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The OI gives the ancient temple of Amun a new lease on life

From the rooftop of a small temple on the west bank of the Nile, one can see all of Medinet Habu, a vast expanse of gateways, courtyards, and ancient structures rich in decoration. The Oriental Institute's Epigraphic Survey, now in its 75th year, has been documenting the site since 1924, when James Henry Breasted founded Chicago House, the U of C's Luxor, Egypt, headquarters.

But it is what is directly underfoot—the temple of Amun—that is particularly important at the century's close. Built in the 15th century b.c. on the site where the eight Egyptian gods of creation were believed to be buried, the temple is one of the most sacred sites in the most sacred area of ancient Egypt, yet nature and thousands of years of use are slowly destroying it. As the stone foundations have settled, the walls have become unstable and blocks have cracked. Moisture seeps into the ancient stones. Many of the temple's reliefs—carvings in stone over which paint is applied—and paintings are covered with bird droppings and soot from fires made by people who used the temple for temporary shelter throughout the centuries. Rainstorms have penetrated the sanctuary, staining paint and washing mud over carved details.

Hoping to preserve the antiquities for posterity, the Epigraphic Survey has undertaken a five-year conservation, restoration, and documentation project with the help of a $455,000 usaid grant from the Egyptian Antiquities Project, administered through the American Research Center in Egypt. When completed, the temple will be open to the public, providing scholars and tourists a remarkable look at Egyptian history, architecture, and religion from 1500 b.c. to the second century a.d.

"We are resurrecting and reconstructing the dismantled temple itself, bringing it back from the dead," says survey director W. Raymond Johnson, PhD'92. "By recording these monuments as precisely as we do, we are ensuring their preservation and perpetuation for eternity, just as the ancient Egyptians so fervently desired."

Many of the peoples who ruled Egypt—including the pharaohs of the New Kingdom, the Kushite invaders from the south, the Ptolemaic dynasties of Hellenistic time, and finally, the Romans—left their mark on the temple. The temple's oldest part, which is 100 feet long and 43 feet wide, was built by Queen Hatshepsut and her nephew, King Thutmosis III, in 1460 b.c. About 300 years later, Ramses III enclosed the temple within his great mortuary complex "to lend his temple additional sanctity," explains Johnson. Successive rulers added to, rebuilt, and repaired the structure until a.d. 138, when a great Roman forecourt was begun but not completed. All together, these additions enlarged the temple area to 353 feet by 133 feet.

The accurate documentation, or epigraphy, of the temple's inscriptions and reliefs started in 1990. The Chicago House method begins with photographing the inscribed wall surface. An artist traces the inscription on the photograph in pencil, then in ink. The photograph is treated chemically so that the image dissolves and the inked line drawing remains. After blueprints of the drawing are made, one is cut into small pieces and mounted on collation sheets, which the epigraphers compare to the original inscription, noting corrections. Finally, an artist enters the corrections on the original drawing, which is checked one more time before publication.

But the big push to conserve and restore the temple itself started in the 1996–97 season: to minimize salt damage, some exposed foundations made of reused Kushite blocks were documented and reburied. The following season, conservation focused on the roof. Workers removed debris from the cracks between the roof blocks, then applied mortar as a sealant. They also installed a rainspout to take care of the runoff.

"Once the roof was sealed and the safety of the painted reliefs below was assured, the cleaning could proceed," says Johnson. "Sealing the roof stabilized the interior environment and inhibited the migration of groundwater into the temple." Stonecutter Dany Roy will soon replace some missing Ptolemaic roof blocks with new blocks cut from the Silsileh sandstone quarry south of Luxor, where the originals were quarried.

Work continues apace in the 1998–99 season, as paintings and inscriptions are cleaned and documented. On a warm and cloudless day this past November, 16 people were hard at work on the temple. An Egyptian workman steadied a ladder as survey staff members climbed up to the roof to check on the repairs. At the temple's front, epigrapher Ted Castle perched on a ladder 10 feet above the temple floor, checking a pencil drawing of an inscription against the original on the wall.

"Everything has to be corrected," he explained, looking at a series of artists' comments on the drawing. "The camera doesn't pick up every detail."

On a chapel wall inside the temple, conservator Lotfi Hassan used specially prepared clay to lift salts and soot from painted images that show King Thutmosis presenting food offerings to the creator god Amun in hopes of insuring perpetual provisions.

"Essentially, what the gods gave to man for his sustenance was given back to the gods for their sustenance in a never-ending cycle of reciprocity," Johnson explains. "This give-and-take situation kept the universe going and perpetuated life eternally."

Since the current season began, Hassan has cleaned an entire wall—about 2.5 percent of the sanctuary's painted surface area. Already the contrast is striking: the uncleaned area looks dark and sooty, while the reds and yellows of the cleaned area gleam under electric lights.

"When the color is preserved, one is struck, even saddened, by the enormity of what has been lost elsewhere, since so many exquisite details were only painted and never carved," Johnson says.

Occasionally, the soot and grime also conceal prayers and inscriptions inked over the reliefs, attesting to the piety of officials and priests who were responsible for the care of the temple cult. According to Johnson, "The closer the proximity of the prayer to the god, the more efficacious the result. These guys were in charge of the cult, responsible for the care and feeding of the deities housed within. The writing of these prayers was undoubtedly considered a major 'perk' of their work."

During the next two years, the conservation team will be expanded, a new skylight will be constructed, and the drawings and other documentation will be published by the Oriental Institute in a series of books portraying the temple's inscriptions. In 2001, when the project is completed, the temple will become a tourist attraction. Ramses III's funerary complex is already one of the most popular tourist venues in western Thebes, notes Johnson, adding: "When the Epigraphic Survey is finished with its documentation and conservation work, the significance and majesty of both complexes will be accessible, and obvious, to all." —William Harms

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