|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 March 2001
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The leaning colossi of ThebesThe two massive statues which once marked the entrance of a now-vanished mortuary temple are tilting. Are the famous colossi in danger of collapse? Jill Kamil looks into work being carried out on the Theban necropolis and the call for financial support
Sadly weathered by time, their faces damaged by shot from the soldiers of Napoleon's army who used them for target practice, the Colossi of Memnon are two gigantic seated statues which once guarded the entrance of the huge mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt from 1386 to 1349 BC.
The leaning Colossus of Memnon (the northern statue) was a tourist attraction in Roman times as it is today, Art reached an unprecedented degree of perfection in the age of Amenhotep III, as is evident from this carved head (left) in Luxor Museum
The statues, which are of very hard sandstone, were originally more than 20 metres high, the feet alone three metres long. Today they are so dilapidated that their artistic merit lies in their imposing appearance, rising so majestically above the fields of wheat and sugar cane. They have been a tourist attraction for thousands of years, and busloads of travellers to the necropolis usually stop beside them to take photographs.
In 1989 it was observed that the colossi were tilting markedly to the south, and an archaeological survey was rapidly carried out in collaboration with the Faculty of Geology of Cairo University to assess how serious the situation was. Were the statues in danger of collapse? Would they tilt at an increasing angle until they vied with the Leaning Tower of Pisa for news interest? That winter UNESCO added the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III to its list of the world's 100 most endangered monuments.
In the 1989-90 season Rainer Stadelmann, director of the German Institute of Archaeology, made a photogrammatic survey of the colossi, much like the one carried out some years ago at the Sphinx in Giza. It revealed that the statues were, happily, in no immediate danger of collapse.
However, excavating the area around the statues in order to determine the condition of the soil necessitated digging through three metres of Nile silt. This had been deposited since the earliest survey made in 1832 by Gardner Wilkinson of Kom Al-Hettan -- the site of the mortuary temple -- and the plan drawn up by Lepsius in 1884-85. As the latest technological equipment probed the ruins it was discovered, much to the surprise of the experts, that this largest of all temples on the Theban necropolis, its massive pylons, columns and walls of enormous scale, were built on no more than a bed of sand.
It appeared that Amenhotep III's monument, designed to perpetuate his cult forever, may not have succumbed to violent seismic activity as had earlier been supposed. Rather, it may have been destroyed by a particularly high flood. If so, it was not an earthquake that caused those mighty pylons to topple and the columns to crack, but the force and power of good old Father Nile. The temple simply bent under its own weight.
It was, therefore, no difficult task for subsequent Pharaohs -- in particular Merenptah, son of Ramses II -- to pick up the fallen stones and use them to construct his own mortuary temple. This was not as sacrilegious as it sounds: countless of his forebears had done the same thing. He even usurped a splendid black granite stela so he might cut his own inscription on the back. Soon, little was left except for the two gigantic statues.
The Greeks and Romans were among the first foreign tourists to marvel at these. They thought the figures, seated in stately isolation in the fertile plain, represented Memnon, a legendary son of Aurora, goddess of the dawn. Memnon had slain Antilochus during the Trojan War, and had himself finally fallen at the hands of Achilles, so when the northern statue was split by an earthquake in 27 AD and began emitting a musical note at sunrise, Roman visitors explained it as Memnon greeting his mother Aurora. The colossi became a tourist attraction for visitors from all over the Roman world, as attested to by the geographer Strabo and the exiled Juvenal.
Travellers visiting Egypt made a special point of going to see and hear the marvel, sometimes staying several days to be absolutely sure that they did, for on some mornings Memnon remained annoyingly silent. Numerous Greek and Latin inscriptions on the base, feet and legs of the colossi attest to visits by important personages, including eight Roman governors of Egypt. The oldest inscription dates from the reign of Nero in the middle of the first century, and the last from that of Septimius Severus, who had the northern statue repaired in 199 AD, and thus rendered it mute.
The statues represent Amenhotep III, one of Egypt's greatest kings, who lived at a time when economic conditions were sound. Trade was flourishing, with wealth pouring in from the distant provinces of the empire -- which comprised almost all western Asia including Palestine, Syria, Phoenicia, the western part of the Euphrates, Nubia, Kush and Libya. It was an era when caravans brought such luxuries to Egypt as gold and silver, metalwork, ivory and timber, spices for the royal palate and strange and exotic animals to roam in private estates. The temples were bursting with tribute, walls and columns were decorated with rich colours, feasts and festivals were bountiful.
Amenhotep ruled in splendour. He had relatively little to concern him politically, apart from a Nubian revolt which was easily quelled. He built great monuments, among them the temple of Soleb in Nubia and Luxor temple, which he constructed on the site of a modest sanctuary. He completed the temple of Mut at Karnak begun by his ancestors and built a palace at Malkata on the necropolis, with an enormous artificial lake more than 1,700m long and 500m wide; and, between Luxor and Karnak temples, he laid out beautiful gardens, lining the avenue with ram-headed sphinxes carved in stone, each with a statue of himself between its forepaws.
