Hatshepsut’s Path to the Throne

Conventional Version

Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Tuthmosis I and Queen Ahmose. King Tuthmosis I was not of royal birth; his mother was a commoner named Seniseneb but his father is unknown.1 Queen Ahmose is generally believed to be either the sister or daughter of King Amenhotep I, who was the predecessor of Tuthmosis I.2 Hatshepsut had three brothers: Wadjmose, Amenmose and Tuthmosis, who were the offspring of Lady Mutnofret, a secondary wife of Tuthmosis I.3 Hatshepsut also had a full sister, Neferubity, who died in childhood.4 Of all the children of King Tuthmosis I, only Hatshepsut and her half-brother Tuthmosis outlived their father.

Hatshepsut as the King's Great Wife

Hatshepsut as the King’s Great Wife.
Photo CC2.5_SA_BY_Keith Schengili-Roberts

While Tuthmosis I was still alive, Hatshepsut attained the office of the God’s Wife of Amen, a position of great wealth and autonomous power.5 When Tuthmosis I died, his son Tuthmosis took the throne and married his half-sister, Hatshepsut, who became the King’s Great Wife (a phrase usually translated as ‘queen’). No one knows exactly how many years Tuthmosis II reigned; the current consensus amongst Egyptologists is that his reign was brief, perhaps two or three years. Tuthmosis II and Hatshepsut produced one child, a daughter, Neferure. Tuthmosis II also fathered a son by a woman named Iset, who is variously described as a minor wife or concubine.6 This son, also named Tuthmosis, inherited the throne at a very young age when his father died, circa 1479 BCE.7

Although this young son became King Tuthmosis III, he was too young to rule independently. In Egypt, when a child became Pharaoh, a regent acted as de facto ruler until the boy came of age (generally at the age of sixteen8). Normally, the regent would be the boy’s own mother, but since for some reason the mother of Tuthmosis III was unsuitable, Hatshepsut became regent for the boy who was both her step-son and nephew.9 This scenario is based on the autobiographical stela that Chief of Works and Treasurer Ineni inscribed in his tomb, TT81.10

Initially, Hatshepsut behaved as a conventional regent, and was depicted on monuments as a subordinate of Tuthmosis III, as shown in the inscriptions of the Semna Temple in Nubia, dated to Year 2 of the reign of Tuthmosis III.11 However, sometime between the second and seventh regnal year, Hatshepsut gradually began to appropriate the powers of kingship for herself, as indicated by a number of inscriptions from this period,12 and gradually transformed herself from queen to king. By the seventh regnal year, Hatshepsut’s transformation was complete and she was recognised as a king in her own right.13 She did not depose her nephew; instead, Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III became co-regents, ruling side-by-side. However, Hatshepsut effectively usurped her nephew’s power, since she was depicted as the more important ‘Senior King’ of the pair.14

Hatshepsut as the Senior King

A stela in the Vatican shows Hatshepsut as the Senior King offering wine to Amen-Re, while her subordinate, Tuthmosis III, stands behind her and observes.
Photo CC 2.0_SA_BY_Sebastian Bergman

How and why Hatshepsut chose to become a king has mystified Egyptologists for generations. Some believe she felt entitled to the throne because she had more royal blood than Tuthmosis III, because the boy’s mother had been a commoner.15 Many Egyptologists believed that Hatshepsut was ruthless and power-hungry, and seized the kingship because she was unwilling to surrender the control she wielded as regent when Tuthmosis III came of age.16 Other scholars have suggested that some unspecified crisis required Hatshepsut to declare herself king, in order to protect Egypt and/or Tuthmosis III himself.17 Whatever her reasons, Hatshepsut did not use her own regnal year dating system, but instead adopted the regnal year dates of Tuthmosis III.18

Hatshepsut was, by most accounts, a splendid Pharaoh. Tuthmosis III played only a minor role in Egypt’s affairs while she was in power.19 She ruled until regnal year 22, when it seems she died of natural causes.20 Tuthmosis III then became sole Pharaoh again, and almost immediately began an extended period of military conquest which established the Egyptian Empire. Sometime after his fortieth regnal year, he embarked on a campaign to obliterate every trace of Hatshepsut’s reign and claimed all her accomplishments for himself or his father and grandfather.21 Tuthmosis III died in regnal year 54 and was succeeded by his son, King Amenhotep II.22

Although the account given above is accepted by the virtually all modern Egyptologists,23 it is plagued by inconsistencies and the sequence of events would have been impossible under the system of royal legitimation in use in ancient Egypt. To understand why, see The Story of Hatshepsut: A Better Explanation.


1. Betsy Bryan, “The 18th Dynasty Before the Amarna Period,” in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. Ian Shaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 230-231; Joyce Tyldesley, Hatchepsut The Female Pharaoh (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 75-77.

2. Donald B. Redford, History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty: Seven Studies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 73.

3. Bryan, “18th Dynasty,” 231.

4. Tyldesley, Hatchepsut, 75.

5. Gay Robbins, Women in Ancient Egypt, (London: British Museum Press, 1993), 149-156.

6. Bryan, “18th Dynasty”, 235-236.

7. Peter F. Dorman, “The Early Reign of Thutmose III: An Unorthodox Mantle of Coregency,” in Thutmose III: A New Biography, eds. Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor (Ann Arbor: The University or Michigan Press, 2006), 60 n.14, 61 n. 20.

8. Extrapolating from the age at which boys began their education and the length of time it took to complete it. See Rosalind M. Janssen and Jac. J. Janssen, Growing Up and Getting Old in Ancient Egypt, (London: Golden House Publications, 2007), 61-68, 90-91.

9. Tyldesly, Hatchepsut, 94-95, 97.

10. Dorman, “Early Reign,” 40-41. See also The Inscription of Ineni.

11. Ricardo A. Caminos, Semna-Kumma I: The Temple of Semna (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 37th Memoir, 1998), 13-14, 41-48, 78, 82-84, Plates 24-27;

Peter F. Dorman, The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology (London: Kegan Paul International, 1088), 18-22. See also The Semna Temple Inscriptions.

12. Ibid., 29-34, 113-116. See also Other Inscriptions.

13. Ibid., 34; Dorman, “Early Reign,” 51-55.

14. William J. Murnane, Ancient Egyptian Coregencies (Chicago: The Oriental Institute Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, No. 40, 1977), 32-34.

15. Bryan, “18th Dynasty,” 237-238.

16. Ibid.; Tydesley, Hatchepsut, 100-101; Allan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 184; William C. Hayes, "Egypt: Internal affairs from Tuthmosis I to the death of Amenophis III," in eds. I. E. S. Edwards, et. al, The Cambridge Ancient History 2, part 1, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 317.

17. Dorman. “Early Reign,” 58.

18. Murnane, Ancient Egyptian Coregencies, 34.

19. Bryan, “18th Dynasty”, 237-243; Dorman, “Early Reign,” 57.

20. Dorman, “Early Reign”, 57-58.

21. Ann Macy Roth, “Erasing a Reign,” in eds. Catharine H. Roehrig, Renée Dreyfus and Cathleen A. Keller, Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2005), 277-281.

22. Bryan, “18th Dynasty,” 248-250.

23. Cathleen A. Keller, “Hatshepsut’s Reputation in History,” in eds. Catharine H. Roehrig, Renée Dreyfus and Cathleen A. Keller, Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2005), 294-297.

The Story of Hatshepsut

A Better Explanation

The account of Hatshepsut's path to the throne described in the Hatshepsut Trilogy differs from the conventional version in only one detail, but it is a crucial one. In Her Majesty the King, Hatshepsut's husband, King Tuthmosis II, dies before his son is born. Since Tuthmosis II dies without a male heir, Hatshepsut is the only remaining heir of their father and is the only person eligible to become the new Horus King. She attains the throne in exactly the same way as every other female king in Egyptian history.1

In The Horus Throne, when her nephew Tuthmosis is born, Hatshepsut designates him as her subordinate co-regent. This action produced two important consequences: it provided Hatshepsut with a male heir of royal descent, which no other female king had ever had (see The Son of Re), and it prevented Tuthmosis III, or anyone acting on his behalf, from interfering with Hatshepsut's exercise of power (see The Royal Ka). Rather than viewing her nephew as a rival for power, Hatshepsut used him to stabilise her own reign. The fact that she had a guaranteed male heir is the reason that Hatshepsut was the only female Pharaoh whose reign did not lead to disaster.

Hatshepsut offers four chests of linen to Amen-Re

Hatshepsut offers four chests of linen to Amen-Re. As the Senior King, she stands in front, waves the sekhem sceptre and wears the royal ecclesiastical atef crown. Tuthmosis III stands in a subordinate position behind her and perfumes the ritual with incense.

I believe this sequence of events is historically correct for two reasons. First, it is the only plausible way in which Hatshepsut could have become the Senior King with her nephew, Tuthmosis III, in a subordinate position (see the topics listed under All About Egyptian Kingship). Second, the version of events presented in the Hatshepsut Trilogy better explains the evidence related to Hatshepsut's early reign, rather than the conventional scenario in which Tuthmosis III was born prior to his father's death and Hatshepsut later usurped his position as principal ruler (see The Inscription of Ineni, The Semna Temple Inscriptions and Other Inscriptions).

Egyptian Horus Kings were unique; they were considered to be gods by their people and held absolute power over everyone and everything in their realm. The rules and traditions which determined royal legitimation were unlike those of systems more familiar to us, such as those governing the English monarchy, medieval European kings or even Roman emperors. The conventional scenarios that have been proposed for Hatshepsut's ascent to the Horus Throne might make sense when viewed within these common systems, but they all violate the ideology of kingship of Hatshepsut's era.

The explanations of how and why Hatshepsut became a king focus on three main possibilities: royal blood, usurpation, or an unknown crisis. All are untenable.

Tuthmosis I

Hatshepsut's father, Tuthmosis I, a completely legitimate Horus King who had no royal blood.
Painting by Howard Carter; Public Domain

Royal blood

Hatshepsut's father was King Tuthmosis I and her mother was the Great Royal Wife (i.e., Queen) Ahmose; therefore, Hatshepsut was of pure royal blood. The father of Tuthmosis III was King Tuthmosis II and his mother was a secondary wife or concubine, the commoner, Iset. Some Egyptologists have suggested that because Hatshepsut had more royal blood than Tuthmosis III, she may have felt that her claim to the throne was stronger than that of Tuthmosis III, which led her to seek elevation to full kingship.2

However, the ancient Egyptians had no concept of 'royal blood'(see The Son of Re). Many legitimate Egyptian kings had no 'royal blood' at all, including Hatshepsut's own father, King Tuthmosis I. Kingship was conferred by possession of the Royal Ka (see The Royal Ka); the status of a king's mother was irrelevant. Therefore, arguments about Hatshepsut's claim to the throne based on 'royal blood' are meaningless within the ancient Egyptian ideology of kingship.


The most popular explanation for Hatshepsut's assumption of kingship relies on her gradual appropriation of the privileges and titles of a king during her regency. According to this scenario, when Hatshepsut had acquired sufficient power, she declared herself to be a king once no one was in a position to stop her.3 In effect, she became a king by stealth, shrewdly accruing power and weakening the position of her nephew, until she was able to seize the position of Senior King for herself.

This scenario is flawed on several points. First, if Hatshepsut was truly ruthless and power-hungry, the easiest route to the throne would have been to dispose of her nephew. Tuthmosis III is thought to have become king as a very young child;4 the rate of mortality for young children in ancient Egypt was extremely high.5 The death of a toddler would have been ridiculously easy to arrange and would have surprised no one, absolving Hatshepsut of blame. Yet, Hatshepsut did not harm her nephew, which is difficult to reconcile with the ruthless character ascribed to 'Hatshepsut the usurper'.6 However, for a usurper to leave a rival for power in place is extremely foolish, and virtually all scholars agree that Hatshepsut was an exceptionally able and intelligent ruler.7 In fact, Hatshepsut never regarded Tuthmosis III as a threat and took pains to grant him the honours to which he was entitled as her subordinate regent.8 When he began his solo reign, he was a well-educated and extremely competent young man; his training could only have been supervised by Hatshepsut herself. Therefore, painting Hatshepsut as a scheming usurper is irrational.

More importantly, it was simply not possible to usurp the Horus Throne. A Horus King was a living god and king for life (see The Royal Ka). No mortal, no matter how ambitious, powerful or devious, could 'steal' kingship from an acknowledged Horus King or abrogate his power. A Horus King could not be deposed, nor could he abdicate. Although historians may classify some Egyptian Pharaohs who were not lineal descendants of their predecessors as 'usurpers', there is no evidence that any Egyptian king forcibly seized the throne during the period in which Horus Kingship was the paradigm for legitimation.9 In the Egyptian system of kingship, lineal royal descent was not a requisite for succession (see The Son of Re).

The Royal Ka, the mandatory element of Horus Kingship, could only be transferred upon the king's death (see The Royal Ka). Egyptian literary sources hint that in rare instances, conspirators may have attempted to hasten the king's exit.10 Although assassination would free the Royal Ka, regicide was a profound violation of the Egyptian concept of ma'at. Since the chief duty of a Horus King was to uphold ma'at, anyone attempting to gain the throne by regicide would clearly have proven himself ineligible for Horus Kingship by committing or sanctioning this most heinous of all offences. In the literary sources in which an attack on an aged King Amenemhet I is mentioned, his heir, Senwosret I (who became his junior co-regent), is seen to take great pains to distance himself from any skulduggery and punish the perpetrators severely.11

Amenemhet I

King Amenemhet I, who may have initiated a co-regency with his son in response to an assassination attempt.
Derivative work by P.L. O’Neill from a photo CC2.0_SA_BY_John Campana

Almost all scenarios of Hatshepsut's 'usurpation' rely on her gradual transformation from queen to king. However, the transition from ordinary mortal to Horus King, which was accomplished by transfer of the Royal Ka, was total and abrupt (see The Royal Ka). In the Egyptian system of kingship, it was not possible for an individual to be a partial king.12 The Royal Ka could not be shared, extracted or 'siphoned off' from its possessor (see What is a ka?). Therefore, any explanation of Hatshepsut's rise to power which postulates a gradual accrual of royal attributes is at odds with the Egyptians' system of kingship.

Unknown Crisis

More recent examinations of Hatshepsut's rise to power have suggested that her motives may actually have been benign.13 This scenario invokes an unknown crisis that required Hatshepsut to assume the mantle of kingship in order to protect either Egypt, her nephew, or both. Once she had become a king, it was impossible for her to relinquish her position (as was the case for all Horus Kings), so she remained on the throne as a co-regent with her nephew.

This scenario is flawed on two grounds. First, if Hatshepsut became a king after Tuthmosis III had already been acknowledged as Horus King, then she would have taken office as his subordinate, 'junior' co-regent (see Co-regency), which is not the case. But more importantly, no one has ever been able to suggest what kind of crisis would require a queen regent to take the unprecedented step of appropriating the actual kingship.

A regent was authorised to act in whatever capacity was necessary to carry out the good governance of Egypt. The fact that a regent was female was not an obstacle to any act that might be required on the king's behalf, including military action. Hatshepsut's own great-grandmother, Queen Ahhotep, quashed a rebellion while she was acting as regent for her young son, King Ahmose.14 Queen Ahhotep received military awards for valour in battle, and was buried with a number of weapons, not all of which were ceremonial, which indicate that she probably commanded the troops herself.15 In an inscription on the Year 18 stela of King Ahmose in Karnak, he says of his mother:

'She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt…She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her (Egypt), she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters. She has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.'16

Weapons of Queen Ahhotep

Weapons and military decorations (shown in colour) found with the mummy of Queen Ahhotep. A gold fly was awarded for personal valour in battle.

Conducting religious rites, commanding the army and defending Egypt's sovereignty were roles expected of the Pharaoh. If a female regent could accomplish all these tasks without having to transform herself into a king, it is difficult to imagine any other circumstance which would have required a queen to suddenly become a king.

Thus, all the scenarios which have been invoked by Egyptologists to explain Hatshepsut's acquisition of kingship, though they make sense to us, would not have been viable routes to the throne under the ancient Egyptian system of kingship. If we are ever to understand ancient Egyptian history, we must take great care to interpret the evidence from within the context of the Egyptians' civilisation, and not impose models and presumptions that are the products of our own culture. The path to the throne described in the Hatshepsut Trilogy is, at this juncture, the only explanation that is consistent with both the Egyptians' own system of kingship and the historical evidence.

The mystery of why Tuthmosis III attempted to erase Hatshepsut's reign from history is explained in the third book of the Hatshepsut Trilogy, The Eye of Re.

Hatshepsut's Regnal Years

The ancient Egyptian method of timekeeping involved enumerating the regnal years of the ruling king. During Hatshepsut's era (the New Kingdom) the day of a king's accession to the Horus Throne began a new regnal year, numbered regnal year one, which began on sunrise of the day after the preceding king had died.17 The Egyptians referred to this occasion as 'arising on the Horus Throne of the Living', and it was not synonymous with the actual coronation ceremony, which took place later.18 Only the numbering of the year changed; the month and day dates continued uninterrupted. Every year, on the anniversary of the Pharaoh's accession, the regnal year date would be advanced by one year. When the old Pharaoh died and a new one acceded, the calendar would be reset to regnal year one and the count would begin again.

