Could the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III be returning to something like its original splendour after 3,200 years in ruins, asks Nevine El-Aref
At Wadi Al-Hittan on Luxor’s west bank, the two lonely Colossi of Memnon are seated, greeting visitors to the Theban necropolis. However, last week things were different from usual, as the temple that the monoliths once safeguarded is progressively re-emerging from oblivion for the first time since its collapse 3,200 years ago after a massive earthquake.
The originally awe-inspiring temple of the pharaoh Amenhotep III now appears as just slight elevations and depressions in the packed earth, with blocks, statues and fragments scattered across the surface. However, three of the temple’s original pylons can now be discerned, along with the statues and stelae that decorated its different courts.
The efforts exerted by the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project (CMATCP) and the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) under the supervision of Egyptologist Hourig Sourouzian may be making the dream of the reconstruction of the lost temple come true.
The temple was built throughout the 38 years of the pharaoh’s reign in the first half of the 14th century BCE. Some 150 years later, it was toppled after a destructive earthquake hit the country around 1,200BCE.
The site was then used as a quarry, and most of the blocks and decorative elements were re-used in the construction of surrounding temples and structures.
Later, the remains of the temple were regularly subjected to floods and it was covered with the alluvial layers of the Nile.
In the 19th century, collectors scoured the site, taking away several royal statues, smaller divine effigies and statues of the goddess Sekhmet. These are now dispersed in the hands of private collectors or exhibited at museums abroad.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Egyptian Antiquities Service of the time inspected the site, and more recently work was carried out there in collaboration with the Swiss Institute in 1964 and 1970, the results being published in 1981.
Since then, the site has been abandoned, and the visible remains of the temple have been in a poor state of conservation, submerged by water, invaded by vegetation or threatened by encroachment or vandalism.
In 1998, the CMATCP started a salvage operation at the temple in order to conserve the last remains of the ruined site and to mount the monuments in their original locations within the temple’s walls.
Over 16 archaeological seasons, excavation and conservation work was carried out and the architecture of this magnificent temple finally revealed. Last week, a number of Egyptian and foreign journalists, as well as archaeologists and government officials, flocked to the funerary temple in order to catch a glimpse of the new finds that the archaeologists were about to unveil, these suggesting the original plan of the temple.
Sourouzian explained that the now restored and re-erected colossi had suffered severe damage as they had lain in pieces for centuries in the fields, damaged by destructive earthquakes and later by irrigation water, salt, encroachment and possible vandalism.
The first new colossus shown to visitors was one found at the temple’s second pylon, 100 metres west of the Memnon colossi. It is carved in red quartzite and features Amenhotep III seated on the throne with his hands on his knees and wearing a pleated kilt about the waist with a belt decorated with zigzag lines.
On the king’s right stands a statue depicting his wife, queen Tiye, wearing a large wig and a long, tight-fitting dress. Beside his left leg is a missing statue of his mother, Queen Simataw. The throne itself is decorated on each side with scenes showing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
After its restoration, the body of the colossus, weighing 250 tons, was lifted up and re-erected in its original position on new concrete foundations. Over the past three years, other parts of the colossus have been inserted into the newly erected body of the statue, and a month ago the 16-ton head of the colossus was lifted up and fixed on its shoulders.
The colossus is some 11.5 metres tall on a base 1.5 metres high.
Further west beyond the temple’s second court, restoration work is continuing on a 14-metre alabaster monolithic colossus representing Amenhotep III seated at the gate of the temple’s third pylon.
The king is shown seated on a throne with his hands resting on his knees. Between the legs stands a 1.7-metre statue of his beloved daughter Iset, wearing a rounded wig and long, tight-fitting dress. Her arms are pressed against her body, and she holds a necklace in her right hand.
Her face is slightly damaged by erosion, and her feet are still missing. “It is a unique piece,” Sourouzian said, adding that there were few such alabaster statues of the period in existence in the world today.
Near the statue, an alabaster head considered to be part of its twin northern colossus was also found. Its nose, eyes and ears are intact, and some signs of restoration in antiquity can be seen.
“This is the most beautiful monumental head ever found, and it is very well conserved,” Sourouzian said, adding that the problem remained of reconstructing the colossi from the pieces that had been found.
For the northern one, the head had been found but much of the throne was missing. For the southern one, the throne had been found but the body and the head were missing. “Maybe one day we will find them,” Sourouzian said, adding that despite the difficulties both colossi will be raised next year.
At the southeast corner of the temple’s peristyle court, the head and feet of a standing red granite statue, found in 2006, were also on show. The 1.3-metre head shows the king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt and holding the royal insignia. “The statue will be completed with the body in the next season and will reach a height of eight metres,” promised restorer Miguel Lopez.
He continued that the statue belonged to an ensemble of similar pieces that had originally stood between the papyrus bundle columns surrounding the southern part of the court. A similar head taken in 1816 by the agents of the British consul in Egypt at the time is now on display at the Louvre in Paris.
At the northern gate of the temple precinct, a red quartzite colossus has been found and re-erected in its original position after several attempts at a salvage operation on it and its twin.
