Friday, 3 October 2008

Museums in Luxor

Everyone always thinks of Cairo Museum when they think of an Egyptian museum however there are loads of other really high quality museums in Cairo. Also outside Cairo, in fact all over the country there are excellent artifacts on display. I went the museum at Kharga and that looked as though it had not been visited since Ramses II but was full of some interesting objects. In Luxor itself there are 4 museums and they all have appeal to me.

Luxor Museum does not have vast quantities of artifacts but I prefer it to Cairo because everything is properly displayed, labelled, conserved and controlled. Humidifiers and temperatures controls contrast strongly to Cairo’s open air policy. Having said that I am really excited about the proposed new museum. Having seen what they can do with the museums at Sakkara you realise the new Giza museum is going to rival the pyramids for sheer wonderment. Back to Luxor, the main museum is a wonderful setting and you feel the objects are properly looked after. The Mummification museum is even smaller but fascinating for is display of specialised mummification material. The Open Air Museum at Karnak is my personal favourite although it is extremely challenging to visit as there is little explanation. But today I want to concentrate of a very little known small but exquisite museum at the temple of Merenptah.

The temple is situated within walking distance of the ticket office and the museum is located on site. The ticket is 10LE and that entitles you to a visit to the temple area as well. The museum is often closed but what happens is while you go round the temple the guardians make a phone call to the inspectors office and the inspector with the key comes and unlocks the museum. Alternatively if you don’t want to see the temple you just sit and wait and the guardians will probably make you tea. Although the temple is open at 6 am I have never been able to get into the museum until after 9.


The Swiss spent nearly 20 years excavating this temple and found lots of artifacts from a wide time period. Obviously of Merenptah himself and the adjoining temple of Amenhotep III but also Hatshepsut amongst others.

The temple is very sparse in its remains but its storage areas and the museum are hidden treasures. The two underground chambers have pieces from the gateway of Amenhotep III well displayed with explanatory steel panels. Anyone who lives in Egypt will understand the need for washable steels panels, the dust is pervasive. The storage area has many objects which I guess were judged too large or duplicates or not good enough for the museum contents. I love the jackal head sphinxes personally. One wonders whether this was an East v West Bank difference. Rams on the East Bank jackals on the West? Recent excavations at the temple of Ramses II have also revealed jackal headed sphinxes.


The museum was designed by the architect Horst Jaritz and describes itself as the site museum of the temple of Merenptah done by the Swiss Institute with support from the SCA. The museum itself has a very detailed display board showing the work of the Swiss team during their clearance of the temple. Before and during pictures are always evocative but these show clearly the state of the temple. And it is in Arabic and English, it is challenging in Egypt to make things accessible to such a wide variety of nations but with the use of pictures they have done pretty well. And yet amazingly this has to be about the least visited site on the West Bank. And some of the interesting and unexpected discoveries that were made.

There are a number of display boards, the higher level ones given a description and the lower level photos.
1) Sets up the geography of the temple and its relationship to the other temples in the area. It shows the plan drawn by Petrie after his original excavation in 1896, little remained as it had been used as a quarry.
2) Then in 1971 until 2000 the Swiss Institute worked here. Their plan is only a little more detailed than Petrie's and has more of the mud brick structures.
3) There is then a detailed pan of the temple palace and treasury. The basic layout of this temple does not differ greatly from his grandfather Seti I
4) Shows the reuse of stone quarried from the Amenhotep III temple. It would seem that this temple was already abandoned and wrecked. It position on the flood plan probably was the major contribution and once the damage started it was an obvious place for subsequent Pharaohs to come for stone, maybe it was even considered a sort of holy relic to incorporate it. There are several large pieces and they are in underground chambers within the temple itself. The display board shows how they fitted together. The pieces themselves show definite Amarna damage
5) This display board shows the sphinxes, there were a lot. These originally belonging to Amenhotep III and had been usurped by Merenptah. There were 2 large human headed ones and on display was half the head of one of them. Dimensions were not given but the head alone was approx 1 metre, 4 smaller ones 1.3 – 1.40. And then these wonderful jackal headed ones. Just like at Karnak temple with the ram headed sphinxes guarding the figure of the king between their paws these are jackal headed ones doing exactly the same things. There was one large one 6.50 ad 12 smaller ones 4.90. They were all found in the foundations of the temple, used as hard core
6) There were three colossal groups which Merenptah usurped from Amenhotep III. Parts of some of these are in the British Museum
a. A triad of Hathor, the king and Osiris, the torso is in the British museum
b. A Dyad of the king and the god Amun
c. The royal couple again the torso is in the British museum

The display then continues with a chronological selection of objects from Hatshepsut to Merenptah. Some of the contextual settings are particularly clever with use of small steel plaques that show the entire scene and where a particular original piece fitted into that scene. Lots of the small pieces have bright and vivid colours. They are mounted cleverly, displaying themselves well. There are also some cabinets with a variety of objects.

