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Senenmut - Loyal Supporter or Lover?

Senenmut and Neferure

When researching the story of Maatkare Hatshepsut, there's one name that will inevitably pop up: Senenmut. And there's good reason, too! Over the course of his lifetime, Senenmut commissioned a large number of statues of himself (25 that we know of), as well as a lavish tomb near the Valley of the Kings. Based on the evidence he left behind, it's clear that Senenmut was an incredibly successful official in Hatshepsut's court, holding many titles and maintaining a strong connection to the king herself, going so far as to call himself her "confidant." While we don't have ALL the details, there's much speculation in the Egyptology community as to what the true nature and extent of Senenmut's relationship to Hatshepsut was: could this man have been the pharaoh's lover, or simply her most loyal, dedicated advisor?

Senenmut was born in a small town called Armant ("Iuny" in ancient times) a few miles south of Thebes. Based on inscriptions from the tombs of his parents, Ramose and Hatnofer, it appears that Senenmut came from a modest middle-class background (highly unusual, considering his later political successes). Very little is known about his early life: like most young Egyptian men, he probably served in the army for a time before making the switch to bureaucracy. During the reign of Thutmose II, it's known that Senenmut was already working in the palace in an administrative position. It is around this time he first met Hatshepsut, whom he clearly must have impressed: the first major position Senenmut held at court was as tutor to Hatshepsut's daughter, Princess Neferure. Even though he accumulated a multitude of prestigious titles over the years, it is this position that made the greatest impression on Senenmut. To be tutor to the princess was to also prepare her for her future royal and religious obligations (when Hatshepsut proclaimed herself pharaoh, it would be Neferure who stepped up to fill the role of God's Wife of Amun), and this was something Senenmut didn't take lightly. It appears that Neferure and her tutor had a close, almost familial relationship, and that Senenmut was incredibly proud of his role in educating the princess. Several "block" style statues of Senenmut and Princess Neferure have survived to the modern era, a testament to both Senenmut's reliability and intellect as well as to Hatshepsut's great trust in him.

When Hatshepsut proclaimed herself pharaoh, Senenmut's career skyrocketed. He held the titles of Steward of Amun, Overseer of the Works of the King, and Overseer of the Granaries of Amun (and many, many more). Senenmut was also in charge of Princess Neferure's entire estate, and was tasked with overseeing Hatshepsut's throne room: essentially, he had a say in which officials were granted an audience with the pharaoh, and which were not. Senenmut was given loads of important projects by Hatshepsut, which he wasn't afraid to brag about on his statuary and tomb walls. For example, he was in charge of quarrying and overseeing the building of two massive obelisks for Hatshepsut, to be added to the Karnak temple complex, as well as having a hand in the building and planning of the king's mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.

As far as we know, Senenmut never married or had any children, which, at the time, was pretty unusual for a man of his position.'s where we get into the controversial part of Senenmut's story. It's quite obvious how highly Maatkare Hatshepsut thought of her Steward: all those titles, all those monumental building projects...she even entrusted this "no-name" official with the care and instruction of her only daughter! In each and every one of his statues and tomb inscriptions, Senenmut praises the king and extols her power, benevolence, and generosity. Senenmut and the pharaoh clearly had great mutual respect and admiration for one another, and enjoyed a close relationship. But the question close, exactly? Some historians argue that one of the driving factors behind Senenmut's meteoric rise to power during Hatshepsut's reign must have been due, in part, to a romantic relationship between himself and the king. A (rather rude) graffito from the Valley of the Kings seems to corroborate this theory. The rough carving depicts a woman wearing a crown (presumably Hatshepsut) being put in a compromising position by a man, believed by some to be Senenmut. In addition, Senenmut built his own personal tomb and funerary chapel in the hills directly adjacent to Deir el-Bahri, and he even included his own image (repeatedly) on the walls of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple. Scandalous!

Is this definitive proof that there was something going on between the pharaoh and her Steward? No, of course not. It's highly likely that there was no romantic connection between Senenmut and the king. We don't even know Senenmut's age in relation to Hatshepsut: he could have been around the same age, or much, much older. Could Hatshepsut and Senenmut's relationship have been something more than platonic admiration? Of course, but there just isn't enough archaeological evidence to give you an absolute answer. After Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut was no longer constrained by the obligations of marriage. Her only duties were to Egypt: maintaining peace and stability throughout the kingdom, caring for her subjects, and preparing Thutmose III to assume the throne. She was free to have a relationship with any man she liked (similar to how her male counterparts often kept harems with scores of lesser wives and concubines), and if she was with Senenmut or anyone else, it's highly unlikely that her sexual escapades would have been recorded for posterity. Senenmut was an unmarried, minor official from a humble background, who suddenly became one of the most powerful non-royal men in Egypt. Perhaps his incredible success was simply due to his political savvy and intelligence, or perhaps there were other, more clandestine factors in play. Who knows? I'll let you decide.

If you want to learn more about Senenmut's life and role in Hatshepsut's court, I would highly recommend checking out The Egyptian History Podcast - Ep. #64, "Beloved Uncle." This episode provides a great in-depth look at Senenmut's rise to power and many accolades, and addresses some of the controversy surrounding this unusual historical figure!

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