Egyptologists have claimed that Hatshepsut adopted the regnal year dates of Tuthmosis III.19 However, this claim creates a paradox, since Hatshepsut would have been credited with regnal years from a time when, according to the conventional view, she hadn't actually been king. However, Hatshepsut herself asserted that she was a legitimate Horus King who had held absolute power from the moment of her husband's death.20 Tuthmosis III could not have been born more than a few months later. Hatshepsut immediately appointed the infant as her subordinate co-regent; therefore his 'reign' would have begun just a few months later than hers. The regnal year dates of the 'co-regency' period, therefore, are those of Hatshepsut, not Tuthmosis III. (See Co-regency for more on how regnal years were dated in co-regencies.) When Hatshepsut died late in her twenty-first regnal year, Tuthmosis III would also have been in his twenty-first regnal year, and he simply continued the count into his solo reign.


1. Ann Macy Roth, "Models of Authority: Hatshepsut's Predecessors in Power", in eds. Catharine H. Roehrig, Renée Dreyfus and Cathleen A. Keller, Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, 2005), 12.

2. Betsy M Bryan, "The 18th Dynasty before the Amarna Period," in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. Ian Shaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 237-238.

3. Bryan, "18th Dynasty", 12; Joyce Tyldesley, Hatchepsut The Female Pharaoh (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 100-101; Allan Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 184; William C. Hayes, "Egypt: Internal Affairs from Tuthmosis I to the Death of Amenophis III," in eds. I. E. S. Edwards, et. al, The Cambridge Ancient History vol.2, part 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 317.

4. Peter F. Dorman, "The Early Reign of Thutmose III: An Unorthodox Mantle of Co-Regency", in Thutmose III A New Biography, eds. Eric H. Cline and David O'Connor (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 40.

5. Lucia Gahlin, "Private Religion," in The Egyptian World, ed. Toby Wilkinson (London: Routledge, 2007), 339; Rosalind Janssen and Jac. J. Janssen, Growing Up and Growing Old in Ancient Egypt (London: Golden House Publications, 2007), 19.

6. Hayes, "Egypt: Internal Affairs", 317.

7. Tyldesley, 'Hatchepsut', 112; David O'Connor, "Thutmose III: An Enigmatic Pharaoh," in Thutmose III A New Biography, eds. Eric H. Cline and David O'Connor (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 26; Donald P. Redford, History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty: Seven Studies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 80; Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt (London: British Museum Press, 1993), 50-51.

8. Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt, 50-51; Tyldesly, Hatchepsut, 113.

9. John Baines, "Kingship, Definition of Culture, and Legitimation," in eds. David O'Connor and David P. Silverman, Ancient Egyptian Kingship (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 18.

10. David P. Silverman, "The Nature of Egyptian Kingship," in eds. David O'Connor and David P. Silverman, Ancient Egyptian Kingship (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 58.

11. Silverman, "Nature of Kingship," 52; Georges Posener, Littérature et Politique dans l'Egypte de la XIIe Dynastie, (Paris: Bibliothèque de l'École des Haute Études, 1956), 61-86; Hans Goedicke, "The beginning of the Instruction of King Amenemhet," Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 7: (1968):15-21.

12. Roth, "Models of Authority," 14, n.36; Lanny Bell, "Luxor Temple and the Cult of the Royal Ka," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44: (1985): 251-294.

13. Dorman, "Early Reign," 58.

14. Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt, 42-43; Bryan, "18th Dynasty," 228-229.

15. Ibid.

16. T.G.H. James, "Egypt: From the Expulsion of the Hyksos to Amenophis I," in eds. I. E. S. Edwards, et. al, The Cambridge Ancient History vol.2, part 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 306.

17. Donald B. Redford, History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt: Seven Studies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967), 25.

18. Redford, History and Chronology, 18-21.

19. O'Connor, "Kingship," 53-54 and 67 n.108; Roth, "Models of Authority," 13 n.1; William J. Murnane, Ancient Egyptian Coregencies (Chicago: The Oriental Institute Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, No. 40, 1977), 34.

20. Tyldesley, Hatchepsut, 100; Text of statue of Senenmut (Berlin 2296); trans. in James H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol. II, The Eighteenth Dynasty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 151-153; and Coronation reliefs in northern portion of the middle portico in Hatshepsut's temple, Djeser Djeseru, trans. and descr. in Édouard Naville, The Temple of Deir el Bahari, Part III, Memoir 16 (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1898), 7 and Plates LIX-LXII.

The Royal Ka

The ancient Egyptians believed that their king was the incarnation of the falcon god, Horus. When a human became king, the life force of Horus, called the Royal Ka, entered that person’s body. The merging of a human and Horus created a dual being, the Horus King. The Horus King was chosen by the gods and was the representative of the gods on earth, but he was not merely godlike or semi-divine. The Royal Ka made him an actual living god on earth—Horus himself.

The ka of Horus enters a human being.

Horus gave his ka to a human successor, creating the first divine Horus King.
Photo credits: Shutterstock/Pressmaster, iStock/Nico Smit; derivative work: Patricia L. O’Neill

The identification of the king with Horus was the oldest and most fundamental aspect of Egyptian kingship, originating in the Predynastic Era, prior to 3100 BCE.  The Egyptians believed that in the distant past, gods and humans had dwelled together on earth, and the world was ruled by a succession of gods. The last god to rule over humanity was Horus, who then chose a human being, the legendary Menes, as successor. Egyptian texts do not explicitly mention the reason for Horus’ decision to hand the throne to a human, but it may be related to the withdrawal of the gods to heaven, because the sun god, Re, was annoyed with the fractious nature of humanity. However, Horus did not desert his human subjects. He transferred his ka (life force) to Menes, transforming Menes into the first Horus King. In effect, Horus reincarnated himself into a human ‘container’ in order to continue his rule of the living on earth. The ka of Horus was called the Royal Ka, and it was the cornerstone of royal legitimation in ancient Egypt.

The Egyptians had several ways of expressing the idea that the god Horus himself was present inside the body of the king. The famous statue (below) of King Khafre (2437-2414 BCE) shows the Horus falcon standing on the back of the throne and embracing the king. According to the conventions of Egyptian art, this pose is meant to show that Horus is inside the king’s body.

The Horus falcon embracing King Khafre

The Horus falcon forms the ‘ka’ sign with his outstretched wings and embraces Khafre. This statue is, in effect, a three-dimensional hieroglyph which reads ‘the ka of Horus is within Khafre’.

The new being formed by the fusion of Horus with the king adopted a unique Horus name which identified the current incarnation of the god. The Horus name was written inside a serekh (below), a heraldic device that represented the façade of a palace. The rectangles on top of the serekh depicted a plan view of the palace rooms and courtyard and contained the king’s Horus name. The entire device was surmounted by the Horus falcon. When deconstructed according to the conventions of Egyptian art, the serekh means, ‘Horus, currently known as X, is residing in the palace.’

A serekh showing a palace façade with King Djet’s name and the Horus falcon.

Serekh of Djet, a First Dynasty Horus King who ruled ca. 2900 BCE.
CC1.0_SA_BY_Guilliaume Blanchard

From approximately 2000 BCE and onwards, the serekh was often incorporated into a kind of banner which explicitly depicted the Royal Ka (see below). The falcon and palace façade were supported by a figure wearing the ka sign (raised arms) on his head, or by the ka sign and a pole that had arms to carry the feather of ma’at (righteousness) and the mdw shepsy staff, representing the identity of the king. These devices depict the Royal Ka and not the personal, human ka of the king, which was manifested by the image of the king himself.

The Royal Ka of Senwosret represented as a man with a the Horus name banner on his head.
The Royal Ka of Hatshepsut represented as a banner with her Horus name.

Two versions of the Royal Ka. (Left) Senwosret I is followed by the Royal Ka, shown as a male figure with Senwosret’s serekh on his head. (Right) Hatshepsut followed by the Royal Ka in the abbreviated form. Hatshepsut’s Horus name, Wosretkau (‘Mighty of Kas’) is written in the serekh. The staff bearing a figure of the king’s head represents the individual identity of the current incarnation of Horus.
Both photos: CC2.0_BY_Cairoinfo4U

In the earliest eras of Egyptian history, kings were known primarily by their Horus names. Midway through the First Dynasty, during the reign of Den (ca. 2900 BCE), the king assumed an additional title, niswt bity. The conventional translation of niswt bity is ‘The King of Upper and Lower Egypt’. The literal translation is ‘he of the sedge and the bee’. Egyptologists believe that this title probably meant ‘The Dual King’, referring to the simultaneous divine/human nature of a Horus King as a being who possessed two kas, his own and that of Horus. The Egyptians also used the term ‘hem’ to address a Horus King in person. Generally translated as ‘Majesty’, the Egyptian meaning of hem was ‘Incarnation’, and it referred to the specific incarnation of Horus who was ruling at the time. These titles were unique to divine Horus Kings; they were never used to refer to kings of other nations, who were not considered gods by the Egyptians.

Hieroglyphic signs spelling out ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ and ‘His Majesty’.

Hieroglyphic symbols for two titles that were used only to refer to a Horus King: niswt bity (left) and hem (right).

Egyptologists have produced a voluminous, and sometimes contentious, literature on the nature of Egyptian kingship. The contributions of Dr. Lanny Bell interpreting the inscriptions of Luxor Temple were instrumental in demonstrating that the ideology of Egyptian kingship was relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, the ramifications of Bell’s ideas for Hatshepsut’s accession don’t seem to have been fully explored by Egyptologists.

The Royal Ka behaved in the same way that other kas did, although it was far more powerful than a human ka. By combining the properties of kas and recognising that kingship was based on possession of the Royal Ka, the ideology of Egyptian kingship can be summarised in the following five points.   

• A Horus King was fully a god and fully a human.
A person who was destined to become a Horus King was born, grew up and died just like other human beings. He had all the same components as any other human being, including his own ka (see What is a ka? ). He only became a god when he received the Royal Ka at his accession; at that juncture, he became a god. To use a modern analogy, a Horus King was like a computer that gets upgraded by adding a second hard drive running a different operating system.

Although some authors have surmised that the king became divine only after death, this is not what the Egyptians believed. The Horus King was a unique being, who possessed a dual human/divine nature, which made him the perfect intermediary between the world of the gods and the world of humans. Although he was a god, he was the youngest of all the gods, and his status was indicated by the title nefer netjer (young god or good god). As such, he was expected to respect and make offerings to the elder gods on behalf of his human subjects.

• The Royal Ka was passed from king to king.
The Egyptians believed that all Horus Kings were essentially the same being who had inhabited a series of human bodies. The Royal Ka had been passed from one king to the next, in an unbroken chain, since the time of the legendary King Menes.

• The Royal Ka was transferred upon the king’s death.
When a king died, and his own personal ka left his body, the Royal Ka could no longer be nourished, so it also exited. The Egyptians identified the ka with breath, so they imagined that the dying king exhaled the Royal Ka and that his successor inhaled it. Although the successor did not have to be physically present at the deathbed to receive the Royal Ka, he did have to be alive and breathing, i.e., a foetus in utero could not receive it.

Once the Royal Ka was inhaled, the transformation from human being to divine Horus King was a quantum leap which was immediate, complete and profound. There was never a moment when Egypt was without a Horus King. (They believed the world would come to an end if that happened.) A person either had the Royal Ka or they did not—no one could become a Horus King gradually. These points are crucial in assessing Hatshepsut’s legitimacy.

The Narmer palette showing the royal standards

The Narmer palette, a ceremonial plate for grinding cosmetic pigments, belonged to the first king of the First Dynasty (ca. 3150 BCE), Narmer, who may have been the real person known to later generations as King Menes. The top portion of the palette shows Narmer (light shading) accompanied by several standards associated with the Royal Ka. The picture below shows the standards in more detail.
Photo: Royal Ontario Museum, Public Domain

The royal placenta, Wepwawet and falcon standards of an Egyptian king

The standards of the Narmer palette. Standard A supports a kidney-shaped object thought to be a placenta and umbilical cord; it is an explicit symbol that the king had an extra ka. The canine on standard B represents Wepwawet, a wolf god thought to be a form of Horus in early dynastic times. The cushion-shaped object in front of Wepwawet is called the ‘shed-shed’. It may represent a placenta or a cushion, though in some images it looks like a coiled feather. Whatever it is, the Wepwawet-shed-shed standard means the Royal Ka has entered the king. The falcon standards, C and D, may both depict Horus or they may stand for Horus and Seth. For more about the connection between the ka and the placenta, see What is a ka?

• The Royal Ka could not be shared, stolen or discarded.
Like all other kas, the Royal Ka was a single indivisible entity (see What is a ka? ). Like all other kas, it left the body only at death. Therefore, a Horus King could not abdicate, which would necessitate surrendering the Royal Ka, nor could he be deposed, which would require theft of the Royal Ka by a usurper. The only way a Horus King could vacate the throne was by death. Kas were unique to individuals; another individual could not share the same ka. Therefore, there could only be one Horus King at a time.

• The function of the Horus King was the preservation of ma’at.
Ma’at was the state of divine order established by the creator god when he brought the world into being. Ma’at was always threatened by the opposing force of chaos. The specific function of a Horus King was to preserve ma’at on earth by performing the proper service of the cults of the gods, by unifying Upper and Lower Egypt in a single kingdom, and by dispensing justice, keeping order and securing the well-being of his subjects.

If Egypt prospered, the Egyptians could be assured that a true Horus King was on the throne. However, disunity of the country, natural disasters, famines, invasion, defeats or religious upheavals were all signs of the breakdown of ma’at. Tumultuous conditions like these prevailed during the intervals known as the Intermediate Periods. At these times, the Egyptians must have suspected that their ruler was not a legitimate Horus King, i.e., the individual occupying the throne did not possess the Royal Ka. The Intermediate Periods are characterised by large numbers of ephemeral ‘kings,’ as if the Egyptians were trying one ruler after another on the throne to see if they could find the genuine Horus King. In this, their system of kingship was infallible. When a ruler was able to restore unity, order and prosperity, his accomplishments identified him as the genuine Horus King. Thus, by relying on a test of competence as a means of validating legitimacy, the Egyptians devised a system of kingship that was responsible for the remarkable longevity of their civilisation.

Five centuries after the time of Hatshepsut, when Egypt was ruled by ethnic Libyans who did not understand the ideology of Horus kingship, this unique method of legitimation was undermined. Without the mandate of Horus kingship, central authority collapsed, and the Egyptian civilisation began its inevitable slide to oblivion.


Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 31-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Baines, John. ‘Origins of Egyptian Kingship.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 95-156. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Baines, John. ‘Kingship, Definition of Culture, and Legitimation.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 3-47. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Bell, Lanny. ‘Luxor Temple and the Cult of the Royal Ka.’ Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44, (1985): 25-294.

Bell, Lanny. ‘The New Kingdom Temple: The Example of Luxor.’ In Temples of Ancient Egypt, edited by Byron Shafer, 127-184. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Bolshakov, Andrey O. ‘Ka.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 179-181. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dodson, Aidan. ‘The Monarchy.’ In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson, 75-90. London: Routledge, 2007.

Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, reprinted 1978.

Goebs, Katja. ‘Kingship.’ In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson, 275-295. London: Routledge, 2007.

Lesko, Leonard H. ‘Ancient Egyptian Cosmogonies and Cosmology.’ In Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer, 88-122. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Meltzer, Edmund S. ‘Horus.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 164-168. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

O’Connor, David B. ‘Beloved of Maat, the Horizon of Re: The Royal Palace in New Kingdom Egypt.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 263-300. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Quirke, Steven. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London: British Museum Press, 1992.

Redford, Donald B. ‘The Concept of Kingship during the Eighteenth Dynasty.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 157-184. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Silverman, David P. ‘Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt.’ In Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer, 7-87. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Silverman, David P. ‘The Nature of Egyptian Kingship.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 49-92. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Wegner, Josef  F. ‘Royal Cults.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 71-76. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 1999.

What is a ka?

The ancient Egyptian concept of the ka doesn’t have any exact equivalent in modern thought. The ka was a non-physical entity equivalent to the life force; it’s what made the difference between a live person and a dead one. Since live people breathed and dead people did not, the ka was the ‘breath of life’. But unlike modern conceptions of the life force, which can refer to nebulous ‘vital energies’ which pervade and connect living things, the Egyptian ka was a discrete and unique unit that was particular to a specific individual.

The Egyptians believed that a human being was composed of several modules (see the figure below). The body (khet) acted as the container or chassis for all the other parts. The ka was the ‘engine’ that powered the body, and like an engine, the ka required food, drink and air for fuel. The ba was roughly equivalent to conscious awareness or personality. The ba was a non-physical component that left the body when a person fell asleep or became unconscious. Dreams were thought to be memories of the experiences the ba had when it was out of the body. The heart (ib) was the seat of emotion, reason and conscience. The shadow (shwt) was a manifestation of the body’s presence in the physical environment. Finally, the name (ren) established a person’s identity, so the various parts could be associated with the correct individual. All these modules co-existed within the body to form a complete living person.

An ancient Egyptian man wearing a kilt and necklace.

Ancient Egyptians believed that a living person had separate components that dwelled together in the body.
© Patricia L. O’Neill; All Rights Reserved

No two people could share the same ka, nor could a single ka be divided into parts and parcelled out amongst different individuals. The ka permeated and enlivened every part of the human body; therefore it looked just like the person it belonged to. For that reason, the ka is sometimes referred to as a person’s ‘double’, although that term misrepresents the Egyptian concept.

