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Foreign Folks and New Place Names in the Temple of Amenhotep III

Dr. Rainer Stadelmann is the Emeritus Director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, and co-director with his wife, Hourig Sourouzian, of the Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Mortuary Temple Conservation Project.

The many monumental and colossal statues found in the “Temple of Millions of Years” built by Amenhotep III, were originally standing on bases decorated with representations of foreigners from all the countries surrounding Egypt, both to the north and to the south.
The seated colossal statues of the king which stood in front of both the second and the third pylons were placed on very large bases carefully decorated with depictions of foreign folks.

In the peristyle court, between the 12 to 14 meter high monumental columns, 8 meter tall statues of the standing king were placed, each on a black granite plinth. The bases of these statues are decorated with personifications of foreign countries. The text on one of these bases describes them approaching the king “on their knees”, in order to receive the “breath of life” from him. These foreigners are represented with their arms bound behind them at the elbows and their necks encircled with the stems and roots of lilies and papyrus stalks. Each is represented with a fortified oval overlaying his body in which the name of his homeland is written.

When we examine the bases of the colossi at the second pylon, the decoration on the front sides of the bases are much more carefully modeled than those on the other three sides.

The base of the north colossus of the Second Pylon features a sema-tawy – the symbol of a unified Egypt – in the center of the front side, with three foreigners on each side facing the sema-tawy. On the left half, the heads of the three southern folks are masterpieces of sculpture, revealing individualized features. For example, the Kushite is portrayed with the elongated eyes, close cropped hair, full lips and high cheekbones typical of his countrymen. Some faces show the deep scarification lines, prominent chin and full lips of other African tribal groups. Interestingly, each one, regardless of origin wears a long feather in his hair and large, hoop earrings. (Identification of these tribes was until now not possible.)

On the south face of that base the depictions are less detailed and less deeply cut but still exquisitely rendered. In several cases the conservation team has been able to bring together multiple pieces from the south side of the plinth which ultimately revealed foreign people heretofore unknown.
Back on the front face of the base of the north colossus, the first two northern folks which were depicted to the right side of the sema-tawy sign are still missing. At the end of the front face, a representation of an unidentified foreigner is preserved. According to the sequence of countries in other lists Dr. Stadelmann believes he may be the representation of the land of Assur. The north face of the base is decorated with representation of three northern peoples; first a Hittite depicted with the typical hair style of a Hittite prince. Dr. Stadelmann noted that earlier representations of Hittites had a pointed beard, but the Hittites on the statuary at the Amenhotep III temple have no beards at all. Next is a Syrian, then an individual whose country name is transliterated Isyu who might be the same as those mentioned in Hittite sources as residing in the highlands later; followed by the land of Irtju, then Arzawa, situated on the southwestern of coast of Asia Minor. The team has gathered fragments of other Syrian types, last of whom is a Beduin of the eastern desert, followed by a papyrus bundle, the heraldic plant of the north. On both bases of the colossi at the 2nd Pylon the second land represented is Irem followed by smaller polities. Many of the country names encountered can be read but not accurately identified. Dr. Stadelmann postulated that they may be Egyptian interpretations of names in a foreign language. Some of the many other fragments found during excavation and reassembled surely belong to depictions of northern representations of Syrian types who have pointed beards.

Most of the fortified ovals containing the place name of depicted foreigners on the colossi from the 2nd pylon are carved with squared bastions, but some, for no readily apparent reason, have rounded bastions. Where might they come from? The representation of foreigners as decorative elements on royal statuary goes back to the earliest periods of Egyptian history. Predynastic palettes bear depictions of fortified cities with rectangular bastions. Some battle scenes in tombs of the Old Kingdom bear circular bastions on the fortifications. Rounded bastions also appear in late Old Kingdom representations, sometimes with a prisoner inside the fortification.

