The Amber Room, or, How Russia and Germany Lost the Eighth Wonder of the World

One time, Germany and Russia lost an entire room. An extremely valuable, artistic masterpiece, eighth wonder of the world of a room. It’s quite the epic tale, full of alliances against Sweden, art conservators making poor life choices, and Nazis.

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The reconstructed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace. Image courtesy of the Daily Mail.

It begins in 1701 when Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia, commissioned a series of amber panels from an international team of master craftsmen. In 1711, Friedrich installed the finished panels in Berlin City Palace.

Friedrich’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, assumed the Prussian throne upon his father’s death in 1713. Not long after, Peter the Great paid a visit to the Prussian monarch, and admired the amber panels during his stay. In 1716, Friedrich presented his father’s panels to the Czar in order cement an alliance against Sweden (all this creation and exchange of amber-driven art was happening against the backdrop of Great Northern War, 1700-1721).

The amber panels arrived in Russian in 18 large boxes. After their installation in the Winter House in St. Petersburg, the panels underwent a renovation and expansion which concluded in 1755. Shortly thereafter, Czarina Elizabeth ordered the Amber Room moved to a larger space in the Catherine Palace. This move required that additional amber be shipped from Berlin, and by the time its transfer was complete, the Amber Room covered about 180 square feet, containing six tons of amber, gold leaf, and other semi-precious stones.

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Photograph of the original Amber Room. Source and date unknown.

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Photograph of the original Amber Room, taken in 1932. Image courtesy of the Novosti Press.

The Amber Room led a fairly quiet domestic existence after that. Czarina Elizabeth used it as a private meditation chamber, Catherine the Great used it as a gathering space, and Alexander II, an amber connoisseur, used it as a trophy space. The Soviets maintained it after the Revolution, though by the 1940s the amber had become dry and brittle.

Which posed quite a problem to the curators tasked with its removal.

On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa launched some three million German soldiers into the Soviet Union. Knowing the Nazi proclivity towards art theft, the curators responsible for the removal and protection of Leningrad’s treasures understood that they had to act fast. But as they removed the panels of the Amber Room, the amber began to crumble.

Caught between fear of the approaching Nazis, fear of destroying the Amber Room, and fear of the Nazis taking the room, the curators decided that the best solution was to cover their world famous charge in mundane wallpaper.

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The Catherine Palace post-Amber Room theft. Image date and source unknown, taken from the Daily Mail.

The Nazi Art Theft Division was, shockingly, not fooled, and disassembled the Amber Room in less than two days. On October 14, 1941, they packed it into 27 crates, and shipped it to Konigsberg, Germany (present-day Kaliningrad) for storage and display in the city’s castle museum. There it remained until January 1945, when Hitler order the removal of all looted objects from Konigsberg.

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The Amber Room in Konigsberg, Germany in 1942. Image courtesy of Alamy.com.

There are a lot of stories about what happened next. Some claim that Hitler’s orders were followed, and that the Amber Room was packed into crates for transport. A group of eyewitnesses claims to have seen the crates at a railway station. Others hold that the crates were loaded aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship sunk by a Soviet submarine. Others still insist that the crates were buried in a secret location long since forgotten. In 1997, a group of German detectives received a tip that someone was trying to sell a piece of the Amber Room. The seller was the son of a deceased German soldier whom had helped pack up the room; the fragment is now in the hands of the Russian government.

It is most likely that the Amber Room was destroyed during the April, 1945 Battle of Konigsberg. The city’s German administrators fled as Soviet forces advanced on the city, and the ensuing Battle of Konigsberg, which lasted from April 6-April 9, 1945, left 80% of the city in ruins.

In June, 1945, Alexander Brusov, the chief of the first formal Soviet mission to find the Amber Room, wrote, “Summarizing all the facts, we can say that the Amber Room was destroyed between 9 and 11 April 1945.” Brusov later retracted this statement, most likely under pressure from other Soviet officials wishing to obscure the possibility that Soviet soldiers may have been responsible for the room’s destruction. Indeed the Soviet government continued to search for the Room despite their own experts’ conclusions, most likely for the very same reason.

