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Monday, 28 December 2020

The Eyes Have It: A Pair of Inlaid Eyes from Sanam

In August 2019 the reserve collection of the Egypt Centre was moved into a new state of the art storage facility. Yet this was only the beginning of the task to reorganise roughly 4,000 objects not currently on display in the museum. Over the subsequent eight months, around 3,000 objects had been repacked and given a new locations. However, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, this project went eye-dle for six months. Therefore, the project to reorganise these objects was only completed last Wednesday. A few weeks ago Sam Powell and I were going through one particular box when we made an eye-opening discovery. This blog post will outline the process of the discovery and the subsequent archival material related to it.


Working directly with the Egypt Centre collection during the pandemic has been a challenge since, because of the social distancing rules, I’m the only person able to work in the storeroom. However, with the rise of Zoom, it has been possible for me to work with the objects while Zooming with Sam who updates our online catalogue remotely. Therefore, this greatly improves the productivity and processing speed. A few weeks ago, we were going through a box of thirty-eight eye inlays, many of which originally belonged to wooden coffins. Some eagle-eyed readers might remember that this box of inlays featured in a previous guest post by Jiayun Zhu, a Museum Studies placement student from Leicester University. One particular pair of eyes immediately attracted our attention (W624 & W626). They are made of a copper alloy frame with the white scleras made of ostrich eggshell. Ostrich shell was used throughout Egyptian history for inlays, including occasionally for the whites of eyes (Phillips 2009). Unfortunately, in both cases the pupils are missing, although the stained outlines are still visible (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Eye inlays

So what makes these objects so interesting? Well, with the Egypt Centre collection it is always important to keep an eye out for any previous numbers written on the objects. In the case of W624 and W626, faint five-digit numbers were spotted in the lower right corners of the scleras, written in white ink (fig. 2). Only the number on W624 could be fully read (12440), which I immediately identified as a Wellcome “R” number. These were written on objects as they were registered at the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (WHMM) from 1913 until 1933. In recent years, the Wellcome has digitised many of their historical archives, including the registration ledgers. The entry for 12440 indicates that the object was identical to 12439, which is described as an “eye - of bone - with haematite pupil + bronze rim from mummy”. Thus, while the number on W626 was only partially readable, it was possible to identify it as 12439 having located its matching eye.

Fig. 2: Faint Wellcome number in lower left

But the story doesn’t end here! The next page of the ledger indicates that these eyes were “excavated at Sanam cemetery by Llewelyn Griffith”. I couldn’t believe my eyes! We had no idea that the Egypt Centre housed any of the objects from Sanam, which was excavated during the 1912–13 season of the University of Oxford Excavations in Nubia led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith (1862–1934). The eyes were subsequently presented to the WHMM in 1921. I searched the Wellcome archives further for additional details on the eyes. One file contained letters of correspondence between Griffith and Wellcome, often via the curator of the WHMM, Charles J. S. Thompson (1862–1943). In one letter written by Thompson to Griffith, dated 02 February 1921, an “enamelled eye” is mentioned as one of several objects from Sanam that “would be of most interest for his [Wellcome’s] collection” (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Letter from Thompson to Griffith (WA/HMM/CO/Ear/351:Box 42)

Looking further through the file, I was excited to see that the eyes were listed as having been found in tomb 691, which dates to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (fig. 4). The accompanying tomb record reads as: “Cave tomb, 15 steep steps, drop of 70 to narrow platform before embrasure, approach L. 380, W. 100–120, total D. 380, main chamber 600 by 180, with two side chambers, axis 320. On floor of main chamber, pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows from a wooden coffin, the former inlaid with white (ostrich egg?) shell on which is fixed a raised disc of obsidian? as pupil; fragments of hollow bronze; some bluish glaze tubular and ring beads; [smaller green and yellow glaze tubular beads; a few small yellow red green and black ring beads; small yellow ball beads]. In entrance, sandstone table of offerings with papyrus stem in middle and 8 loaves between hes vases, 40 by 35, including spout.” With this information, I then searched the excavation report and found that the eyes were mentioned twice. Firstly, Griffith says that “amongst the cave graves 691 preserves clear evidence of having contained a coffin in a pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows, such as are found inlaid in well-made wooden coffins from Egypt” (Griffith 1923, 84). Secondly, he said that “in the cave grave 691 were found a pair of bronze eyes and eyebrows from a wooden coffin, the eyes inlaid with white (ostrich egg) shell on which is fixed a raised disk of obsidian (?) as pupil; also fragments of hollow bronze, which perhaps had formed the lobes, etc., of a pair of ears” (Griffith 1923, 106).

Fig. 4: Selection of finds from the cemetery (Griffith 1923, pl. 21)

Sanam is located 25km south of the Fourth Cataract in modern day Sudan (fig. 5 MAP). The site is situated just a few kilometres south of the sacred site of Gebel Barkal, and between the royal cemeteries of el-Kurru (to the south) and Nuri (to the north). Over the course of four months at the site, Griffith and his team excavated an eye-popping 1550 tombs. Finds from the cemetery are scattered throughout the world, including the collections of the National Museum Khartoum, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum, the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin, and now Swansea. Knowing that the eyes were from the cemetery of Sanam, I contacted Professor Angelika Lohwasser, who has been researching the site for many years (Lohwasser 2010; 2012). Remarkably, W624 and W626 are the only eye inlays from a coffin found in the cemetery (Lohwasser 2012, 92). While the pupils of the eyes were recorded at the time of their registration of the WHMM, they have since become detached and subsequently lost. The eyebrows listed in the excavation report were not, however, listed as having been accessioned at the WHMM and it can only be assumed that they never accompanied the eyes to the museum.

