Feb. 15, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 11

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    Chicago House to restore ancient Egyptian temple

    Chicago House, the permanent field mission in Egypt of the University's Oriental Institute, has received a grant for $455,000 to restore and document the Temple of Amun in Luxor. The temple was founded in 1500 B.C. by Hatshepsut, one of Egypt's female pharaohs. The grant comes from the Egyptian Antiquities Project, administered by the American Research Center in Egypt, a New York-based organization that supports archaeological research.

    The grant will help expand researchers' understanding of 1700 years of Egyptian history, including a critical period during the eighth century B.C. when Egypt was invaded from the south and ruled by Nubians.

    The Temple of Amun is located at Medinet Habu, a complex of ancient ruins on the west bank of the Nile river in Luxor, a southern Egyptian city that is also the home of Chicago House. Dedicated to the chief god of the Egyptians, the temple was considered sacred because it was associated with the funerary mound where eight Egyptian gods of creation were thought to be buried. The temple was expanded and maintained into the Roman era by Hatshepsut's successors.

    Restoration is necessary because the temple has deteriorated over the last century, mainly due to the settling of its stone foundations. As the foundation blocks have sunk, the upper courses of certain walls built by the Ptolemaic kings around 100 B.C. have become unstable, and some of the decorated sandstone wall blocks have cracked.

    "The carved scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions on the temple walls constitute a vast, untapped resource of historical, artistic and religious information about Egypt in the period 1500 B.C. to the second century A.D.," said Peter Dorman, Associate Professor in the Oriental Institute and Field Director of Chicago House. "Although the inscriptions have been visible for centuries, most have not been recorded and published so that scholars can study them."

    Recovery of the foundation blocks will also provide new information about a little-understood era of Egyptian history, the 50-year period of the Nubian rule. Many of these stones -- which belong to an earlier, now dismantled, structure in the temple area -- are covered with various scenes of the statue of Amun carried in procession and of the Nubian kings making offerings to the gods.

    The five-year program will focus on continuing earlier conservation efforts to clear and restore parts of the temple, as well as on the installation of floors, signs and lighting to make the site more accessible to tourists. The grant simultaneously provides for the documentation of the scenes and inscriptions and for additional research to assist in the publication of a series of definitive volumes on the temple's history, architecture and religious significance.

    The Chicago team, aided by consultants specializing in structural restoration and conservation, will consolidate the walls dating from 100 B.C. by either elevating or dismantling them and then reconstructing them with modern concrete footings.

    The grant will also allow conservators to clean the walls of the temple of dust, soot, grime and bird droppings, which currently obscure many of the scenes. The researchers will make facsimile copies of the decorated surfaces of this part of the temple, employing Chicago House's hallmark system in which Egyptologists, photographers and specially trained artists work as a team to complete the project.

    In addition to this year's $455,000 grant, Chicago House also received a grant last summer for $135,000 from the Egyptian Antiquities Project to continue work at Luxor Temple on the east bank of the Nile. That project involves the conservation of decorated sandstone blocks from the time of King Tutankhamun. The stones have been badly damaged by ground water and by salt, which occurs naturally in locally quarried stone and is activated by contact with fresh water.

    The blocks at Luxor Temple once formed the upper portions of the stone walls flanking the 60-foot-tall columns in the temple's great Colonnade Hall. Once the individual blocks have been stabilized, Chicago House artists and Egyptologists will document the decoration on their surfaces.

    Chicago House is the headquarters for the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the oldest field expedition in continuous operation in the Middle East. Since 1924, Chicago House teams have documented large portions of Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple and a private tomb, as well as all of the reliefs and inscriptions in the Great Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu.

    -- William Harms