Interestingly, the Soviet government restricted access to the remains of the Konigsberg Castle after the war, even to archaeological and historical surveys. In 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev ordered the demolition of Konigsberg Castle, making any onsite research of the last known home of the Amber Room all but impossible, and destroying any pieces of the room which may have survived.

In 2004, British investigative journalists Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy set out to find the Amber Room, or at least, to determine its fate once and for all. The two authors concluded that the Amber Room was most likely destroyed during or in the aftermath of the Battle of Konigsberg.

Since the book’s release, Russian officials have rather defensively denied its conclusions. Adelaida Yolkina, a senior researcher at the Pavlovsk Museum Estate stated that “It is impossible to see the Red Army being so careless that they let the Amber Room be destroyed.” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, stated that “Most importantly, the destruction of the Amber Room during the Second World War is the fault of the people who started the war.”

Regardless, somewhere between the Wallpaper Incident, the Nazi belief that the the Amber Room was made by and for Germans, the likely non-removal of the room before the Battle of Konigsberg, and the 1968 Soviet destruction of the last known home of the Amber Room, the room disappeared, and was never seen in public after 1945. In the end, I guess Sweden got the last laugh, as it remained passive aggressively neutral throughout World War II. That’ll teach Prussia and Russia to exchange anti-Swedish alliance art.

In 1979 the Soviet government decided that it was high time to resurrect the almost lost art of amber carving and construct a new Amber Room. It took 24 years, millions of dollars (including a sizable German donation), and consultations of drawings and black and white photographs of the original Amber Room. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder presented the new Amber Room.

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The Reconstructed Amber Room. Image courtesy of Wikipedia user jeanyfan.

The new Amber Room is housed in the Catherine Palace, and is open to the public for viewing.

Indigenous Art and White Supremacy: the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd

This post includes images and names which may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In addition, it may contain culturally sensitive works which may be considered as inappropriate for viewing. I have done my best to present only images which epitomize a certain style, or which hold an important place in the history of this artistic movement.

In 1960, the Australian government, deciding that Aborigines were not ready to live as “white Australians,” instituted a forced re-education program to hasten their assimilation into white Australian society. To achieve these ends, the government relocated the Walpiri, Aranda, Anmatyerre, Loritja, and Pintupi language groups from their traditional lands and resettled them in the Papunya Settlement, located 250 miles west of Alice Springs in Central Australia. This policy also involved the forced removal of indigenous children from their parents.

Papunya’s precise location. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

The settlement consisted of below standard government housing designed to accommodate between 400 and 500 people; by 1970, over 1,000 indigenous peoples lived in the settlement. Government workers were housed in separate quarters, surrounded by barbed wire.

Aerial photograph of Papunya, Northern Territory, taken in 1968 by Chris Guster. Image courtesy of The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a British man, was posted to Papunya as the settlement’s primary school art teacher. He would later describe the settlement as “a community of people in appalling distress, oppressed by a sense of exile from their homelands…it was a place of emotional loss and waste, with an air of casual cruelty. I had come to a community of several tribal groups apparently dispossessed of their lands and…systematically humiliated by the European authorities…they were frustrated to the point of hopelessness.”

One day he noticed some of the school children drawing traditional designs in the sand. He began to encourage his students to represent their traditional visual themes and motifs in his art classes. When the children began work on a mural, the elders felt that the spiritual nature of the symbolism and style of the mural was better suited to adults. Seven aboriginal men in turn began their own mural of the Honey Ant Dreaming.

Old Tom Onion Tjapangati (left) and Nosepeg Tjupurrula (second left) direct the painting of the Honey Ant Dreaming on the wall of the school at the government settlement of Papunya. Image courtesy of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd.

This mural was painted on the school wall, and its presence inspired others in the settlement to begin paintings of their own. Over 600 paintings and 300 smaller works were created over the next year and a half. The administration of the settlement, in an act which curator Judith Ryan described as “cultural vandalism,” painted over the Honey Ant Dreaming mural in 1974.

In October, 1971, Bardon helped to arrange the Papunya School Painters Cooperative, which, in 1972 was incorporated into Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. Critics perceive the work produced between 1971 and 1972 to be fresh, evocative, and unrestrained. The early artists, generally older men, worked using whatever materials were on hand, including boxes, car hoods, and tin sheets. This explosion of artistic activity is typically regarded as the origin of Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art.

Kangaroo Rat Dreaming by Anatjari Tjakamarra, 1972. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

The Australian government, however, was unhappy with the formation of this artistic Papunya Tula Artists. In 1956, the Northern Territory Legislative Council ruled it to be a criminal offense should anyone to buy or sell paintings by Aboriginal artists without the permission of the Native Affairs Branch of the government. The superintendent of Papunya claimed that the paintings were produced by “government Aborigines,” and therefore belonged to the government. Bardon, ignoring these laws, continued to promote the Papunya Tula Artists and took paintings out of the settlement to sell at Alice Springs. Bardon became seriously ill and had to leave Papunya in the middle of 1972.

As the Papunya Tula Artists transitioned from painting for the Papunya community to painting works which would be sold outside of the settlement, tensions began to rise between the artists and outside Aborigine groups. These groups opposed the selling of paintings containing sacred knowledge and images. The tension came to a head in 1974 when an Aborigine group stoned an Alice Springs exhibition of the Papunya art.

In response the Papunya Tula Artists began to adopt a style in which they overlaid their paintings with dots to disguise the parts of their work which included sacred rituals and symbols. One of the early masters of this technique was Johnny Warungula Tjupurrula (1920-2001). His technique of “over-dotting” was taken up and developed by many Papunya artists, and by 1975 this technique became one of the central characteristics of Western Desert Art. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was another early master of this technique.

Warlugulong by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, 1977. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Of this period of the movement, Judith Ryan opined that the “openness of the Bardon era was at an end. Dotting and over-dotting, as an ideal means of concealing or painting over dangerous, secret designs, became a fashion at this stage. The art was made public, watered down for general exhibition…the uniqueness of the Geoffrey Bardon years—which like innocence, cannot be rediscovered.”

In 1976, the Northern Territory passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The act provided that Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory could claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. The act allowed for a claim of title if claimants were able to provide evidence of their association with land. After the Act’s passing, much of the Papunya settlement departed for their traditional lands. However, the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd continued to grow.

The art world ignored the work of the Papunya Tula Artists, and the National Gallery of Victoria did not acquire any of their works until 1987. Even then, it was only at the urging of Judith Ryan, who convinced the director to purchase 10 pieces for $100,000, a price which Ryan would describe in 2008 as a “steal.” In 2007, a painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri sold for $2.4 million.

Today the work of the Papunya Tula Artists is highly regarded. This work is now represented in major galleries, museums, institutions and many large private collections both in Australia and overseas. The Papunya Tula Artists currently operate out of Alice Springs. They are regarded within the art world as the premier purveyor of Aboriginal art in Central Australia.

The Papunya Tula Artists’ gallery today, Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Image courtesy of Qantas: The Australian Way.

History of the Guennol Lioness

The Guennol Lioness; photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Guennol Lioness is of Elamite origin and is thought to have been made between 3000 and 2800 BCE—the same period in which writing systems were being developed, the wheel was being invented, and cities were beginning to rise in the Ancient Near East. Experts believe that the Lioness may have been used to ward off evil, and that it was probably owned by a person of high social standing. It also must be noted that many Ancient Near Eastern deities were portrayed as figures of both animal and human attributes, encapsulating the Mesopotamian belief in the attainment of power through the combining of the physical attributes of different species.

