Journal: Saturday 27 April 2002
Mary and I felt like having another lazy day today. My friend was keen to spend some quality time by the swimming pool – an activity I enjoy for about ten minutes before getting bored, but before she went off to soak up the sun she decided to come with me to Luxor Museum as she hadn’t been before and I haven’t been for a while. We strolled leisurely along the Corniche after breakfast and the weather was already hot, the Khamsin wind and murky skies of a few days ago have cleared away.
A new extension is planned for the museum, but I knew it was not yet open, so the displays would be the same as usual. At least it was cool in the high air-conditioned galleries. The Museum was designed by Dr Mahmoud el-Hakim, one of Egypt’s leading architects and it was first opened in 1975 to show some of the finest artworks of the Theban region. It really is a beautiful space, the objects perfectly lit in their temperature-controlled cases. Once through the security area we walked around the exhibition space in the chronological order intended, first the ground floor and then the upper level where my favourite statue, my friend Amenhotep son of Hapu, still sat cross-legged preparing to write whatever scribes wrote in ancient Egypt.
The objects in this museum, ranging from the Predynastic to Islamic Periods, come mostly from the store-rooms of the Theban temples of Luxor, Karnak and the West Bank, along with one or two chosen pieces brought from Cairo Museum. In the grand entrance hall, pride of place is given to the gilded wooden head of a cow, found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It’s a beautiful piece said to represent the goddess Mehyt-Weret, an aspect of Hathor. A small limestone statue of Tutankhamun himself stands nearby. One of my favourite pieces is a double statue of Amenhotep III with the crocodile god Sobek which was found in 1967 while digging a canal near Armant. This is a young Amenhotep, despite his name being erased and replaced by the ubiquitous Rameses II. I love the way Sobek has his arm placed protectively around the king’s shoulders – such a gentle gesture from a feared beast of the Nile. Another magnificent piece in the lower gallery is a huge red granite head from a Middle Kingdom statue of Senwosret III, wearing the double crown of Egypt. His lips are thin and his eyes and cheeks are sunken and he looks like he has all the cares of the world on his shoulders. There are some fabulous reliefs here too from Deir el-Bahri, especially a portrait of Tuthmose III and another of the god Min which have kept their glorious colours. Another beautiful statue here is a black greywacke figure of Tuthmose III, less than a metre tall, but exquisitely carved and in my opinion one of the finest quality pieces of art in the museum.
A wide curved ramp leads to the upper level and straight ahead are several of my favourite pieces of statuary. The scribe Amenhotep ‘Son of Hapu’, advisor and architect to King Amenhotep III, I have already mentioned. He is carved from black granite and holds an unrolled papyrus and a pen. He looks kind and wise and the rolls of fat around his midriff indicate that he was wealthy and well-fed. I always stop to say hello and have to stop myself reaching out and stroking this beautiful polished stone. One of the numerous black granite statues of the goddess Sekhmet is nearby, her head cut off from the torso of the statue but beautiful nevertheless. Another favourite, high on the wall ahead is the sandstone head of Amenhotep IV from a column in the gem-pa-aten, his Karnak temple. This head is in the stylised form we expect from the so-called ‘heretic king’, Akhenaten, with an elongated face, sunken cheeks and slanting eyes – very different from earlier statues of the king seen in other museums. This is a caricature, a form of art the king adopted during his reign and in my opinion not a natural portrait.
Glass cases on the upper level contain many interesting smaller objects, including some of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb and I especially love his gilded wooden shabtis and a model boat found in his King’s Valley tomb. There are a couple of very fine mummy cases and a superb canopic box and jars of a priest, Padi-imenet, found in Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. Much of the west side of the museum is given to a reconstructed wall of Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). The small decorated sandstone blocks (talatat) were discovered when the ninth pylon at Karnak Temple was dismantled for reconstruction work, where they had been used as infill in the original building of the pylon. Individual talata blocks on which the famous reliefs were carved can be seen in many museums, but here the ‘Talatat Wall’ represents the only successful attempt at reconstructing a whole wall of the blocks. Over 40,000 decorated blocks from Amenhotep IV’s early Karnak building works have been found, but only those from the ninth pylon are well-preserved enough to allow their accurate reconstruction seen here.
The objects in the cases and on the walls are too numerous to mention individually and I could spend a whole day looking at them, but it was time to go back downstairs for a quick look in the cachette hall before the museum closed at lunchtime. Here are the magnificent well-preserved statues found in 1987 while excavating the Amenhotep III court at Luxor Temple – one of the greatest discoveries of the twentieth century in Egypt. Each statue, depicting New Kingdom kings and gods, is dramatically displayed on raised plinths in the spacious recently-constructed hall. These wonderful pieces have to be seen to be believed – each one a superb example of Egyptian art.
The museum visit had taken longer than expected and by the time we got back to the hotel it was already 2.30pm. Mary made a bee-line for the swimming pool while I sat on the shady hotel terrace among beautiful vivid bougainvillea drinking coffee and writing up my photograph notes until the sun was setting behind the Theban Hills. Later we splashed out and had dinner in the hotel’s Italian restaurant. It was empty when we walked in – always a bad sign – and the service was slow and the food mediocre, which was a bit of a disappointment. I knew we should have stuck to real Egyptian food!
For more pictures from Luxor Museum see: