Temple of Mentuhotep Nebhepetre
Mentuhotep Nebhepetre was the Theban ruler who reunited Upper and Lower Egypt at the end of the First Intermediate Period and was the founder of Dynasty XI. Although there were saff-tombs of the First Intermediate Period on the West Bank of Thebes, Mentuhotep Nebhepetre was the first known king to build a whole mortuary complex, which was to include his tomb and the site he chose was in the bay of cliffs known as Deir el-Bahri. Today, Deir el-Bahri is better known for the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, who built on a site adjacent to that of Mentuhotep and modelled her mortuary temple on his earlier design. Although Mentuhotep’s monument has been known of since the nineteenth century, it was not thoroughly excavated until 1968 and since then by the German Archaeological Institute and the Polish-Egyptian Mission.
The temple’s architecture was unique for the period. It was built on a multi-level platform which combines the elements of the earlier saff-tombs and the traditional Old Kingdom pyramid complex. There was originally a valley temple which now is below the cultivated area of the West Bank. An open causeway led up to a large tree-lined forecourt (the causeway and tree-pits can still be seen). When he was riding his horse in this forecourt Howard Carter literally stumbled into the entrance of a deep shaft now called ‘Bab el-Hosan’ (Gate of the Horse). This was actually part of the Mentuhotep complex and inside, Carter found the famous linen-wrapped seated sandstone statue of Mentuhotep II in heb-sed costume, which is now in the Cairo Museum. There are many theories as to what the ‘Bab el-Hosan’ was, but it is generally thought that it may have been originally intended to be the king’s tomb but was converted to a symbolic cenotaph of Osiris. The walled forecourt had an avenue of colossal Osirid statues of the king and two postern gates.
The structure of the terraced temple seems to have been built in three or four stages. A ramp leads to the second terrace, and this was planted with a grove of sycamore and tamarisk trees on either side. On the lower colonnade fragments from the rear walls were found to have reliefs of boat processions and foreign campaigns.
The upper terrace was surrounded on three sides by a double colonnade of pillars inscribed with scenes and texts of Mentuhotep before various deities. Around these was an ambulatory which surrounded a forest of 140 octagonal pillars arranged in rows of two at the back and three on the other sides. In the centre of the platform was a large square structure clad in limestone blocks, which is the topic of much debate. Egyptologists originally thought it to have been the base of a pyramid which may have extended upwards through the top terrace. There is documentary evidence in the Abbott Papyrus suggesting that the structure was in fact a pyramid. More recently however, it has been interpreted as a mastaba-like structure, representing the funerary chapel and possibly symbolising the primeval mound of creation.
Six shaft tombs were discovered on the west side of the second terrace at the rear of the colonnade, each with its own chapel dedicated to individual female family members of Mentuhotep. From right to left they belong to Myt, Ashayt, Sadeh, Kauit, Kemsit and Henhenit. Ashayt’s sarcophagus and decorated wooden coffin is in Cairo Museum, and she seems to have been a Nubian consort of the king. Kauit was another consort whose large decorated sarcophagus is also in Cairo Museum, as well as one of a series of model coffins which contained wax statuettes of the lady. On the north-western side of the second terrace a small chapel dedicated to Hathor (as well as other deities) was constructed during the New Kingdom, where a statue of the cow-goddess was found in a shrine (now in Cairo Museum).
On the west side of the main platform of the structure, on the second terrace, is a peristyle court containing two rows of pillars with the royal tomb featured in the inner part. Mentuhotep’s tomb was cut into the rock beneath the courtyard and contained an uninscribed alabaster shrine. This was perhaps a forerunner to the later New Kingdom royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Large quantities of wooden models and statuettes, deliberately broken, were found inside the chamber. Egyptologists debate whether the king was ever buried in the tomb, or if it was a symbolic tomb for the pharaoh’s ‘ka’ as no sarcophagus was found. Behind the entrance to the royal tomb was Egypt’s largest hypostyle hall to date which contained 82 pillars. At the rear of the hypostyle was a rock-cut speos, a long chamber with a vaulted ceiling which was a sanctuary of the royal mortuary cult. In the centre of the sanctuary a shallow ramp led up to a limestone altar and behind this a statue of the king was placed in a niche carved into the rock. Many blocks and statue fragments from here have found their way to museums or collections around the world, including a seated statue of Amun.
The Temple of Mentuhotep is a complicated structure and the fact that there are too few remains hamper the interpretation. The decoration seems to show the growing influence of Osiris as a mortuary god during this period, and combines elements both traditional and innovative. It’s ancient name was ‘Akh-sut-Nebhepetre’ (Splendid are the cult places of Mentuhotep).
Mentuhotep’s temple is not open to the public but special permission to visit may sometimes be obtained from the Antiquities Office. Perhaps the best view is from the second terrace of Hatshepsut’s adjacent temple (outside the Hathor Chapel) to the north. It can also be seen from above on the path over the mountain to the King’s Valley.