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THE REVOLUTIONARY ROLE OF THE SUN IN THE RELIEFS AND STATUARY OF AMENHOTEP III

By W. Raymond Johnson, Assistant Director, Epigraphic Survey
and Assistant Professor, The Oriental Institute and the Department
of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 151, Fall 1996, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


One of the wonderful fringe benefits of working for the Epigraphic Survey in Luxor is the valuable opportunity it affords to pursue personal research projects during off-hours. Since the bulk of Egypt's antiquities remain unpublished, there is an enormous amount of material that is crying out to be worked on, and because much of it is increasingly threatened by the depredations of nature and human activity, one comes to feel an obligation to record as much as one can. While in Luxor working on Epigraphic Survey publication projects, Chicago House Egyptologists traditionally have been encouraged to utilize the unpublished resources of the Luxor area for dissertation topics and personal research. I wrote my own doctoral thesis on a fragmentary battle scene of Tutankhamun from his dismantled mortuary temple, pieces of which I had noted in the Luxor Temple blockyards while gathering inscribed fragments of his Colonnade Hall for the Epigraphic Survey. John Darnell, Senior Epigrapher of the Epigraphic Survey, recently completed his dissertation on cryptographic texts largely from the Theban area, and he and his wife Deborah, an epigrapher as well as Chicago House librarian, are conducting an exciting survey of the ancient desert roads leading to western Thebes on their weekends and off-hours, independent of their thesis work. It is difficult not to get involved in such projects; living and working in what is essentially the largest open-air museum of Egyptian art and architecture in the whole world, we are constantly exposed to unpublished material that is simply too interesting to ignore.

The Art of Amenhotep III

My own personal research during my years with the Epigraphic Survey has largely focused on the shifting artistic programs of the last kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, particularly Amenhotep III (1391-1353 bc), but also his successors Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb. Egyptian art is maddeningly paradoxical; it is famous for its almost three thousand years of relative homogeneity, yet within those deceptively rigid parameters gradual changes in the art did occur through time. It is fairly easy to distinguish art from the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms because each of these main periods of Egyptian history had its own particular stylistic hallmarks.My period of interest-the late Eighteenth Dynasty- marked a time of radical artistic changes within a relatively short period, quite unusual in Egyptian art; that is perhaps why I find it so compelling. The mercurial artistic program of Akhenaten, which changed not once but several times, is well known and still perplexes us. What is not generally known is that the artistic changes promoted by Akhenaten were anticipated and paralleled by equally dramatic changes in the artistic program of his father, Nebmaatre Amenhotep III.

My initial research with Amenhotep III and his art was stimulated in large part by my work with the Epigraphic Survey's Luxor Temple Fragment Project. Among the hundreds of thousands of decorated stone fragments piled around Luxor Temple are pieces quarried from every part of that temple, many identifiable by their carving style. While researching the three phases of Amenhotep III's Luxor Temple (the back sanctuary area, the great solar court, and the Colonnade Hall) in an attempt to match wall fragments, to my surprise I discovered that the carving style was noticeably different in each phase. The sanctuary area preserves elegant, formal relief work that was carved in the traditional Thutmoside style of Amenhotep's royal predecessors, but the later sun court is noteworthy for figures of the king, some of which I had reassembled from fragments, that were more naturalistically rendered with longer legs, heavy-lobed naturalistically rendered pierced ears, and even a double chin! This was naturalism that one associated with Akhenaten's art, not Amenhotep III's, and I wondered whether this might be additional indirect evidence of the overlapping reigns of the two kings (the "coregency" issue that has been so hotly debated for many years). When I noted decoration on the facade of the Colonnade Hall that Amenhotep III had barely begun when he died, rendered in a totally different art style which featured almost shockingly elaborate costumes for the period, I realized that I had discovered something that might prove to be quite significant.

At that time I was invited by our colleague Betsy Bryan at Johns Hopkins University to do a preliminary study of Amenhotep III's temple decoration in the Luxor area, based on my Luxor Temple fragment work, which I subsequently presented at the 1987 Cleveland Museum of Art Symposium "The Art of Amenhotep III: Art Historical Analysis." This symposium preceded the 1992/93 exhibition "Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World." When I compared Amenhotep III's relief decoration at Luxor Temple with the decoration of his other Theban monuments, such as his mortuary temple, Montu Temple, his Third Pylon at Karnak, and blocks from his Storehouse of Amun at Karnak, I found that they all exhibited multiple building- and decorative-phases like Luxor Temple. Further, I found that in all of Amenhotep III's monuments where it appeared, the elaborate-costume style was utilized exclusively in the latest building phases, which firmly dated the style to the end of Amenhotep's reign. A chronology of stylistic changes was slowly beginning to emerge, but I could not help but wonder: "What had prompted those changes?" Careful analysis of the new style eventually provided some provocative clues to the mystery.