How splendid must have been the solemn processions and dazzling ceremonies which passed along this majestic avenue. Amenhotep entrusted his own mortuary temple to none other than the brilliant architect "Amenhotep son of Hapu," who was deified in Ptolemaic times. He chose to construct the two statues for the entrance to the temple in quartzite, which he transported from the quarries on eight barges on the Nile during the annual flood. The northern statue, which is in a better state of repair, shows Amenhotep seated in majesty, flanked by his mother Metamwa and his wife Tiy. On each side of the seat are representations of two Nile-gods binding the papyrus and lotus, symbols of Lower and Upper Egypt, around the hieroglyph for "unite."
Perhaps the greatest loss to Thebes, both from the archaeological and the artistic points of view, is the almost total disappearance of this great temple. It seems we can blame both a natural cause -- the flood, and a human one -- vandalism, ancient and modern. Just listen to the words transcribed from the stela by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, in which Amenhotep gives us a vivid and splendid picture of his mortuary temple:
Behold, the heart of His Majesty (i.e. I myself) was satisfied with making a very great monument; never has happened the like since the beginning (of time). He made it as his monument for his father Amun -- an august temple ... an eternal, everlasting fortress of fine white sandstone, wrought with gold throughout; its floor is adorned with silver, all its portals with electrum; it is made very wide and large, and established for ever ... It is numerous in royal statues, of elephantine granite, of costly gritstone, of every splendid, costly stone ... Its lake is filled with the great Nile, Lord of fish and fowl ... a store-house is filled with male and female slaves, with children of the princes of all the countries of the captivity of His Majesty. Its storehouses contain all good things, whose number is not known. It is surrounded with settlements of Syrians, colonised with children of princes, its cattle are like the sand of the shore; they make up millions.
Imagine such Arabian Nights splendour long before mediaeval times. Picture the kings of Babylon, Mitanni and Assyria in communication with Egypt, where "gold was as common as dust." Picture them sending their sons to be educated alongside Egyptian princes in the royal palace at Malqatta on the Theban necropolis.
Statues and sphinxes from the time of Amenhotep adorn the museums of the world. Modern travellers, adventurers, explorers and scholars took their pick, and the masterpieces are in the British Museum, the Louvre, St Petersburg, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Berlin Egyptian Museum and the Luxor Museum. The work is distinctive. The sculptors who fashioned the works sometimes perpetuated stylistic tendencies of earlier reigns, but there appears to have been a school of artisans working near the mortuary temple who created a new type of sculpture in which facial features were reduced to a few stylised details. The king's long narrow eyes, for example, are completely encircled by lid folds, his lips are sensuous, and his brows are slightly downturned. His elegant statues and sphinxes anticipate the sculpture of the so-called Amarna period. The fine head of the Pharaoh in the Luxor Museum, excavated by the late Egyptologist Labib Habachi in the mid 1950s, is a fine example of his period.
When the 1989-1990 survey of the colossi was completed, the mission continued to excavate and identify the locations of the pylons and other architectural elements. Statues, or parts of them, were lifted out of the accumulated mud, cleaned and placed in what will eventually become an open air museum. Work might have continued at the same pace, had not a devastating fire brought attention to the area.
The blaze was probably caused when an attempt was made by well-meaning local farmers to curtail the growth of a fast-spreading and deep-rooted weed, halfa grass, which springs up as quickly as it can be cut down. It is a sturdy weed, difficult to control, and it is almost impossible to excavate when it is around. Setting it alight caused serious damage to the monuments, both from the dense smoke and the heat, which was so intense that some of the beautifully-inscribed stone elements split.
It was clear that, although the weed problem had to be addressed, burning was no solution. Nor was the use of chemicals to curb its growth, since that would inevitably have a disastrous effect on the ancient monuments, and on agriculture too. It soon became clear that if this great monument were to be protected and conserved, a "rescue operation" of greater magnitude was called for. Such a mission was set in motion in the 1998-1999 season. This time, Rainer Stadelmann worked together with Hourig Sourouzian of the German Archaeological Institute, supported by the World Monument Fund.
Their impressive work is now being continued as an Egyptian-European mission, working under the umbrella of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, with archaeologists, restorers, and technicians from Egypt, France, Germany and Spain hard at work.
Long gone are the days of plunder, when the British Consul Salt and his agents Belzoni and Yanni Athanasi shipped the quartzite heads of the colossal statues of Amenhotep III abroad -- that was before there was any control on the shipment of antiquities. Long gone, too, are the excavations of the Service of Antiquities under Labib Habachi who, back in 1949, first suggested to the Swiss Institute of Archaeology that something should be done to save the mortuary temples on the Theban necropolis.
And so today, in this era of advanced technology, "salvage archaeology" is being carried out on the Theban necropolis as it was earlier carried out during the UNESCO campaign to save the monuments of Nubia in the 1960s. But salvage archaeology is costly, and funds are urgently needed to continue the work.
A team led by Horst Yaritz of the Swiss Institute of Archaeology is identifying blocks usurped from the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III and reused in the construction of the mortuary temple of Merenptahits. An open-air museum of the restored objects is being set up. Following a presentation by Sourouzian on this work at the Merenptahits temple, Gaballa Ali Gaballa, chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, commented that the danger to the monuments on the Theban necropolis was serious, and was caused by the stabilisation of the Nile after the High Dam was built. The higher average water-table was damaging the monument through seepage and salt erosion, and causing progressive deterioration. "There is no easy solution," he says. "We must do all we can to save the monuments while there is still time."
Kom Al-Hettan: The Mortuary Temple of Thutmose III
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