directed toward the new king’s tomb and the new king’s temples. Egyptians were not troubled by the idea of burying a king in an incomplete tomb—that was the last guy’s problem—so the unfinished elements of Hatshepsut’s tomb or temple alone should not make us suspect she met a bad end.

The truth is that we have no idea how Hatshepsut died. Maybe she fell ill. Perhaps her daughter Nefrure sat with her as she lay prone in her royal bedchamber, burning with fever, attempting to calm her mother’s spirits during this final transformation. Because all the evidence suggests that Hatshepsut was quite pious, she probably believed that the gods were calling for her to ascend to them, to fly up to the solar barque of millions of years and journey with Re through the heavens of day and night. Perhaps her deathwatch was accompanied by solar spells of mourning marking the moment of the sun god’s passing into the west and the underworld:

They adore the great god after he has reached them. It is their voices which guide them to him. It is their wailing which accompanies him.… They are those who bring the ba-souls to their sleep. What they have to do is to care for the bringing of deep night and to perform sacrifices according to their hours. It is they who guard the day and bring the night until this great god has come out from the Unified Darkness to settle in the gateway of the eastern horizon of the sky. They wail because of this great god. They mourn him after he has passed by them. Whoever knows them will go forth by day and by night. He will be carried off to the trees of the Greatest City.30

And so, after almost twenty-two years as regent and then as king, ruling from approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE, the woman who started as a King’s Daughter and God’s Wife, who went on to become the greatest female ruler Egypt would ever see, who transformed mud-brick temples into sprawling complexes of stone, who professionalized the priesthood of her gods and the army of her people, was dead. All her plans, all her anxieties, her obsession with succession and political stability—it all was finally out of her hands, and in the firm control of another.

There is no record of Thutmose III’s emotions at the death of his aunt and co-king. Presumably he visited her on her deathbed, perhaps covering his nose with a linen cloth against the overwhelming stench of coming mortality. Throughout Thebes and beyond, to the priests and elites of Memphis and Heliopolis, word would have spread that Egypt’s mistress was near her end. All of Egypt would have waited until finally the air left her lungs and her body deflated, leaving her lying prone, not in the stillness of sleep but in death. Priests and servants would have chanted and wailed around her, aiding her passage into the beyond.

We can imagine Nefrure (if she was still alive) directing the servants to bathe Hatshepsut for the last time and to wash and plait her mother’s hair before the royal embalmers arrived to take her to the place of purity within the temple. Once in the house of embalming, Hatshepsut’s body (the extremities perhaps already turning black) would have been laid on a tall bed with legs fashioned to resemble a lion’s, a symbol of kingship, for a long night of incantations and spells. The priests likely chanted out the mechanisms for a successful journey through the heavens, intoning sacred words and phrases that would give her sustenance and strength for the long road ahead, protection against demons along the way, and transformation when she ultimately became an everlasting golden Osiris.

At one point in the ritual, Nefrure may have stood at her mother’s feet, in the place of the goddess Isis, through the long night, wailing and lamenting. During these rituals, Nefrure would have performed as a Daughter of Re, a ferocious protector against any who might do the king harm. And in her grief, Nefrure likely tore at her linen garments, baring her breasts, ripping and tangling her hair so that when daylight came and the embalmers readied themselves to carry away Hatshepsut’s corpse for mummification, Nefrure had to be restrained, still screaming and crying out for her dead mother. Such was the grief we see depicted in some Eighteenth Dynasty paintings of mourning. Or perhaps Nefrure stood there stoically, watching over her mother, knowing that her circumstances had instantly and irrevocably changed.

The royal place of embalming was likely filled with a haze of incense, a cacophony of priestly incantations and muttered orders among the mummifiers going about their business. The first incision into the royal corpse would have been made with a razor-sharp ritual knife of flaked obsidian—a cut just below the belly on the body’s left side, just long enough for the flesh to gape open and pull away from itself, creating a hole that likely released a puff of methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia gases with a slow hiss. The other embalmers would then turn to the priest who had dared to cut the royal body, and, as was traditionally expected in the ritual, curse him with invectives and throw potsherds at the poor man, driving the priest out of the room under a hail of broken bits of crockery until he himself could undergo a purifying ritual.

Another embalmer would have then stepped forward and carefully fit his hand into the seam in Hatshepsut’s belly. He probably took his time feeling about until his fingers found the body part he wanted. Perhaps he started with the bowels, slowly pulling the length of Hatshepsut’s intestines out of the cavity, lest they break, snaking the shiny wet mass into a large bronze bowl held up by one of his colleagues. The work was likely slow and smelly. The putrid stench of death would have collided with the sweet, rich fragrance of incense in the room, probably produced from the very same pellets procured on her trading expedition to Punt more than ten years before.

