Palace of the Sun King
by Dr. Joann Fletcher
Although the ancient Egyptians are best known for the monumental tombs and temples they built profusely, far less is known about the actual homes in which they lived their lives.
This is mainly due to the fact that they built their housing close to the banks of the river Nile, whereas their tombs and temples were situated away from the limited arable land on the desert edge. And since these temples and tombs were regarded as houses of eternity, designed to last 'millions of years', they were built from hard stone, in contrast to the houses of the living which were made of easily available mud brick. This was even true of royal palaces, a fact which early scholars had some difficulty accepting , choosing instead to imagine the ancient Egyptian kings inhabiting the interiors of the temples themselves! However, we now know that this was simply not the case; the pharaohs lived in mud-brick structures just like the rest of the population, albeit on a far grander scale.
Given that mud brick buildings erected close to a river tend not to survive as long as stone monuments in the desert, there is inevitably more evidence for funerary practices than daily life. This has therefore created the mistaken idea that the ancient Egyptians were a morbid race obsessed by religion and death, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. The Egyptians loved life so much they simply wanted it to continue forever, going to great lengths to ensure an afterlife, that would last eternally. And the same vitality used in decorating their tombs and temples can also be found in their choice of domestic architecture.
Although settlement sites are relatively rare, the exceptions to the rule are those built for various reasons away from the river area, such as the town of Deir el-Medina (opposite modern Luxor), home to those who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and again further north at Amarna where the so-called 'heretic' pharaoh Akhenaten, chose to relocate the royal capital on a desert plain, together with his royal palace complex.
But this was a move which was first encountered in the reign of Akhenaten's father, Amenhotep III (c.1391-1354 BC), who moved his court permanently to Thebes in his regnal year 29 (c.1363 BC). The site of his palace was in ancient times called 'the Palace of the Dazzling Aten', one of Amenhotep's epithets (also made famous by his son), but is today better known by its Arabic name of 'Malkata', meaning 'the place where things are picked up' after the piles of ancient debris which still litter this wonderful site.
Situated on the Theban West Bank beneath the western hills into which the sun sank down each evening, and directly opposite his temple of Luxor, it was Amenhotep's Theban base throughout most of his reign. It appears building work began around year 11 (1381 BC) and continued until the king moved here permanently around year 29. This was in contrast to previous rulers who were based at the traditional capital Memphis in the north, and only came south to Thebes for the annual religious festivals, where they set up temporary court in palace buildings attached to Karnak temple. Amenhotep's construction of an independent palace, not only at the other end of the city but on the opposite bank of the river could in fact be viewed as the king distancing himself yet further from the politically active priesthood of Amun based at Karnak temple, a move which was taken even further by his son Akhenaten who created his new capital way downstream in Middle Egypt.
Following the discovery of Malkata in 1888, subsequent excavations have revealed a massive site sprawling over 30 hectares which was still being added to and embellished at the time of Amenhotep's death. Its main areas are the king's own apartments in the south-east section, with its audience chambers, festival hall, offices, kitchens and storerooms. Then to the south are the apartments of the king's Great Royal Wife Tiy and those of their eldest daughter Sitamen to the north, with quarters for the rest of the royal family, minor wives and their retinues of literally hundreds of female attendants. There were also residences for the king's high officials, the vizier, chancellor and steward, and of course all the servants they, too, required.
Malkata also housed an administrative sector referred to as the 'West Villas', the royal workshops with the workers' village to the south, then to the north a large settlement which acted as a support town to the palace and past which ran the causeway connecting the palace to the king's funerary temple which once stood behind the so-called Colossi of Memnon, one and a half kilometers away. This causeway also extended over 2 km southeast out into the desert to Kom el-Samak, the site of a brightly painted mud-brick platform for the king's jubilee (sed) festivals, set with 20 steps decorated with figures of Egypt's enemies on which the king would ceremonially tread on ritual occasions. A further 2km west of this lay a similar monument at Kom el-Abd, together with a royal rest house and its associated buildings.
The palace also had its own temple of the state god Amun complete with a large court and a processional way linking it to an enormous T-shaped harbor (now known as the 'Birket Habu'). Once fronting the palace which it reflected in its waters to great dramatic effect, this two and a half-kilometer wide harbor was skillfully built to link the royal residence to the Nile, and as well as dealing with the heavy flow of commercial and administrative water-borne traffic, it housed the great golden barge called "The Dazzling Aten" on which the royal couple sailed forth during religious and state festivals, in the same way the statues of the gods were transported. The harbour also meant it was possible for the king to reach Karnak and Luxor temples on the opposite bank of the river, or indeed anywhere else in his kingdom, without the need of traveling by land - a water-borne god in his golden barque, reenacting Ra's journey in his boat across the heavens.
The whole palace complex was built largely from the standard mud-bricks, stamped with the king's names, whereas those used for Queen Tiy's apartments to the south were also stamped with her name. Door and window frames were augmented in more durable limestone, sandstone and wood, with wood also used for shelving and stone for column bases, steps, drainage systems and bathrooms. Indeed, the general level of luxury is indicated by the presence of well tended walled gardens with a central pool, and en-suite bathroom facilities inside.