The ancient Egyptians believed that a person received their ka from their father; they also believed that their father produced the primordium of their body. This idea was widespread amongst agricultural societies in the ancient world. Ancient farmers observed that plant seeds contained tiny embryos that looked like miniature plants (see the figure, below). They also knew that seeds contained the ‘spark of life’ because seeds can come to life and germinate all by themselves. Therefore, a seed contained all the components that were necessary to generate a new individual.

A photo of a germinating plant seed showing the embryo and a diagram of a homunculus inside a spermatozoan.

Ancient people observed that plant seeds could produce whole new plants on their own. Seeds contain tiny complete plants with leaves, stem and roots, and the ‘spark of life’ to start the process of life. The semen of male animals was thought to contain similar ‘seeds’, too small to see. When the microscope was invented in the 17th century and sperm were observed for the first time, people thought each spermatozoan contained a tiny primordial person, the homunculus
(Photo © Patricia L. O’Neill; All Rights Reserved; diagram after Nicholaas Hartsoeker, 1694).

The semen produced by men and male animals (often actually referred to as their ‘seed’) was thought to function in exactly the same way as plant seed, although the propagules were either too small or unconsolidated to be visible. Because semen was the source of the life force, it was viewed as a particularly potent, sacred and even dangerous substance.

Ancient peoples did not understand the genetic contribution that females made to their offspring; the influences women had on their offspring were viewed as minor adjustments of the basic plan determined by the father. The mother’s womb played a role analogous to that of the soil in plant reproduction—nourishing the pre-formed embryo in the seed and helping it to enlarge. Although the fertility of the soil influenced the vigour of a crop, it was the seed that determined the type and characteristics of the plants that grew. An example of this idea was expressed in ‘The Instructions of Ptahhotep’ (circa 2200 BC):

When you prosper and found your house [i.e., marry],
Love your wife with ardour…
Gladden her heart as long as you live.
She is a fertile field for her lord.

This was not meant to be a metaphor; the woman is literally the fertile ground into which a man plants his seed, in order to produce offspring. After a child was born, the mother continued to help it thrive by providing milk. But the contributions of the parents were viewed as unequal—an individual’s defining characteristics (the body and the ka) were determined by the father’s input. To put it in modern terms, the ancient Egyptians believed that an individual’s genes came from their father, whereas their mother’s influence was environmental. This belief had important implications for the inheritance of divinity (see The Son of Re).

When conception occurred, the tiny primordial body, contained in the semen, implanted and grew in the mother’s womb. The Egyptians believed that the ram-headed god, Khnum, directed this process in a way that was similar to the shaping of a vessel on a potter’s wheel (see the figure below). During gestation, the ka resided in the placenta. The frog-headed goddess, Hekat, was responsible for the welfare of the ka. The body and the ka grew independently and were not united until birth. When a child was born and the placenta was delivered, an elaborate ceremony was performed that installed the ka into the infant’s body. The child’s mouth was opened and cleared and the umbilical cord was cut with a sacred knife. With the magical assistance of Hekat, the child’s body drew its first breath and inhaled its ka. Only then was the infant considered fully alive and ready to receive its name. From that moment on, the ka would remain in the body and make it live by breathing.

The god Khnum and goddess Heket give life to the body and ka of the infant Hatshepsut.

The ram-headed god Khnum forms the body and ka of the infant Hatshepsut on his potter’s wheel, while the frog-headed goddess, Hekat, imbues them with life. The figures of Hatshepsut’s body and ka have male genitalia, which have engendered a great deal of speculation about Hatshepsut’s wish to portray herself as male. However, the original figures of the infant’s body and ka were hacked off the temple walls during the posthumous persecution of Hatshepsut; the originals may well have been female. The figures now visible are restorations made by Ramesses II, who vigorously opposed any signs of the female Pharaoh.
Digitally enhanced image from Naville, Deir el Bahari

The ka left the body only at the moment of death, when a person exhaled their ka with their final breath. The ancient Egyptians reasoned that since the ka caused the body to live, then if they could put a deceased person’s ka back into the dead body, the person would literally come back to life. They developed mummification to repair the body and prevent it from decaying. At the funeral, they performed a sacrament called ‘Opening the Mouth’ which replicated the rituals performed at birth to insert the ka. To the ancient Egyptians, a funeral was a rebirth in a very real sense.

The ka always needed a vessel to give it the nourishment it required—it couldn’t exist disembodied (unlike the ba). In utero, its home was the placenta. In life, it resided in the body to which it belonged. After death, it occupied the mummified body* and magically absorbed the offerings made to it by the dead person’s relatives. As a kind of insurance policy, a tomb was furnished with statues and images that the ka could occupy in case the mummy was destroyed. Any representation that was labelled with a deceased person’s name could be occupied by their ka. That is why ancient Egyptian artists almost never signed their work (it wasn’t made for their own kas) and why people could ‘repurpose’ someone else’s statues or tomb by simply substituting their own name for that of the original owner, so their ka could take up residence.

*After death but before the funeral, the Egyptians believed that deceased people’s kas were temporarily sheltered by tilapia fish, according to Dr. Christiane Desroches Noblecourt. Female Nile tilapia incubate their eggs in their mouths. When danger threatens, the hatchlings dash back into their mother’s mouth; when it’s safe, they are spit out and ‘reborn’. A deceased person’s ka could take advantage of this safe haven while their own body was being prepared for the Afterlife. This important role in resurrection was the reason the tilapia fish was sacred to the Egyptians and appeared so often in funerary contexts (see figure, below).

A blue faience bowl decorated with tilapia fish and lotus flowers.

A bowl decorated with tilapia fish with sacred blue lotuses in their mouths, both potent symbols of rebirth. A dead person’s ka was supposedly sheltered in the mouth of the tilapia fish until the ka re-entered its owner’s body during the Opening the Mouth funerary ritual.
Photo: Walters Art Museum; Public Domain


Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, 31-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

———. ‘Ba.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 27-28. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

———. ‘Shadow.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 334-335. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Baines, John. ‘Society, Morality and Religious Practice.’ In Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer, 123-200. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Bolshakov, Andrey O. ‘Ka.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 179-181. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Roth, Ann Macy. ‘Opening of the Mouth.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 293-298. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Quirke, Steven. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London: British Museum Press, 1992.

Son of Re

The ancient Egyptians always considered their kings to be the earthly incarnation of the god Horus, but early in the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC), they added an additional link to the sun god, Re. At this time, solar worship began to dominate Egyptian religion. The ideology of kingship was expanded to include the idea that the king was the bodily son of Re.

The concept of divine paternity was not merely a spiritual or metaphorical idea to the Egyptians. They believed that the sun god came to earth, assumed the form of a human man, and impregnated a woman he had chosen to bear his child. Since the woman Re chose was always married, the god would assume the exact appearance of the lady’s husband to remove any suggestion of marital infidelity, which the Egyptians despised.

A series of very fine reliefs from Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri depicts the sacred union between Hatshepsut’s mother, Queen Ahmose and the god Amen-Re (the supreme solar deity). Hatshepsut is often accused of inventing or accentuating her divine conception in order to justify her reign, but Egyptian kings had been making identical claims for over a thousand years before the time of Hatshepsut. In the reliefs, Amen-Re selects Queen Ahmose, the Great Royal Wife of King Tuthmosis I, to bear his divine child, because Ahmose is the most beautiful woman in the land. In one panel of the reliefs, the sun god and Queen Ahmose are shown sitting on a bed supported by goddesses (see figure below). Amen-Re holds the ankh sign to Ahmose’s nose and also pushes a was sceptre and ankh into her hand. Ahmose reciprocates by drawing the god’s elbow toward her, and the couple sits with intertwined legs. All these motifs indicate, in a typically discreet Egyptian fashion, that sexual intercourse resulting in conception took place.

Amen-re and Queen Ahmose seated on a bed supported by goddesses.

The sun god, Amen-Re (left) together with Queen Ahmose (right) as Hatshepsut is conceived. The accompanying text tells how Queen Ahmose was awakened in her bedchamber by the wonderful fragrance of the god who proceeded to make love to her. The Queen was delighted at the beauty of the god’s ‘foremost part.’ As a result, Amen-Re declared that the child he had implanted in Ahmose’s womb should be named Hatshepsut Khnemet-Amen, ‘Foremost of the Noblewomen, United-with-Amen.’
Digitally enhanced image from Naville, Deir el Bahari

The earliest detailed account of children sired by Re is found in the Westcar Papyrus (ca. 2100 BC), but the belief itself existed centuries earlier. The Westcar Papyrus relates a tale about the Lady Reddjedet, who was the wife of a priest of Re in Iunu. In the tale, a magician revealed that Reddjedet was pregnant with triplets who were fathered by Re. These three children were all destined to be kings of Egypt. The story goes on to tell how the goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Hekat and Meshkenet and the god Khnum assisted in the birth and pronounced the newborn children divine. The remarks made by Isis while delivering the infants were plays on their names, Userkaf, Sahure and Neferirkare, who were the first three kings of the Fifth Dynasty (see figure below).

Faces of kings Userkaf and Sahure

Heads of the first two kings of the Fifth Dynasty, Userkaf (left) and Sahure (right), who were two of the triplets sired by Re in the Westcar Papyrus tale. (There are no known statues of the third triplet, King Neferirkare.) In reality, Userkaf was the father of Sahure and Neferirkare.
Photos: CC2.5_SA_BY_Keith Schengili-Roberts

Although the Westcar Papyrus story is folklore, it illustrates important beliefs about the divine aspects of Egyptian kingship. First, the Lady Reddjedet was not royal, and her husband was not a high-ranking priest. Their rank had no bearing on the divine status of the triplets Reddjedet bore. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person’s defining characteristics—their body and ka—came from their father (see What is a ka?). The children of Re inherited divine bodies and kas from their father and were therefore fully divine. The status of their mother was irrelevant. This set of beliefs is why the ancient Egyptians had no concept of royal blood. To be ‘royal’ was to be divine, and in the strictest sense, only the Pharaoh was royal because he was the only being on earth directly sired by a god. In practice, it seems that the Egyptians believed that at least some of the divine essence of the Pharaoh was transmitted to his children, since the titles of ‘King’s Son’ and ‘King’s Daughter’ were treated as royal attributes.

Because a Pharaoh’s daughter was imbued with some of the divine essence, she was the ideal mother for a child of Re, who could be nurtured in her divine womb. That is the reason incestuous marriages were common within the royal families of ancient Egypt. A Pharaoh would marry his half or full sister, and if things went to plan, the sun god would obligingly choose to impregnate her. Although this arrangement was viewed as optimal, Re often chose a woman who was not the King’s Great Wife; many Pharaohs had mothers who were commoners. Having a commoner for a mother was no bar to becoming king.

The second point revealed by the Westcar Papyrus story was that more than one son of Re could exist simultaneously. Being the sons of Re did not make the triplets into kings automatically. They would only have become kings, in turn, when they received the Royal Ka upon the death of their predecessor (see The Royal Ka). In the story, the magician tells King Khufu that Khufu’s son will follow him on the throne and the son will be succeeded by Khufu’s grandson. After that, the triplets will inherit the throne, one after the other. So according to the story, at the time that the triplets were born, there would have been six sons of Re in Egypt, but only one king—the son of Re who possessed the Royal Ka, King Khufu.

But how did the Egyptians decide which children had been fathered by Re, and were therefore heirs to the throne? In fact, no one could tell. The true son of Re could not be identified for certain, until the ruling Pharaoh died. At that time, the Pharaoh’s eldest surviving son was assumed to be the son of Re; the Royal Ka was thought to enter his body and he would then become the new Horus King. This was an extremely practical system which took account of the fact that many children, even those of kings, died before reaching adulthood.

If a Pharaoh had no sons, everyone simply assumed that Re had chosen to impregnate a woman who was not one of the king’s wives. In those cases, deciding who was the correct successor, i.e., a genuine son of Re, could be problematic. Often, a close relative of the former king took the throne, but the successor could also be an unrelated priest or general if the nobles believed that a specific man possessed the qualities of a son of Re. Many kings who came to power in this way have been labelled as ‘usurpers’ by historians, but this assessment is inaccurate. These kings were regarded as completely legitimate according to the ideology of Egyptian kingship, and in any case, it was impossible to usurp the Horus Throne (see The Royal Ka). By the time of the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians adopted an additional practice, which Egyptologists call co-regency, to circumvent uncertainties about the succession (see Co-regency).

Some scholars claim that the son of Re doctrine presented difficulties for female Pharaohs, because ‘human women are not easily “sons of Ra”’ (e.g. see Digital Egypt). In reality, this didn’t seem to present any obstacles to the Egyptians; daughters as well as sons of Re were considered fully divine. The Egyptians were obviously aware that males sired daughters as well as sons, and the sun god Re was acknowledged as the father of many important goddesses, including Hathor and Ma’at. In the inscription describing Hatshepsut’s divine conception, the god Amen-Re explicitly stated that he wished to father a daughter because he wanted an Egyptian king who was extremely beautiful. Clearly, the sun god could choose the sex of his progeny, and at times, he fancied a daughter.

Queen Ahmose pregnant with the divine daughter of Amen, Hatshepsut.

Queen Ahmose about to give birth to her divine child, Hatshepsut. The sun god Amen-Re chose Ahmose to bear his child because she was the most beautiful woman in Egypt, which in the Egyptian view, meant she was the most beautiful woman on earth.
Photo CC3.0_SA_BY_ephysimon

In those rare cases where women became Pharaohs, they were regarded as daughters, not sons, of Re. Although a female Pharaoh’s divinity was equal to that of a male Pharaoh, female Pharaohs did face one huge disadvantage—they could not sire heirs because women did not produce ‘seed’. Therefore, the reign of a female Pharaoh always introduced instability in the succession. Hatshepsut was the only female Pharaoh to circumvent this difficulty because fate (or the gods, as she would have seen it) provided her with a male heir, her nephew Tuthmosis III, just a few months into her reign.

When the Egyptians adopted the concept of the son of Re, they began writing the personal name of the king, given to him at birth, inside an oval shape called a cartouche (see figure below). The cartouche represented all that the sun encircles—the dominion of the king of Egypt. The cartouche acknowledged the divine status that a son of Re had held from the moment of his birth. When a son (or in Hatshepsut’s case, a daughter) of Re acceded to the throne, they took a second name that was also written within a cartouche. This was the throne name, and indicated that the person also carried the Royal Ka. The throne name was preceded by the title niswt bity, which means ‘dual king’, because the Horus King was doubly divine—through both Re and Horus. In effect, the double cartouche became the ‘trademark’ of a Horus King.

The throne name and personal name of King Tuthmosis I written in cartouches.

Magical protective ovals we call cartouches surrounded two of the five royal names of Egyptian kings. These are the cartouches of Hatshepsut’s father, King Tuthmosis I. On the left, his throne name, Ah-khepre-ka-re, is below the signs for niswt bity (‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ or ‘Dual King’). On the right is the name he was given at birth, Djehutymes, which we usually render in its Greek form, Tuthmosis. (A laudatory epithet, khai mi Re, ‘arising like Re’, is also included within the cartouche.) The goose and red sun disk sign above the cartouche are the title sa Re, ‘Son of Re.’
Digitally enhanced from a painting by Howard Carter


Baines, John. ‘Kingship, Definition of Culture, and Legitimation.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 3-47. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Dodson, Aidan. ‘The Monarchy.’ In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson, 75-90. London: Routledge, 2007.

Frankfort, Henri. Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, reprinted 1978.

Goebs, Katja. ‘Kingship.’ In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson, 275-295. London: Routledge, 2007.

Lichtheim, Miriam. ‘Three Tales of Wonder from Papyrus Westcar.’ In Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. I: The Old and Middle Kingdom, 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Müller, Maya. ‘Re and Re-Horakhty.’ In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 325-328. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Naville, Edouard. The Temple of Deir el Bahari, Part II. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1896.

Redford, Donald B. ‘The Concept of Kingship during the Eighteenth Dynasty.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 157-184. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Silverman, David P. ‘Divinity and Deities in Ancient Egypt.’ In Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, edited by Byron E. Shafer, 7-87. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Silverman, David P. ‘The Nature of Egyptian Kingship.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 49-92. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.


The ancient Egyptian system of kingship, based on doctrines of the Royal Ka and the Son of Re, ensured a stable succession and harmonious transfer of power most of the time. However, when a ruling king had no surviving sons, the Egyptians faced the daunting task of trying to choose an heir, who was supposed to be the divine son of Re. At times, the contest for the throne could disintegrate into chaos.

This is what happened at the end of the Sixth Dynasty, about 2180 BC. The nation-building era of the Old Kingdom ended and a time of civil war, chaos and economic collapse known as the First Intermediate Period ensued—a ‘dark age’ lasting over a century when the country was in turmoil. Historical records list a large number of ephemeral rulers, the result of the Egyptians’ desperate search for a true Horus King who could unify the country. The period of unrest ended in about 2030 BC and a new period of stability, the Middle Kingdom, began. The kings of the Middle Kingdom refined the ideology of kingship to include the institution of co-regency, which ensured that the succession would proceed smoothly. (It is important to note that the term ‘co-regency’ was invented by Egyptologists to describe this institution, and the term may not reflect the Egyptians’ own view of how it functioned.)

