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The Joint Expedition to Malqata, the Palace-City of Amenhotep III

Dr. Diana Craig Patch is the Associate Curator in the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She is an Egyptologist with extensive field experience, including work at Abydos and Dahshur, as well as heading ARCE's field school at Memphis. Her area of specialty is Pre-Dynastic and early Dynastic Egypt. Currently she is the co-director of the Joint Expedition to Malqata (JEM) with Dr. Peter Lacovara of the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University and Dr. Catharine Roehrig, also of the MMA.

Dr. Patch began her lecture with images of Amenhotep III and his Great Royal Wife, Tiye. Although Amenhotep III married several of his daughters by Tiye, the best known is Sitamun on whom he bestowed the title of Great Royal Wife; Tiye was always his primary queen. Tiye was not royal, but a member of a family from the town of Akhmim in Middle Egypt. That her family was able to marry their daughter to the young king early in his reign indicates their influence and power. Both of her brothers became major officials during the 38-year reign of Amenhotep III. Anen was the Second Prophet of Amen and Aye would achieve even greater pre-eminence as his daughter
Nefertiti married Amenhotep III's successor, Akhenaten. Aye would become vizier and regent for Tutankhamen, eventually succeeding to the throne itself on Tutankhamun’s untimely death. Other high-ranking officials of Amenhotep III’s court included Ramose, who was vizier at the end of Amenhotep III’s reign and into Akhenaten's; and the famous sage Amenhotep son of Hapu.

The reign of Amenhotep III saw several major innovations in how the pharaoh chose to represent himself. Amenhotep III closely identified with Re, the sun god. His successor Akhenaten emphasized the role of the sun disk even further. Amenhotep III was a prolific builder of temples in both Egypt and Nubia and the statuary that decorated them. He built the temple of Soleb in Nubia; he initiated work on the temple of Luxor, and built an enormous mortuary temple at Kom el-Hetan on Luxor's West Bank, just to name a few. While the majority of the stone from Kom el-Hetan was stolen by Ramesses II's son Merenptah to build his own temple, the immense images guarding the entrance, the so-called "Colossi of Memnon" give silent testimony to the temple’s original size. Amenhotep III popularized statuary that combined human bodies with the heads of animals to represent gods. Amenhotep III was the first Pharaoh to become deified (Soleb is a temple dedicated to Amenhotep III as a god).

The site of Malqata is certainly on scale with other of Amenhotep III's ambitious projects. Seven kilometers in length, Malqata was a palace-city that included a temple, houses for the elite, several palaces, villages, several ceremonial structures, a royal road, a causeway, and of course the immense harbor known as Birket Habu. Malqata was expressly built for the celebration of the pharaoh's heb-sed, or jubilee, which is a festival during the 30th year of his reign. Malqata is an important site for several reasons; not only for the study of the rituals related to the heb-sed, but also because we have few ancient Egyptian settlement sites that are preserved because most lie under current habitation or fields. Now Malqata is under increasing threats from the encroachment of modern housing, fields, and tourism, as well as the natural elements. The Supreme Council of Antiquities is currently studying how to save the site and make sections available for tourists to visit.

Malqata is a difficult site to understand; its surviving mud brick walls have crumbled after its abandonment and from exposure after excavation. The JEM has prepared new maps of the site that take detailed plans of the ancient architecture drawn by the MMA from 1910-1921 and integrate these with modern satellite imagery. Field photographs from the MMA excavations are also compared to the current state of the site to determine the extent of the deterioration and provide more architectural detail. The satellite images are also necessary to really understand and appreciate the sheer scale and layout of Malqata.

Amenhotep III commissioned the construction of a man-made harbor (now silted up), which is the focus of the palace-city of Malqata; the tons of material excavated from the harbor and the canal connecting it to the Nile were used to build L-shaped mounds framing the harbor and two long rows of mounds that lie parallel to the edge of the cultivation. These structures can be best appreciated from the air.