Fig. 5: Map of the Napata district (Lohwasser 2010, fig. 1)

This blog post has presented an example of the archaeology of museums, showing that sometimes discoveries can be made right in front of your eyes!


**I am grateful to Professor Lohwasser for sending me the relevant pages from her 2012 publication. 


Griffith, Francis Llewellyn 1923. Oxford excavations in Nubia. XVIII. The cemetery of Sanam. Annals of Archaeology and Anthropology 10, 73–171.

Lohwasser, Angelika 2010. The Kushite cemetery of Sanam: a non-royal burial ground of the Nubian capital, c. 800–600 BC. London: Golden House.

Lohwasser, Angelika 2012. Aspekte der napatanischen Gesellschaft: archäologisches Inventar und funeräre Praxis im Friedhof von Sanam - Perspektiven einer kulturhistorischen Interpretation. Denkschriften der Gesamtakademie 67; Contributions to the Archaeology of Egypt, Nubia and the Levant 1. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Morkot, Robert G. 2000. The black pharaohs: Egypt's Nubian rulers. London: Rubicon Press.

Phillips, Jacke S. 2009. Ostrich eggshell. Edited by Willeke Wendrich. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 1–4. Available at:

Pope, Jeremy 2014. The double kingdom under Taharqo: studies in the history of Kush and Egypt, c. 690–664 BC. Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 69. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Asklepios, Imhotep, and Onias’ Temple

The entry for this week is written by the Reverend Jim Collins, a retired Anglican priest from Ottawa, Canada. Jim is very grateful for all he has been learning from the Egypt Centre and the Egypt Exploration Society lectures during the COVID-19 pandemic.


For someone who has dabbled in Egyptology since an undergraduate essay on ma’at in the Story of Sinuhe more than forty years ago, it has been both an honour and a privilege to be attending Dr Ken Griffin’s online courses from the Egypt Centre, Swansea University. Ken brings such a depth of knowledge of his subject and an enthusiasm that his courses can be both daunting and incredibly inspiring. I love the way that he brings in artifacts as well as pictures and drawings to illustrate his lectures. I feel as though I am actually visiting the sites and monuments he is describing. He and Sam Powell create a welcoming and respectful environment online and over time I feel that I am also getting to know at least some of the other course participants who ask such interesting questions and bring some of their own insights.


Fig. 1: Plaster cast relief of Ptolemy III offering to Ptah and Imhotep (EC1959)

The importance of Imhotep to the Ptolemies is illustrated by a scene depicting Ptolemy III Euergetes I with Imhotep and Ptah in the Ptah Temple of Karnak (fig. 1). Pharaonic involvement in the building and restoration of temples in ancient Egypt has a long history. Although Imhotep’s involvement with king Djoser is well known, contemporary documentation from the Third Dynasty is sketchy at best. However, as pointed out by Jadwiga Iwaszczuk (2015), there are important historical features of royal temple building and restoration evident by the Eighteenth Dynasty. It may be observed that there are parallels between political motivations in Eighteenth Dynasty temple construction and the Ptolemaic Period, but also differences. Among the inscriptions, Iwaszczuk cites is one from the western wall of the so-called “Birth Portico” in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, in which the gods of Egypt, whom the queen had visited with her divine father, are depicted as saying to her: …you will see your instructions in the land which is in your possession, you will restore (srwḏ) what was decaying, you will raise your monuments in your temples, you will enrich your altars of him who begot you” (Iwaszczuk 2015, 35). It may be that this divine command to build was a form of justification for political office that was used by Hatshepsut, which may not have been lost on either the Ptolemies nor Onias, the Judean high priest. Might Imhotep have served as a role model in this or was he seen only as a healer?

Fig. 2: Copper alloy statue of Imhotep (BM EA 11060)

Although Apollo was the father of Askelpios, already in Homer there was an emphasis on healing art through the use of medicines and surgical intervention. Arguably for the Judean high priest Onias, the biblical patriarch Joseph served as more of a role model than Imhotep, but on the other hand, the Ptolemies were clearly committed to temple building and refurbishment, so surely it is possible that Imhotep may have proved useful as well (fig. 2). Arguably, for Ptolemaic kings there were similar periods of chaos in Egypt to which their building programs were similarly addressed. Could it be that the Judean priest Onias, in a manner similar to Hatshepsut but in the mid-second century BCE, took advantage of such traditional Egyptian policies around temple building and reconstruction to justify his own unorthodox position in traditional Egyptian society?

Fig. 3: Screenshot of the SITH Projet Karnak

Ken says that he debated how best to teach the subject of Karnak and decided on a historical approach. He says that it probably would have been better to make the course longer because so much material has had to be dropped but still this course has been an amazing learning experience. Throughout the Karnak course, Ken showed how the SITH Projet Karnak website can be used to find photographs and transcriptions of the scenes at Karnak (fig. 3). The fifth week was both a survey of the Graeco-Roman developments at Karnak as well as a historical summary using the UCLA video animating most of the various constructions over two thousand years. It was of particular interest to me because of my own interest in the mid-second century building project of the Judean high priest Onias. This sixth week was an added bonus over the five originally advertised and was a final overview of the gods and festivals, which for me was also a continuation of my own interest in these areas. It also tied in further to my interest area because of various connections to Memphis and the Heliopolis Nome in the Ptolemaic era.  

