Team's Re-Creation of Ancient Karnak Brings History of Pharaohs to Life

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being crowned one of ancient Egypt’s rare female pharaohs,
Queen Hatshepsut renovated a coronation hall lined with statuary
depicting her father, her highly regarded predecessor, as a god.
In the center of the hall, she installed two 10-story red granite
obelisks and a beautiful red quartzite chapel inscribed with images
of herself erecting the colossal obelisks.

“To us,
this may seem egomaniacal,” said UCLA Egyptologist Willeke
Wendrich. “But part of the process of legitimating herself
in a role rarely held by women was to imprint the space in a way
that established her as the great heir to her great father.”

Hatshepsut was a little too successful: When her nephew, Thutmose
III, who was for years co-ruler in her shadow, finally succeeded
the 15th century B.C. queen, he removed the upgrades, partially
bricked over the obelisks and tore down the chapel.

What did Thutmose
III have against his aunt, now considered to be one of the most
successful pharaohs of all time? Was he merely sexist? Or was he
threatened by the possibility that Hatshepsut’s own daughter
might try to usurp his throne?

While scholars
may never know the exact answers to these and other tantalizing
mysteries, they are at least able to visualize one of the most important
remaining records of this and other ancient Egyptian power struggles,
thanks to the latest 3-D computer model from UCLA’s Experiential
Technologies Center (ETC) in the Department of Architecture and
Urban Design.

One of the
10-story obelisks erected by Queen Hatshepsut in the complex’s coronation room.

The result
of two years of painstaking research by a team of more than 24 scholars
and technicians, Digital Karnak explores how scores of existing
ruins may have originally looked and demonstrates how they came
to be altered over time as generations of pharaohs put their stamp
on the site that served as the religious center for Thebes, the
Ancient Egyptian capital during the Golden Age of the Pharaohs.

Egyptian texts didn’t write about these kinds of rivalries,”
said Diane Favro, ETC director and the project’s principal
investigator. “So we rely on architectural transformations
and depictions on contemporary reliefs to provide invaluable information
about Egypt’s rich history.”


Digital Karnak follows two millennia of renovations, demolitions
and additions at the religious complex, concluding in the 4th
Century A.D. To see a video clip of what the site would have
looked like at its most complete state, click


Through interactive
architectural plans and intricate perspective illustrations, Digital
Karnak traces the site’s evolution over two millennia, encompassing
63 distinct features of this major religious center located on the
Nile’s eastern bank at Thebes, a little more than a mile north
of modern Luxor.

by ETC’s most ambitious web interface to date, Digital Karnak
shows the site at any point in time between 1951 B.C. and 31 B.C.,
allowing users to fast-forward from a single temple occupying a
two-acre site to a sprawling complex covering 69 acres with eight
temples, 10 small chapels, 10 monumental gateways, 15 obelisks,
100 sphinxes and even a ceremonial lake.

is one of the most dazzling sites in Egypt nowadays, but if you
try to figure out what any one feature originally looked like, you
get in trouble because you have all these elements from different
periods standing next to each other, many of which were moved or
altered over time,” said Favro, a professor of architectural
history. “We set out to give people a clear sense of the chronology
of the site’s development.”

That’s the
goal that Favro and Wendrich, the project’s co-developer, are
aiming for especially this month. On April 4, they demonstrated
the model at the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural
Historians, the field’s leading professional group, in Pasadena.
On April 25, they will present it in Dallas, Texas, at the annual
meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, considered the
premiere conference for U.S.-based Egyptologists.


Karnak architects Willeke Wendrich, from the left, Elaine Sullivan
and Diane Favro.


As one of ancient
Egypt’s two chief religious centers, Karnak rose in prominence
in the last half of the 3000-year-long empire. Still impressive
after all these years, Karnak is one of the most visited sites in
Egypt and is best known today for what remains of the Great Hypostyle
Hall, a giant room with a painted ceiling supported by 12 massive
seven-story and 122 four-story sandstone columns.

though I have been to Karnak many times, when walking through the
temple, especially very early in the morning before the hordes of
tourists come in or when I’m in a quiet corner of the enormous complex,
I feel history becoming almost tangible,” said Wendrich, an
associate professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

This is the
place where Akhenaten, believed to be King Tutankhamun’s father,
built a temple to his own religion, thought to be the world’s
first monotheistic faith. The Hypostyle Hall was decorated by Ramesses
II, the pharaoh often associated with the Biblical Exodus. One of
the Karnak gates is engraved with references to another pharaoh
whose exploits may also be chronicled in the Bible: Shoshenq I,
whose military conquests took him as far as today’s Israel.

legacy at Karnak is particularly exciting for art lovers. Holdings
of most major museums include statuary and other pieces of art commissioned
during her long and successful reign, which was characterized by
a flowering of the arts. One of her 10-story obelisks still stands
at Karnak. Other obelisks from the reigns of her successors were
moved to grace public squares in Rome and Istanbul. Statuary unearthed
at Karnak dots today’s Cairo.

An interior
view shows a line of painted columns from a 15th Century B.C. temple
at Karnak. To see a video clip of Karnak’s most popular feature
today, the 13th Century B.C. Hypostyle Hall, go

The ETC is
renowned for making sense of such historic landscapes. Under Favro’s
direction, the team has digitally reconstructed dozens of important
landmarks that either have been lost or altered beyond recognition,
including Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries and ancient sites
in Rome including the Colosseum and Forum.

features of Digital Karnak include Quick-Time videos highlighting
the processional routes of the major religious ceremonies for which
Karnak was designed, such as the Opet Festival, an annual celebration
of fertility.

The model even
helps users visualize how natural meandering caused the River Nile
to recede almost a half mile from Karnak, driving the complex’s
slow but steady westward expansion.

“The model
cannot show us Karnak as it really was because we will never know
everything about a site that is so ancient,” said Elaine Sullivan,
project coordinator and a postdoctoral fellow in Near Eastern Languages
and Cultures. “However, it does represent the current state
of knowledge of Karnak at this date.”

Drafted with
the same precision and attention to detail that would be required
to generate architectural plans to actually reconstruct the site,
Digital Karnak is based on generations of discoveries at the historical
site, in particular by French archaeologists.

The Karnak
project traces the complex from its inception in 20th Century BC
alongside the Nile River in Thebes, one of two capitals of ancient Egypt.

“One of
the real problems for American scholars studying the site is that
all of the documentation, current research and reconstructions are
published in French journals,” said Sullivan. “If an instructor
or student can’t read high-level academic French, this information
is inaccessible to them.”

In contrast,
Digital Karnak is written entirely in English, a feature that organizers
hope will make it popular with travelers, architecture buffs and
American college courses in art history, architectural history and
world history.

Funded by the
National Endowment for the Humanities and the Steinmetz Family of
Los Angeles, the model will also serve as an illustration for the
UCLA-based Encyclopedia of Egyptology, an online encyclopedia of
the field’s latest peer-reviewed research. Because the model
is as dynamic as the encyclopedia’s other entries, creators
plan to update the model as new discoveries become available.

“We hope
Egyptologists will use Digital Karnak to test out and advance research
in the field,” said Wendrich. “We look forward to making
as many changes to our Karnak as the pharaohs did to the actual

To see a video clip showing the western entrance to Karnak today,
. This is how Karnak’s western
alley of sphinxes
would have originally appeared, according
to UCLA’s Digital Karnak.

with permission from UCLA

25, 2009

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