How Pharaoh sailed to Karnak
New discoveries at Karnak Temple in Luxor have changed the landscape and the history of this great religious complex, writes Nevine El-Aref
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Clockwise from top: Ptolemaic bath with 16 seats; a stelae bearing the name of the 25th-Dynasty King Taharqa; the obelisk of Tuthmoses I at the eight pylons; restoration work at the Chapel of Osiris Neb-Ankh
History has a special scent and taste at Karnak Temple. The emotions it evokes are powerful and timeless. Inside the lofty pylons is amassed an unsurpassed assembly of soaring obelisks, awe-inspiring chapels and hushed sanctuaries reflecting the spectacular life and great civilisation of ancient Egypt. Although most of Karnak has been thoroughly excavated, the complex still conceals and occasionally reveals more of the Pharaohs' secrets and mysteries.
During 18 months of excavations at the front of the temple, Egyptian archaeologists have stumbled upon several important discoveries that are leading them to reconsider the history and plan of the temples. The discoveries have included a Ptolemaic ceremonial bath, a private ramp for the 25th-Dynasty Pharaoh Taharqa, a large number of bronze coins, an ancient dock and the remains of a wall that once protected the temples of Karnak from the rising Nile flood.
These discoveries came within the framework of the Karnak Development Project, which is aimed at protecting the temple from progressive infringements as well as restoring its monuments and removing all building encroachment from in front of the temple. It will also allow excavations to uncover the ancient harbour and canal that once connected the temple to the Nile. According to an old map, the ancient Egyptians used this canal to gain access to the west bank of the river in a position corresponding to Hatshepsut's Deir Al-Bahari Temple, which was built on the same axis.
The area of the so-called "madrasa" (religious school) 50 metres to the southwest of the first pylon has the appearance of an important archaeological zone. No less than three Egyptologists and two restorers are on site, along with 10 workmen who are removing with buckets the remaining sand of what was a massive sandstone embankment wall built some 3,000 years ago to reinforce the bank of the river, which has since moved. This is the first evidence that the Nile once ran alongside the temple.
The embankment is directed northwest/southeast, and thus far the excavations have revealed that it has been preserved at a height of more than 3.5 m for a length of nearly 15 m. It continues to the south under the road and to the north underneath a mosque. This portion is connected to the landing quay preserved in front of the first pylon. The wall has generally been interpreted as the eastern limit of a huge lake dug in front of the sanctuary and linked to the river by a channel.
"It is a very important discovery that changes the landscape of the whole of Luxor city," says Mansour Boraik, general supervisor of antiquities in Luxor. It also changes previously-held theories about the settlement of Luxor and the construction of the temple itself.
Boraik told Al- Ahram Weekly that the discovery of the embankment had changed the thinking about the features of the temple's ancient façade. Previous theories, based on depictions found in several 18th- Dynasty private tombs such as that of a top government official named Neferhotep, were based on the view that Karnak Temple was linked to the Nile by a canal through a rectangular pool dug in front of the temple. Boraik says this theory was supported by the uncovering in the 1970s of a small part of this embankment, which was assumed to be the back wall of the pool.
This theory held until December 2007, when Egyptian excavators found another part of the same wall several metres away from the first. "It is even too far off to be part of the enclosed basin," Boraik says.
Archaeologists now believe that the pool depicted in ancient drawings was backfilled in antiquity and that the temple was expanded on top of it, built out to the edge of where the Nile flowed 3,000 years ago.
The new theory has been backed by tests of the sediment at the base of the embankment wall, which show alternating levels of silt and sand that suggest running water once flowed there. Based on cartouches and other inscriptions found on the wall, experts believe that construction began in the 22nd Dynasty and was completed by the middle of the fourth century BC.
Boraik explained that a number of fragments of ceramic material from the 25th and 26th dynasties found in the foundations helped to date the construction. Some repairs to the higher part of the wall (the two upper levels) were certainly added at the end of the 30th Dynasty or during the Ptolemaic period. Consisting of segments of slightly differing orientations, it presents a sloped western face against which staircases were arranged. "These gave access to the water during the Nile's low period," Boraik says.
During the Ptolemaic era the zone to the west of this wall gradually silted up. An earthwork dating from the end of the Ptolemaic or the very beginning of the Roman period brought completion to the transformation of the trench. When no longer flooded, this zone became a viable and practical place to build.
Thus the wall lost its original function. Its higher part, still visible, was integrated into the new installations, influencing their orientation. The construction zone covered the whole excavated surface, which extends for more than 2,000 sq. metres. It seems that the zone was linked to ruins found in front of the first pylon. Several mud- and red-brick buildings have been found here. The thickness of the walls is variable, indicating various chambers or storerooms. On the eastern side were kilns or cisterns.
A number of Ptolemaic clay pots and pans were unearthed during excavations, among them a large jar containing 360 bronze coins dating from the Ptolemaic and Byzantine eras. Early studies on these coins have revealed that they were a local currency circulated only in Egypt and that they were stamped with images of the gods; Amun, Zeus and Isis.
One of the most important discoveries in the area was the remains of a great circular Ptolemaic bath with an intricate mosaic tiled floor and seating for 16 people, with some seats flanked by dolphin statuettes. Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the bath could be linked to some ancient brick structures located some 100 metres away and excavated by Jean Lauffray in the 1970s.
Hawass told the Weekly that recent excavations confirmed the presence of Ptolemaic and Roman installations in front of the first pylon, especially at the north end. The remains of the installation show that it was composed of quite remarkable elements, including a circular building containing a semi-circular row of seats with back stands. The seats were built of fired brick and coated with a thick layer of plaster. The depth of each one was 66 cm, and a circular piece of granite was placed on the foot. These seats were placed in a radiating pattern around a circular construction. A water tank, in very good condition, has been found on the west side of the seats and beyond the embankment. Also made of fired bricks and plastered on the inside, it measures 2.5x2m and is well preserved to a depth of 1.44m. On the west side of the floor is a step ending with circular slab of granite used for cleaning.
Hawass said that a dense canal system had been observed that was used for the drainage of wastewater. The main drain runs from east to west and then turns towards the south. After a bend, the channel is divided into two branches: the first, 0.46 metres wide and covered with fired brick, runs over the embankment to the west for a length of 2.70 metres. The second, equally well preserved, runs for 6.75 metres in a southwesterly direction.
A part of the second drain crosses the embankment for a length of 2.86 metres, and was cut into the surface of the embankment for a width of 0.2m and a depth of 0.28m.
To the north, a fired pipe consisting of a set of tiny cylinders fitted together runs from the water tank towards the east for 3.90 metres. The edge of the channel was protected by fired brick walls, which suggests the pipes may have carried hot water to the seats.
Hawass revealed that according to the preliminary investigations of the ceramics, the bath dated from the second century BC.
Egyptologist Tareq Al-Awadi, director of the Abusir archaeological site, said archaeologists had also found a giant ramp leading up to the temple complex and inscribed with the name of Pharaoh Taharqa, who ruled in the late seventh century BC. The ramp probably served as the ruler's personal dock area, extending directly into the Nile to allow the Pharaoh to transfer directly from his boat to the temple.
This raises the prospect that parts of ancient boats may still be buried in the old riverbed, including pieces of the gigantic ceremonial barges known to have carried images of the gods during religious processions.