Ancient History & Civilisation



ALL EGYPTIAN KINGS HAD A TALENT FOR SELF-PROMOTION; IT WENT with the job. For the ninth ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Amenhotep III (1390–1353), it must have been particularly difficult to restrain the bombastic urgings of monarchy. Descendant of conquerors and heir to a sun-blessed throne, Amenhotep had the added good fortune to inherit from his father, Thutmose IV, a nation of unprecedented wealth and unaccustomed stability. Egypt’s domination of the Near East had reached its apogee. Peaceful relations had been established and cemented with the other great powers, Babylonia, Assyria, and Mittani—even the infamously belligerent Hittites were prepared to observe the Pax Aegyptica, for the moment at least. For his reign of nearly four decades, Amenhotep III would have the rare privilege of being the only ruler of his entire dynasty not to wage a single military campaign in western Asia. Instead, his period of rule was characterized by an upsurge in the arts of peacetime, and by the promulgation of a personality cult of bewildering intensity.

Amenhotep started early. A mere child at his accession, his first taste of royal celebrity came after just two years on the throne in 1389. In what was probably a set-piece encounter rather than a spontaneous act of bravery, the king took part in a hunt of wild bulls at Shetep (modern Wadi Natrun), west of Memphis. A large glazed scarab (the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a commemorative coin) was issued by the court to mark the occasion. Distributed throughout Egypt and its conquered territories, it served to trumpet the young king’s achievement to his contemporaries, and record it for posterity:

A wonder that happened to His Majesty. One came to His Majesty saying, “There are wild bulls in the desert in the region of Shetep.” His Majesty sailed downstream … making good time, arriving in peace at the region of Shetep in the morning. His Majesty appeared in his chariot with his entire army behind him.… Then His Majesty ordered a ditch to be dug to enclose these wild bulls, and His Majesty went forth against all these wild bulls. The number thereof: 170 wild bulls. The number the king took in hunting on this [first] day: 56 wild bulls. His Majesty waited four days to give his horses a rest. His Majesty appeared in the chariot [again]. The number of wild bulls he took in hunting: 40 wild bulls. Total number of wild bulls [killed]: 96.1

The repetitious phraseology protests too much. Even for a young king on the cusp of adolescence, it was surely not a difficult task, aided by “his entire army,” to slaughter a herd of bulls corralled inside a ditch with no means of escape. But this announcement set the pattern for the reign as a whole. Amenhotep was acting out the primary, most ancient duty of kingship: to uphold order by defeating chaos in all its guises. Another commemorative scarab, issed in the tenth year of his reign, records the total number of lions shot by the king in his first decade on the throne (110, to be precise).

But, after this youthful predilection for blood sports to prove his virility, a change seems to have come over the king as he entered adulthood. The next special issue scarab, dated a year later, celebrates not a hunt but a construction project, specifically the excavation of a lake for the king’s great wife, Tiye. This was no mere ornamental pond but a rowing lake measuring more than a mile long and nearly a quarter of a mile wide (thirty-seven hundred by seven hundred cubits). To mark the lake’s formal opening, the king duly had himself rowed up and down in the royal barge, prophetically named The Dazzling Orb. Both in the nature of the project itself and in the manner of its inauguration, Amenhotep had found his true calling. From now on, for the rest of his reign, the country would reverberate to the sound of workmen digging, hammering, chiseling, and building. Amenhotep III would be Egypt’s greatest royal builder since the foundation of the kingdom fifteen hundred years earlier, acting out his fantasy of building monuments “whose like never existed before, since the primeval time of the Two Lands.”2 In another aspect of his wish fulfillment, these same monuments would play host to spectacular festivals and unrivaled pageantry, all focused on the person of the king.

Inscriptions in two of Egypt’s biggest limestone quarries show that construction was already under way at the very beginning of Amenhotep III’s reign; the reopening of these quarries was his first recorded act. The pace of building accelerated during his second and third decades on the throne, eventually reaching a fever pitch. From the delta to Nubia, there was scarcely a temple in the land where Amenhotep did not leave his mark. At Saqqara he commissioned the first tomb chapel and burial for the Apis, a sacred bull believed to be the incarnation of the Memphite creator god Ptah. On the island of Abu, he oversaw the construction of a new shrine dedicated to another creator deity, Khnum.