In 1931, New York art dealer Joseph Brummer came to possess the figure after reporting its discovery at a site near Baghdad. In 1948, the piece was purchased by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Park Martin. As a trustee and President of the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Martin had the object—along with other artifacts from his family’s collection—displayed at the museum, and kept them there on a long term loan.

In 2007, the Martin family took the object—their family property—off of loan with the intent to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction house. At this point, it was one of the last antiquities of its age and type still in private hands. Here is a video of the Executive VP of the Sotheby’s auction house discussing the Lioness; they’ve disabled embedding, but I really encourage you to click through to it.

On December 5, 2007, the piece sold to an anonymous British bidder for nearly $57.2 million, setting a world record (which has since been broken) for an antiquity sold through an auction house.

Because the purchaser was anonymous, nobody is quite sure on the location of this artifact. Perhaps the individual has private conservators, perhaps they do not; there is no way of knowing. What we can know for sure, however, is that this item is not available to the public.

The Bust of Nefertiti, Germany, and Egypt

Nefertiti was the wife of the controversial 18th Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV. Akhenaten and Nefertiti lived during the thirteenth century BCE, and were responsible for the move of the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The site of Amarna was excavated by Ludwig Borchardt of the German Oriental Institute from 1912 to 1914.

The Bust of Nefertiti

On December 6, 1912, the artifact known as the Bust of Nefertiti was excavated. It is 3300 years old, and it is a highly prized, if not unique piece because, unlike the majority of Egyptian sculpture, the Bust contains facial detailing.* After finding the Bust in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, Borchardt wrote in his diary that “Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

In 1913 Borchardt met with Egyptian officials to discuss the division of the artifacts unearthed in the Amarna dig. What took place in this meeting was not recorded until 1924. The secretary of the German Oriental Institute who had taken it upon himself to record it wrote that Borchardt had concealed the value of the Bust from Egyptian officials in order to “save the bust for us.”

He reported that Borchardt had shown the officials misleading photographs of the piece, and had given them inaccurate information about the material used to create the piece.

Following the meeting, the Bust was shipped to Germany, and entered into the custody of James Simon, the sponsor of the excavation. Simon donated it to the Berlin Museum in 1920, and it was put on display to the public in 1924. Upon its 1924 unveiling, Egyptian officials immediately demanded that the artifact be returned. In 1925, Egypt threatened to ban German excavations unless it was returned.

In 1933, Hermann Goring considered returning the Bust to King Farouk Fouad of Egypt, but Hitler opposed the idea, saying he would “never relinquish the head of the Queen.” The Bust remained on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin until the museum closed in 1939 at the onset of the World War II. At that point, all Berlin museums were emptied, and artifacts were moved to secure areas for safekeeping. The Bust was moved around to multiple safe locations over the course of that war, and it was taken into custody by American troops in March of 1945.

The United States—which had had the Bust in display at the U.S. Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden beginning in 1946—returned the Bust to West Berlin in 1956, at which point it was put on display at the Dahlem Museum. East Germany was unhappy with the move; they’d wanted the Bust returned to the Neues Museum, which had been badly damaged by an Allied bombing in 1943.

During the 1950’s, Egypt had attempted to re-open negotiations, but Germany was unresponsive and the United States simply told them to take it up with the German authorities.

The Bust was moved around several times after this. In 1967 it was moved to the Egyptian Museum in Charlottenburg, in 2005 it was moved to the Altes Museum, and it was moved back to the Neues Museum upon its 2009 reopening.

Zahi Hawass, the former The Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, spent a great deal of the 21st century working to have the artifact returned to Egypt. He held that the Bust had been illegally removed from the country, and in 2005 he asked UNESCO to intervene. In 2007 he threatened to ban exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts in Germany if they would not lend the Bust to Egypt. He also called for a worldwide boycott on loans to German museums.