The brick walls were then plastered and whilst the exteriors were painted white, the interiors were painted in vivid colors. From the thousands of fragments of painted plaster littering the site it is possible to reconstruct much of the original dcor, which featured naturalistic scenes of animals and plants, interspersed with figures of the gods and amuletic devices, all enhanced with gilded and glazed tiles and inlays.
Today the best preserved sections of the palace are the audience chambers leading to the king's own private apartments, their thicker walls probably supporting an upper story. These audience chambers, one 100 feet long, had tiled and painted floors featuring repeated series of bound captives who would be symbolically trampled underfoot by anyone crossing the floor, and the steps leading up to the dais supporting pharaoh's throne similarly decorated. The tiles which once adorned the later throne room of Ramses III in the small palace attached to his funerary temple of Medinet Habu (and the site of so many of Amenhotep III's usurped monuments) give an idea of Malkata's original brilliance, as does Ramses' own throne room of mud brick reinforced with stone column bases and throne dais.
The red, blue and yellow ceiling of Amenhotep's robing room was originally decorated with a series of S-spirals and stylized bulls heads, possibly Greek-inspired, whilst leaping red and white calves, birds in flight and lush floral motifs adorned the nearby 'harem', the private suites of the king's close family and royal women, which flanked the columned hall preceding the throne room. This naturalistic motif was also used on the floors of the hall, painted to represent the banks of the river filled with fish whilst birds flew out from the banks. The ceiling of another room was painted with vines, whilst walls, doorways, windows and balconies were decorated with brightly colored glazed tiles of flowers, grapes, birds and fish, spirals and feathers, amuletic symbols of good luck, health and protection together with the ever-present name of Nebmaatre written in gold "Horus, strong bull appearing in Thebes, perfect god, lord of joy, lord of crowns".
The colorful interiors of the palace would have been further enhanced by the addition of superbly crafted furniture, surpassing that from the tomb of Amenhotep's in-laws Yuya and Tuya and at the very least comparable with that found in the tomb of his own grandson Tutankhamen: ornamental beds inlaid with ebony and gold, with lions paw feet and linen sheets, gilded and inlaid chairs, cross-legged stools made of imitation animal hide, large feather-stuffed cushions, fringed wall hangings, jewel caskets, wig boxes, cosmetic chests, game boards, candlesticks, flower vases, gold and silver tableware, vessels of alabaster, glass, faience and pottery. Pottery from the reign is often superb, its graceful forms painted or molded with plant and animal motifs, lotus, papyrus, grapes, calves, ibex, birds and fish, together with female figures and the great favorite Hathor, goddess of beauty and joy, or her companion figure Bes.
Some of the rooms had built-in wood-topped shelves for the storage of smaller portable items, although most things were stored in chests or caskets. The original interiors, complete with their ornaments, linens and similarly decorated inhabitants can only be imagined, although the variety of small personal items found at the site does help bring its ancient inhabitants back to life, their rings, bracelets and necklaces, favorite amulets, cosmetic spoons, kohl tubes, mirror handles, tweezers, and perfume bottles and gaming pieces all found here. Small faience bookplates dating from the reign and bearing the names of the king and queen may even indicate that the king had his own library at Malkata, a 'per medjat' ('house of books') such as those found in the temples. Designed for attachment to chests containing specific texts, the labels would indicate that horticulture was a subject of some interest, one inscribed "the book of the moringa tree and another "the book of the pomegranate tree", an important reference to the use of ornamental flowers and plants as an integral part of the king's building schemes also found in texts on the great stela from his funerary temple. Writing equipment and scarab seals have also been found, with hundreds of clay sealings from rolls of official papyri discovered in one of the administrative 'West villas'.
Living close to the palace in their own village to the south, the craftsmen of the royal workshops worked directly under the king's instructions. Supervised by 'the Great chamberlain in the Great House', they produced a dazzling array of superb furniture and household items of exquisite taste. Intended both for home consumption and export abroad, they have been found as far afield as Babylon and Mycenae.
The level of cosmopolitan sophistication indicated by the free-flow of gifts and ideas between the monarchs of the ancient world is documented in an archive of diplomatic correspondence known as the 'Amarna letters'. In one example, Amenhotep III writes to Kadashman-Enlil, the king of Babylon, saying: - "I have just heard that you have built a new palace, and so I am sending you furnishings for it. Indeed, I shall be preparing everything possible before the arrival of your messenger who is bringing your daughter for me to marry, and when your messenger returns, I will send the furniture to you. So I now send you a greeting gift of things for your new house: a bed of ebony overlaid with ivory and gold; 3 beds of ebony overlaid with gold; 1 large chair of ebony overlaid with gold; 9 chairs of ebony overlaid with gold. The weight of the gold on all these things is 7 minas, 9 shekels and the weight of the silver 1 mina, 8 and a half shekels. In addition, I send 10 footrests of ebony, overlaid with gold".
In such letters we finally hear the voice of the king who not only built the splendid palace of Malkata, but also the temple of Luxor, parts of Karnak and the largest of all Egyptian funerary temples which once stretched out behind the Colossi of Memnon, the only part that is still visible today.
copyright: Joann Fletcher 2001
Dr. Joann Fletcher's book 'Egypt's Sun King: Amenhotep III' is now available and her next tour for 'Ancient World Tours' is 'The Egypt of Amenhotep III' in May 2001.