Journal: Monday 29 April 2002
This trip is turning into a series of museum visits and today was no exception. Stepping out onto the hotel terrace after breakfast I could already tell that it was going to be another blazing hot day. Mary and I had spent the past few days breathing in the stifling air of Luxor and now I was desperate to get out of town. The West Bank may not be much cooler but at least I wouldn’t be surrounded by the tall buildings that acted like heat storage radiators. It took a bit of persuasion to prise Mary away from the hotel pool but eventually we set off for the ferry dock and over the river. The cool breeze on the ferry’s upper deck was delicious!
Once in Gezira we took an arabeya up to the ticket office where we would decide what we wanted to see. To my delight I discovered that the long-awaited Mortuary Temple of Merenptah was at last open to visitors, we eagerly bought our tickets and headed off down the road past the Marsam Hotel. Situated on the edge of the ancient Nile floodplain, Mereptah’s temple had been badly destroyed and has been undergoing excavations and restoration by the Swiss Institute of Archaeology with the support of the SCA for three decades. From the outside the site didn’t look very spectacular and we couldn’t see many remains above the modern brick retaining wall, but once inside it was apparent that there were still many interesting blocks and statues visible.
Merenptah was the thirteenth son of Rameses II and the prince who succeeded his father to the throne. He chose the site for his mortuary temple next to that of Amenhotep III in order to use the earlier destroyed temple as a quarry for stone. The Nile water had destroyed Amenhotep’s temple just as it would eventually destroy Merenptah’s. Some people never learn! During excavations the archaeologists have found many artefacts from the reign of Merenptah but also from Amenhotep III and other New Kingdom pharaohs which they collected together into storage areas and into a purpose-built covered museum. The plan of the temple is difficult to see when walking through what would have been the first Pylon but the Swiss have done a very good job at displaying the few remaining monuments here. Petrie had first excavated this temple in the 1890s and the modern excavators have only slightly revised his original plan. I was delighted to see a very good reproduction of the massive ‘Israel Stele’ that Petrie found in the first court, usurped by Merenptah from Amenhotep III. The stele was recarved on its reverse side and gives information of the king’s Lybian war victories from year 5 of the reign, including the first ever historical reference to the people of Israel. The original is now in Cairo Museum.
Several headless statues are artfully displayed on modern brick risers among the low reconstructed walls. There is even a miniature sacred lake, looking more like a small swimming pool. My favourite parts of the site were the storage area where many of the larger stone artefacts are displayed. I found the jackal-headed shinxes especially fascinating, I’ve never seen these before and they seemed very appropriate for a mortuary temple. My favourite place was two below-ground chambers where some large and fabulous reliefs of Amenhotep III are displayed. The vibrant colour and superb carving of these pieces is spectacular and probably among the best reliefs I’ve seen in Egypt. We wandered around the site, looking at dozens of carved blocks – many of them clearly over-carved by Merenptah.
The new museum building revealed all, with very good plans and information boards guiding the visitor through the objects displayed and telling the history of the excavation. I realised that it would have been helpful to come here first. The structure of the temple was fairly typical of a late New Kingdom funerary temple. It was similar in plan to that of Merenptah’s grandfather Seti I, at Qurna, and copied much of the design from his father’s mortuary temple, the Ramesseum. Mounted on the walls there are many colourful stone architectural pieces from this temple as well as elements from Amenhotep III, Hatshepsut and even Amenhotep IV. In the centre of the room are glass-covered cases full of smaller objects including pieces of pottery, ostraca and jewellery. I thought it was all very well displayed.
Having spent quite a long time at the Merenptah Temple and at the hottest part of the day too, Mary and I walked back along the track behind the ticket office to Medinet Habu and the shade of the Rameses Cafe. Here we found my friend Salah, home on a three-day pass from his stint in the army and sat with him chatting and catching up on news. I never get tired of the view from here over the majestic entrance to Habu Temple and as the sun began to go down and the air to cool a little, Mary and I decided to stay and have an early dinner in the cafe. I never can resist the sight of the floodlights coming on in the temple on a clear evening at dusk, highlighting the magnificent carvings on the ‘Migdol’ gate.
For more pictures from The Merenptah Temple see: