Senenmut (literally “mother’s brother”, sometimes transliterated as Senemut or Senmut) was one of the most powerful and famous (or infamous) officials of ancient Egypt. At the height of his power he was the Chief Steward of Amun, Tutor to the Princess Neferure and confidant (and possibly lover) of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut. However, both his early career and the circumstances surrounding his death and burial are obscure.
Senenmut’s parents were Ramose and Hatnefer (also referred to as Hatnofer and Hatnefret) who probably hailed from Iuny (Hermonthis – modern Armant, to the south of Thebes), as their illustrious son honoured two local goddesses Renenutet and Iunyt (“she of Iuny”) in statuary.
Ramose did not bear any official title, merely the honorific “revered” and his wife is simply referred to as “lady of the house” (a common title for a woman of some means but with no specific honorific role). Ramose seems to have died early in the career of Senenmut and was given a simple burial, however, he was later reburied in a more lavish tomb with his children and his wife Hatnefer who received a notably richer burial.
Senenmut had at least three brothers (Amenemhet, Minhotep, and Pairy) and two sisters (Ahhotep and Nofrethor) but none of his siblings attained high office and only Minhotep is referenced outside the tomb of his brother.
None of the monuments of Senenmut predate the joint reign of Tuthmosis and Hatshepsut. It is generally suposed that his career began during the reign of Tuthmosis I, possibly in the army of as the Overseer of Seals or Overseer of the Audience Chamber, but to date no definitive evidence of this has been discovered.
It is likely Senenmut was appointed Tutor and Steward to Princess Neferure and Great Steward of the God’s Wife (Hatshepsut) by Tuthmosis II, but again there is no definitive evidence to confirm when this took place.
When Hatshepsut became regent for Tuthmosis III on the death of her husband Tuthmosis II, the star of Senenmut was truly in the ascendancy. He was put in charge of the quarrying of her two obelisks at Aswan. Hatshepsut also allowed him to dedicate three votive statues in Karnak (two of which depict him with Neferure) and excavate a shrine at Gebel el-Silsila.
Senenmut was promoted to the position of Steward of Amun (possibly in year seven of the co-regency of Hatshepsut and Tuhmosis III when the queen declared herself pharaoh). He is often credited as the architect of the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (Djeser-Djeseru) at Deir el Bahri, largely because he held the post of “Overseer of works of Amun at Djeser Djeseru” but there is no firm evidence that he actually designed the complex.
Senenmut left twenty-five statues of himself for posterity and a number of depictions within the monuments of Hatshepsut. Many of these images were ground breaking. Images of him as tutor with Princess Neferure are the first examples of their type. He was also the first to be depicted offering a sacred sistrum to a god, the first to be depicted holding a surveyor’s rope, and the first man depicted holding a naos shrine.
An image of him adoring the pharaoh was inscribed behind a door jamb in Djeser-Djeseru, It is sometimes suggested that, as the image would be obscured when the door were open (and thus not visible to visitors), Senenmut did not have permission to add his image to this temple but that seems rather unlikely. Others have suggested that the private nature of this image is suggestive of the depth of the personal relationship between Hatshepsut and Senenmut which was not to be shared with the entire world.
Some commentators have suggested that Senenmut and Hatshepsut were lovers and some have even proposed that Neferure was his child (although this is less likely). Senenmut does not seem to have married or had attested children, which was rather unusual in ancient Egyptian society.
In depictions which would normally include his wife Senenmut is depicted on his own or with his parents, and his brother was placed in charge of his funerary provisions (a job which would generally fall to his child). There is also circumstantial evidence from statuary (such as the image of Senenmut and Neferure in which the princess appears to be emerging from his body), from graffiti (the depiction of an unnamed pharaoh and a common person in an erotic pose which is often though to represent Queen Hatshepsut and Senenmut), from his own inscriptions (while it was common for an official to describe themselves as “beloved of their lord” he also makes statements such as “I entered into the mysteries of the lady of the two lands”) which may hint at a sexual relationship between the Queen and her official. This is, of course, highly speculative.
Senenmut has been described by some as the secret lover of the queen, by others as her most loyal supporter, and by others as an arch manipulator who was in fact the power behind the throne.
With sufficient wealth and power to commission a large funerary complex in Western Thebes, generally listed as two separate tombs (TT353 and TT71) Senenmut’s importance is not in any doubt. He was given a quartzite sarcophagus by his pharaoh. However, we do not know how or when he died or where he was buried. Senenmut is last referred to in an informal document dated to year sixteen of the reign of Hatshepsut but there is no evidence that he was buried in either of his tombs and his sarcophagus was unfinished.
After his death, Senenmut’s name and images were attacked by unknown parties. It has been suggested that the author was Hatshepsut (assuming that Senenmut fell from her grace) or Tuthmosis III (who may have begrudged his influence with Hatshepsut).
It is also ventured by some that his name was attacked during the reign of Akhenaten because his name includes that of the consort of Amun, Mut. Yet the damage to his name and images is patchy. In some cases his image has been attacked but not his name (perhaps the defilers could not read hieroglyphs!) and in other cases only his name has been attacked (possibly during the Amarna Period?).
Only three of the statues featuring both the name of Hatshepsut and Senenmut were attacked which raises doubt that Tuthmosis III was to blame, even though he is perhaps the most likely culprit. In truth, like so much about this mysterious figure, we may never know for sure.
- Peter F. Dorman (1988) The Monuments of Senenmut: Problems in Historical Methodology
- Peter F. Dorman (2006) The career of Senenmut from Hatsehpsut : p107-109 of Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh Ed C. Roehrig
Copyright J Hill 2011