The number of monuments displayed here is growing rapidly: in 1999, there were only three structures and a small collection of statues and loose blocks; today, there are four way-stations, several huge temple walls, storage chambers, statues and hundreds of blocks from still-unreconstructed and many other buildings. These monuments are of such interest that the museum should be visited by every tourist who comes to Thebes.
The White Chapel of Senusret
In the autumn of 1927, French archaeologists working to restore the Third Pylon of the Temple of Amen found a large, beautifully inscribed limestone architrave reused in the pylon’s interior fill. Over the next ten years, hundreds more inscribed blocks were uncovered, all from the same Middle Kingdom building of Senusret I. Egyptologist Pierre Lacau and architect Henri Chevrier began in 1937 to reconstruct the building, which they called the White Chapel. It was the first monument to be installed in the Open-Air Museum. Originally, it probably stood on the west side of the Middle Kingdom courtyard. That courtyard was called “The High Lookout of Senusret I,” and the shrine itself was called “The Throne of Horus.” It was built by Senusret I for the celebration of his first Sed-Festival.
At the time of its discovery, the White Chapel was unique. No examples of such a building had ever come to light. Thanks to almost perfect preservation, it was possible to rebuild what many consider the finest example of relief carving to come down from the Middle Kingdom.
The White Chapel was but one of the many way stations erected at Karnak, small buildings where priests could set down the divine bark and the god’s statue while they briefly rested and recited prayers during the many religious processions that took place each year.
It is a small monument: 6.75 meters (22 feet) square, with ramp and stairway combinations at either end that lead to the chapel floor, 1.8 (nearly 6 feet) meters above ground. The shrine has four rows of four pillars each 2.5 meters (7.5 feet) tall, supporting architraves and a cornice above. There are waterspouts to collect the rare rain that falls on the roof, water that was used in purification ceremonies. The plan and section of the building are simple and even a bit heavy. But this is more than made up for by the relief carving that covers nearly every vertical surface. It is certainly the most elaborately decorated of all the chapels at Karnak.
On the pillars, Senusret I stands with Amen, sometimes shown in his ithyphallic form, and with other gods and goddesses including Anubis, Thoth, Ptah, Horus, Atum, Montu and Amenet. The accompanying texts give titles and epithets of the king and deities. The detail in these figures is truly astonishing: kilts and unusual capes are meticulously pleated; every bead in a necklace or collar is carefully delineated. The hieroglyphs are even more elaborate: the feathers of a bird’s wing; the musculature of a bull; the curls on the hr-sign (a human head); the twisted strands in a rope cartouche; the transparent wings of a bee; the pattern of a woven basket—all are shown with the minutest attention to detail. There is very little paint preserved, but each hieroglyph is a fully formed work of art, a tiny masterpiece cut in finest limestone.
But the inscriptions are of more than just aesthetic interest. There is a list of nomes, the ancient administrative districts into which Egypt was divided, on the outer walls, carved in a series of rectangles just below the shrine’s windows. On the right (north) side are the nomes of Lower Egypt, on the left (south) those of Upper Egypt. For example, at the right (east) end of the south wall appears the name Ta-Sety, the first nome of Upper Egypt, called Elephantine or Aswan. Below its name another rectangle gives the name of the nome’s principal deity, in this case Horus. Below that, a string of numbers indicates the length of the nome’s Nile shoreline, in this case, 10 itru, 2 kha, 7 setjat, which is 112.061 kilometers. (One itru is 10.5 kilometers; kha and setjat are fractions thereof.) At the left (east) end of the north wall, a rectangle encloses the name of the first Lower Egyptian nome, Memphis, inbu hedj, which extends 4 itru, 1 kha, or 42.523 kilometers along the Nile. Twenty-two Upper Egyptian and fourteen Lower Egyptian nomes are listed. Also on the outer north wall of the chapel, flood levels at several sites along the Nile are given in cubits. This is extremely important information for reconstructing the geography and politics of ancient Egypt.