Amenhotep III's New Art Style

Everything about Amenhotep's last style of relief carving is unusual. When the carving is in raised relief, it is carved considerably higher than ever before, and his sunk relief is cut unusually deeply into the stone. Amenhotep's complex costumes with their long pleated kilts, overgarments, and multiple sashes are festooned with solar and funerary symbols never utilized in his earlier monument decoration. Pendant cords tipped with sedge-plant blossomsand papyrus umbels, gold-disc shebyu-necklaces, associated armbands and bracelets, broad floral wah-collars, falcon-tail sporrans (aprons), and sporran cobras crowned with sun discs all make their appearance together on figures of the king in royal temple decoration for the first time and become standard thereafter; Amenhotep's earlier figures look absolutely spare in comparison. Further, Amenhotep's face in these reliefs is now more youthful looking, with an exaggerated, overlarge eye that dominates his face. His body is often bent forward slightly at the waist. His legs are longer at the expense of his midsection, which is shorter and thicker, and his belt is often three times its normal width at the back. I found that these changes were not limited to the royal relief work; they are also found in three-dimensional sculpture of the king from the same period. One of the more sensational of these statues, carved in beautiful red-purple quartzite, was recently found in a small cache of sculptures buried in Amenhotep III's Luxor Temple sun court and is now on display in the Luxor Museum of Art.

Because Egyptian art was regulated at all times by strict canons of style, proportion, and iconography, there had to be a very important reason for these artistic irregularities. With a little study, I was able to pin down the source of Amenhotep's new iconography. In private tombs starting from the time of Amenhotep III's grandfather Amenhotep II, the king was often depicted on the tomb walls enshrined and wearing the very same costumes and solar iconography. The king in these tomb scenes is shown in eternal time after his eventual death and is identified in the accompanying inscriptions as the sun god Re. All Egyptian kings attained this sort of deification after their mortal deaths, "flying up to the sun disc" in the form of a falcon and uniting with the sun, becoming one with their divine father. The kings in these scenes are often wearing the shebyu-collar of gold-disc beads, which, when presented to a private person by the king as a reward, represented an elevation in that person's status. Around the neck of the king they reflect the change in the deceased king's state-of-being in the eternal time of the afterlife, the result of his assimilation and identification with his father the sun. Before the time of Amenhotep III these elaborately costumed figures of the king were only found in private tomb scenes, and never in royal temple decoration. Why did Amenhotep III change all that?

Amenhotep III's Jubilees

It is probably no coincidence that Amenhotep III's new artistic style with its solar symbolism and exaggerated youthfulness appeared at the very time he celebrated his three Heb Sed or jubilee celebrations in the last decade of his reign, in his regnal years 30, 34, and 37. The Heb Sed was a great rejuvenation ceremony which Egyptian kings traditionally celebrated after their first thirty years of rule and then every three or four years thereafter. The exaggerated youthfulness of Amenhotep's facial features in the new style must have been intentionally designed to reflect the king's symbolic rejuvenation at the culmination of his jubilee rites. But the new costumes of the king with their solar and funerary iconography go another unprecedented step further. According to the tomb parallels, the costume iconography indicates that Amenhotep III is to be identified with the sun god Re. Providentially for us, another key piece of the puzzle is preserved in the Theban tomb of the high official Kheruef, who supervised Amenhotep's jubilees. Reliefs there, dated to Amenhotep's first jubilee in year thirty, depict a jubilee ritual where Amenhotep III and his wife Queen Tiye are being towed by members of the court in the evening and morning barks of Re. It is stated in the accompanying text that:

"It was His Majesty who did this in accordance with writings of old. (Past) generations [of] people since the time of ancestors had never celebrated (such) rites of the jubilee" (OIP 102, p. 43, pl. 24).

The ritual that is depicted in Kheruef's tomb is found in Pyramid Text 222 from the Old Kingdom, which describes the union of the king and the sun god in the solar barks of the day and night, after the king's death. Yet Amenhotep III clearly is represented enacting this ritual alive, eight to nine years before he actually died!

