This edited article about Ancient Egypt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 731 published on 17 January 1976.
Staring out across the broad river at his capital of Thebes, in Upper Egypt, the Pharaoh and his nobles watched reverently as the sun dipped behind the hills on the west bank of the Nile. As the reflected sunset bathed the rocky promontories in a glow of gold, they thought with some satisfaction that it was good to know that Re, the sun-god, had gone under the ground for his journey through the night, and that he would come up again in the east in the morning.
Re, they knew, went each night to the place where the dead lived – in the west. And then slowly it began to occur to the Pharaoh that if the dead lived over there, in those hills beyond the river where the sun set, surely, then, that was the proper place to be buried?
We may deduce that this idea first came to the Pharaoh Thutmose I, who reigned about 1,700 B.C. He must have crossed the Nile, surveyed the gloomy, soundless valley in the hot white hills that lie on its west bank, and decided for himself that this was where life after death began.
It was the end of the pyramid tomb – the beginning of that strange, mysterious royal cemetery that is still today romantically called the Valley of the Kings. Here, the pharaohs and their high officials were buried in tombs almost as splendid as their houses, and surrounded by the wealth which they were convinced they would be able to take with them to the next world.
Ineni, the architect of Pharaoh Thutmose, describes his work in a proud inscription in the valley:
“I attended to the excavation of the cliff-tomb of His Majesty alone, no one seeing, no one hearing . . . I shall be praised for my wisdom in after-years.”
Why all the secrecy? Because by this time the pharaohs had despaired of protecting their bodies and their funerary treasure under pyramids. Experience had taught them that cunning tomb-robbers always got in – often within ten years of the pyramid being sealed after the funeral. So Thutmose and his successors hollowed deep tunnels in the rock, at the bottom of which their workmen hewed great chambers to contain the gold-coffined mummy of the Pharaoh, surrounded by his treasure.
For nearly a thousand years gangs of workmen were kept constantly busy making the tunnels and chambers. Artists then covered the walls with paintings depicting the pharaoh travelling in a sacred boat through the twelve caverns of the underworld. For, as gods, it was the pharaoh’s privilege to accompany the sun-god on his daily journey across the sky and his nightly journey along the subterranean river thought to join the western and eastern horizons.
The death of Thutmose I provided not one, but two landmarks in the story of the ancient Egyptians. For the Pharaoh left no sons – only a daughter named Hatshepsut.
No girl had ever before donned the sacred crown of the mighty Pharaoh. Could it possibly happen now?
One person was sure it could – and that was Hatshepsut herself. To emphasize her position, she married a half-brother, but when he, too, died, leaving her with an only daughter, she declared that she would rule Egypt herself.
“I am not just a mortal Queen, I am a god,” she told her subjects, in case they had any doubts. “The great god Amon himself took on the form of the Pharaoh so that he could become my father.” To reinforce the point, she put on men’s clothes and even wore a false beard on ceremonial occasions. And for 20 years she ruled Egypt like a male pharaoh.
Queens, like many other women, are apt to care little for war, and so it was with Hatshepsut. She sent no armies of conquest to other countries. She looked after Egypt’s business and left other nations to look after theirs. She built an exquisitely beautiful temple on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes (near modern Luxor) and she had obelisks – tall, pointed shafts of stone – put up, as was the fashion of the time.
Another unusual act of Hatshepsut was to send an expedition down the Red Sea to Punt (modern Somaliland), to bring back rare treasures of myrrh, or perfume, leopard skins, tropical plants, and other valuable things for her temple. She maintained friendly relations with other nations, ruled her kingdom well, and did good work repairing old temples and monuments. Altogether, the first queen in history gave a good account of herself.
But at the end, in some way in which we do not know, Hatshepsut was stripped of her power and soon afterwards she died. Then her body was taken – for burial preparation in the Valley of the Kings – to her temple which, with its colonnades of white columns, its limestone pillars and carved walls, was adding a new lustre to the Theban city of the dead on the river’s west bank.
Now a strange thing happened. The new Pharaoh Thutmose III, had come to the throne by marrying Hatshepsut’s daughter. And this new King had formed in Hatshepsut’s lifetime a violent hatred for his mother-in-law.
When she died, anything that reminded Thutmose III of her long reign was likely to throw him into a boiling rage. And in all Egypt there was no greater reminder of that lady than the magnificent temple she had left with the story of her life carved on its walls.
Bristling with anger which did not affect his great diligence for the task, Thutmose set about destroying every statue and painting of her in the temple. In the case of the wall paintings, where his workmen obliterated the Queen’s picture, Thutmose ordered his artists to substitute himself.
Painstakingly, his men chipped out every mention of Hatshepsut from the wall inscriptions, and knocked down any part of the temple to which he took particular objection. When all this destructive work was completed to Thutmose’s satisfaction, it was as if there never had been a Queen Hatshepsut.
After the vandalism of Thutmose came the ravages of time. Down through the centuries thousands of stone fragments from the temple were scattered over the wide plain which it overlooked. When twentieth century archaeologists began to study the pieces it was as if they were confronted with a giant jig-saw puzzle.
But, several years ago, with all the diligence used by Thutmose the destroyer, they decided to start putting the pieces back again. Their work is not yet finished and will take more years. But already we can see the temple as the Queen built it, rising on three successive terraces up a slope at a foot of a cliff.
Hatshepsut was buried along with her father in the Valley of the Kings, on the other side of the mountain that separates that royal cemetery and her temple. She had hoped to make a tunnel under the mountain to link her temple with her tomb, but the work was never undertaken.
Her son-in-law, the temple vandal Thutmose III, was the exact opposite of Hatshepsut. He was a war pharaoh – he has even been called the Napoleon of Egypt. He gave his life entirely to fighting, pushing southward, westward, north-westward with his armies, until Egypt had conquered most of the world as people knew it then, and had placed her boundary marks beyond that other great river of the old world – the Euphrates.
Thutmose was never a stay-at-home warrior. He went everywhere with his men. After he had captured a town or district – and he captured 119 in his first campaigns – he would place upon it a yearly tax of gold, grain or some other valuable product, which it had to send to Egypt. As a result of this policy, Egypt grew so rich that gold was weighed by the pound instead of by the grain and all sorts of luxuries became common things.
Men stopped wearing the short linen “skirts” we see in their tomb pictures and began a fashion for dresses which were much more elaborate. For the music at feasts the six foot (1.8 m) high harps were replaced by new ones 20 foot (6 m) high. All this luxury began to erode the country’s martial strength, and some of the religious practices made things worse. For example, the priests now claimed that they had “charms” which they said would protect a man from punishment by the gods for his sins. And, of course, if people believe this sort of thing, they quickly become lazy and irresponsible in such circumstances.
After Thutmose, there came to the throne of Egypt a king who did not like this way of life at all. He was an extraordinary man, and his way of dealing with the situation has made him one of the most puzzling men in history.
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