Within Germany, cultural groups and a fair few academics believe that the Bust should be returned to Egypt. In 2007, an organization called CulturCooperation based out of Hamburg handed out postcards depicting the Bust with the words “Return to Sender” written on them. They also wrote an open letter to the German Culture Minister, Bernd Neumann, regarding the Bust. Other groups within Germany hold that the Bust has become a definitive part of German culture, while German art experts refute the claims that the Bust was illegally removed from Egypt.

In the midst of these debates, German conservation experts raised the concern that the Bust is simply too fragile to survive a move to Egypt. Dietrich Wildung, head of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, stated that “the structure of Nefertiti’s material, plaster over limestone, is very sensitive.” If the Bust were to be returned to Egypt, it is possible that it would not survive the journey.

*Facial and other such detailing may be found on the majority of the art produced during the Amarna period.

The Euphronios Krater, UNESCO, and Illegal Excavations

A krater is a decorative bowl the Ancient Greeks used to mix wine with water. Euphronius—an Athenian vase painter active in the late 6th, and early 5th century BCE—was a highly influential painter, and was instrumental in the transition from the Late Archaic style of vase art to the Early Classical style. Euphronios and about six other contemporary artists—known by art historians as the Pioneer Group—revolutionized the red figure vase painting technique (as seen pictured above).

There are 27 vases painted by Euphronius currently in existence, and the Euphronios Krater is the most renowned example of his work due to the brightness of its colors and the fact that it is completely intact. It is also remarkable in that it was signed by both Euphronios and the potter, Euxitheos.

In 1972, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr. sold the Krater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1.2 million. Hecht claimed to have acquired the piece from a Lebanese dealer named Dikran Sarrafian, whose family had owned the piece since 1920.

Because he had documentation to verify this, the Met deemed his custody of the Krater legal under the standards put in place by UNESCO in 1970 (see below), and concluded that their purchase too would be legal. The Italian government was immediately suspicious, as it suspected that the Krater had been acquired through an illegal excavation, but they could not prove anything at that point in time.

The UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, in highly simplified terms, set into law that any cultural object which had been stolen or illegally excavated after 1970 had to be returned to its country of origin. Every country which ratified the Convention had to follow these terms regardless of the year at which it was ratified. Italy ratified it in 1978, and the United States ratified it in 1983. You can read the full text of the Convention, including the set definition of “cultural property,” here.

The installation of this law caused museums, archives, and dealers to pay much better attention to the documentation of objects they wished to acquire into their collections. If they could not verify that the object had been acquired legally after 1970, or they could not verify the provenance of objects held in private hands before 1970, the repository would not accept the item. As you may imagine, this only resulted in the creation of very impressive forgeries of documents.

Which brings us back to the Euphronios Krater. Despite the Italian government’s continued belief that the Krater had been illegally excavated, the Met would not discuss the issue until 2001. Between 2001 and 2005 it came to light that Hecht had not purchased the piece from Dikran Sarrafian, but had knowingly purchased it from a network of illegal excavators headed by Italian art dealer Gaicomo Medici. The Krater has been illegally excavated from an Etruscan tomb in 1971, and smuggled out of the country by Hecht shortly thereafter.

Hecht is currently standing trial on allegations of trafficking illicit antiquities, and Medici’s court hearings began in 2005. In 2006, after all of this had come to light, talks between the Met and the Italian government started up again, and in January of 2008, the Krater was returned to Italian soil.

The Elgin Marbles: Needs Subtitle

The Elgin Marbles are sculptures housed in the British Museum, which once adorned the Athenian Parthenon. They were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord of Elgin and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in 1803, and have been on display in the British Museum since 1816. In 1981, it became a stated goal of the Greek Cultural Minister to repatriate them to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

The Parthenon after centuries of worship, war, and imperialism

The Parthenon was constructed between 447 and 438 BCE and served as a temple of Athena. Like many ancient religious sites, the Parthenon continued on through the centuries as a center of worship; it was used as a church in the Byzantine period, and as a mosque after the fifteenth century Ottoman conquest.