Statue bases found earlier in the Peristyle Court of the Amenhotep III temple bear the names of the great countries included in the decoration; names of northern countries, like Syria, Palestine, Babylon, etc. as well as names of Syrian cities, like Damascus, all with round bastions rather than square ones. Dr. Stadelmann postulated that the shape of the bastions may have some chronological value within the reign and in the temple precinct, and this feature is under study.

The Colossi of Memnon are the largest and highest of the monumental statuary at the Temple of Amenhotep III. Their bases should have been decorated just as all the other colossal statue bases are. We do see some monumental inscriptions of Amenhotep III, but unfortunately, over time, many have been cut out. Dr. Stadelmann feels that parts of both statue plinths were never finished or were decorated with paint, rather than relief carving, and of course, the paint has long ago worn away.

Similar decorated statue bases have been discovered at Karnak-South in front of the Mut Precinct, which date from the late period. Some were undoubtedly brought to Karnak-South from Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple and reused. By kind permission of the Supreme Council of Antiquities these blocks were returned to the Amenhotep III temple where they have been cleaned and it has been clearly determined that they came originally from Western Thebes and the Amenhotep III temple. The inscription on these blocks reports about monuments in alabaster brought from the quarries of Hartnub. The decoration on these blocks also comprises representations of northern and southern folks carved respectively on the south and north halves of each colossal statue’s plinth.

As had been noted by Dr. Sourouzian during her lecture, the colossi which had once stood at the entrance to the 3rd Pylon of the Amenhotep III temple, are still hidden beneath the ground where they fell in antiquity. They are known to be of alabaster; therefore, these blocks from Karnak-South belong most probably to the plinths of the alabaster colossi of the third pylon. If new funds are found, these colossi will need to be addressed due to extensive conservation issues.

The depictions of foreign folks in the peristyle court corresponds to the division of the court into northern and southern halves. On the south side the royal statuary was carved from red granite and the king is represented wearing the crown of Upper Egypt. On the north side the statuary is carved from quartzite and the king is represented wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. Accordingly, the decoration found on the statue bases bears depictions of the southern folks in the south half of the court, and northern folks in the north half. New statue bases found by The Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project confirms this division. The dominant personification on the southern statue bases seem to be that of the empire of Kush, followed by other smaller countries or polities. The same sequence in the decoration is observed on a limestone base of a sphinx, found earlier in the temple precinct; the Kushite and Bedouins of the south are specifically bound with the lily of the south.

On a newly discovered block deriving from one of the northern statue bases are three representations of folks which look very much like Greek warriors of the archaic period. From the inscription the first might be the mythic land of the Louvians known from ancient sources. The second is certainly the personfication of Great Ionia, i.e an Ionian, recorded here for the first time, and the third representation may be that of Mitanni. On a second block the reading is much more dubious; the representation on the right may be that of a Danaen and the second possibly, again, a folk from Mitanni. Further fragments of representations from bases continue to name northern and Greek peoples. Dr. Stadelmann noted that he is now looking for a third great ethnic entity, the Akyawasha – the Achaeans – to complete the list of the Greek populations. He noted as well, that the depiction of foreigners is, in fact, really a geographical list of people around Egypt. According to the Pharaonic dogma, Egypt could depict them only as subdued. It is interesting to speculate about what happened when the ambassadors of these countries came for feasts and festivals and saw the princes of their countries beneath the feet of the king.

The exquisite relief carvings which have been found as the colossal statuary of the Amenhotep III Temple is unearthed are shedding new light not only on the quality of craftsmanship of the ancients, but on the names of tribes and countries not heretofore known. With many more pieces of statuary yet to be excavated and studied, it is likely that these beautiful works will expand our knowledge greatly.

The Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Mortuary Temple Conservation Project has accomplish extraordinary things to date, and will, hopefully, accomplish many, many more in the future. If you are interested in supporting this project make your check to World Monuments Fund for MTA III, and send it to World Monuments Fund, 95 Madison Avenue, 9th Floor, New York, NY 10016

—Nancy Corbin, Hourig Sourouzian and Rainer Stadlemann