Fig. 4: Block 37, “Ritual Burning of Fans” Magical Practice from Hatshepsut’s Chapelle Rouge 

In the final week of the course, he explained further surviving evidence from Hatshepsut’s Chapelle Rouge, of what is sometimes described as a magical practice of “Burning of Fans” (perhaps irt
m ḫfty). The hieroglyph symbol of the bound captive signifying enemies appears on the fans as well as in the text. As explained by Mariam F. Ayad (2009, 92), the burning of the signs of the enemy symbolized that, without a body, the enemies of Egypt would have no place in the after life. The rekḫyt-people were also involved in this ceremony (figs. 4–5). Robert K. Ritner (1993, 210ff), notes Pascal Vernus, “Un témoignage cultuel du conflit avec les éthiopiens,” in interpreting the the fourteen-day Festival of Behdet at Edfu, where their symbolic interpretation is clearly stated: the palms of dom-palm are the hair of their enemies. Although perhaps not the same ceremony as depicted at Karnak, Ritner argues “The crucial importance for this ‘magical’ act for Egyptian ‘religion’ can be seen not only from the numerous manifestations of the rite, but by its transmission from temple to private concerns.”

Fig. 5: Participants in the Ritual Burning of Fans


Ayad, Mariam F. 2009. God’s Wife, God’s Servant: the God’s Wife of Amun (ca.740–525 BC). London; New York: Routledge.

Griffin, Kenneth 2018. All the rḫyt-people adore: the role of the rekhyt-people in Egyptian religion. GHP Egyptology 29. London: Golden House Publications.

Iwaszczuk, Jadwiga 2015. Rebirth of temples under the rule of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III: vocabulary. Études et Travaux 28, 29–58.

Ritner, Robert Kriech 1993. The mechanics of ancient Egyptian magical practice. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 54. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Wildung, Dietrich 1977. Egyptian saints: deification in pharaonic Egypt. Hagop Kevorkian series on Near Eastern art and civilization. New York: New York University Press.

——— 1977. Imhotep und Amenhotep: Gottwerdung im alten Ägypten. Münchner Ägyptologische Studien 36; Münchener Universitätsschriften, Philosophische Fakultät für Geschichts- und Kunstwissenschaften. München; Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag.

Monday, 14 December 2020

Karnak during the Graeco-Roman Period

The blog post for this week has been written by Jan Stremme, who is a member of the Egyptian Study Society in Denver, Colorado. She has no formal studies in Egyptology, but has enjoyed a very informal education for over thirty years. While not very tech savvy, she believes that the Egypt Centre classes have been the best thing to come out of the COVID pandemic. She has even been known to stay awake for an occasional 2:00AM lecture!

When COVID-19 forced us all into lockdown, I knew I’d have to embrace twenty-first century technology in order to survive. However, one advantage to the Zoom world is that it has given me access to a world of new experiences, like the Karnak class from the Egypt Centre. Week 5 concentrated on the Graeco-Roman Period (fig. 1). As Dr. Griffin pointed out, many people tune out when Egyptology gets into this period. Because it’s not as popular, I had previously learned less about this period in my explorations. Therefore, this week’s class helped me fill in a few blanks, and they seem quite interesting to me. 

Fig. 1: Recently cleaned relief in the Opet Temple

The Graeco-Roman pharaohs did not build on a massive scale at Karnak. It is not that these people were incapable of building: Philae, Edfu, and Dendera prove they were. For whatever reason however, they chose to invest their efforts at Karnak on restoration and redecoration. It is interesting how their attitudes towards restoration varied. For example, when Alexander the Great restored the Akhmenu, he chose to keep the old style and existing themes of the walls. They are completed in beautiful raised relief. He even left the name of Thutmose III on one wall—quite a tribute, considering the usual tendency to over write and claim the works of predecessors. However, on another wall, he showed himself offering to the gods, with his cartouche carved above. As a result, it is not always easy to spot the recreations based on style alone. Clues include skin-tight robes and prominent breasts (which I associate with the Ptolemaic era), contemporary clothing, and of course the new hieroglyphs to accommodate the new language. In one inscription dating to the time of Augustus, the indicators for “Lord of the Two Lands” included a pair of seated kings, one with the crown of Upper Egypt and the second with the crown of Lower Egypt. In addition, a bull over two scarabs read as “Lord of the Two Lands” (fig. 2). These symbols were not new to me, but they were used in new ways. The inscription also contains one of the few instances where Rome is mentioned by name the name hrm. 

Fig. 2: Roman hieroglyphs at the Opet Temple

It is also interesting that wall scenes began to include the ruler’s wives, mothers, and/or sisters in deified form on the same scale as the gods. Imhotep, the famous “architect” of Djoser, is deified for his healing skills (fig. 3). Perhaps the lines between the realm of the Gods and mortal men were becoming a little more blurred? I found it interesting that when Ptolemy VIII modified the Eastern Temple he “unveiled that which was veiled. Since his Majesty had made it open to all.” Might this indicate a more inclusive attitude toward religion? 

Fig. 3: Plaster cast in the Egypt Centre (EC1959) of a relief from the Ptah Temple depicting Ptolemy III Euergetes I offering to Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu

At the end of class, we saw a graphic from Digital Karnak, which attempted to show how the temple grew and changed over the centuries. This was quite a helpful graphic. After taking the class, I definitely want to see Karnak again—now that I have a better understanding. A bonus for this class has been the e-mailed supplementary materials, including pdfs and other useful links. I have enjoyed “meeting” Dr Griffin, Sam Powell, and a few other members of the Egypt Centre team online. This has been my silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud!