The Deification of Amenhotep III

The Kheruef reliefs tell us that Amenhotep III's solar-bedecked costumes in his last-decade monument decoration represent an official statement that Amenhotep III had united with the sun god while still alive as a consequence of his first jubilee rites in year thirty. I believe that this theological event was the underlying principle behind what we refer to as Amenhotep III's "deification while alive." Well-known reliefs of Amenhotep III worshipping figures of himself in his Soleb Temple in Nubia indicated that the king was deified at some point during his reign (as were Ramesses II and Ramesses III later), but the nature, time frame, and mechanism of the deification were unclear until now. Textual and artistic evidence, which I am still in the process of gathering, indicate that for the rest of his life Amenhotep III, as deified king, was venerated as a living manifestation of all of Egypt's great gods with a marked emphasis on his role as the Sun God Re and his radiant disc, the Aten. Inscriptions from his jubilee palace in western Thebes and elsewhere tell us that, among his numerous epithets, from this time on the king was actually referred to as Aten Tjehen, the Dazzling Aten.

The Akhenaten Question

Considering what came after, the influence of this theological event on Amenhotep III's son Akhenaten must have been enormous. It is certain that the artistic changes which occurred at the end of Amenhotep III's reign influenced his son Akhenaten's own artistic innovations, which took a similar form, shifting from a traditional style to an exaggerated style that emphasized his role as the sun god's firstborn, Shu (who is both male and female in one body).It is quite suggestive that Amenhotep III and Akhenaten took on the identities of father/son deities, Atum-Re and Shu, who in Egyptian mythology are co-dependent on each other (and actually cannot exist without each other). If the artistic changes of the father and son occurred simultaneously, Akhenaten's famous cult of the Aten may have been an integral part of the deification program of Amenhotep I

II. This model suggests that the joint rule of father and son was perhaps theologically dictated by Amenhotep's deification, patterned after the unique relationship of the creator god Atum-Re (= the sun/Aten/Amenhotep III) and his firstborn child, Shu (= sunbeams/air/ Akhenaten), father/son deities who, according to ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, recreate each other at dawn each day. It is interesting to note that the costumes of Queen Tiye from this time depict her in the role of the goddess Hathor, divine consort of Re, while Akhenaten's wife Nefertiti takes on the attributes of Tefnut, twin sister/wife of Akhenaten/Shu. The evidence suggests that Amenhotep's whole family played specific divine roles in his deification program, taking on the attributes of the creator god's divine "family."

The questions, and answers, raised by this research are far-reaching and somewhat unorthodox, but well worth pursuing. When enough information has been accumulated, the truth of the matter will ultimately make itself known. At the very least, it is clear that Amenhotep III played a far greater role in the Amarna period than has previously been suspected. The problem is that a tremendous amount of material from Amenhotep III's reign which is pertinent to the whole Amarna question has been largely ignored, in great part due to the fact that much of it is fragmentary, and most of it is unpublished and hence unknown. It is my personal research goal to document as much of this material as possible in an attempt to integrate it into the corpus of known material from the period.

The Oriental Institute and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation

For the past two years I have been assisted in my task by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which through a grant to the Oriental Institute has generously funded my ongoing field research and photographic documentation. As a result I have been able to gather significant amounts of data pertinent to the reigns of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten from sites and museums within Egypt and from museum collections worldwide, which will be housed in a permanent archive and eventually published. What follows is a brief summary of some of the highlights of this work over the last two years.

