Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 November 2005
Issue No. 768
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hourig Sourouzian

Hourig Sourouzian: Resurrection

The Colossi of Memnon, two lonely sentinels, have greeted visitors to the Theban necropolis since Roman times. More recently, as you look beyond the seated monoliths, a temple can be seen progressively re-emerging from what, to an unprofessional eye, earlier appeared as no more than slight elevations and depressions in the packed earth. In this age of advanced technology, what is officially known as The Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project, simply "Memnon/Amenhotep III Project", under the auspices of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), is casting light on a great monument that was swept away soon after its completion. "Despite the difficulty of our task," announces Hourig Sourouzian -- Egyptologist, art historian and project director -- "I feel wonderfully privileged to be working on this project."
Interview by Jill Kamil

Summer is over. A new archaeological season is underway. And of the many missions, local and international, commencing work at Luxor, the Memnon/Amenhotep III Project is unquestionably the most extraordinary. To put it in Sourouzian's words, "whereas in other monuments we are in presence of walls, sometimes even ceilings, but nothing from the temple furniture remains -- no statues, stelae, altars, etc. -- what we have at this site is exactly the opposite; parts of the equipment and remains of statues survive, and their positions give us a clue to the locations of pylons and walls that are no longer there." Such thinking reflects the general assumption that the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III (1387-1348 BC), of which the colossi are part, was totally swept away by a particularly high flood or an earthquake some time after its completion. All that remained were collapsed pylons, walls, columns and statues, some of which were re-used by later Pharaohs for their own temples, or collected by modern travellers and scholars. The ruin was subsequently obscured -- all, that is, but for the seated colossi, solitary relics of the Pharaoh's Golden Era -- and, a quarter of a mile to the rear, a sandstone stelae inscribed with a dedicatory text.

The magnitude of this ancient catastrophe is best assessed by placing its construction in historical context. Amenhotep III reaped the benefits of his predecessors' conquests and Thebes was at the peak of its glory during his long reign. With economic conditions sound, wealth pouring in from the distant reaches of the Egyptian empire, temples were bursting with tributes which the Pharaoh embellished with new life. He also constructed new ones, entrusting his own mortuary temple to his chief architect Amenhotep son of Hapu. "Kom Al-Hettan (the relevant part of the Theban necropolis) has been subjected to several archaeological campaigns in the past, but it has never been systematically excavated and mapped," Sourouzian recounts. "Blocks, stelae and columns were dug up by early archaeologists, but no provision was made for their conservation. In 1989 it was feared that the Colossi of Memnon were tilting markedly to the south; and the following year, at the request of the SCA, a photogrammatic survey of the seated statues was carried by R Stadelmann, then director of the German Archaeological Institute. It was reassuring to note that the statues were not under threat of collapse as was feared. However, some years later, in the temple proper, a devastating fire erupted in the area of the Peristyle Court..."

We were in Sourouzian's apartment in Zamalek, one of those large 1930s buildings with ancient lifts, lofty ceilings and thick walls. I had suggested we meet at the German Institute but she recommended her home, "where I have all my material". She met me at the door and guided me into an enormously long room which proved to be three adjacent rooms whose connecting walls had been knocked down. "That's Rainer's work area over there," she said pointing to the far end of the room where her husband, Egyptologist Rainer Stadelmann, had a well-organised space near the window. "This is mine," she led me to the centre, where glass doors gave onto a narrow balcony. Cleverly arranged work spaces had their own book cases, desks, folders, files, lamps, and the technological paraphernalia that goes into research. Yet they flow into one another through the ingenious placement of paintings, statues, and antique clocks: "Rainer loves clocks." No sooner were we seated, refreshments ordered, than she launched into the subject of her interest, exuding a great love for Egypt especially.

