After being crowned one of ancient Egypts 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 Hatshepsuts 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 UCLAs 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 didnt write about these kinds of rivalries, said Diane Favro, ETC director and the projects principal investigator. So we rely on architectural transformations and depictions on contemporary reliefs to provide invaluable information about Egypts 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 sites evolution over two millennia, encompassing 63 distinct features of this major religious center located on the Niles eastern bank at Thebes, a little more than a mile north of modern Luxor.
Accompanied by ETCs 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 sites development.
That’s the goal that Favro and Wendrich, the projects 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 fields 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 Egypts 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 Tutankhamuns father, built a temple to his own religion, thought to be the worlds 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 todays Israel.
Hatshepsuts 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 todays 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 Favros direction, the team has digitally reconstructed dozens of important landmarks that either have been lost or altered beyond recognition, including Pompeiis 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 complexs 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 cant 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 fields latest peer-reviewed research. Because the model is as dynamic as the encyclopedias 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