The chief beneficiary of royal largesse, however, was the creator par excellence, the sun god Ra. In a brilliantly calculated program, Amenhotep and his theologians systematically reinterpreted each national cult to emphasize its connections with solar beliefs. Hence, to the temple of Thoth in Khmun, Amenhotep added colossal statues of baboons, animals sacred to Thoth but also revered as the heralds of the sun god because of their habit of shrieking at dawn. At Sumenu (modern el-Rizeiqat), near Thebes, the local crocodile god Sobek was rebranded as the hybrid deity Sobek-Ra and honored with a new temple adorned with monumental sculpture. Wherever he built, Amenhotep took pains to associate himself with solar deities, using epithets such as “heir of Ra” and “Ra’s chosen one,” for the king wished to be seen as the embodiment of solar energy in all its manifestations. He was the maker and sustainer of life; the bringer of fertility and fecundity; and the fierce “eye of Ra” that, when appeased, turned its ferocity on Egypt’s enemies, defending created order. Sophisticated theology was being harnessed to the yoke of divine kingship as never before.

One site, above all others, felt the full energy of Amenhotep’s building program. From the moment of his accession, the king adopted the epithet “ruler of Thebes,” and he soon set out to prove it in deeds as well as words. During his reign, the city dedicated to Amun-Ra, already the focus of royal construction projects from the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, was transformed into Homer’s legendary “hundred-gated Thebes,” with a forest of massive temple gateways punctuating the landscape on both sides of the river. At Ipetsut, the epicenter of the Amun cult, Amenhotep ordered the construction of a new monumental entrance for the entire complex, at the same time adding a further gateway on the temple’s southern axis that led to the temple of the goddess Mut. Here the king beautified and adorned the buildings with a vast array of fine stone sculpture, including more than seven hundred statues of Sekhmet (two for every day of the year), a lioness deity associated with the fiery “eye of Ra.” In the northern part of the Ipetsut enclosure, Amenhotep presided over the rebuilding of an earlier temple to Montu, the son of Amun and Mut, and the construction of a new temple to Maat, goddess of truth and justice. Every edifice was further enhanced with prodigious quantities of the finest sculpture. Indeed, more statues survive of Amenhotep III than of any previous king of Egypt, a testament to the feverish activity of the royal workshops throughout his reign.

Amenhotep’s constructions at Ipetsut were but a sideshow, however, compared to his principal project at Thebes, a mortuary temple on the west bank of the Nile. Begun early in his reign and greatly enlarged in subsequent building phases, it was destined to become the largest royal temple in the history of ancient Egypt. Today, little remains beyond the bases of columns. Such a vast monument was too tempting a source of building material for later kings, but in its time it dwarfed even the great temple of Amun-Ra at Ipetsut. Covering an area of ninety-three acres, the complex was unprecedented in scale and magnificence, bursting at the seams with colossal sculpture. Statues of Amenhotep III as the god Osiris, more than twenty-six feet tall, stood between the columns of one court. Another part of the temple was dominated by a seated pair statue of the king and his great wife, Tiye, at twenty-three feet high the largest dyad ever carved in Egypt; fragments of two even larger colossi were found nearby. The temple’s northern gateway was flanked by a pair of striding figures of the king carved from granite, while processional avenues were lined with enormous sphinxes and jackals. These ceremonial paths linked the temple’s three enormous courts, each of which had its own monumental gateway guarded by yet more colossal seated statues of the king. The easternmost pair of statues still stand more than sixty feet tall, flanked by diminutive statues of Amenhotep’s mother, wife, and daughter, and are visible for miles around. (Today they are known as the Colossi of Memnon.) Their sheer immensity, looming over every man, woman, and child in western Thebes, led them to be considered deities in their own right, living images of the king as “ruler of rulers.” They certainly conveyed Amenhotep’s overwhelming authority, and must have evoked a mixture of awe and fear in every observer.

Amenhotep’s supersize colossi imparted a subtler message, too. After being partially submerged in the floodwaters of the Nile for several months each year, they would emerge again as symbols of rebirth, underlining the principal rejuvenating purpose of Amenhotep’s mortuary temple, his “mansion of millions of years.” In a similar vein, many of the statues of deities set up in the temple’s courts were carved from granodiorite, the stone’s black color symbolic of rebirth. Statues of the king, on the other hand, were more often carved in red granite or golden quartzite, the solar colors emphasizing Amenhotep’s close connection with the sun god. The twin themes of creation and rebirth echoed from every corner of the vast complex, proclaiming the king as the essential pivot of the cosmos.

