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More of ancient Egypt’s largest mortuary temple uncovered

New archaeological discoveries have revealed secrets in the temple of Amenhotep III in Luxor.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

CAIRO — An Egyptian-German archaeological mission shared a new archaeological discovery Jan. 15 in the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep III — or as the ancient Egyptians called it, the “Temple of Millions of Years” — in the western mainland of Luxor. The mission unearthed blocks of two huge limestone colossi of King Amenhotep III in the shape of sphinxes, as well as the remains of columns and walls decorated with ceremonial and ritual scenes. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor, mission head Hourig Sourouzian said the discovery reveals the shape of the largest mortuary temple in the western mainland. “This temple housed a large number of statues, models and wall decorations, before it was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1200 BC,” she said.

Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri revealed in press statements that the two huge limestone statues of king Amenhotep III wearing the striped nemes headdress, the royal beard and a wide collar around the neck were found at the rear of the gateway of the third pylon of the temple.

He noted that pieces of the sphinxes' inscribed chests were recovered and one of them bears the name of King Amenhotep III, which means “the beloved of Amun-Re.”

Waziri added that the mission also uncovered three lower parts of granodiorite statues of the lioness goddess Sekhmet at the façade of the Peristyle Court and in the Hypostyle Hall of the temple. He noted that the newly discovered pieces will be put on display in their original places in the temple along with other pieces found earlier at the site.

He further indicated that bases that once supported columns were found in the southern half of the Hypostyle Hall of the temple, suggesting that the hall was much larger.

The new discovery by the Egyptian-German mission came as part of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project, launched in 1998 under the supervision of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the German Archaeological Institute. The mission previously uncovered several huge artifacts including statues of the goddess Sekhmet and new colossi of King Amenhotep III and his wife Queen Tiye.

The two sphinxes once measured about eight meters long. “This discovery shed light on the processional way from the third pylon to the Peristyle Court,” Sourouzian said. “In the peristyle, the newly discovered pieces of wall relief reveal new scenes of the Heb-Sed, a festival of the king started after 30 years of his rule and repeated every three years thereafter.” 

Abdel Rahim Rihan, director general of research, archaeological studies and scientific publication in South Sinai at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, explained the Heb-Sed festival to Al-Monitor. “This is one of the most important feasts for ancient Egyptians that celebrates the end of the 30th year of the king’s ascension to the throne. The depictions of this festival show the king on his throne in full strength, with the crowds around him happy and excited, waiting for his speech promising them another 30-year reign full of prosperity and opulence. On this occasion, the king would also make offerings to the gods.”

He added, “After the pharaoh's offerings, he would be crowned first with the white crown of Upper Egypt and then with the red crown of Lower Egypt. Then a papyrus and a lotus would be wrapped around a stake, representing the unification of the two lands. The festival would culminate in the pharaoh running around a race track in the courtyard of his palace to exhibit his physical prowess.”

Amenhotep III ruled Egypt for nearly four decades and managed to maintain prosperity and political stability until his death in 1349 BC at the age of 50. His mortuary temple is one of the grandest of all mortuary temples built in Egypt.

Sourouzian studied the history of art and monuments of ancient civilizations at the École du Louvre in Paris. Her doctorate research at the Paris-Sorbonne University examined royal statuary. During her studies at the Louvre, she was sent to Egypt on an archaeological mission at the Karnak Temple Complex, commonly known as Karnak. Later, she worked for many other German, French and Swiss missions. Now, she is leading the mission at the temple of Amenhotep III.

“Our main task of this project is to gradually document, reassemble and restore the last remains of this temple, then display these monumental remains in their original places,” Sourouzian said. 

According to the World Monuments Fund, the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III “originally included three massive mud-brick pylons, or gates, aligned on a single axis, and a long connecting corridor leading to an immense, open solar courtyard, a roofed hall, a sanctuary, and sacred altars. The temple contained hundreds of freestanding statues, sphinxes, and massive steles — tombstone-like slabs of stone, once carved with descriptions of Amenhotep III's building achievements.”

However, Amenhotep III's mortuary temple was built too close to the Nile River. Over the course of centuries, water repeatedly inundated the complex, damaging its architecture and statutes.

Sourouzian said, “This is a great challenge. We already completed a first phase of lowering the ground water level in the Peristyle Court and the Hypostyle Hall in 2006. Now we will dewater the areas of the pylons and the courts leading to the great Peristyle Court.”

“The project consists of four phases. It starts with a survey of the site, documentation and restoration of all visible remains on it. Then, archaeological investigations would be conducted to gather information and preserve the newly discovered structures. During the third stage, the reassembled monuments would be installed at their original places. The last stage consists of site management, site and information protection and presentation of the Peristyle Court and the Hypostyle Hall in an open-air museum for monumental sculpture and stelae,” Sourouzian said.

Although the archeologist indicated that the temple restoration process will be lengthy, she stated that the fourth stage has started and will be completed in the near future.