"No archaeological missions, apart from some spasmodic interventions by the SCA, had worked within the temple proper for decades, and with the irrigation of the surrounding fields, salt from subterranean water, vegetation, and fire, the last remains of the great mortuary temple of Amenhotep III was under threat of total destruction. Our project started shortly after the fire. See," she goes on, opening a photograph album, "how some of the beautifully inscribed stones had split from the heat. Reliefs were destroyed, serious damage was caused by heat and dense smoke." Sourouzian, a woman of action, shared this concern with her Egyptian colleagues. "In 1997, with the backing of professors Gaballa A Gaballa and Sabri Abdel-Aziz, we applied for emergency conservation to the SCA. A year later, the site of Kom Al-Hettan was included in the list of the world's 100 most endangered monuments by the World Monuments Watch, and with a grant by the World Monuments Fund, we started emergency conservation." Hourig Sourouzian, whom I have known for years, is a unique polyglot -- fluent in her native Armenian, French, English, German and Arabic. Congenial and always well turned out, she never fails to express herself passionately.

"In 1998-99, a multinational team was formed to start emergency work and draw up a long-term project, and in 2000 we embarked on a really ambitious plan to produce a detailed archaeological and topographical study of the area in the form of maps. Our aim is to preserve whatever we can of the entire temple complex, stabilise and conserve its remains as much as possible, build an on-site museum, move tourist buses a safe distance away, and prepare a tourist circuit to present the temple with dignity to the visitors." Her tone was quiet yet assertive -- the secret to her appeal in the lecture hall. "For any conservation plan, the first step is full documentation, for which it is necessary to excavate and identify remains, as well as the locations of the disappeared pylons of the temple and other architectural elements. We lifted statues, or parts of them, out of the accumulated mud..." To create something out of nothing seemed like a daunting task, and when I mentioned this Sourouzian explained that the earlier stage of documentation is to observe: "You have to identify the fragmented remains, record the state of conservation, note anomalies; for example, we recognised that what might appear as a shapeless block of stone was a seated colossus that had fallen on its flank, or a quartzite stone might be a part of a statue. We also looked for monuments seen in the past -- and no longer visible on the site.

"Last year, our mission concentrated on lifting the huge torso of the northern colossus of the Second Pylon of the temple," a 450-tonne structure, "with the help of air cushions. First it was raised to a height of nearly two metres above the level where it had fallen, and then by another 3.12 metres. Decorated parts of the colossus were treated by a conservation team, and on completion of the work, the whole thing was wrapped in fabric to prevent the action of sun, salt and vandalism over the holiday season." The process, difficult to visualise, becomes clearer as she produces colour photographs of the proceedings during the 18 November to 16 December, 2004 season: "The bags are made of a very strong plastic material, re-enforced from the inside with stainless steel and aramide strings. Before installing a cushion, a pocket is carefully excavated under the edge of the statue, and a solid foundation is prepared, consisting of a layer of gravel, sand and then wooden planks. On this we place the flat cushion, surmounted by cylindrical bags filled with sand to protect the stone and to fill in gaps..." Sourouzian uses the royal "we" while it is in fact she herself who directs a large team of specialists and workers: Egyptologists, archaeologists, conservators, stone-masons, a biologist, geologist, photographers, archivists as well as part-time specialists in epigraphy, geophysik, geotechnik and pottery: "We have 30 team members of 12 nationalities, all under the auspices of SCA and supervised by Egyptian inspectors. And we have finer conservation methods today then archaeologists had 30 years ago -- resistivity and magnetrometric surveys to define the limits of the temple precincts."

Will funding be sustained for all that Sourouzian envisions? She leans back, smiling: "We have to work hard, and continuously, for fund raising, you know. We have become professional application-writers for resources. We could not remain indifferent to the progressive destruction of this very prestigious and huge temple so we applied to the World Monuments Watch, and gained an important grant from the World Monuments Fund." A high-profile committee of subscribers was drawn up, she added: "Our project gained a generous donation by Madame Monique Hennessy through the Association des Amis des Colosses de Memnon, the continuous efforts of Monsieur Fouquet, vice-president of the association; lately, Frderverein Memnon founded by Dr Ursula Lewenton, gave us a generous donation of equipment to lift colossal statuary." She paused and smiled again: "The Memnon/ Amenhotep III Project was selected again last year, 2004, by the same World Monuments Watch, and thanks to the grants of Robert W Wilson's 'Challenge to Conserve our Heritage', Jack A Josephson, a supporter of the World Monuments Fund, and one by the ARCE/AEF, we have been able to move ahead with emergency conservation and plans for a dewatering project." Aware of the difficulty and necessity of fund raising, I sympathised with Sourouzian's need to give credit where credit was due: "Many people have supported our work; we are particularly grateful for the enthusiastic and constant support of the minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, and the chairman of the SCA, Zahi Hawass, who both visit our site regularly and follow the progress of our work."