Amenhotep’s royal career had thus far delivered a remarkable boost to the institution of kingship and to the status of its current holder. Much more was to come.


WHILE THE RULER OF RULERS WAS BUSY IN THEBES RAISING THE monarchy and himself to new heights, his emissaries ensured that his fame and fortune were recognized far and wide. Traveling throughout the Near East and the eastern Mediterranean, Amenhotep’s envoys guaranteed Egypt’s continued presence at the top table, negotiating treaties and securing favorable trading agreements to maintain their master’s imperial aspirations. The most remarkable aspect of Amenhotep’s foreign policy is suggested by a series of place-names inscribed on statue bases from his mortuary temple. The hieroglyphic writing system struggled to cope with foreign words, and the tortured combinations of signs seem impenetrable at first: i-am-ny-sha, ka-t-u-na-y, ka-in-yu-sh, m-u-k-i-n-u. On closer analysis, they turn out to be a comprehensive list of the most important sites in the Greek world of the fourteenth century B.C.: Amnisos, Kydonia, Knossos, and Mycenae. Also listed are Phaistos, Lyktos, Nauplion, Boeotian Thebes, the island of Kythera, and perhaps even Ilios, Homer’s Troy. The order of the place-names suggests the itinerary of a diplomatic mission sent by Amenhotep III to the leading city-states of the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds. He would have had good reason for such a charm offensive: Mycenaean trade networks provided Egypt with supplies of precious cobalt, which was used as a dark blue dye in its glassmaking industry. Lead used to make opaque and white glass came from the Laurion peninsula of Greece, within Mycenae’s own hinterland. Despite Egypt’s instinctive xenophobia, it could not afford to ignore an emerging economic force in the distant Aegean.

Closer to home, diplomacy was an essential tool for maintaining Egypt’s imperial conquests in the Near East. Thanks to a remarkable discovery made in A.D. 1887, the relations among Egypt, its vassals, and the other great powers of the day have been revealed in all their internecine complexity. The Amarna Letters are an archive of official correspondence found among the ruins of the “house of correspondence of the pharaoh” (the secretariat of the ancient Egyptian foreign ministry). The 380 surviving documents are in the form of baked clay tablets. They are written in the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script of Mesopotamia, and in the Babylonian language of Bronze Age diplomacy. Many date to the latter years of Amenhotep III’s reign and were sent by vassal princes to the Egyptian pharaoh, whom they addressed with suitable obeisance as “my sun, my lord.” Unlike conquered Nubia, where centrally appointed bureaucrats imposed royal authority along Egyptian lines, Egypt’s subject territories in the Near East were allowed to retain their own administrative arrangements and their own indigenous rulers, provided they swore oaths of allegiance to the pharaoh and delivered their annual tribute on time. Yet the indignity of being subject to a foreign power clearly riled, and the vassals seem to have spent much of their time plotting and counterplotting as they attempted to play Egypt off against the other great powers, not least Mittani and the Hittites.

The Amarna Letters reveal a highly volatile state of affairs, with bitter rivalries and almost continuous small-scale conflict erupting between the various city-states. Among the more troublesome vassal princes in Palestine were Milkilu of Gezer, Biridiya of Megiddo, and Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem. Generally, Egypt was content not to involve itself in such local disputes, except when its economic interests were threatened. Farther north, however, the problems were altogether more serious, since they had the potential to disrupt the balance of power between Egypt and the Hittites. A quarter of all the Amarna Letters are from a single vassal, Rib-Adda of Kebny, whose city had enjoyed a special relationship with Egypt for more than a thousand years. Rib-Adda was becoming increasingly suspicious of the neighboring state of Amurru, with its ambitious ruler Abdi-Ashirta. Rib-Adda’s fears were well founded. Unchecked, Amurru moved to capture the Egyptian garrison town and administrative capital at Sumur (modern al-Hamidiyah) and virtually besieged Kebny. This turmoil gave the Hittites the excuse they had been waiting for to intervene, and Amurru was lost to Egyptian control. It was a salutory lesson in how minor disputes could escalate rapidly to Egypt’s detriment.