Though the Parthenon underwent the expected wear and tear of the centuries, it wasn’t until the 1680s that it was actually damaged when undergoing fire from Venetian troops.

Elgin began his ambassadorial career in 1799 and remained in the post of British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1803. Like many men of his class, he had a passion for antiquities—particularly for those of the Classical Greek persuasion—and jumped at the chance to reside in such an exotic locale.

Busy with his ambassadorial duties, Elgin appointed a team led by his private secretary, Philip Hunt, to represent his interests in Athens. Hunt’s job was to organize digs in the Acropolis area, and remove inscriptions and reliefs from the site. Elgin’s team received permission from the Ottoman government to carry out said activities.

Hunt interpreted the decree to mean that it allowed for the removal of sculptures from the structure of the Parthenon itself, and persuaded the governor of Athens to share this interpretation. Elgin, believing that the Ottoman government was indifferent towards the survival of the sculptures, supported this. As the sculptures were being removed, Elgin’s team further damaged the sculptures by cutting them into smaller pieces in order to more easily remove them.

Detailing from the Elgin Marbles

Their removal was controversial even at the time. Elgin had the marbles shipped to England in 1803, and, unable to shed the stigma attached to them, stored them in a damp shed for thirteen years.

Parliament purchased the marbles in 1816, and promptly deposited them in the British Museum. They have been there ever since.

Gallery of the British Museum where the marbles are on display

Greek rhetoric on the subject of the Marbles is deeply emotional, speaking of them in terms of children being violently removed from their family, and national heritage being mutilated. Greece has accused the British Museum of further damaging the marbles through harmful cleaning processes, further exacerbating the dialogue surrounding the issue.

Though this post focuses on the pieces residing in the British Museum, other sculptures from the Parthenon are in the Louvre, Copenhagen, Italy, and around half are in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is the eventual goal of the Greek government to reunite all of the sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum, pictured below.

The Greek National Archaeological Museum

The British Museum, along with a consortium of major museums across the world, has stated that repatriation would set a very damaging precedent for the global museum system. It has also been argued that, after 200 years of British residency, the Marbles have become a part of British culture.

The debate is ongoing.

Hatshepsut the Female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut was the only female ruler of Ancient Egypt to assume the title of Pharaoh. While Egypt certainly had other sole female rulers, none of them took up that title.

To enforce her title of Pharaoh, Hatshepsut wore the ceremonial beard and appeared in full (male) Pharaonic costume. She had statues cast of herself in that costume to ensure that that vision of her would endure.

The first image, a bust, shows Hatshepsut with the pharaonic beard, but with decidedly feminine features. Whereas, in the second image, a close-up of a statue, she is shown with much more generic (in terms of Egyptian statuary), male features.

Hatshepsut was the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. She had been the principal wife of the Pharaoh Thutmose II. When he died, his only son was Thutmose III who he’d had with Aset, a minor wife. Because Hatshepsut had been Thutmose II’s principal wife, she served as regent for Thutmose III starting in 1479 BCE.

However, Hatshepsut seized the throne for herself and did not relinquish it to Thutmose III when he came of age. She insisted on being referred to as the king, and had her daughter, Neferura, given the title of God’s Wife and portrayed in art as her queen.

After about 20 years, Hatshepsut disappeared from the records. This coincided with Thutmose III’s regaining of the throne. It does not seem that he had Hatshepsut killed; it is likely that the respect accorded to queen mothers in the region kept him from executing her. However, he worked very hard to have her name and likeness removed from as many monuments as possible.

Hatshepsut was a very successful ruler–both economically and militarily–and commissioned many impressive building projects. Including this temple, called the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut:

This temple is located on the west bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings; it is dedicated to the sun god Amun-Ra. The sculptures and reliefs in this temple tell the story of the divine birth of the first female Pharaoh. In commissioning those reliefs Hatshepsut was presenting herself as a living god, just as male pharaohs did.