Malqata, the modern name of the site is derived from the Arabic for "place of many little things," referring to the countless fragments of painted plaster, faience objects, and painted pottery that used to decorate the site’s surface. These objects are now largely gone, although there are still many pottery fragments remaining; whatever wasn't collected by archaeologists was doubtlessly picked up by the locals. Unlike the site Akhenaten chose for his new city, Malqata was not located on virgin soil as it seems that Amenhotep III dismantled existing shrines and structures to build his palace-city. This suggests that the area already was significant to the Egyptians and may have been one of the reasons why it was chosen to build this settlement to house the celebration of this important festival. Amenhotep III held three heb-seds: the first in Year 30, then Year 33, and Year 36. The heb-sed is a festival held to ritually rejuvenate the king after 30 years on the throne and was of great religious importance. Subsequent heb-seds were celebrated at irregular intervals.

The earlier MMA expeditions unfortunately did not record the find spots for small objects; the Malqata expeditions were very early in the history of the department and Egyptian archaeology. The MMA’s detailed architectural plans are important and have assisted scholars ever since they were made. These plans are vital to the current expedition in identifying the structures as they currently exist at the site. The earlier work also uncovered elite houses situated on several mounds; the finds included two complete menat necklaces, including one of the few complete ones known. The menat was a musical and ritual "necklace" sacred to Hathor, goddess of love and beauty; although most often associated with women and the king in his role as high priest, at least one statue from the reign of Amenhotep III shows an official holding a menat-necklace.

The temple to Amun at Malqata was built of mud brick, reflecting the temporary and residential nature of the site. Egyptian temples were normally built of stone because they were intended to last for eternity. Malqata’s Amun temple was also of unusual design: its plan incorporated the open courts into the terraces of the original low desert landscape. The temple had a huge open sun court, whose proportion was far larger than the rooms to the rear of the temple. Perhaps the openness of the court was the result of the increasing emphasis on the solar cult. It must have been beautifully decorated; blue faience wall tiles were found set into plaster that was gilded, making a striking color combination of blue and gold. Fragments of a black stone statue of Amun were found; it was most likely smashed during the reign of Akhenaten.

Another important find just outside the temple was a long pit full of broken jars bearing inscriptions that were labels of their contents, including wine, honey, oil and other foodstuffs. Labels are key sources of information about provisioning; for example, they can identify the king, help determine the length of a king's reign, fix when an event occurred within the reign, all of which allow for better understanding the site. The late Dr. Candy Keller of UC Berkeley worked extensively on the jar label archive at the MMA.

The King's Palace must have been a stunning and impressive building and very colorfully decorated with painted plaster ceilings and walls. Many scenes incorporated design elements borrowed from outside of Egypt, including the Aegean islands. The Egypt of Amenhotep III was a very cosmopolitan society, having a thriving trade with not only Crete, Syro-Palestine, and Africa, but acquiring materials that travelled from as far as 3000 miles in Afghanistan, which is the source of the much prized stone, lapis lazuli. Part of the King’s Palace at Malqata was a two-storied structure; this is indicated by the remains of two different ceiling paintings (NOT FRESCOS, not painted on wet plaster but dry, a different technique) lying one over the other. The palace’s central hall had two rows of columns and a dais at one end. Beyond that was a set of rooms including a bathroom believed to belong to the king. The king's bedroom had a floor paved with stone slabs and decorated walls that were preserved to a significant height in 1910, but are now lost. Tree pits perhaps indicating gardens were discovered behind these rooms at the south side of the palace.