Where Thutmose III or Amenhotep II would not have hesitated to intervene militarily, Amenhotep III followed a very different policy. His main objective was to exploit his overseas possessions economically and control them politically with the minimum commitment of Egyptian forces. To this end, garrisons were stationed in the most important ports along the coast—Gaza, Jaffa, Ullaza, and Sumur—and at two strategic locations inland, Beth-Shan, at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley, and Kumidi, in the Beqa Valley. Fortified grain depots along the coast could be called upon as supply centers in case of military action. Egyptian administrative headquarters with resident governors at Gaza, Kumidi, and Sumur completed the network of colonial rule. In general, the system proved highly effective, and the loyalty of vassal princes was further cemented by regular gifts of precious baubles from the Egyptian royal workshops. (The conferment of imperial knighthoods on Indian princes by the British raj is an instructive modern parallel.)

When it came to maintaining amicable relations with the other great powers, however, something more than trinkets was required. In the eyes of his subjects, the pharaoh may have been master of the universe, but in reality he had to share the world stage with six other Near Eastern leaders. In Mesopotamia there were the kings of Babylonia (southern Iraq), Assyria (the upper Tigris Valley), and Mittani (northern Iraq and northern Syria); in Anatolia, the kings of the Hittites (central Turkey) and Arzawa (southwestern Turkey); and in the eastern Mediterranean, the ruler of Alashiya (Cyprus). The members of this elite club called one another “brother,” and were not averse to displays of pique or petulance if they failed to get their own way. Among the Amarna Letters, the three dozen or so missives from the great powers to Amenhotep III are largely concerned with the usual diplomatic niceties: the exchange of greetings, polite inquiries after the king’s health, and the presentation of gifts. The beginning of a letter from King Tushratta of Mittani gives the general flavor:

For me all goes well. For you may all go well.… For your household, for your wives, for your sons, for your nobles, for your warriors, for your horses, for your chariots, and in your country may all go very well.3

But there is also another common theme, one that reflects Egypt’s reputation for fabulous wealth. Again, Tushratta sums it up nicely:

May my brother send me unworked gold in very great quantities … and much more gold than he sent to my father. In my brother’s country gold is as plentiful as dirt.4

Gold was the preferred currency of diplomatic exchange, and abundant supplies from the mines of Nubia gave Egypt unique leverage among the great powers. Little wonder that an insurrection by the people of the gold mining region of Nubia in the thirtieth year of Amenhotep III’s reign was brutally suppressed. Without gold, Egypt was nothing.

In return for regular shipments of gold, Amenhotep III sought to extract the ultimate prize from his fellow leaders: their daughters as diplomatic brides. Early in his reign, the young king succeeded in winning the hand of a Mittanian princess, and a commemorative scarab from 1381 records the arrival of Princess Gilukhepa with her retinue of 317 female attendants, aptly and succinctly described as “marvels.”5 Twenty-five years later, the pharaoh sought another Mittanian princess for his harem, both to cement his friendship with the new Mittanian king and also, one presumes, because Gilukhepa had lost her virgin bloom. The negotiations over this second diplomatic marriage were delicate and detailed, involving much reciprocal gift giving. Eventually, King Tushratta sent his daughter Tadukhepa with an appropriate entourage of 270 women and 30 men, and an enormous dowry including forty-four pounds of gold, together with another thirteen pounds of gold as a personal gift for Amenhotep himself.6 Coals to Newcastle, one might have thought, but the pharaoh was evidently impressed with the gesture, and the entente cordiale was duly secured.

The Babylonians drove a harder bargain altogether. Amenhotep had already taken one Babylonian princess as a bride early in his reign, but when he tried the same trick with the new king of Babylonia, Kadashman-Enlil I, he met unexpected resistance. Kadashman-Enlil complained that nobody had set eyes on his sister since she had entered Amenhotep’s harem more than a decade earlier, and he was reluctant to condemn one of his own daughters to the same fate. To make matters worse, he had not been invited to Amenhotep’s recent “great festival.” Furthermore, he doubted that foreign brides were being treated in the manner to which they had been born:

My daughters who are married to neighbouring kings, if my messengers go there they speak with them, they send me a greeting gift. But the one with you is impoverished.7

As a final insult, Kadashman-Enlil’s request for a reciprocal arrangement, whereby he would marry an Egyptian princess, was rebuffed in no uncertain terms. Amenhotep replied haughtily that no daughter of an Egyptian king had ever married a foreigner, and he had no intention of breaking with tradition just to please the king of Babylonia. Altogether, the omens for a second Babylonian marriage did not look good. In the end, Egyptian gold seems to have won the day, and Amenhotep got his girl. The Amarna Letters contain one further discussion of marriage, a discussion between the pharaoh and the splendidly named King Tarkhundaradu of Arzawa, but here the record is silent as to the eventual outcome of negotiations. It is safe, however, to assume they were successful. Amenhotep III was not a man to take no for an answer.


