Unearthing Egypt’s Greatest Temple

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Few building sprees in history can match that of Amenhotep III, and few pharaohs' lives are so well documented—even his birth is commemorated in stone reliefs at Luxor. He came to the throne before his teens, at the death of his warrior father Thutmose IV. His grandfather and father had expelled Mesopotamian invaders known as the Mitanni. The young pharaoh quelled an uprising in Nubia at the southern fringe of his empire—chopping off the right hands of 312 enemies—but turned to diplomacy for the rest of his reign.

His principal wife, Tye, was from a noble Egyptian family, but Amenhotep III's harem grew to include princesses from great powers such as Babylon and Mitanni—a common method of cementing alliances in the ancient world, but unusual for Egypt, whose rulers tended to disdain foreigners. He also maintained regular correspondence with other kings. Letters written in Mesopotamian cuneiform found at Amarna, the capital built by his son Akhenaten, reveal a canny leader who preferred words to weapons.

The peace that Amenhotep III worked hard to preserve brought a boom in international trade, with partners from throughout the Mediterranean, across Western Asia and deep into Africa—thanks in part to Egypt's many gold mines. "Gold in your country is dirt; one simply gathers it up," wrote an obviously envious Assyrian king. The pharaoh used his wealth to transform the nation into an imperial showplace. He ordered temples built from the Nile Delta in the north to Nubia 800 miles to the south. Under his patronage, artists experimented with new styles of sculpture and reliefs carved into temple walls. Traditional rudimentary forms became elegant and sophisticated, and the carvings reveal more attention to craft and detail. It was "probably the highest-quality art Egypt ever made," says Johns Hopkins' Betsy Bryan. "The man had taste!"

Amenhotep III reserved the greatest works for his hometown, Thebes, today's Luxor. During most of the so-called New Kingdom, which lasted from 1570 B.C. to 1070 B.C., pharaohs resided at Memphis, a cosmopolitan city near today's Cairo. But as Amenhotep III grew older, he spent more and more time in Thebes, turning it into one vast religious center spanning both sides of the Nile. Large additions were made to the Karnak and Luxor temples on the Nile's east bank, both of which had begun as small Middle Kingdom sanctuaries. Across the river, Amenhotep III built a huge harbor and an adjacent palace with colorfully painted walls, as well as his extensive funerary temple.

It was this great temple, rather than his hidden tomb in the Valley of the Kings, that Amenhotep III counted on to ensure his soul's journey to the afterlife—and, no doubt, inspire awe among the living. Stretching seven football fields in length from the colossi at the main entrance, which faced east to the Nile, to sacred altars pointing toward the Valley of the Kings in the west, the complex covered an area nearly the size of Vatican City. In its day, it was the largest and one of the most ornate religious structures in the world, filled with hundreds of statues, stone reliefs and inscriptions set among colonnaded plazas. Colorful royal banners flapped from cedar poles shimmering in gold leaf and secured on red granite pedestals at pylons, or massive gateways, that led into innumerable sanctuaries.

Such an awesome sight is hard to envision today. In addition to an earthquake a century or so after Amenhotep III's death that toppled its columns and walls, successive pharaohs raided it for their own temples. Ramses II took two seated colossi in the 13th century B.C., and the site was still being scavenged a thousand years later. The earthquake in 27 B.C. toppled much of what remained. Nineteenth-century treasure hunters carted off what they could find from the rubble—sphinxes to embellish the Neva River embankment in St. Petersburg, royal statues to London's British Museum and a head of the pharaoh to the Louvre in Paris. Excavations from the 1950s through the 1970s revealed little more than scattered stone fragments and artifacts.

Today's most insidious threat is the slow rising of groundwater. In the past, the Nile flooded annually, replenishing fields along the river before retreating to within its banks. (Some scholars, though not Sourouzian, believe Amenhotep III's temple was designed to allow the holy Nile floodwaters to wash through the gates and plazas.) Since the Aswan High Dam was completed in 1970, the Nile waters no longer surge over its banks (and the river is two miles from the temple site), but sugar cane farmers irrigate year-round, turning the desert into soggy soil. The water carries salts that eat away at stone, particularly more porous varieties such as limestone and sandstone.

On a spring morning, the huge field, bordered by sugar cane and the road to the Valley of the Kings, resembles a busy construction site. At the spot where a pylon once stood behind the Colossi of Memnon, researchers sit under tarps, patiently sorting and photographing fragments from one of two smaller colossi that fell in antiquity. The head of one of them alone weighs 25 tons, and nearly 200 workers and a winch were required to pull the broken statue out of the mud. Sourouzian hopes to re-erect those statues—each torso weighs 450 tons—once the ground dries and a secure foundation can be built.

Nearby, an alabaster statue of a crocodile and two more statues of Amenhotep III, also in alabaster, wait to be cleaned. Remains of massive sandstone columns are in rows of three and four. The columns formed the edges of the great peristyle hall, or sun court, and once stood on crude blocks and gravel. "Obviously, they were cutting corners here and there," says Theodore Gayer-Anderson, a British archaeologist on the team. "They weren't the ideal builders." The stubs of the columns are fragile, and to coax out salt, which is corrosive, Gayer-Anderson coats them in a poultice of deionized water, cellulose powder and mineral powder. Each wrapping must be changed every two days. "It's impossible to eliminate the salt," he says. "But you can cleanse the skin to a stable level."

A few yards away, a seven-ton torso of Amenhotep III dangles below an iron tepee, as workers prepare to marry it to a base covered in protective scaffolding. The statue's head was found a century ago and is now in the British Museum. The museum has promised to send a cast of the head to be placed on the torso next spring. An Egyptian foreman barks at the workers as the torso is raised into place, while a Spanish archaeologist paces across some beams. "I'm not nervous—that wouldn't help," he announces.

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.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus