Temple of Amenhotep III
The mortuary temple of Amenhotep III was the largest temple to be built on the West Bank, covering an area of 35 hectares and one of the largest religious structures in Egypt. At the time of construction in Dynasty XVIII, it would have superseded the Temple of Amun at Karnak in size. Kom el-Hetan, the modern name for Amenhotep’s temple, is located about half a kilometre to the south-east of Medinet Habu and stretches from the Colossi of Memnon back to the bend by the Antiquities Inspectorate.
Amenhotep’s mortuary temple must have decayed rapidly, possibly due to the water content of the land it was built on. Until recently all that remained to identify the site were two massive colossal statues of the pharaoh which stood at its entrance gateway, known since antiquity as the ‘Colossi of Memnon’. By early Dynasty XIX, Merenptah was able to re-use many blocks from the site of Amenhotep’s temple in the construction of his own funerary monument nearby.
We know the general outline of the temple from traces of its pylons and columns which have lain buried at the site for centuries. It was mentioned as one of Petrie’s ‘Six Temples at Thebes’ but was never properly excavated. Fragments of architecture are now re-emerging, including a columned hall at the rear of the temple, during excavations by teams of German and Egyptian archaeologists in recent years.
The entrance to the temple was to the east facing the Nile, opposite Luxor Temple and was guarded by the two gigantic colossi of Amenhotep III, with smaller statues of Queens Tiye and Mutemwiya at their feet. There were two large courts between three pylons with other seated statues of the king. A headless sphinx statue of Queen Tiye was found near the second mudbrick pylon and there were also jackal statues on high pedestals as well as Osirid statues of the king. Another headless sphinx with the body of a crocodile was found in 1957 in situ on the southern side of the temple site, and can still be seen today along with many more recent finds.
An avenue of sphinxes continued in a procession from the third pylon towards a solar court which was surrounded by colonnades of sandstone papyrus columns and Osirid statues of Amenhotep III. On the bases of these statues were lists and name-rings of captives from foreign lands giving us important information about the distant countries Egypt was involved with. At the south side of the entrance to the solar court a huge quartzite stela has been re-erected and shows the king with Queen Tiye and the god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, with texts below describing the king’s building accomplishments. The twin of the stela, with similar texts, would have been on the north side of the entrance but is no longer there.
The inner rooms of the temple are also destroyed, but the excavators have now uncovered many of the bases of limestone papyrus columns from these chambers.
A great part of Amenhotep’s temple was re-used in the Temple of Merenptah and recent restorations there have given archaeologists a great deal of new information about Kom el-Hetan from the decoration of the original blocks. The Temple of Amenhotep III was dedicated to the god Amun-Re, the principal deity of the land during the New Kingdom. We also know that there was a smaller temple to the north of the complex which was dedicated to the Memphite mortuary god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. Fragment’s of Amenhotep’s blocks and statuary have also been found in many other temples both on the West and East Banks.
Amenhotep’s chief architect was Amenhotep, son of Hapu, who must have gained such importance in the royal court that he was granted his own mortuary temple near Medinet Habu and was even deified in later Ptolemaic times. The design of the king’s temple seems to have been unique in that parts of the structure lay in the Nile flood plain so that the waters of the inundation would have flooded areas of the eastern courts. The rear chambers, including the sanctuaries were built on higher ground and therefore probably remained above the water level. This innovative concept perhaps had its roots in the creation myth in which the primeval mound of creation (the sanctuary of the god) emerged from the chaos of the waters of the swamp after every inundation. This design and the fact that a large proportion of the temple buildings were of mudbrick must have contributed to its rapid demise.
A second unique aspect of Amenhotep’s temple is in its massive quantity of statuary. All Egyptian temples and shrines had many statues of the king and deities scattered around their courts, but this pharaoh must have surpassed the usual amount of sculpture. It has been suggested that Amenhotep depicted the ‘Litany of Sekhmet’ by including a standing and a seated statue of the goddess for each day of the year, a fact mentioned in ancient texts. Many of these Sekhmet statues can still be seen around Thebes today, especially in the Temple of Mut and other Karnak temples, along with a vast quantity of images of the king himself and other deities. Many of these sculptures were later re-used by other pharaohs in their own monuments.
In 1998 Kom el-Hetan was listed by the World Monuments Watch as one of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments. Since the 1970s the German-Egyptian teams working there have unearthed a great many objects and architectural elements. These have been cleaned and restored and placed on concrete pedestals in what is rapidly developing into an open-air museum. In April 2002 archaeologists unearthed three large statue fragments at the site of the second pylon: the right half of a red granite colossal seated statue of Amenhotep III, the head of a queen wearing a pharaonic head-dress with uraeus, and an unidentified pair of legs on a rectangular pedestal.
In 2009 the colossal fallen statue of Amenhotep III has been reconstructed from parts and raised again at Kom el-Hettan. The head of the statue had been taken to the UK in the 19th century by antiquities collector Henry Salt, ending up in the British Museum, where it is now. An exact replica of the original head was made by Michael Neilsen of the British Museum and taken to Egypt complete the statue. Other large parts of the limbs and torso have been found during excavations directed by Dr Hourig Sourouzian, of the Armenian Academy of Sciences at Amenhotep’s temple. The granite statue was originally one of a pair in the peristyle court of the temple and shows the King wearing the red crown of lower Egypt, while its companion wore the white crown of Upper Egypt.
Also in March 2009 Dr Sourouzian’s Mission have reported two more statue finds from Amenhotep’s temple. The first, a well-preserved black granite seated statue of the King on a throne with youthful features and wearing a nemes headdress. The face is slightly damaged but this is the first polished black granite statue to be found in recent times on this site. The name of Amenhotep III is inscribed on the base of the statue. The second statue, this time in quartzite, depicts Amenhotep III as a sphinx with a lion’s body and human head. Again it is largely well-preserved except for damage to the front paws and parts of the face. A broken architrave from the temple has also been recently uncovered and this includes a hieroglyphic inscription of the temple dedication.
In March 2010 the Egyptian Minister of Culture announced the discovery of a massive head of Amenhotep III wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, found at Kom el-Hettan. Dr Sourouzian said that the granite head belonged to a large colossal mumiform statue of the king. Although the royal beard is missing, the head is one of the best preserved likenesses of Amenhotep III to be found, with finely carved features and in almost perfect condition, smoothly polished and with traces of red paint still on the uraeus.
Because of ongoing excavation work, access to the site of the Temple of Amenhotep III is now off limits. However, a walk along the road from the Colossi of Memnon towards the ticket office will give a good view of whatever there is to see, but photography is strictly forbidden. The site is not currently open to visitors.