The first object is a column of Amenhotep III very reminiscent of those at Luxor temple, it approximately 3 metres high. It is from a door jamb and there are various pieces from the same door jamb some with colour still remaining. Then there were various parts of the sphinxes tying in the display board. There was half the human headed sphinx wearing the nemes head cloth and with a little colour especially around the eyes. Above it is a piece of what looks like the bottom of a wall frieze. There is a palace fa├žade surmounted by wadjet and ankhs and that is normally at the bottom of a wall.

As many of these pieces were around pre and post Amarna you can see where Amun has been re-carved into blocks.

Then we come to the jackal headed sphinxes that have a kindly almost smiling face and the sandstone has been covered by a thin layer of plaster on which details have been painted. The inside of the nostrils are red, you can see whiskers. They really are benevolent. The statue of the king between the paws looks middle aged. The picture of the king on the pieces of the monumental gateway looks young, virile and athletic but these portraits are more serene and very handsome. Quite a human face and not remote or miserable. Colour remains on the ureaus, eyes and the collar of the jackal.

Then there are some various blocks of Amenhotep IV and Hatshepsut which were reused elements of a wall. A large approx 1 meter diameter cult vessel on a stand dated to 18/19th dynasty. After these objects we come 1 short wall and another long wall dividing into sections on these there are various fragments which have been mounted (stuck?) on to metal rods and placed into the approximate relationship to the other pieces. A bit like a jigsaw puzzle. Next to them is explanatory plaques showing the whole scene and bold out lines showing where these original pieces fitted. The short wall has a Merenptah pieces a steles from the treasury with the king in front of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. There are also numerous private steles that were found in the temple precincts.

The long wall has many pieces from the temple walls some with bright and vivid colours. The various scenes are the king in front of Horus. Various pieces with part of the king’s name complimented by a small plaque showing the entire name with all the hieroglyphics. Warriors, enemies and prisoners some with a bag hair style, some with the curly lock hair style and the warriors with the Egyptian bob. The smiting scene had a prisoner with a hair style like the nemes hairstyle. The last section has various members of the royal family and Gods, this section has the most colours and there is a lovely loaf with individual sesame seeds painted on it. Flowers and ladies robes with blues various shades in ribbons and petals. When you looked at it from a distances it looked like pieces of a puzzle laid out in groups ready to be assembled but when you got in close you could see each piece was careful selected and showed you artists work.

In the middle of the room there were cabinets with various finds from the site.
• Lots of pottery including what looked like Blue Malkata ware. A large 1 foot diameter shallow bowl reassembled from 3 pieces. Bowls dishes, decorated shreds, wine jar dockets, jars, bottles, bread moulds, beer jars, cooking pot (which was blackened), jars and stoppers
• Lots hieratic ostraca but sadly no translations, rings, beads, some tools (possible miniatures put in foundations deposits), some paint jars and the rocks used to get the colours
• Various small pieces from the 3 colossal statues like toes, plaited beard, tail, feathers, hair, necklaces
• Black (possible basalt) pieces from a statues which might have been Ptah or Osiris as it had clasped hands and the wadjet sceptre
• Several partial faces of Amenhotep III with nice happy faces
• Enemies most of these pieces seems to be in poor condition but you could make out non typical Egyptian features like thick lips, different check bones and hair

Sadly although the museum was obviously equipped with temperature controls these all seem to be either switched of or to have malfunctioned and not been repaired. The air conditioning was not on and a temperature recorder was not registering


What defines a museum for me is not its artifacts but how they are looked after and displayed and how accessible they are to the general public. This museum may not be large like Cairo but each piece has been chosen very deliberately and compliments the other pieces, it is displayed sympathetically and full information is given about it. The jackal sphinxes are definitely the best. Shame about the temperature control.

1 comment:

nefertiti said...

Thank you for your very interesting piece. Yes it is true that there are many museums who although having a lot of artifacts donot preserve or display them properly.

Was at the Manchester Day School today, and we were privleged to handle some of the aritifacts that are kept in storage,what a collection. These are of course kept in the very best of conditions,. I have take some photographs and would be glad to send one or two to you if you would like me too.

Once again thanks

Dorothy