A co-regency occurred when a ruling Horus King appointed a successor by formally investing him with the titles of kingship. The successor was entitled to be depicted wearing royal crowns, could perform kingly duties and was granted a throne name and a son-of-Re name, both written in cartouches. On the surface, during a co-regency it looked as if there were two equal kings ruling simultaneously, but since there could only be one Horus King at a time (see The Royal Ka), how did co-regency work?

Some scholars have asserted that co-regency ‘was never integrated into official royal ideology’ (Baines, p. 21). William Murnane stated (p. 265): ‘First and last, however, the coregency was a pragmatic affair—an ad hoc disposition of power that remained an anomaly, given Egyptian religious and political ideas. The presence of two Sons of Re, of two Horus kings occupying the throne at the same time, was not a situation that could be easily integrated into the standard conceptual framework.’

The mechanism of co-regency may have eluded Egyptologists, but it is hardly likely that an institution that successfully stabilised the succession for nearly two thousand years was inconsistent with the ideology of Egyptian kingship. The presence of two (or more) sons of Re alive simultaneously was easily accommodated within the Egyptian system of kingship (see The Son of Re).

In practice, when a co-regency was established, the pre-existing king became the ‘senior co-regent’ or ‘senior king’ and his selected heir became the ‘junior co-regent’ or ‘junior king’(the terminology adopted by Egyptologists; we don’t know what terms the Egyptians used). Murnane observed (p. 253) that ‘…although the kings’ formal status is the same, in practice the junior partner is not completely his own man.’ The junior king carried out his duties at the behest of the senior king; the junior king was required to report on his activities to the senior king; the ultimate authority of kingship resided with the senior king. Clearly, the co-regents were not equal; the junior partner was a king-in-training and subordinate to the senior king.

Protocol allowed each co-regent to appear alone on their own monuments—Murnane makes it clear that depicting one co-regent without the other can tell us nothing about their relative status. For example, there are many monuments and inscriptions in which Hatshepsut appears alone, but this does not mean that her nephew was not her co-regent at the time. However, the converse—Tuthmosis III being mentioned without Hatshepsut—is almost always taken to mean that Tuthmosis was ruling alone. The evidence from other co-regencies demonstrates that conclusion is unwarranted.

It is only when both co-regents are represented together that the difference in their status is obvious. The senior king is always given precedence—he stands in front of the junior king or closer to a divinity, he appears on the dominant side of a monument (usually the right side), his names and titles come first, he may wear regalia of higher rank, or be engaged in a more prestigious activity.

The crucial distinction between the co-regents’ status is revealed by the symbolic devices associated only with the senior king: the Royal Ka standard bearing the Horus name, the Horus falcon standard, the throne name standard surmounted by the sun disc and double plumes, and especially the royal placenta standard and the Wepwawet standard bearing the shedshed device. These standards were not mere decorations; they indicated that the senior king was in sole possession of the Royal Ka (see the figure below).

A scene from the Red Chapel at Karnak showing the royal placenta and Wepwawet with shedshed standards preceding Hathsepsut.

A block from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut showing a coronation scene. Hatshepsut, labelled by her throne name, Ma’atkare (shaded purple) is led forward for blessing by the gods Amen-Re and Atum. Preceding her are two royal emblems that only accompany ruling Horus kings: the royal placenta standard and the Wepwawet with shedshed standard (shaded purple). These two strange symbols stand for the two kas of a Horus King: the personal ka (derived from Re, which the king had at birth) and the Royal Ka (the ka of Horus which the king acquired at accession).
Derivative work from photo CC 3.0_SA_BY_Olaf Tausch

A junior king was never accompanied by these standards during the life of the senior king because during that interval he did not possess the Royal Ka. The senior co-regent was in all ways a conventional Horus King, whereas the junior co-regent had kingly titles but not the supreme power granted by the Royal Ka. Only when the senior co-regent died, and the Royal Ka passed to the junior co-regent, did the junior partner possess the full authority of a Horus King. Only when his solo reign began would he be entitled to use the royal placenta standard and the Wepwawet standard with the shedshed.

The figure below shows a block from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut, in which both Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III accompany the barque of Amen-Re during the Opet Festival. The manner in which Hatshepsut is portrayed, along with the standards around her (highlighted in purple) illustrate her status as a full Horus King, whereas Tuthmosis III and his symbols (highlighted in blue) reveal his lesser status. Hatshepsut is at the front of the barque (dominant position) and faces the statue of Amen-Re hidden in its shrine (direct interaction with the god). In front of her are two standards: the first bears the solar falcon (a merging of Re and Horus) and the second shows her throne name, Ma’atkare, surmounted by twin plumes (the symbol of Amen) and the solar disk protected by two pendent cobras (the symbol of Re). Both these standards indicate that Hatshepsut possesses the Royal Ka. In addition, the cartouche containing her throne name also has a solar falcon standard in front of it, reinforcing the idea that she bears the Royal Ka.

Hatshepsut on the barque of Amen with royal standards and Tuthmosis III with a follower sign.

A block from the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut showing the ruling Horus King, Ma’atkare Hatshepsut (shaded in purple), together with her subordinate junior regent, Tuthmosis III (shaded in blue). See text for an explanation of the symbols.
Derivative work from photo by Shutterstock/mountainpix

In contrast, Tuthmosis III stands at the back of the boat holding an oar. The duty of rowing the god’s barque in the festival was an honour granted to courtiers; it was not a royal prerogative. Most importantly, behind Tuthmosis is a hieroglyph for the word shemsu, ‘follower’. ‘Follower of the King’ was a title granted to courtiers who accompanied the king in order to do his (or her) bidding. Scenes like this make it clear that the junior co-regent did not possess the Royal Ka and was at all times under direct command of the senior king. Therefore, the institution of co-regency was completely compatible with the ideology of Egyptian kingship.

But this understanding of co-regency poses a problem for the usual interpretation of Hatshepsut’s kingship. Egyptologists believe that Hatshepsut’s nephew, Tuthmosis III, was the acknowledged Horus King when Hatshepsut inveigled her way to the throne by establishing a co-regency. If this were true, then Tuthmosis (being in possession of the Royal Ka) would have been the senior king and Hatshepsut would have been the junior king. She could not have elevated herself to the position of senior king over her nephew if he were already an acknowledged Horus King, although that is exactly what Murnane claims she did:

‘Tuthmosis III remained on the throne alongside Hatshepsut who, from her accession on, acted publicly as the senior partner in a coregency with her nephew. This assertion of superiority, more plainly visible in the monuments of this coregency than in those of any other, surely fooled no one.’ (p. 34)

Hatshepsut’s monuments suggest otherwise. To accomplish this appropriation of divine royal status, Hatshepsut would have had to steal, siphon off, or somehow ‘time-share’ the Royal Ka from her nephew, but the Royal Ka only left a Horus King at his death and kas could not be shared (see What is a ka?). Clearly, the conventional interpretation of events is at odds with the ideology of Egyptian kingship.

There is one, and only one, mechanism by which Hatshepsut could have occupied the office of senior king—she had to possess the Royal Ka. And the only circumstance under which the Royal Ka would occupy a female heir was if no male heir was available. This situation could only have occurred if Hatshepsut’s predecessor, Tuthmosis II, died before his son, Tuthmosis III was born (see What is a ka? and The Royal Ka). This order of events was followed in Her Majesty the King and The Horus Throne.

Why did the Egyptians opt for the complex protocol of co-regency instead of simply naming the heir as crown prince? Although the Egyptians had a title, ‘eldest king’s son of his body’, usually translated as ‘crown prince’, this title did not guarantee inheritance of the throne. The title was simply a statement of biological paternity; it did not necessarily infer that the holder was a genuine son of Re. But appointment as co-regent did acknowledge the divine descent of the junior partner. Presumably the ruling king used his insight as a god to recognise the divinity of his chosen candidate—a vital endorsement in a system which had no concept of royal blood. Already acknowledged as divine, the junior king was ready to step into the role of full Horus King the instant his predecessor died. There could be no uncertainty about the succession, which was of crucial importance in cases where the ruling Horus King had no surviving sons.

But co-regency had another feature which was instrumental in stamping out foul play to gain the throne. The foremost duty of an Egyptian king was the preservation of ma’at. Ma’at was the cosmic order imposed by the creator god when he formed the universe; ma’at included truth, justice and the established way of doing things. In a system of co-regency, both kings were bound to honour ma’at. This meant that the junior partner could never resort to plots, intrigues or other skulduggery to gain the throne, nor could anyone who supported him. To do so would violate ma’at and prove he was not a son of Re and not fit to rule. So the junior co-regent was guaranteed to inherit ultimate power, but he had to behave himself and wait until the senior king ‘flew to heaven’ in his—or her—own good time. This is why Tuthmosis III, arguably the most aggressive warrior Pharaoh Egypt ever produced, never lifted a finger against his aunt Hatshepsut while she lived. (His decision to discredit Hatshepsut twenty years after her death is dealt with in The Eye of Re.)

It is probably no coincidence that the first attested co-regency was established by King Amenemhet I (1938-1909 BC), who was attacked by his own bodyguards in a palace plot. As a result, he appointed his son, Senwosret I, as co-regent. The co-regency lasted ten years, during which Senwosret I led military campaigns for his aging father and conducted a purge of the courtiers behind the palace plot.

An Osiride statue of King Senwosret I

Statue of King Senwosret I, who served as junior co-regent for ten years under his father, King Amenemhet I.
Photo by John Bodsworth, copyright-free

The system of co-regency continued to stabilise the Egyptian monarchy until the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305 -30 BC). The Ptolemaic rulers, who were Greek, established co-regencies but understood nothing about Egyptian religion and kingship. Neglect of the ideology of kingship guaranteed a bloody and violent end to Pharaonic civilisation.


Baines, John. ‘Kingship, Definition of Culture, and Legitimation.’ In Ancient Egyptian Kingship, edited by David O’Connor and David P. Silverman, 3-47. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.

Dodson, Aidan. ‘The Monarchy.’ In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson, 75-90. London: Routledge, 2007.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘The Early Reign of Thutmose III: An Unorthodox Mantle of Coregency,’ in Thutmose III: A New Biography, edited by Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor, 39-68. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Murnane, William J. Ancient Egyptian Coregencies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

O’Connor, David.  ‘Thutmose III: An Enigmatic Pharaoh,’ in Thutmose III A New Biography, eds. Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor, 1-38. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

The Inscription of Ineni

Ineni was one of the most important courtiers of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. He held the positions of Chief Architect, Chief of Works and Treasurer during the reigns of five kings: Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis II, Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III.

Painting of the facade of Ineni’s tomb

Watercolour sketch of the ruins of Ineni’s tomb as it appeared in 1896.
After Boussac, Public Domain

Ineni’s autobiography, inscribed on a damaged stela in his tomb, TT81 (see figure below), contains the only surviving historical account of the end of the reign of Tuthmosis II and the transition to the era of Tuthmosis III and Hatshepsut.

Plan of TT81, Ineni’s tomb

The long transverse gallery of Ineni’s tomb was a public space dedicated to his memory.
CC 3.0_SA_BY_Didia

The wording of this account varies according to the preferences of the translator. Texts like this are notoriously difficult to interpret and scholars have struggled to understand precisely what Ineni meant:

‘(Tuthmosis II) went forth to heaven, having mingled with the gods. His son stood in his place as the king of the Two Lands, having become ruler upon the throne of the one who begat him. His sister the Divine Consort, Hatshepsut, settled the affairs of the Two Lands by reason of her plans. Egypt was made to labour with bowed head for her, the excellent seed of the god, which came forth from him. The bow-rope of the South, the mooring stake of the Southerners, the excellent stern-rope of the Northerners is she; the mistress of command, whose plans are excellent, who satisfies the Two Regions, when she speaks.’ (translation by Breasted)

‘(Tuthmosis II)…Having ascended into heaven, he became united with the gods, and his son, being arisen in his place as king of the Two Lands, ruled upon the throne of his begetter, while his sister, the god’s wife Hatshepsowe (sic) governed the land and the Two Lands were under her control; people worked for her, and Egypt bowed the head.’ (translation by Gardiner)

‘(Tuthmosis II) went to heaven and joined the gods. His son stood in his place as King of the Two Lands, and he began to rule on the throne of him who had begotten him, (while) his sister, the God’s Wife Hatshepsut, managed the affairs of this land. The Two Lands were governed according to her plans, and work was done for her.’ (translation by Murnane)

‘(Tuthmosis II)…May he ascend into heaven. After he had joined among the gods, his son was set up in his place as King of the Two Lands. While he ruled from the throne of him who begat him, his sister, the god’s-wife (sic) Hatshepsut made plottings: The Two Lands according to her plans—Egypt shall be made serviceable to her with bent head, as the glorious divine seed came forth before him. As the bow-rope of Upper Egypt has moored the southern lands, the excellent stern-rope of Lower Egypt is a mistress of commanding words. As her plans are excellent, the two banks will be pleased according to her saying.’  (translation by Goedicke)

‘(Tuthmosis II) ascended into heaven and united with the gods, while his son stood in his place as king of the two lands, having assumed rulership upon the throne of the one who begat him, and while his sister, the god’s wife Hatshepsut, was conducting the affairs of the country, the two lands being in her care. With Egypt in obeisance she is served, the beneficent divine seed who has come forth before him, the prowrope (sic) of Upper Egypt and the mooring post of the southerners. She is the excellent sternrope (sic) of Lower Egypt, mistress of command, whose counsels are splendid, with whose words the two banks are pleased.’ (Dorman’s translation)

Much of the variation between translations arises from differences in Egyptian and English verbs. Egyptian verb tenses often have no English equivalents, so translators try to approximate the sense of the verbs and add words such as ‘while’ ‘after’ or ‘began to’ which are not in the original text; this can change the meaning of a sentence. In this inscription, preconceptions about the order of historical events have created irreconcilable difficulties with Ineni’s actual words (see The Inscription of Ineni: A Better Explanation). It is also noteworthy that most translators have chosen constructions which downplay Hatshepsut’s importance and two translations omit the phrase mentioning the ‘god’s seed’, which is crucial to understand the passage.

However, the general consensus amongst Egyptologists is that the text means that when Tuthmosis II died, his son, Tuthmosis III, succeeded him as king. Because the boy was too young to rule independently, Hatshepsut, the God’s Wife of Amen (also the sister and widow of Tuthmosis II), acted as regent.

Every scholar who has studied Ineni’s inscription has noticed a striking anomaly—at the time the text was written, the ruling king of Egypt was supposedly Menkheperre Tuthmosis (Tuthmosis III), yet neither of his names is mentioned in Ineni’s autobiography nor is either name present anywhere in the tomb. The autobiographical inscription was located in the front gallery of the tomb (see figure above) which was a public space where Ineni’s relatives, friends and admirers would come to read about his accomplishments and make offerings for his ka. Although the omission would have been glaringly obvious, most scholars have dismissed it as a mere oversight on Ineni’s part. In reality, such an omission would have been a grave insult to a ruling king. However, Peter Dorman has suggested that Ineni may have died before the coronation of Tuthmosis III, so his throne name would not have been formally proclaimed (see Dorman, note 18). No one seems to have considered that the same situation may also have applied to Hatshepsut (see The Inscription of Ineni: A Better Explanation).


Breasted, James H.  Ancient Records of Egypt Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Dynasty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906, reprinted 2001.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘The Early Reign of Thutmose III: An Unorthodox Mantle of Coregency,’ in Thutmose III: A New Biography, edited by Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor, 39-68. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Dziobek, Eberhard. Das Grab des Ineni: Theben Nr. 81. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, 1992.

Gardiner, Alan H. Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Goedicke, Hans. The Speos Atemidos Inscription of Hatshepsut and Related Discussions. Oakeville, Ct.: Halgo Inc., 2003

Murnane, William J. Ancient Egyptian Coregencies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

The Inscription of Ineni

A Better Explanation

Although Egyptologists contend that Ineni’s autobiography describes Tuthmosis III as the ruling Horus King and Hatshepsut as his regent, a co-regency between Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III may better fit the meaning of Ineni’s own words.

The two rulers were presented in the inscription in strikingly different ways. Tuthmosis III was given only the briefest mention—just a quarter of a line, squeezed in at the end, whereas Ineni had quite a lot to say about Hatshepsut (see the figure below).

Stela with the autobiography of Ineni

Damaged stela from TT81 containing the autobiography of Ineni. The section referring to Tuthmosis III (highlighted in turquoise) is extraordinarily brief. Digitally enhanced image after Boussac

The phrase about Tuthmosis III looks like an afterthought, as if Ineni removed the end of the section about Tuthmosis II and replaced it with a short remark about his son. Ineni’s statements in his autobiography concerning the deaths of kings Amenhotep I and Tuthmosis I were parallel constructions that included ‘flying to heaven’ and ‘joining the gods’ followed by a comment praising the wonderful reign of each king. The death of Tuthmosis II lacks the declaration about his reign and simply states:

‘Going forth to heaven, he united with the gods.’

A last-minute erasure and ad hoc insertion might have been required if the birth of Tuthmosis III was unexpected and occurred after his father’s death (the scenario followed in The Hatshepsut Trilogy). There is much more evidence in Ineni’s inscription to indicate that the succession of Tuthmosis III was not as straightforward as Egyptologists suppose.

The fact that Ineni never mentioned Tuthmosis III by name is noteworthy. Ineni was a highly accomplished and experienced nobleman. He was so meticulous in composing his tomb inscriptions, for example, that he listed all 451 trees in his garden. It is not likely that he would somehow ‘forget’ to mention the name of the ruling king, especially in the public viewing area meant to secure his reputation for eternity. Dorman’s suggestion, that the throne name ‘Menkheperre’ had not yet been formalised, deserves serious consideration. But there would have been no prohibition against using the birth name of Tuthmosis, especially if it included one of his identifying epithets (such as ‘beautiful of forms’). The omission of the boy’s name can only have been deliberate, and it must have some significance.

Ineni’s actual words about Tuthmosis III and my translation of them are below.

Hieroglyphic inscription about Tuthmosis III

© P.L. O'Neill

‘His son stood in his place as king of the two lands;
he having ruled on the throne of the one who sired him.’

This was an extraordinarily terse account of the succession of a royal heir who later claimed (in ‘The Text of Youth’) that he had been publicly proclaimed as the true Horus King by the state god Amen-Re, in front of a large audience at Karnak Temple.

Ineni’s statement could not have been referring to the glorious accession of a living god recounted in The Text of Youth. His autobiography made it clear that Tuthmosis III was acknowledged as the son of Tuthmosis II, but what official status was being described? Protocol demanded that the accession of a Horus King should be referred to in a specific way, khai m niswt ‘arising in glory as king’ (Redford). There must have been a reason Ineni expressed it differently here. The phrase ‘king of the two lands’ (niswt tawy; blue in the inscription above) sounds like the designation of a king, but the phrase had never been used to refer to an Egyptian king. In fact, Ineni’s inscription was the first time an Egyptian text ever used this very rare terminology. In a tomb of a slightly later date (TT 155), the phrase niswt tawy also appeared, again in reference to Tuthmosis III, where the correct formulation would have been the royal title ‘his majesty’ (hm.f). The same tomb contained a damaged inscription of Hatshepsut’s Horus name—an unambiguous attribute of a Horus King (see Other Inscriptions). The ancient Egyptians obeyed a strict and conservative protocol about kingly titles; Ineni’s departure from those tenets is an important clue that the status of Tuthmosis III was not that of a conventional king.

Ineni also employed an ingenious circumlocution, ‘the throne of the one who sired him’—whoever that sire might have been. This was not the accepted way to refer to the station of a ruling Horus King; the correct phrases are ‘the Horus Throne of the Living’ or ‘the throne of Geb’. Ineni’s wording allowed a post hoc flexibility about paternity and dominion. If the boy inherited sole power after Hatshepsut’s (eventual) death, and thus he became the ruling Horus King, then everyone would know that his true father was the sun god, Re, and he was entitled to rule ‘all that the sun encircled.’ But until that determination could be made, it was sufficient to note that he was the son of the previous king, and therefore eligible to be Hatshepsut’s heir. No matter what the eventual fate of the boy, Ineni’s wording would always be correct. There was a compelling reason for this grammatical sleight-of-hand, and that was the status of Hatshepsut (see below).

One other characteristic marks the difference between the description of Tuthmosis III vs. that of Hatshepsut—the tense of the verbs. It may seem an obscure point, but in historical inscriptions, correct translation of the verbs delineates the sequence of events. The verbs in the Tuthmosis sentence (red in the inscription above) are both constructions that refer to a past action that has been completed, but is not occurring in the present (cf. Allen). The Egyptian verb translated as ‘stood’ is a subject-stative intransitive form; it refers to a discrete event that had happened in the past that produced a change of status. The Egyptian verb translated as ‘having ruled’ is a form called the sdm.n.f perfect; it means the act of ruling was not taking place at the time the inscription was written. These two verb forms were frequently used sequentially in this way in Egyptian. The sentence means that Ineni was writing about a past event where Tuthmosis III was recognised as a legitimate king’s son, and his right to the throne was recognised, but that the boy was not ruling at the time the inscription was written. The many infelicitous translations of this little sentence are the result of attempts to reconcile the situation that Ineni’s words actually describe with the preconception that Tuthmosis III was actively ruling at the time of Ineni’s death.

In contrast, the verbs referring to Hatshepsut’s status are pseudoverbal adverbial constructions  (hr + infinitive; coloured red in the inscription below). In Egyptian, this construction means that the action of the verb was ongoing at the time of writing. In English, progressive verbs or the present tense best express this idea, and I have used them for these constructions in my translation.

Hieroglyphic inscription about Hatshepsut, part 1

© P.L. O'Neill

‘His sister, the God’s Wife Hatshepsut,
conducts the governance of the land.
The Two Lands are under her command and
she is served by Egypt obediently.
(She is) the akh seed of the god, who came forth out of him.’

Hieroglyphic inscription about Hatshepsut, part 2

© P.L. O'Neill

‘(She is) the bow-rope of Upper Egypt,
the mooring post of the Southerners,
the beneficent stern-rope of Lower Egypt.
The Mistress of Command,
her counsels are superlative, satisfying all Egypt when she speaks.’

After describing Hatshepsut’s status, Ineni then shifted into past tense when he described the benefits Hatshepsut had bestowed on him, because after his death these actions would no longer be occurring (hieroglyphic inscription not shown):

‘Her Majesty praised me, she loved me,
she recognised my worth in the palace.
She presented me with rewards; she made me great.
She awarded me marvels of silver and gold
from all the beautiful things of the house of the king.
I never said, “I wish I had more,” of anything.’

In contrast to Tuthmosis, Hatshepsut’s name was written and enclosed within her royal cartouche. Her title of God’s Wife was included—this title referred to her religious office in which she exercised independent power, and was not a reference to being the (former) wife of a king.

Egyptologists have acknowledged that Hatshepsut was the de facto head of state from the time of her brother’s death. Ineni’s praises show that she was instrumental in keeping the country stable (that’s what all the metaphors to ropes and mooring posts are about) and that her authority was undisputed. But Hatshepsut was more than an administrator or regent according to Ineni’s description. The phrase ‘conducts the governance of the land’ (hr irt mhrw ta) may sound prosaic, but in other historical inscriptions it was an action only performed by ruling kings (Gardiner, note e, p. 142). In addition, Ineni called Hatshepsut ‘Her Majesty’ (hmt.s); majesty was a term specifically referring to the king as the living incarnation of Horus (cf. Allen).

But it is the phrase ‘akh seed of the god, who came forth out of him’ (in blue, above) that defines Hatshepsut’s true status. Some scholars have argued that this epithet refers to Hatshepsut’s descent from her father, King Tuthmosis I, but that affiliation was expressed by the title ‘King’s Daughter,’ which was not used here. I have not translated the word akh because there is no English equivalent. Other translations have employed ‘excellent’ or ‘beneficent’, but these adjectives are associated with the term mnht, which Ineni used in this inscription, but not as an equivalent to akh. Akh connotes a divine, supernatural agency that has the ability to affect the material world; it is the essence of a god’s power (Friedman). The form of the term ‘came forth out of him’ (prt khnt.f) was an Egyptian idiom specifically referring to fathering a child (Gardiner). This phrase unambiguously identifies Hatshepsut as the divine child of a god, and there is only one kind of earthly being that comes forth from a god—a Horus King of Egypt. Hatshepsut was not only the de facto ruler of Egypt, she was the incarnation of Horus. Because she was recognised as being of divine descent, she would have of necessity been the recipient of the Royal Ka. Ineni could not have acknowledged her divinity in so public a fashion if she were not.

Thus, Ineni’s autobiography shows that at the time of this illustrious courtier’s death, the divine paternity of Tuthmosis III was an unsettled question, whereas Hatshepsut was explicitly acknowledged as divine. The only situation consistent with these circumstances is a co-regency in which Hatshepsut was the senior king. Her throne name may be absent from the inscription for the same reason Dorman cites for Tuthmosis III—she had not yet been formally crowned. (The official titulary of a new king had to be proclaimed and inscribed in the temple of Re in Iunu before it could be used in inscriptions. cf Frankfort).

Hatshepsut would have been wise to delay her formal coronation. Female kings, no matter how secure their legitimacy, terrified the ancient Egyptians (see The Son of Re). The extraordinary measures Hatshepsut had to employ to secure her right to rule before enacting her coronation are described in the second book of The Hatshepsut Trilogy, The Horus Throne.


Allen, James P. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Dorman, Peter. The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology.  Studies in Egyptology 9. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

Friedman, Florence Dunn. ‘Akh’. In The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion, edited by Donald B. Redford, 7-9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Dziobek, Eberhard. Das Grab des Ineni: Theben Nr. 81. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, 1992.

Frankfort, Henri. ‘The Royal Succession’, in Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature, 101-104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, reprinted 1978.

Gardiner, Alan. Egyptian Grammar, Third Edition, Revised, p. 131. Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1994.

Goedicke, Hans. The Speos Atemidos Inscription of Hatshepsut and Related Discussions. Oakeville, Ct.: Halgo Inc., 2003

Redford, Donald B. ‘Khay and its derivatives’, in History and Chronology of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt: Seven Studies, 3-27. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.

Sethe, Kurt. Urkunden der 18 Dynastie, IV, 53-62. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag. 1927-1930.

The Semna Temple Inscriptions

Conventional View

The Egyptians maintained a series of formidable fortresses along the Nile in Nubia (modern-day Sudan) in order to enforce their rule over the Nubian populace. Each fortress protected a garrison town complete with its own small temple. At the narrowest stretch of the Nile, called the ‘Belly of Rock’, Fort Kumma guarded the east bank and Fort Semna guarded the west bank of the river (see figure below).

Coloured engraving of a narrow rocky section of the Nile 
with the ruins of Fort Semna close to the bank and the desert in the distance

View of the ruins of Fort Semna as they appeared in 1844 from the east bank of the Nile. Fort Semna and Fort Kumma guarded the narrow strait known as the “Belly of Rock’; each fort had its own temple. The temples were dismantled and moved to the Sudan National Museum in 1964; the area was inundated by the rising waters of Lake Nasser in 1971.
From Lepsius, Denkmäler

The reliefs adorning the walls of the Semna Temple are of great historical importance because they contain an inscription stating that Tuthmosis III constructed the sandstone temple in the second year of his reign to replace an older brick temple (see figure below). Hatshepsut is mentioned twice in other inscriptions on the temple, but only incidentally, and not as a king.

Engraving of an inscription showing King Tuthmosis III standing below two cartouches 
and looking toward thirteen columns of inscribed hieroglyphics

Inscription dated to regnal year 2 stating that Semna Temple was built by King Tuthmosis III; date outlined in pink.
From Lepsius, Denkmäler

Egyptologists interpret the inscriptions of Semna Temple as proof that Tuthmosis III was sole king in year 2 of his reign, and at that time Hatshepsut was merely acting as regent for the boy king.

Peter Dorman concluded, ‘The subordinate status of Hatshepsut at Semna is unequivocal…when the temple had been rebuilt and the reliefs completed, Hatshepsut was still depicted as queen, in secondary position to Tuthmosis III, who dominates the scenes on the western exterior wall and appears alone everywhere else in the temple.’

Joyce Tyldesley, in her popular account of Hatshepsut’s life, summed up the consensus Egyptologists had reached about Hatshepsut’s position during the early reign of her nephew: ‘Her subordinate status at this time is confirmed by inscriptions at the Semna temple in Nubia, dated to Tuthmosis III Year 2, where Hatchepsut plays a very minor role in both texts and the accompanying carved reliefs.’

The implication of the Semna inscriptions is that Hatshepsut’s alleged grab for power had to occur sometime after regnal year 2 of Tuthmosis III.

However, as in often the case in Egyptology, the evidence is not as straightforward as one might hope. Semna Temple was remodelled extensively by Tuthmosis III early in his sole reign. The inscriptions were re-carved and altered and any trace of Hatshepsut was ruthlessly expunged. The temple may have presented a very different view of Hatshepsut in its original state.  (See The Semna Temple Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).


Caminos, Ricardo A. Semna-Kumma, Vol. I The Temple of Semna. London: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1998.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘The Accession Date of Hatshepsut,’ in The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology, 19-45.  London: Kegan Paul International.

Tyldesley, Joyce.  ‘Queen of Egypt’ in Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh, 70-98, London: Penguin Books, 1996.

The Semna Temple Inscriptions

A Better Explanation

Hatshepsut maintained a vigorous building program in Nubia. She is known to have constructed several temples within the huge fortresses that guarded the Nile. Her inscriptions in these temples were ruthlessly expunged by Tuthmosis III when he ordered Hatshepsut’s proscription. The temple within Fort Semna (see picture below) is of historical significance because of the very limited evidence of Hatshepsut’s involvement in the temple’s construction. Semna Temple supposedly shows that Tuthmosis III was the sole reigning monarch in regnal year 2. However, it is judicious to maintain a high degree of suspicion when a historical assertion is based on Hatshepsut’s absence.

Drawing of Fort Semna with location of temple highlighted

Semna Temple was a small sandstone building that occupied its own enclosure at the crossroads of the two main streets within the fort. It was dedicated to the worship of Dedwen, the god of Nubia, and the Twelfth Dynasty king, Senwosret III, who conquered much of Nubia.
Drawing CC 3.0_SA_BY_Franck Monnier

According to the inscriptions of Tuthmosis III, the sandstone temple was built in regnal year 2 to replace an earlier brick temple erected by Hatshepsut’s father, Tuthmosis I. After Hatshepsut’s death, Tuthmosis III remodelled and extended the temple, probably in regnal year 22 or 23. The extension is clearly demarcated from the original building by the smaller size of the blocks (see picture below). The extension also bears an inscription by the Viceroy of Nubia, Nehy, who replaced Hatshepsut’s Viceroy, Amenemnekhu, after the female Pharaoh’s death. It is not surprising that Hatshepsut is not shown in any inscriptions on the temple’s extension, since it was the sole work of Tuthmosis III.

Digital reconstruction of the temple’s east wall, 
showing the block sizes and location of the year 2 inscription

Semna Temple was constructed from huge sandstone blocks; the later addition is composed of smaller, irregular blocks. The addition bears an inscription of Viceroy Nehy, who was appointed after Hatshepsut’s death and was responsible for building the addition.
Digital reconstruction by Patricia L. O’Neill after Lepsius, Denkmäler and Caminos, Semna/Kumma

The famous year 2 inscription (see photo below) is inscribed in the precise, elegant style for which Semna Temple is justly famous, but the relief carving is unusually shallow in this particular text, and the hieroglyphs are so crowded that many are touching. Cramping the text like this is unusual in a temple dedication, which should have precedence over all other inscriptions on the wall. These peculiarities invite doubt that the year 2 inscription is the wall’s original text; it seems squeezed into the available space where some other scene or text was removed. In fact, the scene is missing a carved ‘block border’ that should form the left boundary of the inscription, although the carved border is present at the top of the scene and on its right-hand edge (not shown in photo).

A detailed black & white photo of the year 2 inscription 
with various elements highlighted in colour

The year 2 inscription of Tuthmosis III occupies the south end of the temple’s east wall. The figure of the king is shaded pink; the date is surrounded by a pink rectangle. The block border is shaded yellow and below it, the ‘sky’ sign is shaded green. The blank area behind the king, shaded purple, is missing the block border. The magenta bracket at the top left indicates the thickness of the blocks forming the temple’s façade. The torus moulding protruding from the façade is shaded turquoise.
Photo of wall copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission.

Suspicions about the originality of the text are strengthened when the corner of the building is inspected. The façade of a temple was normally bordered by a torus moulding that stuck out from the corners (see photo below). The original torus moulding and the right (southeast) corner of Semna Temple seem to have been tampered with—an indication that the east wall was cut back when the year 2 text was carved on it. It is difficult to reconcile the alterations on the wall with the claim that the year 2 text is Semna Temple’s original dedication inscription.

A photo of the White Chapel highlighting the torus moulding 
with diagrams of the mouldings on the White Chapel and Semna Temple

(Top) The White Chapel of Senwosret I at Karnak. The corners of the temple façade are edged with a torus moulding (tinted turquoise), an Egyptian architectural element that was used on virtually all sacred buildings starting in the Third Dynasty. The diagram for the White Chapel illustrates the position that torus mouldings occupied on the corners of buildings. The diagram for Semna Temple shows how the right corner deviates from the accepted standard.
Photo CC 2.5_SA_BY_Markh

The year 2 text itself contains some striking irregularities. The cartouches above the figure of Tuthmosis III are uneven, and both contain his throne name, Menkheperre (see photo below). When the paired cartouches of a king were inscribed side-by-side, they were invariably placed level with one another; one always contained the prenomen (throne name) and the other the nomen (personal name). The cartouche on the left has been squeezed in beneath the vulture’s shen ring, where a protective docket would normally have been written. Interestingly, it is this anomalous cartouche that is surmounted by the title, ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt.’ The cartouche on the right bears the title ‘The Good God,’ which was the title most commonly used by Tuthmosis III during Hatshepsut’s reign.