When the embalming priest inserted his hand into the cavity yet again, he would have reached farther into the corpse to pull out the king’s stomach. Hatshepsut’s last meal of gruel and broth may have still sloshed about inside. When he reached into her abdomen again, he would have had to thrust his entire forearm inside the body of the king. Perhaps he closed his eyes to concentrate as he broke some of the tissue connections, and then, with one hand on top of her belly to guide his movement, the other still inside, he shifted the liver toward the incision. With great care and with the help of more colleagues, he must have stretched the incision by applying lubricating oils so that he could remove the quivering, dark brown-red mass without damage to the body or the organ. Only with skill and patience could the liver be removed in one piece.

The lungs were always tricky. The embalming priest’s arm would have been thrust beyond his elbow at this point, and maybe with intense concentration and incantations on his lips invoking the gods in protection of the lungs, he could carefully detach the right lung with his fingertips, never able to see what he was doing, but knowing the places where the organ might burst if prodded or where he might snap the tissue holding the mass to her body. The priest had to work around the heart muscle; it had to remain in the body undisturbed as the seat of the king’s soul, a measure of Hatshepsut’s goodness, and the physical tether holding her spirit to her corpse. Once the lobe was free, he could maneuver the lung around the heart with one hand inside the body, the other pressed against herbreast, until the organ reached the mouth of the incision. With practiced skill, the organ was removed and placed in a bowl for curing in a dedicated room in the embalming house.

Throughout the process, men assisted with basins of water to allow the chief embalmer to wash his bloody hands. Priests would have chanted spells and kept the incense pellets burning until a new set of instruments was brought. At this point, the embalmer would have selected a long metal hooked tool and approached Hatshepsut’s head, leaning down so that he was face-to-face with the mighty king, his chin at her forehead, before carefully inserting the tool into the nose of the corpse. He likely reached for another tool from the tray—a small mallet, which he could use to smack the metal stick sharply until he heard the crunch of the ethmoid bone giving way. After repeating this gesture on the other nostril, he would have inserted a long-handled spoon into the skull cavity and scooped out bit after bit of brain through the nose, trying to remove large chunks to speed the work, but not so large that his actions would harm the nostrils, certainly knowing that any impatience would result in a dilated and deformed nose.

When the spoon no longer pushed easily through soft, fatty brain matter but collided with the back of the skull, Hatshepsut’s corpse would have been turned facedown and tilted feet up so that the rest of the brain matter could slide toward the nostrils for removal. With no way to take out the brain in one piece, its removal was laborious and time-consuming. Hatshepsut’s brain tissue was thus not embalmed, but likely saved for burial in a mummification cache, a collection of used embalming materials and bits of human tissue. One did not just throw away the remnants of a pharaoh’s putrefaction; this was a god’s body, after all.

The body cavity would then have been packed inside and out with natron salts to draw out the moisture, the salts either held in linen bags or left loose like sand. Hatshepsut’s naked body, rounded with middle age, was likely covered by these salts for weeks; when the natron became soaked with liquids after a few days, the embalming priests would apply a fresh salt treatment, slowly and carefully drawing all the moisture from Hatshepsut’s body. This curing process lasted for more than a month, during which time the corpse was never left unattended. The king’s body was believed to be like the god’s statue in a sanctuary; it was meant to be safeguarded and cared for, while priests chanted spells, made offerings, and burned incense night and day. Hatshepsut herself was finally receiving the ritual attention that she had been trained to perform as a girl and had done for countless gods in countless sanctuaries as king. As a mummy, she was transformed into a god, clothed, anointed, and revered.

When the body was finally cured, it would have appeared brittle and brown, with its hair and toenails in danger of falling away; Hatshepsut’s face contracted to the skull; her eye cavities sunken under closed eyelids; her body shed of its fat and lifelike fullness; and her ribs protruding through slack folds of grayish-brown skin. To rectify this, the embalmers would have dipped their hands into precious oils and fats, which they carefully poured over and massaged into the royal corpse, granting it pliability and flexibility. They used fatty unguents and fragrant tree resins to treat every part of the king’s body. A funnel was likely placed into the nostrils, and aromatic resins were even poured into the empty skull cavity.

When the body was ready for wrapping, embalmers would have worked closely with priests who chanted transformative spells while the first layers of sacred temple linens—specially woven for the occasion—were wound about the corpse. Necklaces and collars were placed around Hatshepsut’s neck, rings on fingers and toes, belts around her waist, and a golden diadem upon her head. Each finger and toe was likely individually wrapped over the jewelry, adding layer after layer of finely woven temple linen, restoring fullness to the corpse and lending sacred protection to the sanctity of this holy body. When the embalming was finally complete, after about two and a half months, the Egyptians believed the corpse of Hatshepsut had become Osiris, ready to be interred into his tomb.

