On the west bank of the river Nile, opposite Luxor, the great honey-colored sandstone cliffs that rim the length of the western desert form a huge, if somewhat shallow, amphitheater, a concavity in stone that is called al-Dair al-Bahri, "the northern convent." At dawn, from across the river on the eastern bank, the distant cliffs are mauve-pink and gold in the early light, and in the mist off the river, if you look carefully, you can make out a march of white columns, rising in terraces beneath the protective overhang of the bluffs.
This is the site of an ancient mortuary temple, built, like so many others, to assure a dead pharaoh "life, health, prosperity" in the. Here after, but built so well that the distinguished Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner said of it: "There is no nobler architectural achievement to be seen in the whole of Egypt."
Al-Dair al-Bahri was built for one the most extraordinary women in history: Ma'atkare Hatshepsut, daughter of a pharaoh, wife of a pharaoh, step-mother of a pharaoh and, for 20 years or more as pharaoh herself, the sole ruler of the mightiest nation in the ancient world, and the first documented female head of in human history.
Unfortunately, and probably unfairly, Hatshepsut was also history's first example of a wicked step-mother - at least if traditional historians are to be believed. According to them Hatshepsut was a usurper who, when her husband Thutmosis II died, seized his throne, claimed the Pharaoh's divine attributes and grimly dung to power until her step-son, Thutmosis III, reaching manhood, dramatically wherever possible destroyed all references to her and her regime.
That account, according to today's scholars, is highly questionable. New evidence suggests that Thutmosis III made no attempt to erase his step-mother's name from her monuments until some 30 years after he assumed the throne - an improbably long time to nurse a grievance. In any case, the attempt failed. Today Hatshepsut's portraits in stone, often heavily restored, often with her name erased, but immediately recognizable nonetheless, still adorn the world's great and less great collections of Egyptian art - and they show her, though 35 centuries old, as fresh as yesterday. Her eyes are large, shrewd and thoughtful, her lips always on the verge of a smile and her features handsome. More importantly, they suggest a cool, somewhat amused and appraising intelligence, crafty, feline and elegant.
This impression is borne out by her heritage. Hatshepsut came from a long and glorious line, a direct royal descendant of the warrior kings of Thebes who had shaken off the yoke of the hated Hyksos, the Semitic tribe which had dominated northern Egypt before Hatshepsut's forebears drove them out. According to tradition, it was her grandfather, Ahmose I, who established the 18th Dynasty in the early 16th century B.C., arguably the most brilliant period in Egypt's long history and, at least in its early years, one of those high-water marks in human cultural development when anything seemed possible and in fact probably was. Later, under Thutmosis III, the Egyptian empire would dominate Africa and the Middle East from the Sudan to the Euphrates. Later still, imperial grandeur would give way to the bombastic decadence of the Ramesside period. But at that point, early in the 18th Dynasty, Egypt stood poised on the brink, a confident, creative and expansive society, economically and militarily secure, brilliant and strong.
Hatshepsut herself always claimed that her father, Thutmosis I, had chosen her to succeed him. In her "autobiography," beautifully carved in the low painted reliefs that adorn the walls at al-Dair al-Bahri, and in inscriptions on a pylon of the great Amun temple across the river at Karnak, she described a coronation ceremony of sorts, with Thutmosis I presenting her to the gods and the nobles of Egypt, especially to the great god Amun, whom the king addresses directly at Karnak: "In return for what I have done for thee, do thou bestow Egypt and the Red Land on my daughter, Ma'atkare, living eternally as thou hast done for me... Thou choosest her as king."
The Karnak and al-Dair al-Bahri inscriptions, of course, were carved during the reign of Hatshepsut and not that of her father, so there is perhaps reason to doubt the authenticity of the events they describe. But whether she really believed herself to be the rightful king or not, she did pass the brief reign of Thutmosis II apparently content as his wife and consort. And if she was the power behind the throne she certainly was not the power on the throne, even though her husband's claim to the throne came solely from his marriage to Hatshepsut. It was she, not he, who was of royal descent. She was, moreover, the last of her great line of kings, who had driven out the Hyksos and established the dynasty. Thus when Thutmosis II died, leaving only a daughter and an illegitimate son as heirs, Hatshepsut's subsequent claim to the throne seemed to be validated by blood as well as by logic.
At first, it seems, Hatshepsut planned that Thutmosis III, the illegitimate son, would eventually succeed Thutmosis II as pharaoh and that his rights to the throne would be secured through marriage to the little princess Neferure. Meanwhile Hatshepsut, drawing on her background and experience, would preserve, at all costs, what had been achieved so recently and with such difficult: the reunification of Egypt and the security of its traditional boundaries, from Nubia to the borders of Palestine.