Luxor, East Bank

The main thrust of my field research and documentation efforts has been in the Luxor area, my home base with the Epigraphic Survey, which preserves the highest concentration of pharaonic monuments in all of Egypt. The Luxor and Karnak temple complexes in particular, due to their millennia-long building programs and vast sizes, are veritable mines of unpublished information and were a major focus of my photographic survey and research of disparate sculpture and relief fragments. The grant proved particularly fortuitous the season before last at Luxor Temple in some unexpected ways. On our arrival in late September, we found that the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities had initiated the dismantling of the eastern columns of Amenhotep III's sun court at Luxor Temple, part of the concession of the Epigraphic Survey, in order to stabilize the foundations. We had been warned that this conservation project was in the planning stages several years ago, but we were not aware that it would actually start last year. After the inscribed architrave and abaci blocks were dismantled and set up on supports to the east and north of the temple, I was allowed to take slides of all the decorated faces at eye level, an exciting and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity since the carving contained wonderful and significant details not visible from the ground. Karnak Temple is a gold mine of fragmentary material. In the north blockyard area I identified and documented a corpus of inscribed blocks that join to form long strips from the missing upper sections of Amenhotep III's Third Pylon (the eastern face of both towers). These blocks contain important inscriptional and iconographic details that will greatly add to our understanding of this late monument of Amenhotep III, executed in his exaggerated, fourth-decade "deification style." I also documented a newly reconstructed, larger-than-life-size figure of Amenhotep III of superb quality, rendered in the same style. Made up of five loose blocks, the relief was restored last summer at my suggestion to its original position on the facade of the Karnak Fifth Pylon by the Field Director of the Franco-Egyptian Center at Karnak, Dr. Francois Larché. A sixth block, still loose, originally floated over a missing block that bore the head of the king, a block that I am determined to find in the extensive Karnak blockyards this coming season!

Luxor, West Bank

On the western bank of the Nile, the traditional land of the dead, two sixty-foot colossal seated sculptures of Amenhotep III in quartzite (the Colossi of Memnon) still rise above the plain and guard the entrance to what was Amenhotep III's magnificent mortuary temple complex, the largest ever built. Its size alone perhaps underscores the importance of the cult of this king, which we know was functioning a decade before he died, contrary to custom. Consisting of several temples, multiple courts, at least five sets of pylon gateways, and embellished with literally thousands of pieces of sculpture, from diminutive to colossal, the complex was utilized for centuries after its abandonment as a stone and sculpture quarry by generations of kings who succeeded Amenhotep III, chief among them Ramesses II, Merenptah, and Ramesses III. Shattered remnants of this sculpture still litter the now desolate site.

A common belief held by most people is that stone monuments, because of their material, are obviously impervious to time. The ancient Egyptians themselves considered their stone monuments to be "monuments for eternity." But alas this is not the case, as recent events have shown all too clearly. Torrential rains last year devastated modern and ancient structures alike, causing stone as well as mudbrick literally to melt. In March of this year another tragedy occurred; a brush fire in Amenhotep III's mortuary temple wreaked terrible destruction at the rear of the temple complex behind the colossal quartzite stela in the great solar court. Providentially I and others had photographed many of the sculpture fragments the previous year along with the remainder of the complex; this archive is now priceless for the information it preserves of sculpture and relief work now either disfigured or totally destroyed. A review of the mortuary temples of Ramesses II (the Ramesseum) and Ramesses III (Medinet Habu) revealed extensive sculpture and sculpture fragments identifiable by style and inscription to the reign of Amenhotep III which had been appropriated by these later kings, and which I have included in my documentation program. In the Medinet Habu precinct I identified and recorded fragments of two indurated-limestone colossal statues of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye that had been appropriated by Ramesses III and set up in the second court of his mortuary temple (the decorated base of the seated colossus of the king can still be seen on the northern side of the entrance ramp). Their size, material, and provenience indicate that these two sculptures were undoubtedly pendant to the great indurated limestone dyad of Amenhotep III and Tiye, also found at Medinet Habu, which forms the centerpiece of the Cairo Museum atrium. Both groups were originally set up by Amenhotep III before the southern gateway of his mortuary complex, just to the east of Ramesses III's later precinct.

This winter a small sandstone gate on the eastern side of Ramesses' mortuary temple enclosure wall was partially exposed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities during an extensive clean-up effort. This gate proved to be constructed of several large reused blocks, one inscribed for Amenhotep III and preserving part of a life-size figure of that king. Although the gate was not completely excavated, I was still able to document a half-dozen stylistically-related blocks and block fragments in raised relief that were probably quarried from Amenhotep III's funerary temple nearby. The gate itself was inscribed for Ramesses III and is the only part of his funerary complex I have found thus far made up of identifiable blocks of Amenhotep III. Later Ptolemaic additions to the small Amun temple complex of Hatshepsut, enclosed within Ramesses III's precinct, preserve additional reused material quarried from Amenhotep's mortuary temple. In fact, many of the reused blocks are identifiable, inscribed column sections from the papyrus-bundle columns of his mortuary-temple solar court.