 Thutmose III would have received word when the embalming was done—it was his responsibility to act as chief priest at the funerary rituals of his aunt and co-king. He may have even visited the house of embalming to ensure that the wrapped body was properly prepared for the transformation rituals.31 It was his duty to bring the body of Maatkare Hatshepsut to the temple of Djeser Djeseru for the last time.

The procession from the temple to the river was orchestrated to be a demonstration of grief: some priests beat drums as they walked, officials and other priests dressed in their finest white linen with bowed, freshly shaved heads followed behind, and elites in their wigs and finery made a more stoic march. Hatshepsut’s women would have provided a stark contrast, ripping at their clothing and beating their breasts, throwing sand and dirt upon their heads. The royal children may have trailed along, their eyes wide at seeing their first royal funeral. Nefrure may have paced in the procession as God’s Wife of Amen, behind her king and husband, Thutmose III.

Oxen would have dragged the prepared corpse and gilded coffins on sleds toward Djeser Djeseru on Thebes’s west bank in Hatshepsut’s last sacred festival procession. Her canopic chest—containing her stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines, each in its own cylindrical container—followed on another sled. Servants would have carried stools, tables, chests, boxes with wigs and clothing, sheets and food, makeup, and sandals. Priests likely bore shrines containing the statues of divinities, sacred papyri, and boxes containing mummified meats. Others brought amphorae of beer and wine. This long and opulent procession wound its way to the quay where all of these necessary commodities were loaded on a Nile boat for the king’s last journey to the west.32

The rituals inside Hatshepsut’s funerary temple must have lasted for many days, if not weeks. Thutmose III, now the sole living king, would have acted as her son and heir in the Opening of the Mouth rite when her mummy was placed upon its feet so the living king could touch different parts of the body with sacred instruments, thus enlivening her mouth and eyes, opening her ears, and enabling her arms and hands to be cut loose from their bonds of death, so they might reach out and touch and take again. Food was offered in a lengthy ritual meal. Drums banged. Sistra shook. Chanting filled the room.

Hatshepsut’s death rites visited all of the cult spaces within her funerary temple, connecting the dead Hatshepsut with a series of divinities, including Amen, Hathor, Re-Horakhty, Anubis, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris (an amalgamation of mummiform gods who have the power to resurrect themselves), and even her deified father, Thutmose I. The cult space dedicated to Hatshepsut as a woman was inscribed with the Book of Hours33 and chapter 148 from the Book of the Dead.34 Here Thutmose III probably enacted hourly incantations connecting Hatshepsut’s transformations with the sun god’s movement. Her mummy was probably set up like a cult statue in this consecrated sanctuary, as rituals enabled a sacred transfer of power from Hatshepsut to her nephew.

Now believed transformed in her Temple of Millions of Years, Hatshepsut’s mummy would have been placed back into the coffin, loaded on the sacred sled once again, and dragged over the dirt and sand roads in yet another stately procession. Attended by all of Thebes along the way, her revitalized corpse was eventually brought to the valley hidden behind the cliff face of her funerary temple, its entrance nestled high in the western mountain sacred to the goddess Hathor. The crowd was not allowed into this mysterious valley, home of the Thutmoside kings.

Hatshepsut was probably less than forty when she died. Despite the claims of a Discovery Channel television show The Lost Queen, her mummy has still not been firmly identified. Given that there is no direct evidence for any kind of foul play,35 Hatshepsut probably died the same way most people did in her day: from a viral or bacterial inflammation of some kind. She must have already suffered her share of infections and survived—perhaps tuberculosis or malaria or eye maladies—but each would have taken a toll on her health. With a steady supply of rich palace food, malnourishment wasn’t an issue, but her diet also meant she would not have kept the trim shape of a young woman into middle age. Still, as a woman required to be on her feet for much of her daily duties, walking before processions and performing cult rituals in temples throughout Egypt, it’s unlikely that she was the indolent, lazy monarch some claim she was.36

Hatshepsut seems to have been treated with care and respect at her death. Indeed, objects recovered from western Thebes indicate that she was buried as the king she claimed to be.37 As Hatshepsut’s corpse was transported to her sacred tomb, the procession would have thinned to less than a dozen people, not counting the craftsmen and laborers pulling the corpse and all the funerary objects. Only those initiated in the mysteries of royal burial and transformation could enter and perform the necessary rituals, including another Opening of the Mouth. It is possible that Nefrure, as God’s Wife of Amen, was able to accompany her mother’s body into the tomb, ready to act as a grieving goddess for the king, a sacred bird who spread her wings over the deceased in protection. There is no reason, however, to believe that Senenmut, a highly placed bureaucrat, would have been allowed to take part in such a hallowed procession.

