Grandfather, Father, Son:
A Comparison of Mortuary Temples on the
West Bank at Luxor (Ancient Thebes)
by Jane Akshar
On the West Bank in Luxor (ancient Thebes) many of the New Kingdom pharaohs built their mortuary temples. These would be vehicles both for the worship of the King after he died and became a God, as well as other cult purposes. They were used for events like the Feast of the Valley. Thus, the king assured the continuity of worship at his temple for many hundreds of years.
It is interesting to contrast the styles of the various pharaohs and the condition of the temples today. For this very personal and subjective analysis I have chosen the mortuary temples of Seti I, Ramesses II and Merenptah. The nice thing about these three temples is that they have few visitors. This is a direct line of kings. After attempting to view Hatshepsuts temple with its hoards of chattering tourists following the harassed tour guides with their umbrellas and clip boards, it is pleasant to be in a different Egypt, to stand in the quiet and be the only tourist admiring a site.
I love the temple of Seti I. It is one of my favorite sites. One gets a picture of a very religious man from this temple, anxious to adore the Gods as much as possible. He was a filial man who honored his own father within the complex, providing him with the mortuary temple Ramesses I did not have time to build himself. The current site has recently been superbly restored and is a total joy to visit. With clear signs and the temple layout provided on a nice map, this temple is now one of the most interesting for the discerning visitor. One must enter from the side; for the entrance pylon is ruined now and the doorway bricked up. However, standing in the remains of the gateway and looking along the axis, it is easy to get a picture of the complex. The temple palace to the side has also been restored and I love to take people to the site of the window of appearances. Children especially love to pretend to be pharaoh and award collars of gold and golden flies to the plebs (parents) below. It is hard not to be moved as one stands there and imagines the triumphant generals and long serving civil servants receiving their rewards from the king
Passing through the second courtyard the restoration team has planted the avenue. It gives it the feel of ancient Deir el Bahri with its potential of shady groves. The enclosed part of the temple has many, many chapels dedicated to the various Gods and retains much of its decoration. But here is no boastful general with an army of spin doctors decorating an egocentric mortuary temple. Rather, relief after relief is of Seti adoring the ancient Egyptian Gods. Much of this relief work in the inner parts of the temple is in raised relief and very reminiscent of his work at Abydos. There is a walkway around the boundary wall and, having gone through the temple, one returns to the exit along this wall. The outside of the temple is exactly the same as the inside, adorned with relief after relief of Seti I worshiping the Gods. .
The overall impression is of a pious man who took his religious duties seriously. There are no battle scenes and no prisoners about to have their heads bashed in. I find it a very peaceful temple.
Moving on to his sons mortuary temple, the Ramasseum, I must confess a dislike for Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great) which does color my view. I mean the guy wouldnt know artistic merit if it hit him in the face. He knew how to make things big and, yes, he knew how to build in quantity, but quality was not his strong point. The big give away is the use of incised relief everywhere. Raised relief takes a lot longer and Ramesses couldnt be bothered with that. It seems that, with many of his projects, the idea was to get it up and covered with decoration as soon as possible. Having said that, I do like the Ramasseum. Actually having said all the things about the wonderful restoration work at Seti I temple I actually like the Ramasseum for its deserted, unkempt look. The first courtyard consists of sand and tall clumps of grass. Much of the temple and statuary is now ruined. It has a peculiar charm of its own with the graffiti of ancient visitors including that of Belzoni. I like to stand in the deserted first courtyard and recite Shelleys poem. Especially the lines:
Nothing besides remains.
Round the decay Of the Colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The fallen statue of Ramesses II is without doubt a truly impressive piece of engineering. I am particularly impressed with the way the nemes head cloth is shown by working the granite into smooth and matt stripes. When one thinks about the tools available to them at this time it is amazing what they achieved artistically.
The wall decoration is of course the battle of Kadesh. It is a bit like the emperors new clothes to see the these scenes. One knows he didnt win but one is carried away by his version of events. The other decorations in abundance are the pictures of his children. He did have a lot of them but they are everywhere. Finally in the innermost rooms we find some religious scenes but mostly it is Ramesses II himself that dominates the reliefs in this temple. The color is spectacular and I can never tire of looking up at the column capitals and admiring the rich and colorful designs. It is difficult to understand why this temple has fallen out of favor as a place to visit.
Poor old Merenptah. He must have thought his father would never leave the throne. For him to become king, first twelve of his older brothers had to die, and he must have wondered if even he might not survive his father, Ramesses II, as he lived on and on. Did he feel relief as he finally mounted the throne? Certainly there must not have been the jubilation of a younger king. He was already middle aged and with a life expectancy much lower than today, he was taking no chances. His temple is much smaller and he reused blocks from the temple of Amenhotep III in to build his cult center. This is not actually as bad as it seems because it is suspected that the older temple was already partially destroyed by the flood water of the Nile. Therefore, he probably did not destroy the earlier temple of Amenhotep III, and may have actually preserved some blocks that would have otherwise been lost to us. Although his temple is much smaller, it follows a similar pattern to that of his father and grandfather.
Today it is very ruined but has been superbly restored by the Swiss Institute. They have set up metal plaques that include a picture of the relief one is examining. It is a terrific idea and makes even very ruined blocks come alive.
Having said that, little remains of the temple though the layout is well defined by the restorers and it is not difficult to visualize the original temple. I personally feel like the quality of the decorations is better than that of his father's temple. Merenptah did employ the use of raised relief and the decorations as a whole seem less brash. All that remains on display are religious scenes, although with so much missing, there well could have been an attempt at self glorification, but one does not get that impression.
The huge black granite stela, known as the Victory Stela, records a mention of Israel is truly impressive. This was reused by Merenptah and on the reverse it is inscribed by Amenhotep III. This stela sets out the earliest evidence of the Israelites as Merenptah describes his victories over foreign peoples.
However, overall the temple is dominated by a wealth of remains from Amenhotep III. There are two underground chambers with remnants of his monumental gateway and a museum with various artifacts, statuary and reliefs, all with wonderful color. For only these three rooms alone the site would be worth visiting, but this is, of course, the mortuary temple of a great Ramaside king, the third in one family, and so it has much to offer the serious scholar.
So three very different temples all with their own charm, not much visited by many tourists. They are but a small part of the ruins that were once a part of Thebes, the capital of Egypt during its empire period. It is because of such ruins that many visitors to Luxor simply never feel like there is enough time to explore all the ruins of this largest of all open air museums.