Thousands of tourists visit the Temple of Hatshepsut every day, enjoying the restored terraces that nestle under the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri on the West Bank of Luxor. Beside the Hatshepsut Temple is the ruined Temple of Mentuhotep II from the much earlier Eleventh Dynasty. But today this wonderful monument is closed to the public, and, although it is still possible to view part of the remains, it is all but ignored by the stream of visitors to its more famous neighbour.
The Great Reunifier
Mentuhotep II is remembered as one of Egypt’s great pharaohs – the founder of the Middle Kingdom. At the end of the Old Kingdom, central authority broke down and the country entered a period of uncertainty that we now call the First Intermediate Period (c.2181-2055 BC). Two power centres fought to re-establish control over Egypt: one based at Herakleopolis in the North and the other based at Thebes (Luxor) in the South. It was Thebes that emerged victorious under Mentuhotep, who reunified the country, ushering in a period of prosperity.
Mentuhotep’s predecessors at Thebes (Intef I, II, and III) had built their tombs at el-Tarif to the north of Deir el-Bahri. The great bay of cliffs at Deir el-Bahri had always been sacred to Hathor, but Mentuhotep seems to have been the first to build there. He combined aspects of the southern style of architecture (the rows of columns seen in the saff tombs of the Intefs) with aspects of the northern style of architecture (as seen in the traditional Old Kingdom pyramid complexes) to produce a tomb-temple with a genuinely original design. More than 500 years later, Hatshepsut adopted and expanded this design when she built her famous temple beside that of Mentuhotep, while Thutmose III managed to insert a third temple between them.
The first archaeologist to excavate the Mentuhotep Temple was Édouard Naville in the 1890s on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund. He published the findings of his 1903-1906 seasons in three volumes. Work on the temple continued under H E Winlock – who led the American excavations at Deir el-Bahri from 1911 to 1931 – and more recently under Dieter Arnold for the German Archaeological Institute.
The temple complex
The complex is a combination of a royal tomb and a temple for the deified king and specific gods (Amun-Ra and Montu). The overall design is based on a Memphite pyramid complex, with a valley temple on the water’s edge, a one-kilometre causeway leading up to the mortuary temple, and, at the back, the royal tomb. Unfortunately, the valley temple area seems to have been levelled by Ramesses IV, who planned to build his mortuary temple there. Little remains to be seen of the Eleventh Dynasty valley temple today, although Winlock found traces of the causeway at various points along its length.
As illustrated in Winlock’s plan, the causeway ends at a main entrance gate which gives access to a large open courtyard in front of the temple, similar to those seen in the Intef tomb complexes. A series of large sycamore and tamarisk trees stood along the main axis of the courtyard, with smaller trees behind. The holes where these trees stood are still visible today. We must imagine the courtyard to be a fertile garden area with trees, flower beds, and pools of water, rather than the ruined arid area we see today.
Gate of the Horse
One interesting feature in the courtyard is the Bab el-Hosan (‘Gate of the Horse’); it gained its name after it was discovered by Howard Carter, whose horse stumbled on uneven ground and threw him off. Carter investigated the area in 1900 and uncovered three sides of stonework protecting the entrance to a passage. The original mud sealings on the door were intact. He entered and found himself in a passageway, 150 metres long, which ended in a chamber. Here he found, lying on its side, a seated statue wrapped in linen, and a wooden coffin, inscribed but without a name. A small wooden box was also found, bearing the name of Mentuhotep.
The statue was uninscribed, but is now identified as Nebhepetra Mentuhotep II, who is shown seated and wearing a heb-sed cloak. The coffin was found to be empty. Possibly the room was intended to be the burial chamber for the king in an early phase of planning the complex. When it was later decided to bury Mentuhotep in a chamber beyond the back of the temple, the Bab el-Hosan chamber became a dummy burial chamber, an early form of Osirian cenotaph.
The main temple
Naville’s plan of the temple highlights the innovative architecture. On each side of the front ramp are colonnades, each column marked with the king’s name.
At the top of the ramp is an upper platform with a colonnade on three sides. Inside is an ambulatory supported by rows of octagonal columns.
What stood in the centre of this area is debated. Naville believed that a pyramid stood there, as the name of the temple was written with the pyramid determinative.
Winlock seemed happy to go along with this idea, but Arnold disagrees: he argues that the temple was topped by a low mound to represent a mastaba or the primeval mound. As he points out, the names of the Intef tombs were also written with pyramid determinatives, but there were no pyramids in those structures. He believes that the weight of a pyramid would have been too much for the upper platform to support. Majority opinion today agrees with Arnold, viewing the central structure as a low mound or a flat-topped mastaba.
At the back of the ambulatory, six shrines for young females were found. Five of the ladies seem to have been in their 20s when they died; the other was aged around five. They were all ‘unique royal favourites and priestesses of Hathor’. Each had a limestone shrine erected to commemorate them, behind which was their tomb. The exterior of each shrine was decorated with carved reliefs and painted in bold colours. The stone sarcophagi found in these ladies’ tombs are finely decorated as well. For example, the sarcophagus of Ashayet can be seen in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The interior of this sarcophagus retains much of its original colour, including a scene where Ashayet is shown sitting and holding a lily flower or ‘lotus’ to her nose, while a scribe reads a liturgy to her. Why these six females were given the honour of burial in the temple is a matter of debate. Perhaps they were a human form of paddle doll, with Mentuhotep wanting to celebrate his devotions to Hathor in perpetuity with real human beings rather than figures made of wood.
Behind the tombs of the royal females, we enter the peristyle Middle Court. The dominant feature here is the entrance to the Royal Tomb. Naville describes an empty 150 metre passage leading to a chamber, which held an alabaster shrine. This is presumably the intended burial chamber for the king, although no body was found here.
Beyond the Middle Court with its surrounding columns, we pass into a hypostyle hall, fully populated with ten rows of eight columns. At the back is a walled room containing an altar in front of a speos, which would probably have contained a statue of Mentuhotep. From the south-west area of the Hypostyle Hall, there is access to the tomb of Queen Tem, the ‘king’s beloved wife’.
The entire temple area would have been decorated with painted reliefs. It has been estimated that less than 5 per cent of the reliefs survive, a few of which are still visible at the site today, while other fragments reside in museums around the world. The themes of the decoration seem to follow those of a Memphite pyramid complex, including fishing and fowling in the marshes, agricultural activity, and foreign campaigns.
Mentuhotep created a completely new genre of tomb-temple in a multilevel construction, marking a transition between the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom and the mortuary temples and separate tombs of kings in the New Kingdom.
I hope that, in the future, the structure is made safe and opened to the public for visits. Without Mentuhotep’s innovative monument, there would be no Hatshepsut Temple in the form that we see it today.
Geoffrey Lenox-Smith is a chartered accountant from London who holds the Certificate in Egyptology from Birkbeck, University of London. He makes frequent visits to Egypt and is a regular AE contributor.
H E Naville (1907-1913) The XIth Dynasty Temple at Deir el-Bahari (in 3 parts; Egypt Exploration Fund).
H E Winlock (1942) Excavations at Deir el Bahri: 1911-1931 (Macmillan).
D Arnold (1979) The Temple of Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahari (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
All photos: by the author, unless otherwise stated