Earlier this month I was delighted to be able to spend a week based in Luxor, after an absence from Egypt of over two years. The trip was made possible thanks to a generous bequest to a University of Manchester travel fund from one of the Museum’s best-known and much-missed volunteers – the late Audrey Carter, a relative of the archaeologist Howard Carter.
The visit had been organised by the Egypt Exploration Society for Manchester Professor Emerita Rosalie David to present her re-published book Temple Ritual at Abydos to colleagues in Egypt. Rosalie was able to present the book in person to the Minister of Antiquities, Dr Khaled el-Anani, at a press conference announcing he re-opening of two early 18th Dynasty tombs at Dra Abu el-Naga and the inner sanctuary of the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, reworked in the Ptolemaic Period for the cult of the sages Imhotep and Amenhotep son of Hapu. These sites are further additions to the range it is now possible to visit in Luxor. Since my last visit in 2015, tourist numbers have appreciably increased and it is to be hoped that new sites, better interpreted, will help to continue this trend.
The trip was a wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues working in Egyptian museums and on current excavations. Particularly pleasing was evidence of recent excavations featured on display in the Luxor Museum, including a number of monumental stone statues of Amenhotep III from Kom el-Hettan. We had the opportunity to visit the site with field director Dr Hourig Sourouzian, showcasing the vast scale of the original Amenhotep III temple. Much of the core architecture of New Kingdom west bank temples before the reign of Ramesses II was in mudbrick, which as a result has now almost totally disappeared. This creates the impression of statues – notably the ‘Colossi of Memnon’ – being isolated and decontextualized. It was fascinating to see at Kom el-Hettan how intensive excavation by a large team has revealed many details that might have been assumed to have been lost – dozens of statues and thousands of fragments that show how densely populated with sculptures the temples must have once been. Selective restoration of some (often colossal) sculptures gives an impression of scale.
Every site we visited – such as the Spanish mission at the Mortuary Temple of Tuthmose III and work by Chicago House at Medinet Habu – was working towards making the results of excavations accessible through on-site interpretation and, where possible, site museums. This will significantly improve the offer for interested visitors to Luxor over the next five years.
A personal highlight was undoubtedly the temple of Seti I at Abydos, one of the best preserved temples in Egypt and – importantly – one which has not experienced the many subsequent modifications that have changed the complexion of most other temples. The quality of the limestone bas reliefs – often with original colour still preserved – is breath-taking. Conservation work on the Osirieon – the site of fieldwork by Manchester legend Margaret Murray in the early 20th Century – illustrated the ongoing efforts to preserve standing monuments.
A visit to the Early Dynastic cemetery at Abydos was also very special. Known as the Umm el-Qaab (‘Mother of Pots’) due to the quantity of votive pottery left by pilgrims to the Osiris cult, Manchester Museum houses over 1000 objects from this important site. It is always a special privilege as a curator to see the sites from whence items in the collection came. Hopefully many more people in future will be able to make this connection in person.
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