Both colossi are monoliths of quartzite hewn in the quarries of Gabal Al-Ahmar near ancient Heliopolis and transported to Thebes to stand outside the northern gate of the funerary temple of Amenhotep III.
The colossi represent the king walking forwards, holding a papyrus roll in each hand inscribed with the royal name. The king wears the white crown of Upper Egypt and a pleated kilt held at the waist by a large belt decorated with zigzag patterns and a rectangular clasp bearing an inscription with his name.
A dagger with a falcon-headed handle is inserted in the belt. The king also wears a broad collar around his neck.
Toppled in antiquity by an earthquake the two colossi fell in a southeastern direction and broke into several pieces, remaining lying down until earlier this year. The largest piece weighs 44 tons, and the total weight of each colossus is estimated to be 100 tons for a height including the base of 13 metres.
The colossi were described by archaeologists working on the French expedition in 1821, and then by the French archaeologist Champollion in 1828 and by the English archaeologist Wilkinson in 1835.
Later, they were rediscovered by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt in 1933, who asked archaeologist Mahmoud Darwish to uncover them in 1949. Archaeologist Labib Habashi re-studied the partly uncovered colossi and published his results in 1981 in cooperation with the Swiss Institute.
“Since then the colossi have been lying in privately owned fields,” Nairy Hampikian, field manager of the work at the site, told Al-Ahram Weekly. She said that the original ground level of the temple lay 2.5 metres below the actual surface of the fields and the stone was threatened by irrigation and salt penetration.
The CMATCP had applied to the SCA, now the MSA, to save the colossi. While the request was approved, delays over the ownership of the land had prevented the raising of the colossi until recently. In 2010, Hampikian said, a team from the MSA had uncovered the statues in an attempt to raise them, but the work had been interrupted in 2012 and irrigation water had filled the excavation area.
In 2013, a joint excavation team from the MSA and the CMATCP had again carried out excavations and succeeded in uncovering 73 pieces from the eastern colossus and 88 pieces from the western one. All the pieces were lifted by crane and moved to solid ground where they were documented and cleaned.
The eastern statue has now been lifted up, while the more fragmented western one with more missing parts is to be lifted up in autumn 2014.
Hampikian described the lifting work as “a big change in archaeology, which used to focus on research and publications.” However, having “invented a new trend [of lifting colossi], I hope this will be continued,” as the reconstructed statues had added to the area’s attractions.
The work would please the pharaoh as he contemplates it from eternity,” she added. “Reconstructing the colossi is very important, and it is a first in the history of archaeology,” Hampikian said, adding that a colossus of Ramses II has also lain for years in Memphis in the sand and this could also be ripe for re-erection.
“I am privileged to work at this site, and I am extremely happy because the results I see now are the fruit of years of hard work,” Sourouzian told the Weekly, adding that she hoped the work would be an example to other archaeologists that monuments can be restored, reassembled and shown to the public.
“My dream has finally come true,” Sourouzian said, adding that as a specialist on statuary she had used to feel devastated that the statues at the site were lying on the ground in a very poor condition.
In order to lift the colossi, 40 archaeologists and 250 workers had worked at the site, using an air-bag technique to lift the statues, the first time this had been used in Egypt.
The technique is used in accidents, for example when planes are lifted out of the soil in order not to injure people trapped inside. It had been introduced into Egypt by a German engineer, and a German association had donated money to buy the equipment.
“It is a very safe technique to use,” Sourouzian said, adding that it had successfully prevented any damage to the statues.
“Until now, the world only knew about the two Colossi of Memnon, but from now on they will know of five more colossi of Amenhotep III,” Sourouzian said. “This beautiful temple still has far more for us to study and conserve,” she added.
“The idea is to stop the dismantling of monuments and to keep pieces at their original sites.” In order for this to happen, more international funding is necessary. The ongoing work to conserve the Amenhotep III temple is entirely funded through private and international donations.
Gaetano Palumbo, programme director for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia at the World Monuments Fund (WMF), told the Weekly that the project had been selected by the WMF not only for its wide range of activities but also for the importance of the site and its findings.
The WMF had supported the project for ten years, though this year was the last year of support. The WMF had started its support through the draining of the peristyle court and had continued to support the excavation and conservation work.
Palumbo described the work achieved at the site as “fantastic” and said that the WMF would follow the ongoing work, hoping to find new donors in the future. “We have supported several projects in Egypt, at the Luxor Temple with Chicago House, with the French at the Karnak temples, and at Al-Darb Al-Ahmar in Cairo with the Aga Khan Foundation,” Palumbo said, who added that these projects had been completed and the WMF was looking forward to supporting more in the future.
He told the Weekly that the recent turmoil in Egypt had not been the reason for halting WMF support for archaeological projects in the country. The WMF was also supporting projects in Libya, Syria and Iraq, which had suffered significant unrest, he said.
However, he said that it was more difficult to find support for projects in “critical situations”.
“We are grateful to work in Egypt as one of the great civilisations of the past, and not only ancient Egypt, but also the Coptic and Islamic civilisations. We hope to continue work here and to find more sponsors to continue our work here,” he said.