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Excavations at Kom el Hetan

Berkeley, CA , 24 August 2008

 Dr. Hourig Sourouzian is Armenian by birth and German by nationality. She received all of her higher education in France at the École du Louve, École des Langues Orientales, and her PhD at the Sorbonne. She is currently the Director of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project at Kom el Hettan, on the West Bank at Luxor in Egypt.

 Dr. Sourouzian opened her lecture by noting that the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III is listed among the 100 most endangered monuments in the world by the World Monuments Fund. Since 1998, she has been working, first on emergency conservation of the Colossi and Temple, and since 2000 as Director of the project which she hopes will result in the long term conservation and restoration of both the Colossi and the Temple.  Her team consists of about 30 specialists and 250-280 Egyptian workmen, many of whom are being trained in conservation and restoration as well.  The project is funded, principally, by contributions from Förderverein Memnon, headed by Dr. Ursula Lewenton, from the Association des Amis des Colosses de Memnon, from the World Monuments Fund,  from the American Research Center in Egypt and from Kunststiftung Siemens.

 What we know today as the Colossi of Memnon, are in fact, two seated statues of King Amenhotep III which originally flanked the entrance to the first pylon of his monumental mortuary temple. Behind the colossi was a vast temple which extends 700 meters – more than 2200 feet.  It was the largest single temple ever built in Egypt.  The site has been long neglected, abandoned and repeatedly flooded in earlier years by the Nile inundation, and more recently by irrigation water.  When Dr. Sourouzian began work at the site it was densely overgrown with weeds, grass and various other types of vegetation, and the soil was saturated with salt.

 The temple had already collapsed in the New Kingdom due to earthquakes – likely several – and served as a quarry during the building of surrounding temples, particularly those of Merenptah, Ramses III’s Medinet Habu, and The Roman Pylon at Medinet Habu.  Little remained of the structure but much statuary was evident though mostly covered with 2-3 meters of Nile silt. Enough remains, however, to explore and conserve the temple’s footprint.

 Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple was richly equipped with great numbers of statuary and other decorative elements.  Dr. Sourouzian estimates that the peristyle court alone had 40-42 monumental statues of the king placed between the inner rows of columns.  Each pylon had colossal statues of Amenhotep III at either side of the entrance and a processional way from the third pylon to the peristyle court, which led the way to the holy of holies, was perhaps lined on both sides with sphinxes or statues.  The great peristyle court was consecrated to the celebration of festivals and also contained statues of Sekhmet.  It gave access to the hypostyle hall which led to the sanctuaries dedicated to Amun, Mut , and Khonsu. To the south side of the sanctuaries is the funerary complex where the dead king could be personally venerated. On the north side the complex is dedicated to Ra with a Sun Court.  The entire complex is surrounded by an enclosure wall assumedly punctuated with square bastions as the one surrounding the temple of Seti I. These structures which we, today, refer to as mortuary temples, were known in ancient Egypt as “Houses of Millions of Years”, and were revered annually during the procession and festival known as the Beautiful Festival of the Valley.

 The Colossi, called Memnon, were where Dr. Sourouzian and her team began their emergency conservation work. The northern statue had fallen in Roman times.  Because of its cracks, the stones emitted a sound in the early morning as the cool, contracted stone warmed and expanded with the morning sun.  Thus it was assimilated to the Greek hero Memnon son of Eos, the goddess of dawn.  Before the statue’s re-erection it was visited by such Roman luminaries – who all left bits of graffiti to commemorate their visit – as the Emperor Hadrian, the Empress Sabina, and the poetess of the court who left a poem inscribed on the plinth.  Inscriptions in both Greek & Latin date between the reigns of Nero and Septimus Severus.  After that, the statue apparently was restored and stopped “speaking” in the early mornings, and the graffiti too, dwindled.

 Made of red quartzite, the pedestals upon which the king is seated were half submerged.  With the pedestals and the double crown once surmounting their heads, the statues would measure between 20 & 21 meters (roughly 68 feet), which correspond to the ancient measure of 40 cubits.  Both statues represent the king (Amenhotep III) seated with his hands flat on his thighs, wearing a pleated kilt and with the image of a panther head on his lap.  He wears the nemes headdress topped by the double crown of Upper & Lower Egypt.  Beside his legs are two queens, his great consort, Tiye, and his mother, Mutemwia. On each side of the plinth appears the sema-tawe composed of bundled papyrus and lotus plants, which reiterates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

 Both statues have been badly served by time, weather and flooding.  Dr. Sourouzian reminded the audience that these monuments were brilliantly painted in antiquity when they were new.

Her team began by collecting all possible documentation about the statues over time.  Based on this information, the statues are monitored annually by conservation specialists.  Both have serious cracks and are in need of major work.  In 2002 the team began cleaning away the encrustations and pollutants which have damaged the surface, and carefully collecting all the visible pieces which have sloughed off the statue.  Many other pieces were threatening to break off due to the effects of expansion and contraction that goes on as the temperature changes.  Due to strong thermal shocks, quartzite peals off in layers, and there is clear danger of such peeling.  After doing soundings around the bases, the statues were excavated to the bottom of each base, revealing 3 meters, 30 centimeters as the full height of the south plinth and 3 meters, 60 centimeters the height of the north plinth.  In 2008 it was possible to reconstruct some parts of the plinth using fragments which were found during the excavation.