Another focus of my documentation on the western bank was the sprawling ruins of Amenhotep III's mudbrick jubilee city to the south of Medinet Habu, the "House of the Dazzling Aten" or modern-day Malkata, with its associated harbor, the Birket Habu. The rains last winter devastated the site, causing mudbrick to melt and smaller walls to wash away. Differentiated bricks stamped with the names of Amenhotep and Tiye are now melted and fused into undifferentiated masses, and exposed mudbrick floors are now seas of dried mud. I expanded my photographic survey to include this endangered site, unique in Egypt, which Amenhotep III was preparing to enlarge considerably at his death.

With the generous help of our balloonist friend, pilot Douglas Gawlik (and favorable winds), I was extremely fortunate to be able to coordinate aerial photography of the entire area of Amenhotep III's monument-building activities in western Thebes, an area that encompasses over 5 km2 and formed the backdrop for his deification rites. This aerial documentation is invaluable for understanding the scale and interrelationships between Amenhotep's diverse complexes, from (north to south) his mortuary complex behind the Colossi of Memnon, his vast palace complex of Malkata with its 2 km long harbor, his jubilee platform at Deir el-Shelwit, and past that to his Kom el-Abd platform/sun temple. Due west of this enigmatic structure is a 5 km long cleared strip heading straight as an arrow to the western foothills, the initial stages of a road or causeway leading to a monument that was sadly never started, a project that seems to have been interrupted by Amenhotep III's unexpected death. Another causeway, this one north/south, linked all of these complexes, perhaps reaching even as far south as Kom el-Abd, and is also clearly visible from above. The aerial photography perfectly complements the documentation of the isolated fragments from those complexes, allowing a more complete understanding of the original setting.

Cairo and Memphis

During the past two years I was able to make several study trips to Cairo for research and photography at the Egyptian Museum, and also to the site of ancient Memphis, administrative and political capital of Egypt from the First Dynasty. Texts tell us that this was the spot where Amenhotep III built his "Temple of Nebmaatre (Amenhotep III)-United-with-Ptah," the temple where the deified Amenhotep was worshipped as the Memphite god Ptah. This year I spent the first week of November with the Egypt Exploration Society team in Memphis supervising the identification and recording of decorated limestone blocks of Amenhotep III reused by Ramesses II in his small temple to the god Ptah. Because the poorly preserved temple is flooded most of the year (except the beginning of November, luckily) it is in an active state of decay, and this documentation comes in the nick of time. I expected to find only a half-dozen or so blocks, but in the end thirty-one reused blocks displaying all the characteristics of Amenhotep III's "deification style" were cataloged, photographed, and drawn in reduced-scale measured drawings this season; this coming November the drawing and tracing will continue. The decoration, some of it unfinished, and architectural details of the blocks suggest that they were once part of a small bark shrine of the god Ptah Sokar, undoubtedly a part of Amenhotep III's vanished Ptah temple complex. I have been invited by the Egyptian Exploration Society to publish the material in their Survey of Memphis series when I have finished documenting all of the blocks that are accessible.

Endangered Monuments

I am particularly grateful to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Oriental Institute, and special friends for assistance in this formidable task at this particular time. It is a sad fact that the favorable climatic and demographic conditions which have allowed the miraculous preservation of Egypt's ancient remains have drastically changed of late, and the very survival of these remains is now threatened. The torrential rains that Egypt experienced the winter before last undid the preservation of a thousand years practically overnight. Insidious, salt-laden groundwater, the product of perpetually full irrigation canals throughout Egypt, virtually ensures the accelerated deterioration of Egypt's ancient remains from below as well. Destructive events such as these have brought home the fact that there is now no longer any guarantee that the material will be accessible for study in the future, even the immediate future. Although essential conservation programs are currently being inaugurated all over Egypt, including two programs at Chicago House, our documentation will be all that survives of many significant memorials of our past.

Much as we might desire it, the historical problems of the late Eighteenth Dynasty cannot be solved in one sitting, but every little scrap of information is significant and counts toward the whole. Whether the work is done by institutions or single individuals, any and all documentation efforts in Egypt ensure the survival of precious material that will henceforward be accessible to scholarly analysis and personal appreciation, now and in future generations to come. We in Luxor are committed to this task, and extend our thanks to all of you who have supported the work of the Oriental Institute's Epigraphic Survey, as well as our individual research and documentation efforts in the field. We truly could not do it without you.


W. Raymond Johnson is the Assistant Director and Senior Artist of the Epigraphic Survey. In March 1997, he will become Field Director of the Epigraphic Survey.

Revised: July 30, 2007

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