Monday, 7 December 2020

Karnak in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods

The blog post for this week has been written by Terri Natale, who has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Victorian Studies. She also received a Certificate and Diploma in Egyptology from Birkbeck College. Terri has previously worked as a volunteer on the South Asasif Conservation Project for five seasons.

I won’t attempt to copy Dr Ken Griffin’s comprehensive survey of the changes at Karnak during the Third Intermediate and Late Periods. Instead, I will only look at some highlights of the changes in the religious and political effects these had at Karnak and the country. The Third Intermediate Period was a time of fragmentation of the Egyptian state. It was a time when local rulers once more came into prominence. For much of this time, Egypt was no longer a country under the control of one king.

In the Twenty-first Dynasty, the king had control of Lower Egypt at Tanis. Herihor, the High Priest of Amun under Ramesses XI, was the de facto ruler at Karnak and possibly the greater Theban region. He is viewed as a bridge between the Twentieth and Twenty-first dynasties. In a significant departure from tradition, he was depicted wearing the regalia of Pharaoh and his name was enclosed in a cartouche. Additionally, within the temple of Khonsu at Karnak, he is depicted presenting maat to the gods (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Herihor presenting maat to Amun

His successor, the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem, adopted the five-fold titulary of the king in year 15/16 of Smendes. He usurped the colossal statue of Ramesses II (or Amenhotep III?) at the entrance to the Second Pylon, while also adding the avenue of sphinxes in front of Karnak (fig. 2). At the entrance to the Khonsu Temple, he was depicted offering to the Theban Triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. His son, Menkheperre, carried out an inspection of all the Theban temples and built a mudbrick enclosure wall around Karnak.

Fig. 2: Colossal statue of Pinedjem

The Twenty-second Dynasty started with Sheshonq I, the first first foreign ruler of Egypt in 600 years. He was a Libyan military commander whose family had lived in the Delta region at Bubastis for generations. He appointed his son, Iwput, as the High Priest of Amun, thus tightening control of this important office (fig. 3). Sheshonq I undertook a range of building projects at Karnak, one of which was the Bubastis Portal. Its southern wall depicted his victory over Israel and Judea. He was the first pharaoh to be identified by name (Shishak) in the Old Testament, although some scholars dispute this association. This is significant as it became possible to view the military victories of the Egyptians from other contemporary sources.

Fig. 3: Sheshonq I, accompanied by Iwput, being suckled by Hathor

The influence and power of the God’s Wife of Amun increased during the Twenty-second/Twenty-third dynasties, reaching its height during the Kushite (Twenty-fifth Dynasty) and Saite (Twenty-sixth Dynasty) periods. This also coincided with the increase in the worship of Osiris. Karnak had always been dedicated to multiple gods, with Osiris now having numerous chapels built for him. In total, there are close to 20 Osiris chapels at Karnak. The earliest chapel is that of Osiris Wep-ished, which was decorated during the reign of Osorkon II under the High Priest of Amun, Takelot (fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Chapel of Osiris Wep-ished

In the early Twenty-third Dynasty, the God’s Wife of Amun Shepenwepet was depicted more times in the Chapel of Osiris Heqa-Djet than the kings. This is a clear indication of how important this position had become. In the New Kingdom, the God’s Wife of Amun was the wife or daughter of the ruler. By the Twenty-third Dynasty, she was celibate. It is significant that as the power and influence of the God’s Wife of Amun increased, the power of the High Priest of Amun decreased. In the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, God’s Wife is shown in roles previously allotted to the king. She was shown presenting maat to the gods, receiving the ankh from the gods, and intimately embracing the gods (fig. 5). The God’s Wife was his consort, who is even shown being suckled by Hathor in some scenes. The title of God’s Wife became synonymous with that of the Divine Adoratrice, with the office having a large personnel of attendants and a Chief Steward.

Fig. 5: The God’s Wife Amenirdis embracing Amun

The Twenty-fifth Dynasty heralded the arrival of the Kushites. Shabataka (Shebitqo) was the first Kushite ruler to add to Karnak, including decorating the exterior parts of the Chapel of Osiris Heqa-Djet. He wears a double uraeus on his crown, which symbolised his rule over the two lands (Egypt and Kush). However, since the Kushite ruler were content to govern from Kush, it was the God’s Wife of Amun who was the de facto ruler at Thebes. Shabataka was succeeded by Shabaka, who was responsible for renewing a gateway of the Fourth Pylon.  He also built a treasury (fig. 6) and the “House of Gold”. He constructed two Osiris chapels. Osiris Neb-Ankh and Osiris Coptos. His successor, Taharqa, embarked on an impressive building programme at Karnak. He constructed the so-called Edifice of Taharqa, which is located next to the Sacred Lake. He built and decorated at least three Osiris chapels.


Fig. 6: The Treasury of Shabaka

The Third Intermediate Period saw the fragmentation of the Egyptian state and the arrival of foreign rulers. It witnessed the rise in power of the God’s Wife of Amun and the change to Osiris as a major god at Karnak. This was a big departure from the stability of the New Kingdom and was to be the precursor of future change in later dynasties.


Anonymous 1981. The Temple of Khonsu, volume 2: scenes and inscriptions in the Court and the First Hypostyle Hall, with translations of texts and glossary for volumes 1 and 2. Oriental Institute Publications 103. Chicago, IL: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Ayad, Mariam F. 2009. God’s Wife, God’s Servant: the God’s Wife of Amun (ca.740–525 BC). London; New York: Routledge.