By the time Hatshepsut was placed into her sarcophagus in her tomb, she had been dead for almost three months. Her mummy may have been covered with a shroud similar to the decorated cloth that was later placed over the body of her nephew Thutmose III. The words on the surface of his linen linked the king inextricably with the sun god: “His ba soul is your ba soul. His corpse is your corpse. Re says to Menkheperre: You are like me, my own second self.” This total identification of the king with the sun god was included in the Litany of Re, which listed the seventy-four different manifestations of the sun god.38 The series of nested coffins containing Hatshepsut’s mummy was then placed in a quartzite sarcophagus. The coffins are now lost (apart from some fragments found elsewhere in the Valley of the Kings), but the sarcophagus in which she was buried lies today in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Despite the Egyptians’ obsession with dates and regnal years, the actual date of Hatshepsut’s death is also a mystery. We know that Thutmose III left for his great Syrian campaign in year 22, and because there was no mention of Hatshepsut in the inscriptions recording those battles, Egyptologists assume that Hatshepsut died in or just before year 22, probably just shy of forty years of age. She had spent her childhood as the God’s Wife of Amen during the reign of her father, Thutmose I, a few years as chief queen to a short-lived king, seven years as a regent to a child king, and fifteen years in a coregency with her nephew-king, Thutmose III. Neither she nor her daughter had sons who survived to take kingly office. Despite not having an heir herself, Hatshepsut had trained Thutmose III, creating the conditions for him and his offspring to continue what she had created. Her legacy thus lived on through the Thutmoside line she had scratched and clawed and fought to maintain, against all the odds. She may have died aware of her unprecedented achievements, knowing that all was in place for her legacy to be celebrated for millennia after. Hatshepsut died as king, and she was buried as such—serving forever as this ancient land’s longest-lived and most successful female monarch. Egypt would not be ruled by another such woman for fifteen hundred years.

But if Hatshepsut had hoped to be buried alongside her father, Thutmose III had other ideas. The dead do not bury themselves, after all. He seems to have moved the mummy of his grandfather from Hatshepsut’s tomb and into KV 38, which was either Thutmose I’s original tomb or a new tomb made especially for his grandfather by Thutmose III. In any case, the dedicatory inscriptions on the sarcophagus and canopic chest that came to house Thutmose I in KV 38 show that they were made for the reinterment by Thutmose III. Poor Thutmose I could not rest in peace, his mummy moved first by Hatshepsut and then by his grandson. Everyone wanted to claim lineage from this great man to form a royal dynastic mythology. Thutmose III’s future kingship depended on creating his own direct connection to his grandfather.

Whether Nefrure lived on after her mother’s death is still a matter of debate, as is the fate of Senenmut. If they were still alive, how they reacted to Hatshepsut’s end is not known, but her death must have devastated both of them, if in different ways. Nefrure lost more than a mother; Hatshepsut had been her best means to acquire further political power. Without Hatshepsut there, Nefrure’s position as highest-ranking wife was likely threatened; indeed, Satiah, the daughter of treasurer Ahmose Pennekhbet, seems to have been promoted to chief wife after Hatshepsut’s death. As for Senenmut, Hatshepsut had provided the only means for him to gain and keep economic power. After she was gone, not only did he never climb another rung of the Theban social ladder, but he fell off completely.

Unfortunately, her choice of a hidden burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings did not have the desired effect. Hatshepsut’s tomb in the grand valley was robbed when all the other New Kingdom tombs were opened—five hundred years after her burial, at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty and in the beginning of the Twenty-First, when Egypt entered a deep economic and political crisis. Only a few tombs survived unscathed, and those owing to the good fortune of virulent flash floods or later construction that had obliterated their entrances shortly after they were sealed.39 Hatshepsut’s tomb was a tomb-robber’s prize, filled as it was with gilded objects and statuary, furniture, precious woods and gems, and linens. Thieves took items that were valuable or could be exchanged and they left behind wooden, ceramic, or stone objects that had no fungible worth.

There is no evidence of her body having survived in the two known caches of royal mummies.40 The heretic king Akhenaten was another monarch tellingly missing from the royal caches.41 It’s tempting to think that her corpse may have been purposefully discarded by Amen priests during the reburial of the royal mummies at the end of the New Kingdom, but Hatshepsut was no heretic. She wasn’t even a rule breaker. Even the body of Thutmose I—a universally venerated king—remains missing. Perhaps Hatshepsut is still waiting for archaeologists to find her body, fittingly, alongside her father’s.42

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