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

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    After
    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.”

    Apparently,
    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.

    “Ancient
    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.”

     

     
    UCLA’s
    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
    here
    .

     
     

    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.

    Accompanied
    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.

    “Karnak
    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.


     

    Digital
    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.

    “Even
    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.

    Hatshepsut’s
    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
    here
    .

    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.

    Additional
    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
    site.”

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

    Reprinted
    with permission from UCLA
    Today
    .

    April
    25, 2009

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