A photo enlargement showing the uneven cartouches in the year 2 inscription

Enlargement of the cartouches of Tuthmosis III in the year 2 inscription. Point to highlight the carvings. The left cartouche has been squeezed in so that it is lower than the right cartouche and its title touches the shen ring (the circular object held in the vulture’s claws). Oddly, both cartouches contain the king’s throne name, Menkheperre. If two cartouches were originally intended for this scene, the second one should have been written even with the first and to the right, where the rectangular shape of the serekh can be seen.
From a photo copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission.

In addition, both cartouches spell ‘Menkheperre’ without the water sign (see picture below). Elsewhere on the original (earlier) temple walls, ‘Menkheperre’ is spelled with the water sign—the throne name variant Tuthmosis III usually used during Hatshepsut’s reign. The implication of these orthographic peculiarities is clear: the cartouche on the left and its kingly title are later additions to the inscription.

Drawing of cartouches with and without the zigzag water sign

The throne name of Tuthmosis III, Menkheperre, was usually spelled with the water sign (zigzag line) early in his reign (left cartouche). Later, the spelling without the water sign (right cartouche) predominated.

The date written at the top of the first column of text contains a number of anomalies. The hieroglyphs for ‘regnal year 2’ are written backwards (see picture below). In addition, a large gap intervenes between the tall ‘palm rib’ sign and the other two signs (the round ‘threshing floor’ sign and semi-circular ‘bread’ sign) of the regnal year glyph. The latter two signs are squashed and misshapen and the numeral strokes are squeezed in directly below them (compare with the correct writing of the date on the right). The three signs that spell the word ‘regnal year’ were normally not written together with numeral signs in formal inscriptions. There is sufficient room in the column for the three regnal year signs and the two numeral strokes to be grouped properly—why were they written in such an incongruous fashion? Such errors in the most important inscription in a temple are difficult to reconcile with the skill and care evident in the carving of the rest of this text.

A photo enlargement showing signs of the year 2 date and a diagram of the correct writing

On the left is an enlargement of the regnal year 2 date with the signs highlighted in pink; the date was written backwards in the inscription. (Note: the blocks of the wall were out of alignment due to subsidence of the temple’s foundations when the photo was taken in 1907; this has been digitally corrected in the image. Original photo copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission.) The hieroglyphs on the right show the correct way of writing the date ‘regnal year 2’ in this inscription.

A possible solution to the conundrum is suggested by noting a dark gouge in the stone, in the gap between signs (marked by pink arrowheads in picture A, below). It is not a sharp groove or pockmark like later vandalism that has marred the text. The position and smooth contours of the gouge indicate that it is a depression left when a sign (or signs) were scraped off the wall. The ‘bread’ sign and the ‘threshing floor’ sign should have occupied the area that has been gouged, indicating that the date was tampered with in antiquity.

A photo enlargement showing how hieroglyphs were over-written to change the date

A: The gouge in the stone, indicated by pink arrowheads, shows that some signs have been erased, leaving a gap. B: The date restored as regnal year 22. The curved marks left by the tops of the ‘ten’ signs (inverted U-shapes) were concealed by the curved tops of the ‘threshing floor’ and ‘bread’ signs that replaced them when the date was altered to year 2.
Original photo copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission; digital restoration by Patricia L. O’Neill

The most likely alteration would have involved erasing some numeral signs from the right side of the date and moving signs from the regnal year group to cover up the gap (see picture B, above). The round tops of the ‘bread’ and ‘threshing floor’ signs could easily conceal the contours where two numeral ‘10’ signs had once been written. The original ‘threshing floor’ and ‘bread’ signs were then erased, leaving the gouge. The two strokes for the number ‘2’ were not altered. If this scenario is correct, the original date of this inscription was regnal year 22, not year 2.

Regnal year 22 corresponds to the beginning of the solo reign of Tuthmosis III. It is highly likely that this is the time he chose to extend Semna Temple under the direction of his new viceroy, Nehy. Pharaohs routinely carved new dedications when major renovations were undertaken on a temple, and it is likely that this particular text was inscribed for that reason in regnal year 22.

There is an additional piece of evidence that favours a year 22 date for this inscription—the name of the viceroy at the bottom of column three. If the correct date for the inscription is year 2, the name should be Seni, who was Viceroy of Nubia at that time. If the correct date is year 22 or later, the name should be Nehy. Unfortunately, erosion has almost entirely destroyed the viceroy’s name, but the small pointed tip of a sign remains, which Egyptologists have examined in great detail (see photo below).

A photo enlargement showing a tiny pointed remnant of a viceroy’s name

The bottom of the column that contained the name of the viceroy responsible for building Semna Temple. The column dividers and bottom border of the inscription are shown in blue. The hieroglyphs for the viceroy’s title are outlined in pink. The tiny remnant of the name is tinted green and indicated by the green arrow.
From a photo copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission.

Both Prof. Ricardo Caminos and Prof. Torgny Säve-Söderbergh agreed that the triangular tip represents the top of the crest of the ‘Guinea fowl’ sign in Nehy’s name. (Seni’s name has the ‘arrow’ sign in a similar position, but it has a flat top and would have been written too far to the right.) Prof. Caminos noted the discrepancy between the year 2 date and Viceroy Nehy’s name. He suggested that perhaps Egyptologists had misunderstood the succession of the Nubian viceroys, but the succession of the viceroys has been extensively documented by the many inscriptions they left. Nehy’s name is correct; it is the date which is wrong.

Two photos side-by-side comparing the fit of the viceroys’ names with the remnant sign

The two possible viceroy names (purple) placed into the gap in the inscription. Both names use the spelling and sign arrangement that these viceroys used at Semna and across the river at Kumma. On the left, the name ‘Nehy’ fits exactly—the small pointed remnant (green) is the point on the crest of the guinea fowl sign. On the right, the remnant is the wrong shape to fit the name ‘Seni’.
Digital restorations by Patricia L. O’Neill

If this inscription was actually carved in regnal year 22, why would the date have been changed to year 2? During Hatshepsut’s proscription, Tuthmosis III took credit for the monuments of Hatshepsut which he could not demolish or decommission. Changing the date of this inscription to correspond to the founding date of the temple was the most expeditious way for Tuthmosis III to claim sole ownership of Semna Temple. But this means that there must have been an earlier dedication inscription, attributing the temple to Hatshepsut, somewhere else on the temple walls.

Dedication inscriptions were normally displayed on a prominent area of a temple’s façade, adjacent to the main entrance. In fact, the façade of Semna Temple has a large wing-wall extending to the left of the door, which seems to have been purpose-built to hold just such an inscription (see photo below). Of course, if an inscription of Hatshepsut’s from year 2 had ever adorned this wall, it would have been obliterated or altered by Tuthmosis III; the condition of the wing-wall supports this scenario.

A colour photo of Semna Temple in the Sudan National Museum 
and a diagram showing the location of the main inscriptions

Semna Temple was moved from its original site and reconstructed at the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum. The photo shows the façade, west wall and west colonnade of the temple. In the schematic, the façade is grey; the wing wall is lighter grey. The front door is tinted blue. Pink area at the top of the wing wall is the inscription and lunette of Tuthmosis III. Below, the inscription of Queen Karimala is tinted purple; at the bottom, the inscription of Viceroy Seni is tinted green.
Photo CC3.0_ND_BY_Olivier Mourice.

Often, scenes on temple walls (except door jambs and lintels) were topped with a protective ‘magical’ border called a kheker frieze; directly below the kheker frieze, a multi-coloured block border defined the top and side margins of the scene (see picture below).The elongated hieroglyph for ‘sky’ would bracket each individual vignette. Every scene on the walls of Semna Temple follows this well-established protocol—except one.

A drawing with the decorative borders indicated by colour

The top of a scene from Semna Temple. Green shading: kheker frieze; yellow shading: block border; blue shading: sky sign. In a typical polychrome temple scene, the kheker symbols were usually multi-coloured. In a block border, the large rectangles were various bright colours and the small rectangles were alternating black and white or gold. The sky sign was usually blue.
After Lepsius, Denkmäler.

The kheker frieze and block border on the wing-wall are located just below the torus moulding, as expected (see picture below), but both the frieze and the border are interrupted by a semicircular lunette containing an inscription of Tuthmosis III. Normally, a kheker frieze would never be over-written in this way. The inscription of Tuthmosis III intrudes into the space below the block border, leaving blank spaces on either side. The ‘sky’ sign is also absent. This indicates that the entire rectangular area within the block border was erased and replaced by the lunette-topped inscription of Tuthmosis III.

A diagram of the temple wing wall with the elements tinted in different colours

The top of the inscriptions on the wing-wall of the façade. Turquoise: torus moulding; green: kheker frieze; yellow: block border. Blue X’s mark the location of the missing sky sign. The surviving inscription of Tuthmosis III is tinted pink. Its lunette (dark pink) cuts the kheker frieze and block border. The intrusive inscription of Queen Karimala is tinted purple.
After Lepsius, Denkmäler.

The lower part of the lunette-topped scene might have revealed vestiges of an original inscription by Hatshepsut, but there is no hope of ever finding any trace of it. About 800 years after the temple was built, the entire centre of the wall was obscured by a scene inscribed by a Nubian Queen, Karimala. But at the bottom of the wall, an inscription carved by a Nubian viceroy yields a clue about the wall’s original text.

Karimala’s scene unfortunately cut off both the head and the name of viceroy. However, the text relates the career of the man under kings Ahmose, Amenhotep I and Tuthmosis I. Tuthmosis I appointed him as Viceroy of Nubia and he grew elderly in that office. He then describes his service under Tuthmosis II. This viceroy could only be Seni. There is one more cartouche in the inscription, but only the lower part remains, and the name has been obliterated. The cartouche is in the right place to belong to the successor of Tuthmosis II, but whether it belonged to Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III is impossible to say. Nevertheless, since viceroys often added small inscriptions of their own, close to the dedication texts of the temples they built, it is very likely that the original dedication inscription of Semna Temple was once on this wall, and the inscription of Tuthmosis III on the east wall was added later, after he extended the temple.

Traces of Hatshepsut survive on the west wall of Semna Temple, but they have been egregiously mutilated. At the south end of the temple (closest to the front), a large scene featuring Hatshepsut was obliterated and a door was cut through the wall (see photo below). Only Hatshepsut’s fingertips remain, over the shoulder of the goddess Anukis. Faint traces of some of Hatshepsut’s titles and a cartouche were discovered by Prof. Caminos, but the name could not be read. Whether Hatshepsut was depicted as a queen or a king on this wall is highly relevant to reconstructing the history of her reign. The fact that some of her queen’s titles can be detected here is equivocal—Hatshepsut often mixed queenly and kingly attributes in her early inscriptions (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation). The crucial element is any clue that Hatshepsut held the status of a king at Semna.

A photo showing the heavily damaged wall with traces of the figure of a standing goddess

The west wall of Semna Temple where a badly mutilated inscription once featured Hatshepsut. (Point to highlight the traces on the wall.) The goddess Anukis is shaded green; she has two faces because she was initially carved facing left and then re-carved facing right. All that remains of Hatshepsut’s figure is a hand (bright pink) on the left shoulder of the goddess. A small foot (shaded purple) also remains, but it may have been part of an earlier text. The hieroglyphs list some of Hatshepsut’s queenly titles but also add epithets normally reserved for kings. The interior of the cartouche (shaded yellow) has been completely destroyed.
Photo of wall copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission.

The outline of the cartouche can be easily reconstructed from the traces left on the wall (see photo below). It would be helpful if the name within the cartouche could be made out, but Caminos was not willing to speculate. There is a U-shaped mutilated area at the bottom of the cartouche’s interior, which might be the remains of the ‘ka’ sign in Hatshepsut’s throne name, Ma’atkare, but the contours are not particularly clear.

A photo enlargement of the erased cartouche of Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut’s cartouche from the Semna inscription; image has been digitally manipulated to enhance surface contours. The cartouche can easily be reconstructed from the extant remnants (point to highlight). Pink lines are remnants clearly visible on the wall. Green lines are segments connecting the remnants. Blue lines are restorations made using symmetry. Yellow lines complete the restoration. The faint red shading may be a remnant of the ‘ka’ sign.
Original photo copyright: Oriental Institute, University of Chicago; used by permission.

However, the size and shape of the cartouche can yield some important information. The full writing of Hatshepsut’s personal name, ‘Hatshepsut-Khnemet-amen,’ is not a possibility because the cartouche is too small to accommodate it. But fortunately, cartouches containing the names ‘Hatshepsut’ and ‘Ma’atkare’ have different proportions when the names were written singly (i.e., not a nomen/prenomen pair). The ‘Hatshepsut’ cartouche is consistently broader when compared to the ‘Ma’atkare’ cartouche. The figure below compares the ‘mystery cartouche’ from Semna’s west wall to a ‘Hatshepsut’ cartouche from Semna and a ‘Ma’atkare’ cartouche from Kumma Temple. The ‘Ma’atkare’ cartouche is virtually identical in size and shape to the mystery cartouche. Therefore the probability is high that that the mystery name was Ma’atkare—Hatshepsut’s name as a king.

Three reconstructed cartouches comparing Hatshepsut’s names

The size and shape of cartouches containing the names Ma’atkare and Hatshepsut are different. To ensure that the artistic styles of the names were comparable, the ‘Hatshepsut’ cartouche was reconstructed from the remnant of her name preserved in her inscription on the north end of Semna’s original west wall. The ‘Ma’atkare’ cartouche was traced from a photo of Kumma Temple. The artistic style of both temples is virtually identical; they were probably decorated by the same team of scribes and artisans, so the writing style is consistent throughout. The ‘Ma’atkare’ cartouche matches the size and shape of the mystery cartouche almost perfectly.

It is also important to note the statements made about Hatshepsut in the inscription. She is referred to as the beneficent heir of the god, the daughter who came forth from his flesh and the daughter of his body. These are phrases normally applied only to kings. In addition, when the Austrian Egyptologist Karl Lepsius visited Semna Temple in 1844, he recorded a figure of a king on this wall (see picture below), although the image was no longer visible when Caminos examined the wall in 1963.

Drawing with coloured highlights showing figure of a standing king wearing a wig and kilt

In 1844, Karl Lepsius recorded the faint figure of a king (shaded pink) on Semna’s west wall. The goddess Anukis is shaded green; blue area is part of the door cut through the wall.
After Lepsius, Denkmäler

Whatever was on this wall, one thing is certain: it was highly objectionable to Tuthmosis III. He did not attack images that portrayed Hatshepsut as a queen (for example, in the temple Netjery Menu at Karnak). The vicious destruction of this wall’s images and text only make sense if Hatshepsut was represented here as a king.

Hatshepsut was also mentioned in another inscription at the other end of Semna’s west wall, where the right half of a cartouche containing the name ‘Hatshepsut’ is preserved within a statement about building the temple. Unfortunately, the column which should contain most of her titles has been almost entirely scraped off the wall, and the rest of the inscription was cut off when Tuthmosis III extended the temple.

The inscriptions of Semna Temple are cited as ‘proof’ that Hatshepsut was not a king in regnal year 2. However, the evidence is not at all straightforward. The complex history of this temple, the erasures and mutilations of Hatshepsut’s texts, and the doctoring of other inscriptions mean that the situation in regnal year 2 needs to be re-evaluated. The many anomalies in the Semna reliefs (with the exception of the gouged gap in the year 2 date) have been noted by other scholars, particularly Prof. Caminos. However, the anomalies have previously been interpreted as isolated oddities, rather than the consequences of a systematic attempt to conceal Hatshepsut’s presence and status. The fact that the presence of Hatshepsut had to be concealed at all means she must have been portrayed as a king in regnal year 2 when Semna Temple was commissioned.

It would not be surprising if modern methods of analysis, such as precision laser scanning, revealed traces indicating that some scenes on Semna Temple, presently attributed to Tuthmosis III, originally depicted Hatshepsut. In particular, the coronation scene on the outer west wall (see picture below), which is between the two undisputed occurrences of Hatshepsut, is almost identical to Hatshepsut’s coronation scene in Buhen Temple—even the idiosyncratic spelling used within the compositions is the same. At Semna, the cartouche in the scene, though badly damaged, has been assigned to Tuthmosis III. Because there is no doubt that Tuthmosis III altered the historical record to remove all signs of Hatshepsut’s reign, a high index of suspicion should apply before attributing scenes like the Semna coronation to him. Clearly, Semna Temple deserves further study. If nothing else, this little temple serves as a warning about glibly accepting the claims of Tuthmosis III at face value.

The kneeling king receives the white crown from the god Dedwen

The coronation scene on Semna Temple’s west wall, which is almost identical to Hatshepsut’s coronation scene at the temple in Fort Buhen. A scene like this is a good candidate for further investigation to see if Tuthmosis III usurped it from Hatshepsut.
After Lepsius, Denkmäler.


Arnold, Dieter. The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Caminos, Ricardo A. The New Kingdom Temples of Buhen, Vols. I and II. London: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1974.

Caminos, Ricardo A. Semna-Kumma, Vol. I The Temple of Semna and Vol. II The Temple of Kumma. London: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1998.