 100 meters directly behind the Colossi and first pylon there was a second pylon constructed of brick and with two colossal, royal, seated statues flanking the entrance. Only a portion of the north statue was visible, and that portions very badly eroded.  Most of the image was covered by soil and mud.  After excavation, it was discovered that the right side including the head, leg and arm are all very well preserved. The ear alone measures 83 centimeters, or 32 ¾ inches!  As excavation proceeded other fragments of the statues were unearthed.  Between 2002 and 2004, the team took out some of the broken pieces via a sledge using the same methods the ancients used to move colossal statuary. When the largest piece was finally fully visible, behind the king’s knee was an image of Queen Tiye.  Using air cushions the team was able to lift the largest (450 tons) piece of the statue which included the plinth, as well as an 18 ton plinth fragment, out of the mud and water for conservation. Using the air bags to push from behind, these large stones were moved 11.5 meters north to investigate, conserve and restore their foundations.  South of this north colossi Dr. Sourouzian found a badly eroded and rather unprepossessing stone which, when excavated, turned out to be the south colossus from the entrance, also fallen on its right side in front of the pylon. 

 This colossus was likewise unearthed, and large fragments detached from the mass were taken out for conservation, like the right foot with the corresponding part of the base. That block and the one with  the right foot of the north colossus were put near each other, cleaned and conserved, both of which were inscribed with the King’s name and decorated with personifications of foreign lands.  After the block was removed and the south colossus uncovered, again Queen Tiye appeared standing beside the King’s right leg.  New iconography, never before encountered, is a water lily and papyrus stalk hanging from the King’s sash.

 Geological evaluation of the soil revealed a first at the site – liquefaction which often occurs in alluvial soil during an earthquake, and is believed to have occurred during the first earthquake to strike the temple after its construction.  When the statues at the temple fell they cracked and broke into literally thousands of pieces.  Thus the Colossi and Amenhotep III Temple team has spent countless hours washing, sorting, inscribing the fragments as to provenance and date of excavation, and painstakingly trying to fit them all back together.  Each piece is drawn and photographed; as matches are found, the fragments are joined.  Dr. Sourouzian noted that the Egyptians who work on the team have become extraordinarily skilled at joining fragments.  By training them in conservations and restoration methods, the project has given many of them a trade which allows them to work with other missions.

 Also uncovered was the façade of the north wing of the pylon with granite blocks in niches once supporting  the pylon flag poles.  The base of the pylon still has its original bricks (up to one meter) and granite blocks. The team has preserved the in-situ brick structures with a layer of identical mud bricks applied to the surface and stamped with the project’s name so that future scholars will know which portions are restorations.

 In 2008 the team discovered the south wing of the second pylon but the ground water is a major problem. Throughout the work season five pumps were constantly working to keep the excavation area dry.  The water returned in just as soon as the pumps stopped.

 At the entrance to the third pylon lie large fragments of colossal statues, this time carved from alabaster, in badly deteriorated condition.  Due to a lack of funds to do more, the exposed surfaces have been regularly defoliated and cleaned then covered with white cloth so that the they will not deteriorate further. The team also discovered the remains of the third pylon and the niches holding granite blocks.

 Farther west is the peristyle court, part of which is under the modern black-top road.  It is twice as large as the similar court at Luxor temple and is equipped with one more row of columns. Colossal statues were placed between the columns surrounding the open space of the court.   It too has been invaded by water.  A colossal stela on the south side of the court was found in two pieces and had been restored in the 1950s by the Antiquities Service, but it’s northern mate is in approximately 150 pieces so will require some considerable effort to reconstruct.

 Vast amounts of statuary is scattered among the encroaching vegetation.  Often when the grass dries out and dies, it catches fire as adjoining fields are burned off, and the statuary fragments split in the heat.  The team has gradually cleaned and restored much of the material.  Also Dr. Sourouzian has instigated a very ambitious dewatering project with piping to drain the water to pumping stations some 500 meters away from the site.

 In 2006 and 2007 the team was able to reconstruct, and re-erect a quartzite standing statues of Amenhotep III.  This standing statue and others just like it were placed around the northern half of the peristyle court, and the reconstructed statue was correctly positioned in the western half of the west portico during the 2008 work season.  The head, which wears the crown of Lower Egypt, was collected by Henry Salt in 1816 and is in the collection of the British Museum.  Thanks to the financial support of the Förderverein Memnon the statue now has replica head which was cast directly from the original in London then transported to Egypt.  Parts of the other standing statues have been grouped together and some have begun to be reassembled.  Eventually they too will be reconstructed and replaced in their original locations.

 On the south side of the peristyle court stood red granite statues.  To date the team has reconstructed one of the heads.  It is very like the beautiful heads on view at the Luxor Museum and in the Louvre. Several torsos have also been found, plus many fragmentary pieces. 

 A wide variety of other statuary has come to light during the excavations, including smaller statues such as one of the Queen sculpted in limestone with inlaid eyes and brows, a monumental hippo, two new  sphinxes found in a 10 x10 meter square that was opened to investigate the entrance to the peristyle court, and many statues of Sekhmet – to date, 87 of them – found in groups of three, five, seventeen, etc.  Dr. Sourouzian believes that the Sekhmets may have been aligned along the walls of the peristyle court.  Each piece must be pulled out with a winche, transported to the site conservation area, have poultices applied to leach out the salts, then be cleaned and conserved, photographed, drawn and finally reconstructed to the degree possible. 

 The Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Mortuary Temple Conservation Project has accomplish extraordinary things to date, and will, hopefully, accomplish many, many more in the future.  If you are interested in supporting this project make your check to World Monuments Fund for MTA III, and send it to World Monuments Fund, 95 Madison Avenue, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10016.