AS THE PHARAOH APPROACHED HIS FIRST JUBILEE, AFTER THIRTY years on the throne, his program of self-aggrandizement entered a new phase. Since the dawn of history, the culmination of a king’s jubilee celebrations had been marked by the sed festival, an ancient rite that symbolized the ruler’s rejuvenation and the renewal of his contract with the gods. In Amenhotep’s mind, this matter of rejuvenation loomed especially large, and he determined to address it more thoroughly than any of his predecessors. Not for him a mere one-off festival, but instead, true to character, a monumental edifice and a program of royal sculpture to guarantee his rebirth for all eternity. The site he chose for his latest massive building project lay on the east bank of the Nile, three miles south of Ipetsut, directly opposite his mortuary temple. Today it lies at the center of the modern city of Luxor. At the start of Amenhotep’s reign, it was almost a virgin site, graced only by a small shrine from the time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, built as a “southern residence” for Amun-Ra of Ipetsut. Under royal instructions, Amenhotep’s builders lost no time in rebuilding his predecessors’ little monument, adding a vast open court, surrounded by a double row of columns shaped like bundles of papyrus. This “solar court” reflected the king’s growing emphasis on sun worship—for which an open, unroofed space was far more appropriate than a traditional enclosed sanctuary—and he instructed his architects to add a similar feature to nearly all his temples the length and breadth of Egypt. The solar court’s realization at Luxor ranks as one of the most beautiful and impressive of all ancient Egyptian temples. And that was exactly what the king intended:

Its walls are of electrum, its furnishings of silver; all its gates are decorated on their thresholds. Its pylon rises up toward heaven; its flagstaffs are in the stars. When the people see it, they will give praise to His Majesty.8

In front of the sun court, an even more impressive edifice started to take shape, a gigantic colonnade hall with columns reaching more than sixty feet into the air, embellished (as always) with six colossal striding statues of the king. Such architectural wonders were entirely for effect, and they worked magnificently. But the real theological significance of Luxor lay out of sight, in the rear parts of the temple.

Perhaps the most important room in the entire complex is a small chamber, tucked away behind a small barque shrine, next to the offering room. On its western wall, a delicate relief shows two goddesses gently supporting the figures of a woman and a man. They are Amenhotep III’s parents, Mutemwia and Thutmose IV. Or rather Mutemwia and someone disguised as Thutmose IV, that someone being the god Amun-Ra, as the accompanying text makes clear. The inscription does not shy away from describing, in unexpectedly graphic terms, the god’s purpose in sneaking into the queen’s bedchamber, and her enthusiastic response to his overtures:

She awoke because of the god’s scent and cried out with pleasure before His Majesty.… She rejoiced at the sight of his beauty, and love of him suffused her body.9

By now in a state of ecstasy, Mutemwia swooned over the god, exclaiming “How great is your power! … Your sweet fragrance stiffens all my limbs.”10 The sexual metaphor was fully intended. After the impregnation came the annunciation:

Amenhotep-ruler-of-Thebes is the name of this child that I have placed in your womb.… He shall exercise potent kingship in this entire land.… He shall rule the Two Lands like Ra forever.11

The purpose of this elaborate scene, and of the fictionalized events it relates, was of course to perpetuate the myth of the king’s divine birth, something Egyptian monarchs had been claiming to a greater or lesser extent for centuries. Earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty, in her Holy of Holies at Deir el-Bahri, Hatshepsut had been content to aver her divine birth while drawing a discreet veil over the practicalities. Amenhotep III (or his theologians) showed no such reticence, positively luxuriating in the intimate details of Amun-Ra’s encounter with the queen. Perhaps that was to be expected of a monarch with countless foreign “marvels” tucked away in his harem, and who numbered among his homegrown concubines a woman with the nickname “she whose nights on the town are numerous.”

