Revealed: Secrets of Egyptian pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb

Secrets of Egyptian pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut’s tomb are uncovered in a fascinating documentary – including the hidden wall carvings that hint at an illicit affair with a courtier

  • Archaeologist takes Bettany Hughes to part of the tomb that’s usually off limits
  • Carvings of Senenmut behind the door, suggesting she wanted to hide affair
  • The Nile: Egypt’s Great River With Bettany Hughes airs on C5 at 9pm tonight 

An archaeologist reveals evidence hinting at Queen Hatshepsut’s alleged affair with a local 3,500 years on in The Nile: Egypt’s Great River With Bettany Hughes.

In the Channel 5 documentary, the presenter is taken to a part of the Egyptian pharaoh’s temple that’s usually off limits.  

There, hidden wall carvings offer an intimate insight into the remarkable woman’s life and hint at an illicit affair with courtier, Senenmut.

‘He seems to be present everywhere,’ says Bettany, as she explores the tomb. ‘This is Senenmut – not a member of the royal family and yet beautifully depicted all over the Queen of Egypt’s temple.’

‘He’s just a commoner and they don’t usually get represented in places as sacred as this. That says something about him.’

Presenter Bettany Hughes explores evidence of Queen Hatshepsut’s alleged affair with a local 3,500 years on in Channel 5 documentary ‘The Nile: Egypt’s Great River With Bettany Hughes.’ Pictured, a depiction of the pharaoh in a section of the temple which is off limits to the public

An archaeologist reveals there is a carving of Senenmut (pictured) behind the temple doors, hinting at Hatshepsut’s attempt to keep her illicit affair with him under wraps

The woman in this carving of a man and woman having sex (pictured) has got a thick royal wig on, suggesting it’s Hatshepsut herself

Hatshepsut (illustrated), whose successful reign lasted two decades, was a powerful woman in a man’s world

Senenmut oversaw the temple’s construction and tutored Hatshepsu’s daughter. It’s long believed that his talents captured the Queen’s attention – and perhaps even her heart.

‘Presumably the doors are closed, so that image would be hidden,’ says Bettany, as she considers the positioning of the Egyptian artwork. ‘The doors open East-side so no one knew about his presence inside the place.’

She adds: ‘By hiding the wall carving of Senenmut behind closed doors, perhaps Hatshepsut was trying to keep her relationship with the local under wraps.’

In ancient Egypt, men inherited the throne – there wasn’t even a word for queen. So when Hatshepsut, who was often depicted as a man, found herself in charge after her husband’s early death, she realised the only way to rule Egypt was to be better than any king.

‘You get the sense she wanted to outdo any man,’ Bettany explains. ‘This temple was unlike anything Egypt had ever seen before.’ 

‘The design was progressive and internationalist. It’s almost as if Hatshepsut was trying to seduce her people with her sophistication.’ 

But the temple walls reveal more about the intriguing woman. She sent delegations out across the sea to get ivory and gold from places other Egyptian rulers didn’t manage to reach.

Speaking of the progressive and internationalist design of the temple, Bettany says: ‘It’s almost as if Hatshepsut was trying to seduce her people with her sophistication’


As a woman living in Egypt’s golden age, Hatshepsut was not destined for kingship.

She was prohibited by her gender from ascending the throne even though she was of royal lineage.

Egypt’s gods had supposedly decreed that the king’s role could never be fulfilled by a woman and although a pharaoh needed a queen to reign with him, she could never rule alone – although later there were notable exceptions.

Hatshepsut refused to submit to this and, to get round the rule, claimed she was married to the king of the gods and therefore had as much right to sit on the throne as any previous pharaoh. 

Her brazen approach worked and she had herself crowned in around 1,473BC, changing her name from the female version Hatshepsut – which means Foremost of the Noble Ladies – to the male version, Hatshepsu.

As a woman living in Egypt’s golden age, Hatshepsut (pictured) was not destined for kingship. She was prohibited by her gender from ascending the throne even though she was of royal lineage

She reinforced her power by decorating the temples of the gods with portraits of herself in the pharaoh’s traditional kilt, wearing all his symbols of office including the black pointed royal beard.

While conducting affairs of state surrounded by male courtiers, she may even have worn men’s clothes.

However, previously-found statues show that early in her reign she liked tight-fitting gowns which showed off her figure and is said to have had a habit of bedding her cabinet ministers.

Hatshepsut was the first but not the only woman ruler of male dominated ancient Egypt.

Nefertiti followed her and then Cleopatra took power 1,500 years later, but neither took the title pharaoh like Hatshepsut.

She showed ruthless ambition and exceptional tenacity for the times in which she lived.

As a result this mysterious and courageous female ruler rewrote the early story of her country and has been called the first great woman in history.

Hatshepsut insisted she had been made official heir to the throne by her father, the pharaoh Thutmosis I.

The pharaoh had several sons who predeceased him and turned to his daughter to safeguard the throne.