Cooney, Kathlyn M. 2000. The edifice of Taharqa by the Sacred Lake: ritual function and the role of the kingJournal of the American Research Center in Egypt 37, 15–47.

Coulon, Laurent, Aleksandra Hallmann, and Frédéric Payraudeau 2018. The Osirian chapels at Karnak: an historical and art historical overview based on recent fieldwork and studies. In Pischikova, Elena, Julia Budka, and Kenneth Griffin (eds), Thebes in the first millennium BC: art and archaeology of the Kushite period and beyond, 271–293. London: Golden House Publications.

Epigraphic Survey, The 1954. Reliefs and inscriptions at Karnak, volume 3: the Bubastite portal. Oriental Institute Publications 74. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gregory, Steven R. W. 2014. Herihor in art and iconography: kingship and the gods in the ritual landscape of Late New Kingdom Thebes. London: Golden House Publications.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Standing Tall in Karnak’s Great Hypostyle Hall

The blog for this week is written by Marissa Lopez, who holds a degree in anthropology with a focus on archeology. She spent a year studying Egyptology at the American University in Cairo where she worked directly with Dr Kent Weeks and Dr Salima Ikram. She currently lives in Maine, USA, and takes unsuspecting friends to the Boston Museum of Fine Art to lecture them about the Egyptian exhibit.

There are many sights from ancient Egypt that are awe-inspiring, but few that make you feel minuscule at the same time. The Karnak temple complex in modern day Luxor is a required stop for anyone with even a passing interest in ancient Egypt. Built, modified, deconstructed, and expanded within 250 acres for over 2,300 years, it is probably the most sizable ancient temple complex in both space and time. Although invaders, locals looking to reuse the blocks, the ravages of time, and an earthquake have caused considerable damage to the many buildings, statues, columns, and obelisks, tireless work from various Egyptian and foreign missions have restored as much of the temple as possible, and their work is ongoing. This includes the massively impressive Great Hypostyle Hall (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall (Photo by Marissa Lopez)

Seti I started building what would be known as “Seti-is-beneficial-in-the-House-of-Amun” (the Great Hypostyle Hall) in his second year. It was built to be a temple with its own priesthood and not just another addition to the larger complex. Seti is clear in one inscription; after many sleepless nights, this was his idea, his thoughts, and his instructions for this temple. Little did he know that his son would also impose his thoughts on the temple as well.

Walking through the Second Pylon, visitors are greeted by a forest of huge columns that seem to touch the sky. They are easily the first thing to capture your attention. There are 134 in total. Traveling west to east from the Second Pylon to the Third, the path is flanked by twelve 22.4m columns with a few slabs up top, which are all that’s left of the roof. Looking up, one can see stars decorating the underside of the roof slabs, the color still visible in some places. On the north and south side of the colonnade are the remaining 122 columns, each at almost 15m tall. In ancient times, a roof would have covered the entire hall on both levels, while clerestory windows above the center of each pylon let in some light (fig. 2). Carved under the central window is an ankh symbol flanked by the bulrush (South) and bee (North). The central twelve columns were thus exposed to light. As ancient Egyptians observed and were inspired by the natural world, the capitals are depicted as blooming papyrus flowers, particularly because the plant buds stay closed in the dark and flower in the sun. The columns are surrounded by walls filled with inscriptions and depictions of pharaohs and the gods.

Fig. 2: Clerestory windows in the Hall

It seems almost impossible for so many columns, each with a circumference of 15m, to be erected in an area that is 103m wide by 52m deep (fig. 3). The current hypothesis is that the area was slowly filled with sand as the column stone slabs were put in place. After the columns were completed, the sand was removed and scaffolding was used to carve and paint each one. The columns were completed during the time of Seti with his cartouches inscribed at the top, although they were recarved by Ramesses II.

Fig. 3: A congested hall (Photo by Marissa Lopez)

There are two types of columns in the hall, 122 monostyle columns aligned with each other in rows of nine and seven, and the 12 campaniform central columns. The campaniform columns were likely erected by Amenhotep III or Horemheb, although it is unknown by whom. Each column has a ring around the top depicting the cartouches of Ramesses II, although research has shown his name replacing that of Seti I (fig. 4). Ramesses II had a long history of usurping the monuments of his ancestors and those of his father was no exception. The other reliefs show tribute and the worshipping of the Theban Triad by Ramesses II on the campaniform columns, and Ramesses IV on some outer columns. The papyrus stalk imagery is completed with leaves carved on the bottom register of the column.

Fig. 4: Cartouches of Ramesses II recarved over those of Seti I

There are quite a few interesting scenes on the walls. The exterior north wall depicts war scenes including taking of a fortress in Pekanan, an ambush by Bedouins, tributes of booty to Amun, Sekhmet-Mut, Khonsu, the Theban Triad, the capture and massacre of prisoners, and of course, Seti’s triumphant return (fig. 5). The west jamb of the northern entrance doorway is carved for Ramesses II, an addition he liked to make when door jambs were available. The exterior south wall is heavily damaged, yet is thought to recount the military expeditions of Ramesses II to Palestine and Kadesh, much like the north wall, and with an emphasis on duality. For example, Ramesses is compared to Horus and Seth, and is seen trampling over two defeated enemies, bringing back two rows of enemies with their arms bound behind their backs.

