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Getting on with a colossal task

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Unearthing yet more huge statues and reconstructing a giant stela are the most recent achievements of the team working on Pharaoh Amenhotep III's mortuary temple on Luxor's west bank, Nevine El-Aref reports

When it was constructed on Luxor's west bank during the 14th century BC, the mortuary temple of the 18th-Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III was the largest temple complex in the Theban area. It stretched over a 350,000-square- metre space, guarded at the main gateway by a pair of gigantic statues of Amenhotep popularly known as the Colossi of Memnon, with smaller statues of Queen Tiye and Queen Mutemwiya at their feet.

Regrettably, these two colossi are almost all that remains of this huge temple complex, since much of the rest of the temple collapsed during a massive earthquake that hit the area in antiquity, while the parts that survived this catastrophe decayed as a result of the high level of subterranean water -- the temple having been built closer to the River Nile than any contemporary mortuary temples. During the 19th Dynasty, Pharaoh Meneptah used several blocks of the Amenhotep III temple to help construct his own mortuary temple, which he built almost 100 metres to the north.

Thanks, however, to traces of the walls and foundations that have survived under the mud, the temple's original shape and plan are well known. It was designed by the architect Amenhotep, son of Hapu, who gained such importance at the royal court that he was granted his own mortuary temple near Medinet Habu and was even deified in later Ptolemaic times. As several parts of the temple lay on the Nile flood plain, the designer invented a flood basin in the east court to hold the water of the annual inundation, while the rear chambers were built above ground level. Another unique aspect of Amenhotep III's temple is that it displayed a massive number of colossal statues depicting the pharaoh and his beloved wife in various positions and scenarios, together with a number of ancient Egyptian deities. All Egyptian temples and shrines contained many statues of the rulers and deities scattered about their courts, but this pharaoh surpassed the usual amount of sculpture. It has been suggested that Amenhotep depicted the "Litany of Sekhmet" by including a standing and a seated statue of the goddess for each day of the year, a fact mentioned in ancient texts.

Although much of this information was previously known to scholars, the temple was not properly excavated until the 1970s when a German-Egyptian mission began to excavate at the site and to restore whatever remained of the ruins. In 1998 the entire site, now called Kom Al-Hettan, was listed by the World Monuments Watch as one of the world's 100 most endangered monuments. In 2004 funding was allocated by this organisation and from other American and European sources.

For 13 seasons, excavation and restoration has continued under an Egyptian and multi-national archaeological mission, The Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project, led by Horig Sourouzian. During this archaeological season, the team has carried out several work projects. The first followed the discovery of a colossal statue of Pharaoh Amenhotep III seated on his throne, sporting the royal beard and wearing the nemes head dress and a pleated shendjyt kilt. The statue was found in two parts, as the head and the beard had been separated from the torso.

Zahi Hawass, minister of state for antiquities, described the statue as one of the most beautifully-carved images of Pharaoh Amenhotep III known, and called it "a masterpiece of a royal portrait". Hawass described the head of the statue as finely carved and proportioned. It shows the facial features of Pharaoh Amenhotep III with the almond eyes prolonged with cosmetic bands, a small nose and a large mouth with wide lips outlined with a sharp ridge.

"Spots on the left cheek show the traces of older repairs, probably made in the reign of Amenhotep III himself," Hawass said, adding that all the other parts of the colossus were very well preserved.

Sourouzian told Al-Ahram Weekly that the statue was found lying in the passageway leading to the third pylon of the temple. "This, for sure, is one of the pair of colossi which were once located at the gate of the third pylon, 200 metres behind the Colossi of Memnon," she said.

She continued that this pair of colossi had collapsed and broken into several pieces during a heavy earthquake that occurred at the time of the New Kingdom. These pieces, she added, were only partly visible in an alluvial layer of Nile mud. The back of one throne was the only part previously known from a fragmentary text published by former excavators at the site. "The other parts will gradually be uncovered from the mud and will be subjected to conservation and resemblance so that they can be re-erected in their original position inside the temple," Sourouzian said.

