Senmut – Courtier or Lover of Queen Hatshepsut?
Who Were Senmut and Hatshepsut?
Many of you will know the story of Queen Hatshepsut, but have you heard of Senmut the ancient Egyptian who rose from fairly humble origins to be a prominent courtier and maybe even the lover of the controversial female Pharaoh?
I have written several articles about famous royal mistresses, but sometimes we can forget that royal ladies have also had their love affairs and created scandals. Hatshepsut is famous because it was incredibly rare for a female to have assumed the male regalia and titles of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh and rule the mighty Egyptian Empire. Hatshepsut ruled during the early 18th dynasty, at the start of Ancient Egypt’s glittering New Kingdom.
She was born a royal princess around 1502 BC and her parents were the Pharaoh Thutmosis I and his Great Royal Wife Ahmose. Hatshepsut was married at an early age to her half-brother, who became Pharaoh Thutmosis II on the death of their father, when Hatshepsut was about fifteen.
Thutmosis II was only destined to rule for a few short years, the exact length of his reign being a hotly debated topic with Egyptologists, and died at a young age. Hatshepsut and Thutmosis II produced a daughter, Neferure, during their short marriage and Thutmosis also fathered a son who would go on to become the mighty Pharaoh Thutmosis III on a minor wife Iset. This son Thutmosis III was only a young child at the time of his father’s death, and Hatshepsut at first took over as Regent and then assumed the full power of a Pharaoh in her own right.
Origins of Senmut
So how did a man like Senmut reach such an important position in the life of a pharaoh and the royal court of Egypt? He was born the son of Ramose and Hatnofer, who were probably a middle class couple from the town of Armant, just south of Thebes. Although his family were not rich or prominent, they must have been fairly prosperous as they could afford to educate their son Senmut and he was literate, which was a rarity in Ancient Egypt.
Senmut is known to have had three brothers Amenemhat, Minhotep and Pairy and a couple of sisters named Ahhotep and Nofrethor. Luckily for our knowledge of this ancient family, the tomb of Senmut’s parents was one of the very few to have been discovered intact in the Theban necropolis, by an expedition mounted in 1935-1936 by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The mummies of both of his parents were recovered intact and showed that Ramose was around sixty when he died, and that his mother was also elderly when she died as her mummy had very grey hair.
Interestingly, Senmut’s mother’s burial was much richer than that of his father, which suggests that she had been buried when her son was at the height of his power and riches, and that maybe the mummy of her husband had been disinterred from a humbler grave and reburied in this newer, more prestigious tomb.
The Career of Senmut
It would seem that he started his career in the royal administration during the reign of Thutmosis II and that his ability and talent were soon recognised and he rose rapidly through the ranks gaining titles and wealth as he went. The first prestigious titles held by Senmut that have been recorded are ‘Steward of the God’s Wife’ and ‘Steward of the King’s Daughter’. ‘God’s Wife’ was a very important religious title held by Hatshepsut, and the King’s Daughter was the young princess Neferure.
He was Neferure’s tutor and it would seem that the pair had a close and affectionate relationship, as he had several block statues carved depicting him holding the princess in an embrace. He would accumulate around eighty important titles during his glittering career and was instrumental in the construction of Hatshepsut’s unique and incredibly beautiful mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, where he claimed that he was the Chief Architect on the project. He was also responsible for supervising the erection of two huge obelisks that adorned the gateway to the temple of Karnak.
The Tombs of Senmut
He started constructing his own tomb in the Theban necropolis, known as TT71, which was located very close to that of his parent’s, in around year 7 of Hatshepsut’s reign, and the prestigious position of this tomb is another sign of the favour in which he was held by the female pharaoh. This tomb does not appear to have been finished, as there are no burial chambers.
The decorations in this tomb are very badly damaged, but in those that have been copied or still remain in situ, he makes frequent references to his exalted position at Hatshepsut’s court and lists his many titles.
However, he also had another tomb dug for himself, which was regarded as a secret tomb, underneath the mortuary temple of Deir el-Bahri itself, known as TT353. This tomb was first excavated in 1927 and was found in a fairly good state of preservation, because it had been hidden away under the courtyard of the temple. This tomb at Deir el-Bahri comprises of a descending stepped corridor and three rooms, one of which contains an astronomical ceiling decoration of a calendar of the lunar months, the constellations of the zodiac, and the planets, which is the earliest astrological ceiling yet found in Egypt.
This tomb was never completed and only one of the rooms was decorated, and also there was no open forecourt or chapel as was customary in Theban tombs of this period. There is no definitive evidence as to which of these tombs he was buried in, but it is feasible that TT71 is Senmut’s public tomb chapel where people could bring offerings after his death, and that TT353, which has no outside chapel, was designed to receive his burial.
Was Senmut the Lover of Hatshepsut?
So although he had clearly enjoyed a swift and successful career path and had risen to be one of the most important officials at the court of Queen Hatshepsut, is there any proof that he and the queen were lovers?
From the wealth of inscriptions and the proximity of his tomb under her mortuary temple, it is obvious that the couple enjoyed a close and trusting relationship. Hatshepsut seemed happy to acknowledge to the world that he was a very favoured courtier, and he was entrusted with important building projects and even with the tutoring and care of the little princess Neferure. There also appears to be no evidence that he ever married or had any children, which was highly unusual for a man of his high position in Ancient Egypt.
In the various inscriptions which have survived, he is depicted with his parents or one of his brothers, but never with a wife. However, none of this is definitive proof that he enjoyed a romantic relationship with Hatshepsut. One of the main pieces of evidence that is used to support the theory that Senmut and Hatshepsut were lovers is the fact that she allowed him to place an image of himself and his inscribed name in a concealed spot on the walls of Deir el-Bahri, a previously unthinkable thing for a commoner to do in a royal mortuary temple.
There is also some graffiti in an unused tomb that was used by the workmen who built Deir el-Bahri as a rest room, showing a man and a hermaphrodite figure dressed in the garb of a pharaoh engaged in sexual activity. Now the ancient Egyptians may not have had tabloid newspapers, but, human nature being what it is, gossip and rumours would have abounded and no doubt the workmen used to laugh among themselves about the latest rumours coming out of the royal court.
The End of Senmut?
Towards the end of Hatshepsut’s reign he appears to have fallen out of favour at the Egyptian court, although there is no evidence as to why. It could have simply been that he died of natural causes or that it was felt by some factions at the royal court that he was becoming too powerful, and so was driven out of favour.
But there are many other theories as to what may have happened to him, including falling out with his royal lover Hatshepsut and her ordering his death, or Thutmosis III, as he became more politically sure of himself and started working to regain his crown from his stepmother, getting his agents to kill him as he regarded Senmut as a serious rival, or even that he died when he was on an expedition abroad.
As there is no real evidence that he had been buried in either of his tombs, and that these monuments had been vandalised after he had disappeared from the scene, it would seem that he had made some powerful enemies.
Could it be that there were elements within the Egyptian Court who were scandalised by the royal love affair, and wanted to make an end of Senmut? Or was it that Hatshepsut’s power and influence was beginning to wane and so it was felt that it was now safe to get rid of one of her most powerful supporters?
Reviving Hatshepsut - Mummy Reconstruction
The sands of Egypt undoubtedly still cover many mysteries, so hopefully more evidence will emerge that will help us to learn more about the relationship between the powerful courtier Senmut and his ruler, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. We have much to find out about what happened to Senmut at the end of his life and where, or even if, he was buried. So do you think that Senmut was a famous royal lover, or just a steadfast and loyal courtier of his pharaoh?
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