Fig. 5: Smiting scene of Seti I

On the internal walls, the Persea tree is depicted twice. Once on the northern wall where Thoth writes the duration of Seti’s reign on the tree leaves in a beautiful and intricate raised relief. In comparison, on the Southern wall, Ramesses II is depicted kneeling in the Persea tree as Thoth stands behind him, writing his name on the leaves as Amun extends to him the symbol for the Sed-festival (fig. 6). The scene continues onto the coronation of Ramesses II and the race of the Apis Bull, in which Seti is represented as walking behind the sacred barques, suggesting he has rejoined with the one who created him.

Fig. 6: Persea tree scene (Photo by Marissa Lopez)

The eastern interior wall shows Seti in the different phases of the Ritual of the Daily Divine Worship. This includes breaking clay seals to open the doors to heaven, making a fire for offerings and libations, and holding the ankh while presenting a list of offerings.

You can’t help but notice the inscriptions during the time of Seti were beautiful and intricate raised bas-relief carvings while Ramesses II quickly moved towards the faster sunk relief method. Ramesses even had the southern wall recarved in sunk relief so he could take credit for the scene. Perhaps he was trading quality for quantity, or making it more difficult for future kings to recarve his own cartouches, there are many possibilities.

The Great Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temple complex has fascinated people for millennia. It was repaired during the Graeco-Roman Period and other kings added their name, such as Ramesses IV. That fascination continues even today and I can promise you, from the scenes on the walls to the dizzying heights of the columns, it is a wonder to see!


For the Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project website, with its extensive bibliography, see

Blyth, Elizabeth 2006. Karnak: evolution of a temple. London: Routledge.

Schwaller de Lubicz, R. A. 1999. The temples of Karnak. Photographs by Georges de Miré and Valentine de Miré; translated by Andrè Vanden Broeck. London: Thames & Hudson.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Blame it on the Eighteenth Dynasty

The blog post for this week is written by Iris C. Meijer, who has been gripped by ancient Egypt from an early age. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Law from Leiden University, where she spent as much time as she could at the marvelous Dutch Museum for Antiquities and took every Egyptological course she could, up to and including an elective in Ancient Egyptian Law. When her career collapsed due to severe chronic illness, she took a leap of faith and moved to Egypt. For the last eighteen years, she has been there, deepening her understanding of the monuments, as well as being active in animal rescue, raising animal welfare awareness through her book and workshops for kids in Egypt, and community efforts to promote Egypt, the land that makes her heart sing!

I blame the Eighteenth Dynasty. I do. If the subtle lines and serene beauty of the Maya and Merit statues at Leiden hadn’t grabbed my heart and mind as a ten-year-old and hung on to it, I wouldn’t be living in Luxor right now, and I wouldn’t have been able to visit Karnak, the “Most Select of Places”, the amazing temple complex that may be the biggest one in the world, so many times. I thought I knew quite a bit about this splendid place, but this course of Dr Ken Griffin is giving me a whole new perspective and so many new insights. The chronological approach Dr Griffin has chosen throws a whole new light on the development of the magnificent temple we are confronted with today—a giant, overwhelming, glorious mass of edifices, pillared halls, shaded sanctuaries, fabulous festival halls, and more (fig. 1). No one entering Karnak, for the first time or the twentieth time, can escape being overwhelmed and gaping in awe. But by tackling the temple chronologically, Dr Griffin causes an adjustment to our mind’s eye. We can ‘see’ the temple developing from quite a modest structure in the Middle Kingdom to the incredible place we have today.

Fig. 1: View of Karnak looking east to west

And again, I blame the Eighteenth Dynasty
😉. Even though arguably the most famous part of Karnak, the very impressive Hypostyle Hall dates from the Nineteenth Dynasty, the sprawling vastness of the Amun complex is mostly down to the Eighteenth Dynasty, as we learned in part two of this wonderful course (fig. 2). The Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs ... names that evoke so many intriguing stories and images. Ahmose II, Hatshepsut, Thutmose (I–IV), Amenhotep (I–III, and even IV 1/2 let’s say—he who later became Akhenaten), Tutankhamun, Aye, Horemheb—even if you have only a passing interest in Egyptology instead of a passion, you will have heard of at least one or more of these.

Fig. 2: Annals of Thutmose III

Ahmose II, the proud Upper Egyptian king who stood up against the foreign usurpers and reunited the Two Lands; my personal favourite, Hatshepsut (fig. 3), the woman who declared herself pharaoh—and who, as Dr Griffin rightly says, gets far less recognition than she deserves—; Thutmose III, who built Egypt into a vast Empire; Amenhotep III, the Golden Pharaoh who presided over the pinnacle of ancient Egypt’s might and wealth; Akhenaten, the Heretic King; Tutankhamun, the young king whose undisturbed tomb has made millions marvel at the glorious art of this period; and last but definitely not least, Horemheb, the ones who put it all back together again after the thankfully short-lived heresy of Akhenaten and paved the way for the restoration of Egypt’s might under the following, warrior-like Nineteenth Dynasty. They all wanted to make their mark on the precinct of the mightiest God of them all: Amun-Ra. And they did. They did it by, in our view perhaps quite ruthlessly, tearing down older structures at Karnak to make space for their vision. And they built and built and built—not in mudbrick as much as had been done before, but in strong, solid, lasting stone. Pylon after pylon, sanctuary after sanctuary, obelisk after obelisk shot up in this dynasty (c. 1550–1292 BCE).