Having asserted the monarch’s divine origins, Luxor Temple made another bold contribution to the ideology of kingship. Indeed, the temple’s most remarkable secret is its true purpose. Unlike almost every other temple in Egypt, it was not principally the cult center of a deity at all. Its role as Amun-Ra’s southern residence was secondary, an acceptable cover story rather than the deeper truth. The key to understanding the temple’s extraordinary part in the mythology of Egyptian kingship lies in the reliefs that decorate Amenhotep’s monumental colonnade. They record the most important celebration to take part at Luxor, the annual Festival of Opet. Each year, the cult images of Amun-Ra, Mut, and Khonsu (and perhaps of the king, too) were taken in their barque shrines from Ipetsut to Luxor in a great procession, either by land or by river. As the statues were paraded through the streets on the shoulders of priests, the population thronged to catch a glimpse of these sacred objects and to receive their blessing. The Opet Festival was an occasion for much jubilation and feasting, and a welcome break from the daily grind. But like everything else in ancient Egypt, it was designed not for the people but for the king. Once safely inside the precinct of Luxor Temple, the cult images were taken from their barque shrines and installed in their new quarters. Then the king entered the sanctuary to commune in private with the image of Amun-Ra.

After a time, he emerged into the hall of appearance, to receive the acclaim of priests and courtiers gathered together for the occasion. (Special hieroglyphs at the base of columns directed the “common people” to the sanctioned viewing places.) His transformation was clear for all to see (and one assumes nobody would have dared to remark on the emperor’s new clothes). Through his communion with the king of the gods, the monarch himself had been visibly rejuvenated, his divinity recharged. He had become the living son of Amun-Ra.

The key to the whole ceremony was the royal ka, the divine essence that passed, unseen, into the mortal body of each successive monarch and made him godlike. It was as inventive a piece of theology as the ancient Egyptians ever devised, for it explained and reconciled the apparent contradiction that a king could be both mortal and divine. The Opet Festival allowed the king to unite with the royal ka, to become “foremost of all the living kas,” a god incarnate. Luxor Temple, then, was a temple to the royal ka, the mystery at the heart of divine kingship.

Statue of the rejuvenated Amenhotep III (detail)  WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE

True to form, Amenhotep commissioned a magnificent piece of sculpture to immortalize this remarkable transformation wrought by the Opet Festival. The statue of the rejuvenated Amenhotep III is one of the all-time masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art. Life-size, it shows the king striding powerfully forward, his taut, muscular torso and limbs the epitome of youthful manliness. Most remarkable is the treatment of his face. With immense, oversize almond-shaped eyes, enlarged lips, small stub nose, and high cheekbones, its neotonous features convey a deliberate impression of exaggerated juvenility. The statue shows the king quite literally rejuvenated, his age reduced back to child-hood through the magical power of the Opet rites. And the symbolism of the statue goes much further. Its very material conveys the king’s close relationship with the sun god, for it is fashioned from a deep purplish-red quartzite, the stone known to the ancient Egyptians as biat (“wondrous”). Originally, gilded decoration would have been applied to the collar, bracelets, sandals, and crown, making the statue shine like the sun in the daylight of the open court. Close inspection at the back of the statue reveals a feather pattern on the king’s buttocks, to indicate that he has been partially transformed into a celestial falcon. To reinforce the solar associations still further, the king’s kilt is decorated with rearing cobras, each with a solar orb on its head. Amenhotep himself wears the double crown, and stands on a sledge, both motifs emblematic of the creator god, Atum. Through this rich combination of visual metaphors and references, the statue declares that Amenhotep III is reborn, undying, assimilated with Ra and Atum, a god-king for all eternity. The inscription down the back pillar goes further, naming the king as “foremost of all the livingkas” and the “dazzling orb of all lands.”

The deliberate and systematic enhancement of royal power had reached its zenith. No longer the mere “son of Ra,” the king had become consubstantial with the sun, the creator god who illuminates and brings life to the world. His transformation was complete.