As orange juice arrived, I asked about Sourouzian's background, reminding her of our first encounter at the German Archaeological Institute, when I had mistaken her for an Egyptian. "My father's family was massacred by the Turks in 1915," she said. "He was the only survivor and was taken to a Syrian orphanage where he met the daughter of another survivor who had married and had children there... It's all very sad and complicated -- the Diaspora. I was actually born in Baghdad," Sourouzian seemed disinclined to continue along this path. Easier to talk about academic credentials -- or rather glance through the CV printout she has fetched for me: Egyptology and art history in the Louvre and a PhD from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. "I studied classical Arabic at the Ecole des Langues Orientales in Paris," she supplied, in addition, "and it's a language which I like very much." Unusual among Egyptologists in that her principal field is neither philology nor archeology but art history, Sourouzian felt she was filling a gap in the study of "pure Pharaonic art" by studying its development from the First Dynasty onwards, when the statuary of Ramses II, in particular, brought her to Egypt. Matching the remains of statues in one temple with the contents of another, "I observed that much of the royal statuary of the 19th Dynasty was from earlier periods. It was a challenge to trace, through artistic characteristics, whether a monument was a re-used work of art from the Middle Kingdom or original. I managed to demonstrate that the pair of red granite standing royal colossi at Mit Rahina are original works of Sesostris I from the Middle Kingdom, which were later inscribed and re-used by Ramses II."

A jigsaw puzzle? "This is three-dimensional," she dismisses the suggestion. "You know which pieces fit together from long study, experience, a sense of touch, an eye, and knowledge of your subject. Anyway," she adds, "I never did puzzles as a child, rather I built wood houses or solved logic problems and games in my parents' newspapers." So too with re- building a statue: "Each piece placed in position is a piece of art saved from oblivion, one piece less on a shelf or in the ground, to be lost and forgotten." But why were statues re- used in the first place? In some cases, she explained, certainly, to revive the cult attached to the monument "as an act of piety, a receptacle for offerings... You can imagine that such powerful rulers as Ramses II had all the quarries of Egypt and all the royal workshops at their convenience. Why would they bother re-using an earlier work if it is not to renew its cult and save it from destruction?" Is re-building more exciting than other aspects of the job? "Every stage is exciting, but one of my most thrilling moments was when I discovered the statue of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III, lying on her side in the mud near the Second Pylon beneath the collapsed colossus of the Pharaoh. When I saw her face and legs I stopped breathing." The queen once stood to the right of the Pharaoh's throne, and her statue, including crown and feathers, measures 3.25m in height. "As we progressed with the excavation of this extraordinarily beautiful statue, of high artistic quality, water had constantly to be pumped out of the ground..."

Plans for the present, 2005/2006 archaeological season, include provisions for dewatering the temple precinct starting the area of the Peristyle Court, where trial trenches have been carried out in preparation for the project. Underground water remains a serious problem, and any comprehensive site management or long-term conservation plan will fail so long as the site continues to be threatened by leakage, salt, growth of vegetation, fire, and bacterial damage: "Once the Peristyle Court is completely excavated, mapped and conserved, it will be the first part of the temple open to visitors, with space reserved for statuary in a kind of modern open-air museum". It was at this point that the doorbell rang. And on Al-Ahram Weekly photographer Sherif Sonbol joining us, suddenly and unexpectedly, Sourouzian was shy. "Look at what I do," she tells him as he attempts to reposition her, seeking the most favourable angle, "not what I look like."

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