The two colossi are the only ones of that size that have been preserved, and are estimated to have been about 18 metres tall.

Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, head of the ancient Egyptian antiquities section at the Ministry of Antiquities, said this new discovery was very important for the historical study of Egyptian art and sculpture, as well as for the history of the temple. He said the colossi were unique examples, exceptionally carved in alabaster in the quarries of Hatnub in Middle Egypt. This material, he said, was rarely used for colossal statuary.

During routine clearance and mapping work in the central part of the temple's great court, where more parts of the original pavement were uncovered, the mission unearthed a granodiorite head of a divine statue. This is 28.5cm in height and features an unidentified male deity wearing a striated wig. Part of its divine beard is still preserved under the chin. Sourouzian says that the left part of the face and the left ear were missing upon discovery, but a piece of the left ear was found in the spring session of 2002 while excavations were taking place in the northern part of the court. The head is now in the storehouse, where the matching left ear has been fixed onto the face,

In the great court of the temple, the red quartzite northern stela of Amenhotep III has been raised and re-erected in its original position. The stela was damaged in a heavy earthquake when it broke into numerous pieces that scattered all over the site. In the past few years the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project (CMATC) have gathered 160 pieces of the stela and have cleaned, recorded and laid them out for reassembly. In the past season, the stone conservators and specialists in the team painstakingly reconstructed the stela from 27 large pieces and several smaller ones, building it up to a height of 7.4 metres or about four fifths of its original height of nine metres. The stela is 3.2 metres in width and 1.6 metres deep. It has been remounted in its original position on a consolidated foundation.

Sourouzian has promised that the reassembly of the stela will be completed in the next season, when its rounded top, showing two scenes representing Amenhotep III and Tiye, his queen-consort, bringing offerings to the gods Amun-Re and Sokar will be reaffixed. The part already reconstructed bears 25 lines of sunken hieroglyphs enumerating the temples that Amenhotep III dedicated to the great gods of Thebes.

"This is the northern one of a pair of stelae," Sourouzian told the Weekly, adding that the southern one, which was broken in two pieces, was reassembled and raised in 1950 by Labib Habachi and Mahmoud Darwish.

Further restoration work has also taken place on a red granite colossal head of Amenhotep III now exhibited at the Luxor National Museum, with the team joining the beard, which was identified only recently, to the head. The head itself was discovered in the great court of the pharaoh's mortuary temple in 1957 by Labib Habachi, who was working there on behalf of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Sourouzian told the Weekly that although the head was found with a beard, as confirmed in contemporary photographs, the head was placed on exhibition in Luxor Museum without a beard. The beard had been left inside an archaeological storehouse in Luxor but was located by archaeological inspectors Ahmed Ezz and Mahmoud Moussa during a search of the site's storerooms.

In March, the beard was brought back to the temple of Amenhotep III at Kom Al-Hettan where it was cleaned, measured, photographed and scanned by the members of the CMATC, whose stone conservator Miguel Lopez and his assistants, together with stone specialist Mohamed Ali El-Ghassab and his team, dismantled a modern replacement and fixed the original beard in place. "The head now looks splendid in the Luxor Museum," Sourouzian said.

"Such joinings of dispersed fragments are very important and extremely useful for the conservation of the monuments," Hawass says. He believed this enriches the aspect of the monument, highlighting the story of the destruction and the achievement of the restoration," she said.

Sourouzian says the aim of the project is to preserve the last remains of the temple of Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty; to reassemble, restore and replace the remaining monuments in their original position on the site; and to present them in their full dignity to future visitors.

The excavation and restoration work carried out by the 30 specialists from 15 nations, backed by 300 workmen, had continued all through the revolutionary period without interruption, Sourouzian said.

Workers lifting up the reconstructed stela photos courtesy of the archaeological mission

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