Davies, W. Vivian. ‘Tombos and the Viceroy Inebny/Amenemnekhu.’ British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, 10,  39-63, 2008.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘The Accession Date of Hatshepsut,’ in The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology, 19-45.  London: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

Lepsius, Karl R. Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien. Abth. I, Bl 111-113. Abth. III, Bl. 47-59. 1849-1858. Accessed via Projekt Lepsius http://edoc3.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/lepsius/

Other Inscriptions

Conventional View

A handful of inscriptions have survived from Hatshepsut’s reign that either omit her, depict her wearing women’s clothing or mention her queenly titles. Although some of these records are undated, Egyptologists believe that all were inscribed while she was the regent for Tuthmosis III and show that Hatshepsut became a king gradually, accruing power and support until she was able to ascend the throne and rule as a Pharaoh alongside her young nephew.

The Step Pyramid of King Djoser and some of the temples of his mortuary complex, at Saqqara, Egypt

The Step Pyramid of King Djoser (ca. 2650 BC) and its surrounding temple complex were a popular destination for ancient sightseers, who sometimes left graffiti on the temple walls to commemorate their visit.
Photo by John Bodsworth, copyright-free

Saqqara Graffito

The earliest of these inscriptions omits any mention Hatshepsut. It is a graffito written by a scribe called Ptah-hotep on the wall of the South Chapel at the step pyramid complex of the Third Dynasty King, Djoser, which by Hatshepsut’s era, was a popular destination for sightseers (see picture above). Ptah-hotep’s graffito mentions the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menkheperre, Son of Re, Tuthmosis (i.e., Tuthmosis III) and gives a date of regnal year one, fourth month of Akhet. This is only about seven months after the death of Tuthmosis II, Hatshepsut’s brother and husband and the father of Tuthmosis III. The graffito describes Tuthmosis III as residing in Thebes, busily building all sorts of monuments to the gods—quite an accomplishment for a king who was probably an infant at the time! Because Hatshepsut is omitted, Egyptologists feel she cannot have been wielding royal power at the time. But there are problems in the interpretation of this graffito (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Donation Stela of Senenmut

This stela was found near a gateway in the north section of Karnak Temple. It was inscribed for Senenmut (Hatshepsut’s chief advisor and the Great Steward of Amen) and gives details of a land donation he made to the temple. The inscription begins with the name and titles of Tuthmosis III and bears a date. The hieroglyphs have been damaged, making the date difficult to read, but most Egyptologists think ‘year four’ is correct. Hatshepsut is mentioned near the bottom of the stela and her inscription continues along the stela’s edges, giving the appearance that the scribes ran out of room for her part of the text. Because the stela mentions Senenmut’s tomb and Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, which weren’t begun until regnal year seven, some Egyptologists suspect the date of this stela may be later than year four. In any case, even though Hatshepsut’s throne name of Ma’atkare is used, her role in this inscription appears minor. However, that appearance is misleading (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Limestone block statue of the Vizier User-amen in the Louvre

Block statue in the Louvre of User-amen, who was appointed vizier in regnal year five during the reign of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III.
Photo CC 2.0_SA_BY_Rama

The Appointment of Useramen as Vizier

Useramen (see photo above) replaced his father, Amotju, as Vizier in regnal year five. A document, the Turin Papyrus No. 1878, is a record of this appointment; it states that Tuthmosis III personally selected Useramen because the former treasury scribe was such a forthright and efficient official. Hatshepsut is not mentioned anywhere in the document, which implies she was not a king in regnal rear five. But this document is not what it seems (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Entrance to the temple of Hathor in Serabit el-Khadim, Sinai, crowded with stelae

The temple of Hathor at the turquoise-mining area at Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai. The temple environs are crowded with stelae recording mining activities that went on for more than a thousand years.
Photo CC 3.0_SA_BY_Roland Unger

Year Five Sinai Stelae

Two stelae from the temple of Hathor in Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai, which commemorate turquoise mining expeditions (see picture above), mention only Tuthmosis III and are dated to regnal year five. Again, Egyptologists interpret this to mean that Hatshepsut was not a king at this time. However, this explanation is flawed (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Senenmut’s Aswan Graffito

Senenmut was in charge of quarrying two enormous obelisks that Hatshepsut erected on the east side of Karnak Temple. He left a graffito opposite the entrance to the quarry (see picture below) that commemorates his successful completion of the task. Although the inscription is not dated, it refers to Hatshepsut by her queenly titles: King’s Daughter (shaded pink), King’s Sister (shaded yellow), God’s Wife and King’s Great [Wife] (the ‘wife’ sign is shown only once; shaded green). Hatshepsut herself is shown (shaded blue) wearing a dress and the twin-plumed shuty crown and carrying a mace—all connected with her office of the God’s Wife of Amen. Egyptologists believe that these details prove that Hatshepsut was not a king when she commissioned the two obelisks, but that interpretation is problematic (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Graffito inscribed by Senenmut showing Hatshepsut 
dressed as the God’s Wife and using her queenly titles

Graffito inscribed by Senenmut to record his quarrying of Hatshepsut’s first pair of obelisks at the Aswan granite quarry. Hatshepsut (shaded blue) is referred to by titles characteristic of a queen: King’s Daughter (shaded pink), King’s Sister (shaded yellow), God’s Wife and King’s Great [Wife] (shaded green; the ‘wife’ sign is shown only once).
From Lepsius, Denkmäler, with Labachi’s emendations.

Biography of Ahmose-Pennekheb

Ahmose-Pennekheb (sometimes called Ahmose Pennekhbet) was a royal administrator and military officer who enjoyed a very long career at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty. In his tomb, EK2 in El-Kab (ancient Nekheb), his autobiography lists five kings that he served: Nebpatire (Ahmose I), Djeserkare (Amenhotep I), Ahkheprekare (Tuthmosis I), Ahkheperenre (Tuthmosis II) and Menkheperre (Tuthmosis III) (kings’ names tinted blue in the figure below). The title ma’at heru (‘justified’; outlined in green) is appended to the names of the first four kings, indicating that they were deceased at the time the inscription was made, but the epithet of Tuthmosis III is di ankh djet (given life forever); this should date the inscription to the reign of Tuthmosis III.

Excerpt from the biography of Ahmose-Pennekheb showing kings’ names 
and Hatshepsut’s queen’s titles and throne name

Excerpt from the autobiography of Ahmose Pennekheb, revealing his connection to monarchs of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. The list of five kings is tinted blue. Hatshepsut is mentioned separately (tinted pink); her female titles, God’s Wife and King’s Great Wife are given, but her kingly throne name of Ma’atkare is used. Her daughter is called ‘Her Great Daughter, the King’s Daughter, Neferure’ (tinted lavender). The epithets, ma’at heru (‘justified’), which signify that a person is deceased, are outlined in green.
After Lepsius, Denkmäler

Hatshepsut is mentioned in a separate statement (name and titles tinted pink in the picture above): ‘The God’s Wife repeated favours for me, the King’s Great Wife Ma’atkare, justified. I brought up her Greatest King’s Daughter Neferure, justified, while she was a child at the breast.’ (Neferure name and titles tinted lavender.)

Egyptologists believe that Hatshepsut’s exclusion from the list of kings, plus her queenly titles, establish her status as a queen at the time the inscription was written; however, her king’s throne name, Ma’atkare, is also used. The consensus amongst Egyptologists about this combination of name and titles is that the inscription was composed early in the co-regency, when Hatshepsut was in transition between queen and king:

‘In contrast, Ahmose-Pennekheb…offers an unusual combination of her queenly and kingly titles…which indicate that his autobiography too might have been composed at a time when there was some confusion over Hatshepsut’s official title.’ Tyldesly, Hatchepsut, The Female Pharaoh.

No one has ever been able to explain why Hatshepsut and Neferure were designated as ‘justified’(outlined in green in the picture) in Ahmose-Pennekheb’s biography; if he had outlived both women, he would have been well over 100 years old when still in active military service.

These difficulties have been resolved by recent archaeological evidence which proves that the historical implications of this inscription have been misinterpreted (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Undated ‘Stela’ from Serabit el-Khadim

This fragment, though usually referred to as a stela, is probably a broken piece of a cornice which fell from a pylon from the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai. When intact, it may have borne a date, but that corner of the fragment is missing. Hatshepsut is shown wearing the long gown and twin-plumed shuty crown of the God’s Wife of Amen as she offers incense to the goddess Hathor. The names in front of Hatshepsut identify her as a king: ‘The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Hatshepsut Khnemet-amen, may she live, Ma’atkare, may she live.’ Egyptologists feel that the combination of Hatshepsut’s female garb and her kingly titles means that her kingship was not fully developed at this juncture, but there is an alternative explanation (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).

Hatshepsut depicted with a king’s crown and throne name but wearing a dress 
on a block from Karnak

Broken limestone lintel from Karnak Temple which shows Hatshepsut as a king, wearing the andjety crown, offering wine to Amen-Re (figure on the right, damaged). The inscription describes her as ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Ritual, Ma’atkare’ (highlighted yellow). Although she is a king, she is wearing a dress and standing with her feet close together, which are female characteristics.

Karnak Limestone Lintel

This broken door lintel from an unknown structure at Karnak Temple (see photo above), shows Hatshepsut wearing a long, tight dress but otherwise depicted and described as a king. She wears the andjety crown, which is associated with the accession of the king, she is described as King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mistress of the Ritual, and her throne name Ma’atkare is used. According to Dorman, this image represents ‘the evolved stage of female kingship’, though he asserts that any image which incorporates female attire is ‘one that still falls short of male rulership,’ and signifies that Hatshepsut was not the equal of other kings if she wore a dress. This view is disputed in Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation.

The Text of Youth of Tuthmosis III inscribed on the sanctuary wall in Karnak Temple

The Text of Youth (Texte de la Jeunesse) of Tuthmosis III from Karnak. The damaged figure of Tuthmosis III sitting on his throne is on the left. The text describes a miracle where Amen-Re selected young Tuthmosis as the future king of Egypt.
From a photo by Vincent Euverte, Projet Rosette

The Text of Youth

This inscription is usually not considered in relation to Hatshepsut’s kingship, but it contains vital clues about the accession of both Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III.

The Text of Youth (‘Texte de la Jeunesse’) is a long inscription of Tuthmosis III, carved on one of the outside walls of the main sanctuary of Karnak Temple (see photo above). Tuthmosis erected these walls to conceal the work of Hatshepsut, who had completely rebuilt Karnak’s sanctuary.  In the inscription, Tuthmosis recounts how, in his youth, he was singled out by the great god Amen-Re while the god was being carried in procession in his sacred barque. Tuthmosis claims that he then ‘flew to heaven’ as a falcon and saw the gods in their true forms, whereupon they established his royal titulary. These events supposedly happened while a king, who is never named, was presiding over the barque procession.

The Text of Youth is typical of Egyptian oracular pronouncements which were invoked (always retrospectively) to demonstrate the gods’ approval of a particular king. This type of royal propaganda was used only when a king’s legitimacy might be questioned, or his path to the throne was unusual. No one is surprised that Hatshepsut recorded a similar public oracle by Amen-Re on her Red Chapel; a female king would need all the divine support she could muster. But no one has ever been able to explain why Tuthmosis III, whose legitimacy was unquestioned and whose accession should have been straightforward, felt obliged to rely on an oracle to justify his reign. But the Text of Youth makes perfect sense if the assumptions Egyptologists usually make about Tuthmosis III are re-evaluated (see Other Inscriptions: A Better Explanation).


Breasted, James H.  Ancient Records of Egypt Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Dynasty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906, reprinted 2001.

Chevrier, Henri. Rapport sur les travaux de Karnak. Annales Du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte, Vol. 34, 1934.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘The Early Reign of Thutmose III: An Unorthodox Mantle of Coregency,’ in Thutmose III: A New Biography, edited by Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor, 39-68. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Firth, C. and J. Quibell. The Step Pyramid, Vol. 1. Excavations à Saqqara 14. Cairo, IFAO, 1935.

Gardiner, Alan H. and T.E. Peet. The Inscriptions of Sinai, Vol. 1. London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1952.

Habachi, Labib. Two Graffiti at Sehel from the Reign of Queen Hatshepsut. Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 16 No. 2, 1957.

Lepsius, Karl R. Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Vol III, Pl. 43a. Berlin: Nicolaische Buchhandlung, 1849.

Tyldesley, Joyce.  Hatchepsut The Female Pharaoh. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

Other Inscriptions

A Better Explanation

Although Egyptologists contend that Hatshepsut gradually transformed herself from a queen regent to a king, this interpretation is hampered by a number of questionable assumptions and is inconsistent with the ideology of Egyptian kingship (see The Royal Ka). The flawed scenario of gradual transformation arose because Hatshepsut made a concerted effort to emphasise her female gender in her early iconography. It is ironic that a Pharaoh who clearly valued her female identity is remembered in the popular imagination as the woman who ‘strapped on a fake beard and dressed in men’s clothing’ in order to ‘seize’ the throne of Egypt.

Granite statue of Hatshepsut wearing the royal nemes headdress and a dress

Derivative work by Patricia L. O’Neill
from a photo CC 2.0_SA_BY_Rob Koopman

Does it matter if Hatshepsut is absent?

Saqqara Graffito

Navratilova’s study of visitors’ graffiti at Saqqara has revealed that the vast majority are either ‘I was here’ messages, or they describe the visitors’ admiration of King Djoser’s monuments. Ptah-hotep’s graffito is strikingly atypical:

‘Regnal year 1, month 4, day 5, under the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menkheperre, Son of Re, Tuthmosis, may he live. Now His Majesty was in the Southern City (Thebes) making memorials to his father, Amen-Re and marvels for Harakhte, and…his city. Atum who created [him], Lord of [Iunu]…his father who begot him, the divine god, self-generated; the Mighty Bull, Lord of the Two Lands, Son of Atum…the god. By…Ptah-hotep.’

Why would a visitor to Saqqara want to comment on building activities at Thebes, 500 km away? No matter what version of the Hatshepsut/Tuthmosis III story Egyptologists believe, all agree that in regnal year one, Tuthmosis III would have been far too young to be making decisions about building projects. The commands for any kind of construction must have been given by Hatshepsut. This graffito is clearly some kind of propaganda. In addition, the emphasis on the divine descent of Tuthmosis III leads to suspicion that the graffito may be retrospective, which casts doubt on the date. In any case, Murnane demonstrated that in co-regencies, it was common for one monarch to be mentioned or depicted without the other, so the absence of Hatshepsut from this graffito reveals nothing about her status.

Is Hatshepsut really absent?

Year Five Sinai Stelae

Both of these stelae supposedly show Tuthmosis III without Hatshepsut. In fact, because both are damaged, neither stela shows Tuthmosis III either (see figures below). Stela No. 172 (on the left) shows the goddess Hathor; in front of her are two cartouches (shaded purple and green) which might belong to Tuthmosis III. However, since the bottoms of the cartouches are missing, there might have been plural strokes below the beetle in the left cartouche (purple), which would yield the name ‘Menkheprerure Tuthmosis’, i.e., Tuthmosis IV (the grandson of Tuthmosis III). In addition, there is sufficient space in the vacant area to depict two kings, so we cannot be certain that Hatshepsut was excluded from this monument.

Drawings of two heavily damaged stelae with partial names of Tuthmosis III 
which show only the goddess Hathor

Two stelae from Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai attributed to regnal year 5 of Tuthmosis III, but the names (Tuthmosis shaded green, Menkheperre shaded purple) are incomplete. Due to the extensive damage, it is impossible to know if Hatshepsut was included or not. The horned figure on the right is the goddess Hathor.
Digital reconstruction after Gardiner and Peet, Inscriptions of Sinai

The stela on the right (No. 176; shown in two pieces) is attributed to Tuthmosis III on the basis of the incomplete cartouche in the body of the inscription (shaded green, near the bottom). The name could belong to any of the Tuthmosid kings (I, II, III or IV). There are no figures of kings on the stela, but there is sufficient room to depict both Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III, and Hatshepsut’s name could have been present in the extensive area of damaged text.

Murnane stated that he thought it was unlikely that Hatshepsut had been represented on these stelae, but he never gave a reason for his conclusion. The claim that Tuthmosis III is shown alone on these monuments is based entirely on conjecture. But even if it were true that these stelae belonged solely to Tuthmosis III, it does not follow that Hatshepsut was not a king in year five. If that reasoning were taken to its logical conclusion, then Hatshepsut’s ‘undated stela’ from Serabit el-Khadim (in the following section, below), on which Hatshepsut is the sole king, should be evidence that Tuthmosis III was not a king when this stela was carved. In reality, inscriptions or monuments representing only one member of a co-regency cannot tell us anything about the reign of the other partner, as Murnane concluded.

Can a king wear a dress?

Undated ‘Stela’ from Serabit el-Khadim

Damaged temple fragment with two officials following Hatshepsut 
who is offering incense to the goddess Hathor

Fragment of Temple of Hathor from Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai showing Hatshepsut (shaded lavender) dressed as the God’s Wife of Amen but with kingly titles. Area shaded pink has been damaged, but might have held a date (hieroglyphs added in blue). Green line is the top border of the scene.
Digital reconstruction after Gardiner and Peet, Inscriptions of Sinai

This fragment is more than a stela documenting a mining expedition—it is a cornice from the section of the Hathor Temple that had been constructed by Hatshepsut. Egyptologists take the absence of a date on the fragment as evidence that Hatshepsut had not established her own system of regnal year dating, but this assertion cannot be supported—the corner of the fragment where the date would normally be placed is missing (shaded pink in the drawing). Hatshepsut (shaded blue) is addressed by her title of niswt bity (King of Upper and Lower Egypt) and her double cartouches are also present—all unmistakeable attributes of a Horus King. Both Murnane and Dorman have suggested that Hatshepsut’s kingly title might have been added later, because it has not been written above the cartouches, but there is not enough room for titles over the cartouches because the top boundary line of the scene (indicated in green) is too close. Alternatively, the niswt bity signs may have been part of the standard dating formula ‘regnal year N under the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, X’ (added in dark blue).