The Alabastershrine of Amenhete
Amenhetep I erected several buildings in and around the Middle Kingdom Court, several of which were dismantled and used as fill in the Third Pylon and to create the court before the Seventh Pylon. One of these, from the Third Pylon, is a remarkable alabaster bark-shrine, recently reconstructed in the Open-Air Museum. Called the Menmenu, it originally stood in the Middle Kingdom precinct as a repository for the sacred bark of Amen. Amenhetep I said that, “Never since the first primeval time of the earth has the like of this been made in the land.” Its name was found in an inscription in the Red Chapel of Queen Hatshepsut, which now stands nearby. The shrine was the work of a prominent architect of the early New Kingdom, Ineni, who also was responsible for many works of Amenhetep I’s successor, Thutmes I.Amenhetep I’s shrine measures only 9 meters (29 feet) long and consists of a single chamber, built of huge blocks of alabaster.
Alabaster was a valuable material rarely found in such large pieces. The alabaster, probably from the Hatnub quarries, has mottled shades of caramel and honey running through it, and is pockmarked with pits, gashes, and impurities that give it the appearance of pulled taffy. These imperfections so overpower the delicate relief that the carved figures completely disappear in all but the sharpest raking light. Originally, the scenes must have been painted, for that is the only way the figures could have been easily seen. But painting the surface would have concealed the fact that the shrine was built of such costly material. Why use blocks of precious alabaster if it could not be seen? Perhaps the magical and religious associations of alabaster were more important than its ostentatious display.
Scenes on the outer north wall of the Menmenu show Amenhetep I mystically joined with the god Amen, dedicating offerings of food, oils, and water as part of his coronation ceremony. The outer face of the south wall is decorated with figures of Thutmes I, and some scholars think this proves that the shrine was built late in the reign of Amenhetep I as a joint venture with his successor. The interior faces of the two walls show Amenhetep I and Amen standing before offerings and a divine bark.
The Red Chapelof Queen Hatshepsut
This large and elegant building was re-erected in 2000, making it one of the most recent additions to the museum, although the recovery of blocks in 1898 makes it one of the first to have been discovered. Like all the shrines here, the building goes by several names and descriptive terms: Chapelle Rouge, Red Chapel shrine, bark-shrine, chapel or way station. Like the others, the Red Chapel functioned as a temporary resting-place for divine barks during religious processions. The monument, found re-used in the Third Pylon, bore the cartouches of Thutmes III and Hatshepsut. Originally, it may have stood near the shrine of Philip Arrhidaeus, west of the Middle Kingdom.
This large and elegant building was re-erected in 2000, making it one of the most recent additions to the museum, although the recovery of blocks in 1898 makes it one of the first to have been discovered. Like all the shrines here, the building goes by several names and descriptive terms: Chapelle Rouge, Red Chapel shrine, bark-shrine, chapel or way station. Like the others, the Red Chapel functioned as a temporary resting-place for divine barks during religious processions. The monument, found re-used in the Third Pylon, bore the cartouches of Thutmes III and Hatshepsut. Originally, it may have stood near the shrine of Philip Arrhidaeus, west of the Middle Kingdom court. It is larger than the other shrines, 15 meters (50 feet) long and 5.77 meters (18.5 feet) tall.
The shrine is a fascinating piece of architecture. It is built of red quartzite on a base of black granite that is inscribed with lists of Upper and Lower Egyptian nomes. There is a torus molding at each corner and a cornice across the top. The courses of stone are laid horizontally with vertical joints between the blocks. Each register is one block in height, and there are six registers on the exterior wall, seven on the interior. Each block is of a slightly different length so that it can accommodate a single scene or part of a scene. This must mean that each block was custom-cut and decorated at the quarry, then installed in a predetermined place in the structure. This implies that its builders had a detailed architectural plan for the monument.
The floor of the shrine has several channels cut into it to direct the flow of water used in ceremonies of purification.
From" The Illustrated Guide to Luxor" by kent R.Weeks ,published by the American University in Cairo Press. Copyright © 2005 White Star S.p.a