In pursuit of this goal, fortunately, she did not have to work alone; indeed, she seems to have attracted some of the wisest heads in the realm as councillors. Chief among them was Senmut, architect of the al-Dair al-Bahri temple, tutor to the princess Neferure and a distinguished elder statesman who held some 80 offices and titles and exerted an incalculable influence on the queen. Traditionally historians have seen Senmut as a Rasputin-like figure, controlling the mother through the daughter and holding both in his evil thrall. But again art seems to dispute history; in portraits in the Cairo Museum he is usually shown, in a pose of great tenderness, holding the little princess on his knee, his features serene and intelligent.
On the other hand, it seems clear that Senmut was one of Hatshepsut's most trusted advisors from early on, perhaps even from her father's day. He must have been consulted when she took her momentous decision to assume not just the political powers of the pharaoh, but, more significantly, the symbolic role of the king as godhead itself. And it was Senmut who conceived and constructed the remarkable mortuary temple at al-Dair al-Bahri - a temple which was clearly intended for a divine pharaoh.
Egypt had never had a female "king". Although the early queens of the dynasty, Hatshepsut's immediate forebears, had all been strong and dynamic women who played forceful roles in the dramatic events of the time, they had not aspired to more. It was one tiling to exercise a queenly influence and quite another to adopt the titles and prerogatives of the god-king. This, nevertheless, was what Hatshepsut did. As this occurred perhaps as much as seven years after the death of Thutmosis II - hardly an impulsive grab for power - it may have come about simply because, as regent, Hatshepsut began to accept the royal titles, clothe herself in ceremonial royal garb and think of herself, like those glorious ancestors of hers, as King of Upper and Lower Egypt In any case she did eventually claim to be the pharaoh, rather than the pharaoh's regent, and affomed her claim by building a mortuary temple fit for a king, where the prayers and offerings could be made that would insure her royal continuity in the afterlife.
Al-Dair al-Bahri had always been an inspiring place. Even today, despite the buses that wheeze up the ancient causeway past Cook's Rest House, despite the hawkers of scarabs, amulets and mummy beads crowding around each new flock of tourists, despite the tourists themselves, there is something magical about al-Dair al-Bahri. It may be only the sheer physical beauty of the setting - pale, towering cliffs, tawny against the immense blue of the desert sky hawks soaring and tumbling on updrafts of air, the daily drama of sunlight and shadow across the terraced colonnades of the temple - but whatever the cause, even the most loquacious tourist seems to fall silent before its majestic impact. And the setting is but a part of the magic. The temple that Senmut built there for his sovereign is, quite simply, unique, and some observers feel that it was the architectural genius of this remarkable man that made it so. For although inspired in part by an 11th Dynasty temple constructed on the same site some 500 years earlier, Senmut added a breadth and majesty to the original concept that makes the earlier building, even in its present ruined state, look rather ordinary by comparison.
Hatshepsut's temple is centered in the shallow amphitheater of the cliffs in such a way mat it gives coherence and integrity to thena rural phenomenon of the escarpment - with the sunlight falling across the columned terraces exactly as it falls across the vertical crags of the bluff. It is a monument that has been constructed not just to enclose space, but to define and interpret the space that surrounds it. In this way although it is an entirely different design, it is most like the Old Kingdom pyramids: their impact was not in the space they enclosed, but in the way they gave meaning to the space around them.
Hatshepsut's temple was unique too in that it had no precedents. While the 11th Dynasty temple served as an inspiration for the motif, Senmut's concept of the whole was something entirely new. And, what is more surprising, the building seems to have had no influence on any tiling that came after. It exists sui generis , an artifact in space but not in time. Once Senmut was gone, apparently, there was no one else with the imaginative genius, the creative energy to produce or to reproduce what he had done.
Called Djeser-djeserou - roughly, sanctum sanctorum - by Senmut, the temple was intended primarily as a mortuary temple for Hatshepsut and her father, Thutmosis I, at which a permanent priesthood would make daily offerings and prayers to supply the needs of the dead kings in the afterlife. But there were also important shrines there: those of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead; of Hathoi; the ancient cow goddess; and, the supreme god at al-Dair al-Bahri, Amun-Re, then beginning to develop as a chief god of all Egypt Indeed, the sanctuary to Amun-Re, carved in the shale of the mountainside on the uppermost terrace, was the central point of the whole structure; on the morning of the new moon in the 10th month of the year, during the Nile's annual spate, it was the scene of elaborate religious ceremonies during which the image of the god was moved into the dark, innermost sanctuary of the temple, accompanied only by the chief priest and the pharaoh herself - as intercessor between the Egyptian people and their gods, and, in a mystical sense, as the great god in person.
In addition, however, the temple served an autobiographical purpose, a public statement of what Hatshepsut herself felt to be the major achievements of her reign, all carved into the limestone walls of the temple in a series of reliefs that are among the highlights of what was, by any criterion, a golden age of stone sculpture.
Unlike other pharaohs, Hatshepsut chose not to dwell on her military achievements. Instead she told of such peaceful events as a trading expedition that she dispatched to the Land of Punt to bring back gold, ivory incense and incense-bearing trees, leopard skins, and other exotica for the adornment of the court and the temple of Amun. The carvings include too the story of an expedition sent to Aswan to quarry a pair of red granite obelisks and bring them downstream to Karnak. Other panels tell of Hatshepsut's divine conception.
As well as providing an invaluable record of the lives and beliefs of the period, the carvings at al-Dair al-Bahri are extraordinary works of art. Although many of the stones making up the panels have been moved to museums and replaced with inadequate copies, the originals retain the charm, humor and detail originally carved by master craftsmen. One panel, for example, dearly shows the Land of Punt as an African town with thatched huts on stilts. And some even retain the original colours with which all these reliefs were painted - brick red, yellow ochre, blue and green, the same bright shades still used to decorate houses in Upper Egyptian villages today.
Sadly the figure of Hatshepsut herself is missing from all of this - or rather, it is there, but as a ghost, a shadow, a haunting trace of an outline, identified only by the cartouche that originally enclosed her name and now usually surrounds the name of her father or her husband. The same is true of other monuments she had erected: at Buhen on the Nubian border, at Ombos, at Medinet Habu and in the desert south of Baeni Hasan. Wherever they could be reached, her names were obliterated and her portraits were hammered out.
Who ordered this wholesale defacement, and why is a mystery. Thutmosis III was dearly responsible for some of it - possibly because without royal blood, and without even marriage to the princess Neferure, who died young, he was either not secure on his throne, or was beginning to worry about the claims of his son. But in fact the destruction ordered by Thutmosis III seems to have been less than that effected by a later pharaoh, who tried to eliminate the worship of Amun some 50 years later; or by still later Coptic monks who were no less vehement in their attempts to stamp out an older religion.
Since 1961, under the auspices of the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archeology in Cairo and the overall supervision of Kazimierz Michalowski, efforts to restore and reconstruct the temple have been under way. Part of the work has been devoted to structural reinforcement in places like the north colonnade; and the uppermost colonnade, which defined the entrance to the most sacred level, has been completely restored. In addition, some of the statues of Hatshepsut have been returned to their original positions. But the most important aspect of the Polish work was the discovery of a hitherto unknown temple of Thutmosis III which, the archeologists say may help to solve some of the puzzles of Hatshepsut's period.
One of those puzzles is what exactly happened to Hatshepsut in the end.
A mummy found in a Valley of the Kings cache a few years ago and thought to be that of Hatshepsut has now been fairly certainly identified as belonging to another, later, 18th Dynasty queen. Two burial chambers have been located: one, high up in the predpitous wall of a valley to the south of al-Dair al-Bahri, was prepared when she was still a queen; the second, and more interesting, tomb is in the Valley of the Kings. Deep into the mountainside the tomb's archited, presumably Senmut, had sunk a 700-foot shaft which, if it had been continued, would have passed under the escarpment and ended up in a burial chamber right beneath the al-Dair al-Bahri temple. Work was halted, however, when the attenuated corridor threatened to collapse. In the undecorated tomb chamber were found two empty sarcophagi, one intended for Hatshepsut, now in the Cairo Museum, and one intended for her father Thutmosis I, now in Boston.
It is certainly possible that Hatshepsut, if she was not defeated in a bitter succession struggle with Thutmosis III, died a natural death. But it is by no means certain either. All that archeology can say surely today is that about 20 years after she assumed the regency and then became pharaoh, all references to her ceased, and that when, two centuries later, Seti I compiled his list of the 18th Dynasty kings, he did not include the name of Hatshepsut. Although the daughter of a pharaoh, the wife of a pharaoh and, for 20 years, a pharaoh herself, she had disappeared from history. Were it not for al-Dair al-Bahri and the great temple built for her there, no one would ever have known she existed.
Nancy Jenkins is an Aramco World correspondent based in Rome.