Fig. 3: Hatshepsut and Thutmose III on the Red Chapel

The work on the adjoining precinct of Mut, the consort of Amun-Ra, also started in earnest in this time. Today, there is not much left standing of this wonderful temple to that goddess, but what is there evokes a visual of a once magnificently beautiful temple—and let’s not forget the hundreds of statues of mighty Sekhmet found there (fig. 4)! The last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Horemheb, completed a causeway between the two holy places, lined with magnificent and gigantic ram-headed sphinxes. Mostly overlooked by the general tourist who only has time (and attention span) for the main axis of the Amun complex itself, it is well worth a wander to this side axis and then from its gate via the other side to the temple of Mut. Uniquely, Karnak seems to be the only ancient Egyptian temple that has both a major east-west axis as well as a north-south one, connecting all the temples of Luxor’s East Bank into one glorious religious landscape. It boggles the mind, when you really try to stretch it to encompass all of it in your physical or mind’s eye!

Fig. 4: Sekhmet statue in the Mut Complex

But back to Karnak. Thankfully, though they did tear them down, the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs did not fully destroy the older stone chapels that were there before their own personal building projects, but instead used the blocks as infill for the magnificent pylons that they erected. Due to serious hard work by expert restorers, the stunning restored chapels, shrines, and columns can now be admired in Karnak’s lovely Open Air Museum—it may be an extra ticket, but well worth it (fig. 5). Because the structures were torn down relatively early in their monumental lives, they survive in often pristine condition when put back together, and escaped later purges, defacements, and destruction. There are some real gems in there, and they tell us so much about the development of Karnak. Dr Griffin must have studied them with a magnifying glass, he gave us so many beautiful and interesting details to go and find on the next visit to Karnak!

Fig. 5: Beautifully carved relief of Thutmose IV in the Open Air Museum

The Eighteenth Dynasty properly started the New Kingdom, the era of Empire and one of the greatest heydays of the long, long history of ancient Egypt. Amun merged with Ra, and became the most important deity in all of Egypt. And of course, the proud Upper Egyptian dynasty needed to reflect that in the magnificence of his home, his temple. And oh my goodness, did they ever! And is there yet more to discover? Oh yes! Not many people are aware of this, but there are thousands upon thousands of blocks neatly lined up at Karnak, just waiting, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, to be matched and put together into yet more structures (fig. 6). Some of the decorations on these blocks are truly sublime, and yet others, as Dr Griffin showed us, are more unassuming but invaluable in what they can tell us—about history, veneration, and development at Karnak.

Fig. 6: Fragment of a large quartzite statue of Amenhotep III

So when you (next) visit Karnak, for the first or the umpteenth time, do take more than an hour or so. Take at least a whole afternoon, schedule in a nice break at the café at the beautiful Sacred Lake, and wander, just wander. Wander to side rooms and chapels, don’t just stop at the holy of holies but go further, to the great Festival Hall of Thutmose III (fig. 7). Go to the south and explore the magnificent side axis. Go north-west and take in the Open Air Museum. Wander between the rows and rows of blocks still waiting, waiting… You will be stunned at how vast this temple complex really is, and how much vision was behind how everything was put together. And when the vastness gets to you, do like I did: blame the Eighteenth Dynasty. They did most of it!

Fig. 7: Columns in the Festival Hall of Thutmose III

Monday, 16 November 2020

Middle Kingdom Karnak: The Complexities of a Decorated Wall

The blog post for this week is written by Yvonne Buskens-Frenken, from the Netherlands. She is a member of the Dutch Egyptology society Mehen and a former student of Egyptology at Manchester University (Certificate 2015 and Diploma 2017). While Yvonne has never been to the Egypt Centre before, she hopes to visit in the near future, perhaps with other Mehen members. 

Last week a fabulous new online course was launched by The Egypt Centre called Karnak: The most select of places. From my experience of previous courses, I’m sure that this course will again be brilliantly hosted by Dr Ken Griffin. Ken will discuss the temple chronologically, with week one dedicated to the origins of this temple complex until the New Kingdom.

Many of you may have visited Karnak temple and its surroundings. Although I visited Karnak temple several times, every visit leaves me in awe. There is so much history packed into one spot, available for us to explore, but almost impossible to comprehend. Many excavations and restorations have taken place at Karnak and it is still an ongoing process. These excavations and new discoveries, which lead to new theories, teach us even more about the history of this awesome temple complex.

Karnak temple lies on the east bank of the River Nile in modern Luxor. The landscape of Karnak changed considerably over the millennia and latest research suggest it was actually built on an island (Graham & Bunbury 2005). Karnak now comprises three main complexes covering a vast area of 750 acres: an Amun Complex (Khonsu temple, Ptah temple, Opet temple, Amun-Re-Horakhty temple, Osiride temples/shrines), the Mut complex, and the Montu complex (fig. 1). Not all are open to the public. The Montu complex is closed, but the Mut complex has been open to the public for some years now.

