Unearthing Egypt’s Greatest Temple

Discovering the grandeur of the monument built 3,400 years ago

(Cheryl Carlin)
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"Heya hup!" Deep in a muddy pit, a dozen workers wrestle with Egypt's fearsome lion goddess, struggling to raise her into the sunlight for the first time in more than 3,000 years. She is Sekhmet—"the one who is powerful"—the embodiment of the fiery eye of the sun god Ra, but now she is caked in dirt and bound by thick rope. As the workers heave her out of the pit and onto a wooden track, the sand shifts and the six-foot-tall granite statue threatens to topple. A half-dozen men in ankle-length robes grab the taut ropes, again shout the Arabic equivalent of "heave, ho!" and steady her just in time.

Within the hour, the seated Sekhmet is once again imperious: her breath creates the desert wind, her anger feeds on disease and war, and her power protects mighty pharaohs. Or did. This long-buried statue is one of 730—one for every day and night of the year—that guarded a vast collection of gates, colonnades, courts and halls built by the great Egyptian king Amenhotep III, who reigned over Egypt for 38 years in the 14th century B.C., at the height of peace and prosperity. In its day, "The House of Millions of Years" was the largest and most impressive temple complex in the world. But it was no match for earthquakes, fires, floods or Amenhotep III's successors, who scavenged stone blocks and statues for their own temples. Much of the site, near the Valley of the Kings along the west bank of the Nile River, is covered with sugar cane.

Hourig Sourouzian, an Armenian archaeologist, is directing the effort to rescue the long-neglected site and its many statues. "They didn't deserve this treatment!" she says as a worker hoses off the mud and salt coating a Sekhmet lined up with a dozen similar statues in the bright sun.

Egyptologists had long assumed that all that remained of the temple complex were the imposing Colossi of Memnon, two seated statues of Amenhotep III at the entrance to his temple, and some stones and fragments of statuary. Sourouzian had been working at a neighboring temple, Merentptah, from which she would visit the Amenhotep complex. "I was always interested in the fragmented statuary of the site and dreamed about seeing them reconstructed instead of lying in vegetation, water and junk," she recalls. Then, in 1996, a brush fire swept over the area, charring the stones and fragments and making them more vulnerable to cracking and erosion. When Sourouzian and her husband, German archaeologist Rainier Stadelmann, surveyed the damage, she says, "It was terrible and depressing, and we swore to take action."

First, she convinced the World Monuments Fund in 1998 to designate the temple one of the world's "100 Most Endangered Sites" and fund the initial conservation area of the shattered fragments aboveground. During the course of that effort, Sourouzian began to suspect that there was more to be found underground. By 2000, however, the money had run out, and she and Stadelmann reluctantly began to wrap up their work. But a wealthy French woman who had attended a lecture by Sourouzian in Paris agreed to fund a more ambitious excavation. Within a year, the team began to uncover their first statues, and the archaeologists realized that many treasures still lay beneath the dirt.

Born in Baghdad to parents of Armenian descent, Sourouzian grew up in Beirut and studied art history at the Sorbonne in Paris. Sent to Karnak by the Louvre, she became one of the leading authorities on Egyptian royal statuary. "She's probably the best Egyptian art historian of our time," says Betsy Bryan, an Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University. Now, along with Stadelmann, who once headed the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, Sourouzian orchestrates a team of two dozen specialists from around the world—including French, Swiss, German, Spanish and Japanese researchers—and as many as 400 local workers.

What began modestly has become one of the most ambitious projects Egypt has seen in decades, bringing to light a triumph of engineering and art that once dwarfed even the massive Karnak and Luxor temples across the Nile. Amenhotep III called the complex "a fortress of eternity out of good white sandstone—worked with gold throughout. Its floors were purified with silver, all of its doorways were of electrum," an alloy of gold and silver.

The recently liberated Sekhmet statue is one of 72 of the goddess that Sourouzian and her team have discovered. They've also found two huge statues of Amenhotep III, each flanked by a smaller one of Queen Tye and a menagerie of sacred animals, including an alabaster hippopotamus. The project is giving Egyptologists a fresh look at the mysterious temple culture that dominated ancient life here, in which hordes of priests conducted rituals, made offerings and administered the intricate rites designed to ensure the eternal well-being of the dead pharaoh.

Once brightly painted in blues, reds, greens, yellows and whites, the 50-foot colossi in front of the massive first gate, or pylon, loomed over the Nile Valley's flat farmland, facing the brown river that then flowed just a few hundred yards away. While the rest of the complex collapsed and crumbled, the stately statues remained. Cracks caused by an earthquake in 27 B.C. made one of the statues produce an odd tone when the morning sun struck it. A contemporary named Pausanias described the sound in his Guide to Greece as "very like the twang of a broken lyre-string or a broken harp-string." The site quickly became one of the ancient world's biggest tourist attractions; even the Roman emperor Hadrian came to hear it in A.D. 130. Alas, it was inadvertently silenced during restoration work in A.D. 199.

On a hot morning, visiting American archaeologists and art conservators spill out of a crowded van. Sourouzian leads them into a storeroom the length of a railroad car, and the visitors marvel at the Sekhmets, a giant head of the pharaoh, and bits and pieces of unidentified faces in neat rows—fresh finds from Sourouzian's team. "She's Isis reassembling Osiris," says the University of Chicago archaeologist Ray Johnson, of Sourouzian, likening her to the goddess who recovers dismembered pieces of her lover and restores him to life.

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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