To the east and west of the columned hall, six identical apartments were laid out, each with its own washing area, columned room with a dais, and a storage room with benches. Wall paintings discovered in these rooms are preserved in the MMA’s collection. Currently two different interpretations have been offered to explain how these apartments were used in antiquity. David O'Connor of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University believes that these rooms housed women who entertained the king when he was in residence at the palace and not involved in ritual duties. Alternatively, Dorothea Arnold of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has suggested that each apartment was intended to store a different set of garments and paraphernalia that the king needed in different rituals. He would enter an apartment to dress for a specific ceremony. Both interpretations address certain finds from the king’s palace and known material from the reign of Amenhotep III, but neither currently answers all questions. These rooms seem to be a topic for future study.

Other structures in the Malqata complex include the North Palace, sometimes called the queen's palace; a raised mound referred to as an Audience Pavilion, and the North and South Villages. The North Village was an unplanned settlement, possibly housing workers for manufacture, food production, and in support of other court activities. The South Village was the name given to a huge mound of debris, which is now gone as sebbakh (decayed mud brick used by villagers as fertilizer). It was most likely also a center for craftsmen. Many pieces scattered on Malqata’s surface and recovered during earlier expeditions included amulets and amulet molds, knives, inlays, tools, rings and ring molds, and other faience objects for decoration at Malqata.

The West Villas were planned housing for the elite. Today mud brick pavement, stone door-sills, depressions that once held columns and low walls still survive. Many mud sealings were recovered in the West Villas, indicating immense scribal activity there. Was this perhaps an administration center or scribal housing?

An ancient road runs along the west side of Malqata and can be traced from at least as far north as Medinet Habu (the mortuary temple of Ramesses III), although it may have begun at Kom el-Hetan. The raised roadway, containing mud bricks stamped with the cartouche of Amenhotep III, runs south towards Deir el-Shelwit, probably ending there at a small temple to Isis (the current structure dates to the Ptolemaic period), although the road at this point has been destroyed by modern settlement activities. Nearby is Kom el-Samak.

This site houses a platform and ramps decorated with Egypt’s enemies in painted plaster Excavated by a team from Wasada University, who had also worked extensively on the reconstruction of decorated plaster wall and ceiling paintings in the King’s Palace, Kom el-Samak may originally have been a barque shrine. Unfortunately, the structure is badly damaged as a result of exposure to the elements and the removal of bricks to nearby villages. Happily, the plaster decoration was superbly recorded by Wasada University and the fragments of the decoration placed in a storeroom in Egypt where they are preserved against the problematic rainstorms that now damage exposed mud brick structures.

Farther to the south, a second platform rises up from the desert with several mud brick houses in association to the west. Known as Kom el-Abd, the platform was excavated by Myers in 1937 (News and Notes in JEA). The platform’s purpose is still unclear. Beyond Kom el-Abd, a strip of the low desert was cleared in antiquity of all rocks, which the ancient Egyptians then lined up along the edges of the cleared strip. Because the causeway does not cross the entire low desert and its width is variable, it seems that the project was never finished; its purpose is also unknown.

Malqata is a unique site because it is a settlement created for a specific purpose and thus functioned for only a short time. Built by Amenhotep III for his use, Malqata was largely abandoned immediately after his death. Because the palace-city was not built of stone and no longer needed, Malqata was not deliberately dismantled, as was Akhetaten for example, the city built by Amenhotep III’s successor, Akhenaten. The ability to study a settlement, which has many different aspects but built for one purpose by one pharaoh, gives Egyptologists the opportunity to better understand an important ritual of kingship, the heb-sed and to gain a bit of insight into one pharaoh’s vision of his world.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities is dedicated to the preservation of Malqata and intends to prevent further destruction to this unique settlement. With the future work of JEM, the site can be protected, made accessible and better interpreted for its visitors. These steps will take a lot of work and support but will make the difference for future generations who will be able to visit a rare and special site. JEM’s team wants to thank the many people who participated or assisted to make this season a success, especially Joel and Robert Paulsen, the surveyors, Ginger Emery of Chicago House, and Fawzi Okail of the SCA. A special thanks to Zahi Hawass and Sabry Abdelaziz and members the SCA as well as Ray Johnson and the staff at Chicago House for all their support.