Fig. 1: Ahmed Bahloul Khier Galal, CC BY-SA 4.0
<>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Karnak complex was known in ancient times, more specifically since the Middle Kingdom, as I͗pt-swt (“the most select of places”). Other names are pt-ḥr-sꜣ-tꜣ (“Heaven on Earth”), ḫnty-wꜣst (“Foremost of Thebes”), and ḏw-n-bi͗ꜣt (“Mountain of Wonders”?). The main temple is dedicated to the god Amun. We don’t know exactly when the temple was founded as there are indications that Amun was worshipped in earlier times. The god Montu, for instance, was worshipped in Thebes in earlier times as well. Does mean that there was not already a temple dedicated to the god Amun? Not necessarily, but the most concrete architectural evidence for worshipping Amun dates from the reign of Intef II of the Eleventh Dynasty. An eight-sided sandstone column found in 1985 bears the text: “(Monument in favour of) Amun-Ra, lord of heaven, (by) the mighty of the land, pillar of Victorious Thebes, (his) praised one, his beloved one, the (protecting) Horus, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, son of Ra Intef the great one, the victorious one, born of Neferu, which he made as his monument on behalf of this god […]”. This column is now in the Luxor Museum (fig. 2).
The earliest reference to a temple of Amun also dates to the Eleventh Dynasty and is from a fragmentary stela of Rhwi now at the Manchester Museum (5052). It reads, “I supplied the house of Amun (in) years of scarcity of shutting off the slaughter, in order to provide the altar tables at each opening of the month and to endow (them) at each opening of the year.”

Fig. 2: Column of Intef

The most ancient parts of the Karnak temple complex itself are the White Chapel of Senwosret I, a large brick ramp towards the Montu precinct (north-west side), and the Middle Kingdom court. I want to highlight some aspects of the Middle Kingdom court. Why? First of all, most visitors usually walk straight from the sanctuary of Philip Arrhidaeus, over the large open Middle Kingdom court towards the so called Akh-menu, a more popular tourist attraction within the complex. But this almost empty yard does not make it less interesting; sometimes less is actually more! (fig. 3) 
Although today only three granite doorsills, in a line along the axes east-west, and some remains of an alabaster pedestal are visible for the visitors (fig. 4), excavations done by Luc Gabolde (Co-director of the CFEETK project) inform us that underneath this court are the foundations of a Middle Kingdom temple. These possibly date to the Eleventh Dynasty, but were certainly extensively redeveloped by king Senwosret I. The Middle Kingdom temple was built of limestone and surrounded by a mudbrick wall. It had a façade with twelve portico pillars each with a statue of the king in Osirian form (fig. 5). The limestone pillars of the court were carved in fine raised reliefs—similar to what we know from the White Chapel now in the Open Air Museum—of the king worshipping Amun, Atum, Horus, and Ptah.

Fig. 3: View of the Middle Kingdom course

Fig. 4: Remains of the Middle Kingdom temple

Fig. 5: Osiride columns of Senwosret I

This temple was probably in use throughout the Pharaonic Period. It was made of limestone, which is not always the best material to use in an architectural structure with a long lifespace. Therefore, by the time of the New Kingdom, it needed to be refurbished. This brings me to another Middle Kingdom aspect to be found close to the court and easy to miss when heading towards the Akh-menu. It relates to the southeast wall of the so-called Hatshepsut’s suite, which also needed to be refurbished (fig. 6). The south wall of this structure is decorated with two almost identical scenes, both depicting a king sitting on a throne, flanked by two lions (fig. 7) and the smꜣ-tꜣwy motif (the binding of the heraldic plants of Upper and Lower Egypt symbolising the union of the Two Lands). It is a copy from a scene dating to Middle Kingdom (fig. 8). At some point during the New Kingdom, this limestone wall was replaced by a sandstone one, either because of its bad condition (decaying limestone) or because it was deliberately demolished to fit into the building programme for either Hatshepsut or Thutmose III. There is still much debate amongst Egyptologists as to which king replaced the Middle Kingdom wall and how it was integrated into the Hatshepsut suite. According to Luc Gabolde, the most eastern scene on this south wall was carved during the reign of Hatshepsut when she replaced the Middle Kingdom wall. It depicts king Senwosret I with only two columns of text as the rest is now lost. The western end of the south wall shows a similar image, but here Thutmose III is shown. The big difference here with the eastern depiction is the fact that more text is available for us. The text is known as the Texte de la Jeunesse. The text is mainly meant to be autobiographical as it boasts about how Thutmose III, still as a young man (hence the name of the text) is chosen to be king of Egypt by Amun, his titulary given by the gods, and his ascension to the throne as a sole king.

Fig. 6: Passage leading to the southern wall of the Hatshepsut suite

Fig. 7: Lion under the throne of Senwosret I

Fig. 8: Southern wall of the Hatshepsut suite (Larche 2009, fig. 1)

Whether it was Hatshepsut or Thutmose III who was responsible for refurbishing this wall and to what extent it was made to fit into the New Kingdom building, for now it is important to understand that Thutmose III was devoted to Senwosret I and/or important to identify himself with the actions of the this great Middle Kingdom king.


Blyth, Elizabeth 2006. Karnak: evolution of a temple. London: Routledge.

Gabolde, Luc 1998. Le “Grand Château d’Amon” de Sésostris Ier à Karnak: la décoration du temple d’Amon-Rê au Moyen Empire. Mémoires de l’Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, nouvelle série 17. Paris: Diffusion de Boccard.

———. 2018. Karnak, Amon-Rê: la genèse d’un temple, la naissance d’un dieu. Bibliothèque d’étude 167. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.

Graham, Angus and Judith Bunbury 2005. The ancient landscapes and waterscapes of Karnak. Egyptian Archaeology 27, 17–19.

Larché, François 2009. A reconstruction of Senwosret I’s portico and of some structures of Amenhotep I at Karnak. In Brand, Peter J. and Louise Cooper (eds), Causing his name to live: studies in Egyptian epigraphy and history in memory of William J. Murnane, Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 37. 137–173. Leiden; Boston: Brill.