The main point of dispute is Hatshepsut’s female apparel, a sheath dress and the twin-plumed shuty crown. Egyptologists contend that female garb disqualifies Hatshepsut from full kingship, as if female clothing attenuated kingly power like some kind of gender-specific kryptonite. Hatshepsut’s titles are those of a king and she is offering incense directly to the goddess Hathor—a kingly prerogative; this clearly identifies Hatshepsut as a king. It is important to note the paramount importance of the throne name, which signifies possession of the Royal Ka—the very essence of Horus Kingship (see The Royal Ka). The person who possessed the Royal Ka was the embodiment of Horus; female clothing could not negate that kind of internal power.

Karnak Limestone Lintel

This block would have been set over a door to one of the many limestone buildings that Hatshepsut built in Karnak; her throne name on the lintel establishes her unequivocally as the king who commissioned the structure. As a king, she offers wine directly to Amen-Re and she wears a king’s andjety crown. Can we really believe that her dress somehow dilutes her kingly status?

There is no doubt that a female Pharaoh would encounter difficulties in artistic representation—all the artistic conventions which dictated how kings should appear were designed to accommodate men. But Hatshepsut was not the first female Pharaoh who had to improvise her appearance in official art. The female Pharaoh Sobekkare Sobekneferu (also called Nefrusobek) ruled for three or four years at the end of the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1805 BC). She was the daughter of King Amenemhet III and succeeded her brother or half-brother, Amenemhet IV, when he died without an heir. Sobekneferu also combined elements of male and female clothing in her official representations (see picture below). In this damaged statue, she is wearing a woman’s dress (tinted white), a man’s kilt (tinted yellow), a Pharaoh’s belt (tinted gold) and the nemes headdress of a Horus King (lappets tinted purple). Yet, Sobekneferu is never accused of gradually transforming herself into a king or of being in any way inferior because she combined male and female clothing.

Fragment of statue of Sobekneferu, 
in which she wears a nemes headdress and kilt over her dress

Damaged torso of a statue of the female Pharaoh, Sobekneferu, last ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty. She wears a Pharaoh’s nemes headdress (purple), shendyt kilt (yellow) and king’s belt (gold); beneath this male attire, she wears a woman’s dress (white).
Photo: Musée du Louvre

Hatshepsut may have chosen to follow Sobekneferu’s precedent in order to appear more palatable to courtiers and commoners who were apprehensive about a female ruler. But considering the decline and chaos that had followed the reign of Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut would have been eager to establish her own iconography as a king as soon as she demonstrated unequivocal proof of divine favour, which is the sequence of events followed in The Hatshepsut Trilogy.

Can the God’s Wife also be a king?

Senenmut’s Aswan Graffito

In this graffito, although Hatshepsut wears the garb of the God’s Wife of Amen and her female titles are listed, Senenmut also states that Hatshepsut is ‘the one to whom Re has given true kingship’ (shaded orange in the picture below). Although this statement makes it clear that Hatshepsut is king of Egypt, Egyptologists regard Senenmut’s words with scepticism:

‘Do we detect a streak of sycophancy here, or a hint of the truth?’ (Dorman, 2001)

In reality, if an ancient Egyptian wrote a false statement that someone was king, the writer would be guilty of high treason. Senenmut would have been impaled for saying Hatshepsut had been given true kingship if she were not king of Egypt.

Graffito showing Senenmut facing Hatshepsut dressed as the God’s Wife 
with a hieroglyphic inscription declaring Hatshepsut’s kingship

Graffito inscribed by Senenmut to record his quarrying of Hatshepsut’s first pair of obelisks at the Aswan granite quarry. Although Hatshepsut (shaded blue) is dressed as the God’s Wife, her title as king (shaded purple) is above her cartouche and she is referred to as ‘Her Majesty’ (shaded pink). Senenmut clearly states that the god Re has given her true kingship (shaded orange).
From Lepsius, Denkmäler, with Labachi’s emendations.

Senenmut also refers to Hatshepsut as ‘Her Majesty’ (shaded pink), which is the proper term of address for a king. Above Hatshepsut’s cartouche, the first part of the title ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’ is visible (shaded purple), although that part of the inscription has been damaged, probably during Hatshepsut’s proscription.

Egyptologists have assumed that Hatshepsut must have relinquished her office of God’s Wife immediately upon her accession as king, but that assertion is contradicted by this graffito and her Sinai ‘stela’, where Hatshepsut is portrayed simultaneously as king and God’s Wife. In fact, Hatshepsut only retired as God’s Wife at her formal coronation, which took place two years after her accession. She tells us so in her coronation inscription from her Red Chapel in Karnak:

‘Putting aside the regalia of the God’s Wife, she wears the ornaments of Re. The Crown of the South and the Crown of the North are united upon her head.’
Black granite block statue of Senenmut 
holding Neferure with her head beneath his chin

Block statue of Senenmut and Hatshepsut’s daughter, Neferure. Highlighted area of inscription states that Hatshepsut had been king since the death of her predecessor, i.e., her brother and husband, Tuthmosis II.

Hatshepsut’s accession occurred at the moment of her brother’s (Tuthmosis II) death, as Senenmut testifies on his statue (highlighted in the picture above):

‘I was in this land under his (sic) command since the occurrence of the death of his (sic) predecessor. I lived under the Lady of the Two Lands, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ma’atkare, living forever.’ (Note that the mixture of masculine and feminine pronouns referring to Hatshepsut is often found in her inscriptions.)

Again, if this statement were not true, Senenmut would have been executed for treason. These inscriptions show that Hatshepsut did not transform herself from a queen to a king—she was a king who chose to retain her immensely influential position of God’s Wife of Amen early in her reign. This savvy political strategy combined the two most powerful offices in Egypt in one person. It allowed Hatshepsut to consolidate her position while she demonstrated her competence and thus the sanction of the gods; this is the course of events followed in The Hatshepsut Trilogy.

History’s longest-lasting cover-up

The chronology of Hatshepsut’s floruit is so difficult to decipher because Tuthmosis III ruthlessly expunged the female Pharaoh’s historical records to make it appear that she had never reigned as king. A number of inscriptions which have confused the picture had been altered to make them conform to the political agenda of Tuthmosis III.

Donation Stela of Senenmut

The names and titles of Tuthmosis III, and the regnal year date (whatever it might have been), are not the original text of this stela. The first thirteen lines of the text were destroyed by the agents of Akhenaten, and later re-carved during the reign of Ramses II. Ramesside ‘restorations’ invariably leave out any reference to Hatshepsut, so the original regnal year date and the king to which it referred can never be known. The fact that the part of the text which is original mentions Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, and her granting permission for Senenmut’s tomb, suggest that the first part of the text was initially addressed to Hatshepsut as king.

The Appointment of Useramen as Vizier

This papyrus is a Ramesside-era document, most likely an exercise from a schoolboys’ copybook. Ramesside documents adopted the revisionist history dictated by King Tuthmosis III, so of course Hatshepsut would not be mentioned, although she was almost certainly the king who appointed Useramen.

Biography of Ahmose-Pennekheb

Recent work by Davies and O’Connell at el-Kab has shown that the tomb chapel of Ahmose-Pennekheb was decorated by his descendant, Amenhotep-Hapu, approximately a century after Hatshepsut’s death. By this time, the proscription of Hatshepsut had long been in force, and it would have been unacceptable to include her name in the list of kings. It is also why Hatshepsut and her daughter, Neferure, are both listed as ‘ma’at heru’ (deceased). Hatshepsut’s throne name, Ma’atkare, may have escaped the notice of the censors because her inscriptions were no longer being actively attacked so long after her death.

The Text of Youth

The account of the oracle given in this inscription has always puzzled Egyptologists. Why would Tuthmosis III decide to invoke a ‘miraculous’ vision in which the god Re selected him as king and established his royal titulary, if his succession was entirely conventional? Oracular pronouncements were normally pieces of propaganda used to shore up dubious claims to the throne. If the inscription is taken in context, however, the agenda of Tuthmosis III becomes clear.

Plan of Karnak temple sanctuary showing the location of the Text of Youth, facing the sacristy rooms

The central area of Karnak was only accessible to high-ranking priests. The Text of Youth (indicated in pink) was aimed at priests visiting the sacristy rooms for garments and religious implements.

The Text of Youth covers one of the walls of the inner sanctuary complex of Karnak Temple (marked in pink in the diagram above). Only high-ranking priests would be allowed in this area, so this piece of propaganda was specifically aimed at them. The wall itself either replaced an earlier wall built by Hatshepsut or Hatshepsut’s inscription was erased and the Text of Youth carved in its place.

Remains of a sandstone wall with a long hieroglyphic inscription 
and a figure of an enthroned King Tuthmosis III

The Text of Youth of Tuthmosis III begins by describing a miracle in which the gods chose young Tuthmosis as king. The inscription then lists lavish donations that he made to Karnak, many of which were actually Hatshepsut’s.
From a photo by Vincent Euverte, Projet Rosette

The first part of the inscription describes the miracle of the oracle which occurred when Tuthmosis III says he was an inpu, i.e., the heir to the throne and the acknowledged Son of Re (see Son of Re). He also states that the events occurred ‘when My Majesty was in the role of iunmutef  (royal mortuary priest) like young Horus in the marshes of Chemmis’ (Egyptian: Akhbit). This phrase is of enormous importance—Tuthmosis is comparing himself to the young god Horus, who hid in the marshlands of the northern Delta to escape the persecution of his evil uncle Seth. Seth had murdered Horus’ father, Osiris, and usurped the throne of Egypt. The similarity between the dilemma of young Horus and that of young Tuthmosis, whose authority was curtailed by his aunt Hatshepsut, would have been obvious to the priests who read the text. In addition, Horus was the iunmutef for his deceased father; this comparison means that Tuthmosis III was acting as mortuary priest for his own deceased father, Tuthmosis II.

The text goes on to describe the barque of Amen-Re ‘searching’ for young Tuthmosis, while an unnamed king is burning incense and dedicating a sacrifice of cattle. Most Egyptologists have assumed that this ‘mystery king’ must have been Tuthmosis II, but it is more likely that the king was Hatshepsut. Tuthmosis III deliberately avoided mentioning her name. If Tuthmosis III was old enough to act as iunmutef, his father must have already been dead (children were not allowed to be priests). If the officiating king had been Tuthmosis II, his son would surely have mentioned his name to enhance his own legitimacy, and the boy would have been old enough to rule in his own right after his father’s death.

After Amen-Re recognises Tuthmosis III, the young heir has a vision, flies to heaven, meets the gods who establish his royal titles, and then he is placed at ‘the station of the king.’ This position (in front of the temple sanctuary) designates him as the rightful king, in contrast to the ‘mystery king’. The assembled priests and nobles then rejoice.

The description of the miraculous oracle is a preamble to a long list of donations made by Tuthmosis to Karnak—in effect, he was reminding the priests which side their bread was buttered on (see picture above). He also mentions a host of major buildings he commissioned for the temple, even though many of these were actually constructed by Hatshepsut.

The appropriation of Hatshepsut’s works reveals the purpose of this enigmatic inscription: Tuthmosis III is justifying his proscription of Hatshepsut. He portrays himself as the persecuted young Horus, but the gods intervene to set things right. His offering list demonstrates his generosity to the Karnak priests, in order to silence any objections they might have raised to his erasure of Hatshepsut’s presence. If Hatshepsut had not been accepted as a fully legitimate Horus King, this complex ruse to discredit her would have been unnecessary.

There is no doubt that Tuthmosis III re-wrote history to expunge the reign of Hatshepsut, but his cover-up continues to this day. Even though we know that Tuthmosis III lied and distorted the historical record, historians and Egyptologists still believe the accounts of Tuthmosis III and dismiss those of Hatshepsut as ‘fabrications to justify her reign.’ The Hatshepsut Trilogy assumes that Hatshepsut was telling the truth after all; doing so is the only way the history of this era makes any sense.


Breasted, James H.  Ancient Records of Egypt Vol. 2, The Eighteenth Dynasty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906, reprinted 2001.

Chevrier, Henri. Rapport sur les travaux de Karnak. Annales Du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte, Vol. 34, 1934.

Christophe, Louis A.  Karnak-Nord III (1945-1949). Cairo: FIFAO Vol. 23, 1951.

Davies, W. Vivien and Elisabeth R. O’Connell. ‘British Museum Expedition to El Kab and Hagr Edfu, 2010.’ British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Vol. 16, 101-132, 2011.

Davies, W. Vivien and Elisabeth R. O’Connell. ‘British Museum Expedition to El Kab and Hagr Edfu, 2011.’ British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan, Vol. 17, 1-29, 2012.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘Hatshepsut: Wicked Stepmother of Joan of Arc?’ Oriental Institute News & Notes, No. 168. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Dorman, Peter F. ‘The Early Reign of Thutmose III: An Unorthodox Mantle of Coregency,’ in Thutmose III: A New Biography, edited by Eric H. Cline and David O’Connor, 39-68. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Firth, C. and J. Quibell. The Step Pyramid, Vol. 1. Excavations à Saqqara 14. Cairo, IFAO, 1935.

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Quick Summary

Hatshepsut was one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs and history’s first female ruler. She ruled not as a queen, but as a female king. Her twenty-two year reign ushered in an era of artistic and religious innovation and laid the groundwork for the Egyptian Empire.

The ideology of kingship in ancient Egypt was based on the concept of the Royal Ka, which was the life force of the god Horus. The Royal Ka was indivisible—it could not be shared, stolen or given away. Like all kas, it was identified with the ‘breath of life’ and entered the body by being inhaled.

When a Horus King died, he exhaled the Royal Ka with his dying breath. The Royal Ka sought out the king’s successor and entered his body by inhalation. The successor underwent an immediate and profound transformation to become the new incarnation of Horus, a unique class of being who was a human but also fully divine, because he now possessed the soul of a god.

Hatshepsut ruled as the Senior King in a co-regency with her nephew, Tuthmosis III. According to the ideology of Egyptian kingship, only the Senior King possessed the Royal Ka, which conferred legitimacy and supreme power. Hatshepsut could only have received the Royal Ka if she were the sole living heir when her predecessor, her brother King Tuthmosis II, died. There is no other mechanism by which a woman could become a king of Egypt. If Hatshepsut possessed the Royal Ka, then Tuthmosis III, the son of Tuthmosis II, must have been an unborn child at the time of his father’s death. The Egyptians were aware that babies in utero did not breathe, therefore, an unborn child could not receive the Royal Ka. If Tuthmosis III had already been born when his father died, the Royal Ka would have gone to him and Hatshepsut could never have assumed the role of Senior King.

Claims that Hatshepsut gradually transformed herself from queen to king, or somehow forced her way onto the throne, violate the ideology of Egyptian kingship. Such a pretender would never have been tolerated by the Egyptian nobility or priesthood of Hatshepsut’s era. The evidence from historical inscriptions shows that Hatshepsut retained her office of God’s Wife of Amen early in her reign as king, until her formal coronation in the second year of her reign.

Hatshepsut’s heir, Tuthmosis III, destroyed the records of her reign in an attempt to falsify history. Her images were obliterated or usurped, her kingly titles were hacked out and in at least one case, the date of an inscription was changed. Much of the surviving evidence is unreliable because it was produced during or after this period of proscription. Hatshepsut’s own declarations about her reign continue to be disregarded as propaganda by contemporary scholars.

The Hatshepsut Trilogy constructs a scenario for Hatshepsut’s reign which is based on a re-evaluation of the evidence, is consistent with the ideology of Egyptian kingship, and gives credence to the words of the female Pharaoh and the testimony of the officials who served her.

An Egyptian king was fathered by the sun god, Re, and acquired the Royal Ka when his predecessor died.
The autobiography of the Royal Treasurer Ineni proves that Hatshepsut was a legitimate Horus King.
Inscriptions from a small temple in Nubia which supposedly show Hatshepsut as subordinate to Tuthmosis III were altered and the date was changed.
Inscriptions which seem to show a gradual shift from queen to king actually mean that Hatshepsut remained the God's Wife of Amen early in her reign as king.
MYTH:  Hatshepsut usurped the throne of Tuthmosis III. - FACTS
FACT:  Hatshepsut was king before Tuthmosis III was born.
MYTH:  Hatshepsut became a king gradually. - FACTS
FACT:  A 'partial king' was impossible in ancient Egypt.
MYTH:  Hatshepsut invented the story of divine conception to justify her reign. - FACTS
FACT:  All Pharaohs claimed descent from the sun god.
MYTH:  Hatshepsut had more royal blood than Tuthmosis III. - FACTS
FACT:  Ancient Egyptians had no concept of 'royal blood'.
MYTH:  Hatshepsut adopted the regnal year dates of Tuthmosis III. - FACTS
FACT:  Their two accession dates were only months apart.
MYTH:  Pharaohs became gods after they died. - FACTS
FACT:  Pharaohs became gods immediately upon accession.