The Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III
1998 and 2004 World Monument Watch
Amenhotep III is entombed inside the limestone hills of the Theban Necropolis, a sprawling cemetery on the banks of the Nile River opposite modern-day Luxor, where pharaohs and their queens, priests, and royal scribes were buried between the sixteenth and eleventh centuries B.C. Amenhotep III ruled Egypt for nearly four decades, until his death in 1349 B.C. at the age of 50. His reign was marked by prosperity, political stability, and the creation of some of ancient Egypt’s most magnificent complexes . His legacy includes an elaborate mortuary temple intended for rituals and offerings to honor the pharaoh in perpetuity. Amenhotep III built on a grand scale. The mortuary temple, constructed not far from his tomb, was the grandest of all mortuary temple complexes built in Egypt. It 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. The temple complex was enormous. It measured 328 feet (100 meters) wide by 1,968 feet (600 meters) in length, longer than five American football fields placed end to end.
The Severe Deterioration of the Temple Complex
Unfortunately, Amenhotep III sited his mortuary temple too close to the Nile River. Over the course of centuries, water repeatedly inundated the complex, damaging its architecture and statuary. An earthquake in 27 B.C. and the pillaging of stone and statuary for reuse in other structures (not uncommon in ancient Egypt) further damaged the integrity of the temple. When WMF listed the mortuary temple on the 1998 Watch, all that remained of the pharaoh’s funerary temple were the Colossi of Memnon, two gigantic statues, seated on thrones, both effigies as tall as a six-story building and each weighing an estimated 720 tons (650,000 kg). The towering pair of figures originally stood guard at the temple’s main gate. Misnamed by the ancient Greeks, the statues each depict Amenhotep III, gazing across the Nile, not Memnon, a mythological Ethiopian king. Beyond the colossi, the rest of the temple site was strewn with thousands of fragments of columns and statues, rubble, and stone used in constructing the huge complex.
Treasures Beneath the Colossi
WMF funded initial emergency stabilization of portions of the site, documentation of existing conditions, and the development of a long-range conservation plan. Of great concern was the rising salty groundwater. Completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970 halted the Nile’s destructive flooding, but irrigation of adjacent agricultural fields sent saltwater coursing to the temple site, eroding ancient porous limestone and sandstone relics. In 2004, with support from WMF, a drainage system was built to minimize the quantity of damaging saltwater reaching the temple site. An international team of specialists began excavations around the bases of the towering colossi. There they discovered several significant artifacts, buried under nearly 4,000 years of soil and river silt. One such find was the missing forearm of one of the colossi, as well as fragments of the figure’s pleated kilt-like skirt and throne. An imposing sculpture of Amenhotep III’s wife, Queen Tiy, was also excavated.
WMF and the Future of the Temple Complex
The pharaoh’s mortuary temple continues to yield stunning treasures. In recent years archaeologists and conservators have identified dozens of statues of the war goddess Sekhmet and a 7-ton (6,350 kg) torso of Amenhotep III. Yet to be explored are the architectural ruins of an immense hall, once roofed and supported by rows of gigantic columns. Hundreds of statues await restoration and relocation to their original sites. As archaeological and conservation work proceed, WMF continues to support the resurrection of Amenhotep III’s extraordinary mortuary temple.