What immediately followed was not unusual. Hatshepsut married a much younger half-brother, also called Thutmosis, whereupon she became queen.

Marriages between siblings were the custom in those days and at first the couple reigned together.

But then her brother/husband died, with the markings on his mummy suggesting he suffered from a hideous skin disease.

Hatshepsut became regent for another Thutmosis, her husband’s son by a harem girl. By now she was not content simply to be regent.

Within two years she had taken all the power for herself and was running the country from its capital Thebes, donned in her false beard and all the traditional regalia of kingship.

For many years she and her stepson seemed to have lived happily with this arrangement.

She ruled while Thutmosis concentrated on his military career. So successful was he that historians know him as the Napoleon of Egypt.

Historians suspect these campaigns were an excuse to escape from the influence of his merciless step-mother. 

She was becoming so powercrazed in her last years that Thutmosis even feared for his life.

In his absence, Hatshepsut built breathtaking temples in her own honour. They were decorated with reliefs telling how she came to the throne of Egypt and with farfetched stories about her divine connections.

Hatshepsut ruled as a master politician and stateswoman for 20 years.

She died around the age of 50 of cancer, according to recent research and expected to be buried in her finest and best-known temple near the Valley of the Kings.

But it appears Thutmosis III got his own back on the woman who usurped his throne, burying her in a lesser location.

He outlived Hatshepsut by 40 years and seems to have set out on a campaign to erase her name from history.

He threw her statues into the quarries in front of the grand temples she built and even defaced the images of her courtiers. 

‘The point of all of this wasn’t to prove what the Egyptians had traded in but that Hatshepsut could make it happen,’ explains the presenter.  

But being the most powerful woman in Egypt at the time, it can’t have been easy to have kept such a secret hidden – and Bettany soon uncovers more evidence of the scandal in the hills above the temple.

‘It’s pretty perilous to access but archaeologists think this is where the temple builders took their breaks, sheltering from the sun and catching up on all the latest news,’ she explains.   

As she reaches her second destination, the presenter analyses a little scribble on the wall which is nearly 3,500-years-old.

‘Now obviously it shows a man having sex with a woman, but there’s something really special to notice here,’ says Bettany. 

‘The woman has got this thick royal wig on so it’s probably showing the queen or Hatshepsut herself.’

Suggesting there are two possibilities, she adds: ‘Either this is feeding off a rumour that Hatshepsut and Senenmut were actually lovers, or it’s just a guy having sex with Hatshepsut herself.

While thousands of tourists visit the Egyptian temple every year, Bettany visits hidden wall carvings which offer an intimate insight into Hatshepsut’s life

Queen Hatshepsut, who is often depicted as a man, can be seen with a beard (pictured) in the fascinating documentary

Bettany is also taken to the hills above the temple, where more evidence of the scandal resides (pictured)

Hatshepsut had herself crowned in around 1,473BC, changing her name from the female version Hatshepsut – which means Foremost of the Noble Ladies – to the male version, Hatshepsu.

Born into the most advanced civilisation in the ancient world, Hatshepsu commandeered the throne of Egypt from her young stepson, Thutmosis III, and, in an unprecedented move, declared herself pharaoh.

To cement her position as the first female ruler, she donned the traditional clothes, head-dress and even the false beard traditionally worn by male pharaohs of Egypt.

She is thought to have reigned with little opposition for more than two decades before dying in around 1458 BC.

 The Nile: Egypt’s Great River With Bettany Hughes airs tonight at 9pm on Channel 5  


Hatshepsut became queen of Egypt when she married her half-brother, Thutmose II, at the age of 12. 

She was the elder of two daughters born to Thutmose I and his queen, Ahmes. 

She took on the full powers of a pharaoh, becoming co-ruler of Egypt around 1473 BC.

Hatshepsut knew her rise to becoming pharoah was conterversial.

As a result, she attempted to reinvent her her image in statues and paintings.

For instance, she ordered that she be portrayed as a male pharaoh, with a beard and large muscles in many of them. 

The modest resting place of Hatshepsut was discovered by Howard Carter, who famously revealed Tutankhamun’s grave.

Her mummy was one of a pair found inside – although that wasn’t obvious when they were first found.

Experts analysed a tooth known to belong to the queen to find it matched with the larger of the two mummies, suggesting the queen was obese with rotten teeth and pendulous breasts. 

The modest resting place of Hatshepsut was discovered by Howard Carter, who famously revealed Tutankhamun’s grave. This mummy is thought to be that of her husband, Pharaoh Tuthomis II

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, said in 2007 when the match was made: ‘This is the most important discovery in the Valley of the Kings since the discovery of King Tutankhamun and one of the greatest adventures of my life.

‘Queens, especially the great ones like Nefertiti and Cleopatra, capture our imaginations.

‘But it is perhaps Hatshepsut, who was both a king and a queen who was most fascinating.

‘Her reign during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt was a prosperous one, yet mysteriously she was erased from Egyptian history.’ 


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