The world’s greatest open air museum, the town of Luxor, is in the limelight this week. Archaeological work has been in full swing, and attempts are being made to conserve and preserve treasures from an important period in Egypt’s ancient history.
At the Karnak Temple complex on the east bank of the Nile, French archaeologists and restorers from the Centre FRANCO-Egyptien d’Étude des Temples de Karnak (CFEETK) have managed to reconstruct a unique limestone chapel built for Queen Hatshepsut and known as Netery Menu (The Divine Monument).
Limestone blocks from the chapel were first found at the beginning of the 20th century by French archaeologist George Legrain. They were among the gigantic statues of New Kingdom Pharaohs, queens, nobles and officials found in a cachette in a courtyard at Karnak, where they were stored in antiquity when they were no longer wanted. Another batch of blocks was uncovered in the mid-1950s during excavations carried out by Farid Al-Shabouri in the cachette. All the blocks were studied, restored and published by archaeologist Luc Gabolde in 2005.
According to the CFEETK reports, studies have revealed that numerous blocks of the chapel are still missing as they were cut into smaller fragments so they could be reused in the construction of other ancient structures in and outside Karnak. Other blocks were cracked or broken.
“It was therefore necessary to gather all the fragmented blocks for assembly and raise the great monument,” the report said. Consolidation and reconstruction began in 2009 and are now complete. The work included drilling, resin injections, the installation of dowels and the restitution of some laying faces. More than 30 blocks have been cleaned, while the missing ones have been replaced by new plain blocks composed of red bricks and lime mortar to present a complete vision of the chapel.
Mansour Boreik, supervisor of Luxor Antiquities, calls this a very important building for Karnak and for ancient Egyptian history, as it is one of the few monuments still surviving that attest explicitly to Hatshepsut’s power as a ruler before she came to the throne as Pharaoh. The chapel was constructed in limestone for the worship of the chief Theban deity, Amun-Re. It contains an open court and two inner halls embellished with blocks engraved with beautiful religious scenes depicting Hatshepsut before Amun-Re and with her husband Pharaoh Tuthmosis II, her daughter Neferur and cartouches of their names. Some blocks bear the name of Hatshepsut’s son, Tuthmosis III.
The chapel now stands in the Karnak open air museum alongside Hatshepsut’s red chapel, Senwosert I’s white chapel and Amenhotep I’s marble chapel as it waits for its official inauguration at the end of February.
At the footsteps of Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple on Luxor’s west bank there is a different scene. Workmen on the site supervised by foreign and Egyptian archaeologists are lifting up a pair of colossal statues of the Pharaohs in readiness to transport them almost 60km away to a more convenient place for restoration.
Both colossi were found in 2010 during routine excavation work carried out at the temple by the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project (CMATCP). They were lying in the passageway leading to the third pylon.
The head of CMATCP, Hourig Sourouzian, said the colossi once stood at the northern gate of the temple, 200 metres behind the only visible remnants of the temple before restoration, the colossi of Memnon, but collapsed and broke into several pieces during an earthquake in 27 BC. They were buried until 1933 when they were first uncovered, but remained in situ, covered with earth, until 2010 when the mission came across them. Sourouzian says the two colossi are the only ones of that size that have Pharaoh Amenhotep III seated on his throne, sporting the royal beard and wearing the nemes head dress and a pleated shendjyt kilt.
Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, deputy head of ancient Egyptian antiquities section at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), says both statues, which are carved in sand stone, have been moved to a dry area 60 metres away from the mortuary temple so they can be restored and conserved. The conservation project is aimed at returning both statues to their original aspect and condition by reassembling and consolidating all the fragments. The scenes and hieroglyphic texts engraved on the statue bases will be also cleaned and restored.
Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim described the statues as one of the most beautifully carved images of Pharaoh Amenhotep III known, and called it “a masterpiece of a royal portrait”. It shows the facial features of Pharaoh Amenhotep III with his almond eyes elongated with cosmetic bands, a small nose and a large mouth with wide lips outlined with a sharp ridge.