These are from collection of images I had shot on a trip to Egypt more than four years ago. The Medinet Habu temple in Luxor, West Bank, is a monumental structure built by Rameses III.
Having read Norman Mailer’s ‘Ancient Evenings’ in my youth, witnessing in person the war, magic, gods, death and reincarnations; the lust, ambitions, jealousies and betrayals in the land of the dead was indeed a dream come true.
The vivid inscriptions and relief work on the massive walls and columns of this grand monument left me stupefied, maybe even a bit dizzy and disoriented in the arid air of the desert. Like the 700 page book, the stories proved too bulky to both comprehend and digest especially in a quick, unplanned, self guided tour. What I figured is this: you must spend a lifetime in Egypt to really learn, find and absorb all the facts and perspectives, an hour or two is just not enough for a temple this size. An ancient civilisation so grand, mesmerizing and powerful, even a week that we spent in Cairo and here was inadequate.
I decided instead to capture what my eyes were seeing while listening to what was being said by my better informed friends and family accompanying me, not to mention the locals, the touts and the guides who would tag along uninvited.
Before entering the temple we stopped by at a local cafe for a bottle of water. The Egyptian owner, a middle-aged man claimed he was born in one of the courtyards inside the temple. “A brick was used to cut the umbilical cord” he added with a certain brutal look in his eye. His mother would visit the temple to rest inside its cool and airy courtyards he informed us. “Better than any modern-day air conditioner” he winked while handing over a tepid bottle of water to me. Though he left the village as a youngster to find a better life in Berlin, he said the place has a magnetic pull, hence he returned to set up this little cafe at its doorsteps. “It’s special, very special”, he shouted behind us as we made our way to the entrance.
The entrance to the Temple is like a fortress. The colour of sandstone everywhere dazzled my senses.
The massive gateways lead from one courtyard to the other. As I found out later, the Medinet Habu is one of the best preserved mortuary temples at Thebes. The complex of buildings here dates from the time when Hatshepsut and Thutmose III dedicated a temple to Amun, around the Roman times. A Coptic church was also established in the second courtyard of the temple at some point of its long history.
The first monumental gateway leads into an open courtyard, lined with colossal statues of Ramesses III on one side, and uncarved columns on the other. The second gateway leads into a peristyle hall, again featuring columns replete with inscriptions from the life of Ramesses. One must have at least 4 hours to discover all the ramps, gateways, courtyards and chapels.
The sheer scale of this temple’s architecture blew me away. The temple walls measure about 16 meters in height and contain more than 7,000 sq ft of decorated wall reliefs! Whew, imagine the extent of workmanship on display here! And to interpret the stories… no wonder archeologists from all over the world have lived and died here.
Rameses was one of the most notable warrior kings of Egypt. The temple decoration mainly consists of a series of reliefs and texts telling of the many exploits of the king. From his campaign against the Libyans to, most importantly, his war against the Sea Peoples (as I gathered later mainly the Minoans from the Greek island of Crete).
The Military theme is evident in both the inscriptions and large sculptures erected in various ante rooms. Ironically the sculpture itself was beheaded. Left me wondering ‘whodonit’!
Madinet Habu also contained luxury goods within. Frankly I was curious to know how much had been plundered by those excavating or even casually exploring this place over the thousands of years of its existence.
The temple is said to have a palace built inside it. Could these intricate hieroglyphics be telling us the story of a kingdom rich in gold, silver and precious stones as much as about deceit, betrayal and greed?
Since we were here on a spontaneous visit without a guide, it was hard to figure out what these inscriptions depicted. On some of the walls it was easy to see some warfare while the others seemed to depict the daily life of the kingdom. I could see themes ranging from festivities and religious ceremonies to the Pharoah’s accession to the throne. I believe artisans would start working on inscriptions from the time a Pharoah is born!
My friend struck me as a powerful woman with this royal backdrop, almost as if she were a queen walking in the courtyard of the royal palace
This was the burial room where Rameses III was probably mummified. So I gathered from this Egyptian who could hardly speak any English. He claimed to be a guard. There was nothing official about my interpretation of what he said.