THE DEIFICATION OF AMENHOTEP III IN HIS OWN LIFETIME, INTIMATELY connected with the celebration of his first jubilee in 1361, broke new ground for the Egyptian monarchy. Earlier kings had certainly come close to claiming divinity, depicting themselves with godlike attributes, but a distinction (albeit a subtle one) had always been maintained between the king as the earthly incarnation of Horus, and Horus himself; between the “chosen one of Ra,” and Ra, who did the choosing; between the monarch as netjer nefer(“perfected” or “junior god”), and the real thing. No king before Amenhotep III had dared to state, quite so openly and unequivocally, his outright mutation into the creator deity. The final step in this process can be traced most clearly in distant Nubia, at the southernmost extremity of Eighteenth Dynasty power. One of Amenhotep’s many building projects involved the foundation of a new temple inside the fortress of Khaemmaat (modern Soleb), an installation designed to protect Egyptian-controlled Nubia against the hostile lands beyond. In keeping with the king’s solar ambitions, the temple was built on the west bank of the Nile, facing the rising sun. Originally the temple was a small barque shrine for the king’s personal protector, Amun, but it was subsequently enlarged by the addition of two solar courts and a colonnaded hall filled with sculpture. At the same time, coinciding with Amenhotep’s thirtieth year on the throne, the temple’s dedication was changed to honor “Amun-Ra of Ipetsut residing in the fortress of Khaemmaat” and “Nebmaatra [Amenhotep III’s throne name], lord of Nubia.” The king of the gods (Amun-Ra) and the god-king (Amenhotep III) made the perfect pairing.

Reliefs in the temple of Khaemmaat also record details of the king’s first jubilee. The ancient rites of the sed festival, with their emphasis on renewal and rejuvenation, held a special appeal for Amenhotep, and he seems to have begun preparations for his own ceremonies years ahead of time. The addition of solar courts to all his major temples in Egypt and Nubia seems to have been undertaken in anticipation of his jubilee, presaging the king’s full and final assimilation with the sun god. When it came to preparing for the festival itself, no stone was left unturned to ensure it would surpass all previous celebrations. Scholars were set to work, consulting “the writings of old,”12 to discover how the sed festival had been staged in centuries past. Among their discoveries was a fifteen-hundred-year-old palette, dating to the very beginning of Egyptian history, which was decorated with an abbreviated scene of jubilee rites. Its meager, but hallowed, information was added to the dossier.

Since Thebes was the focus of Amenhotep’s symbolic world, the epicenter of his theological experiments, it was only fitting that the sacred city should also be the stage for his jubilee rites. Never one to do things by halves, the king ordered the construction of an entire new ceremonial city. The chosen location was on the west bank of the Nile, south of his mortuary temple and facing the place of his rebirth, Luxor Temple. In its first phase (it would be extended yet further for the king’s second and third jubilees), the modestly named “Palace of the Dazzling Orb and the House of Rejoicing” (modern Malkata) extended over a distance of nearly a mile. It included an administrative district with spacious villas for the courtiers, a secondary palace, perhaps for Tiye and her household, and the principal royal residence. Its opulently furnished audience chambers had floors covered with richly colored textiles, and ceilings decorated with exotic Minoan motifs. The king’s bedchamber had flying vultures painted on the ceiling, interpersed with Amenhotep’s royal names and titles. Elegant ointment jars and perfume bottles, exquisitely crafted from multicolored glass, stood on tables veneered with ebony and overlaid with gold. Intricate glass vessels were so popular with the king and his consort that a dedicated factory was established alongside the palace to keep pace with demand. Amenhotep’s patronage of glassmaking has been compared with Louis XIV’s support for Sèvres porcelain—not the only point of similarity between the two sun-kings.

Amenhotep’s ceremonial city and mortuary temple were connected by a raised causeway that continued southward for a further mile and a half, terminating at a lonely spot in the desert (modern Kom el-Samak). Here, in accordance with ancient custom, the king appeared enthroned on a raised dais with twin staircases, symbolizing his dominion over Upper and Lower Egypt. Yet more unfinished royal monuments lay beyond, deep in the Theban hills. Quite what Amenhotep had in mind we can only speculate about. The imagination of the king and his advisers seems to have known no bounds.

The “dazzling orb of all lands” planned one final coup de théâtre to set the seal on his great festival of kingship. A ceremonial city and a fantasy palace in a sacred landscape were not quite sufficient for the ultimate jubilee. Amenhotep cast his mind back twenty years to the rowing lake he had presented as a gift to his wife Tiye, and an idea formed in his mind. For a construction project equaling anything he had attempted to date—and that was saying something—the king ordered the excavation of two vast artificial harbors, one on either side of the Nile. Each measured nearly half a mile long by a quarter of a mile wide. The stupendous quantities of earth excavated from the western harbor were spread out over the surrounding plain to form an artificial platform for the construction of the jubilee city. Today, the western harbor (Birket Habu) survives as a depression delineated by a series of spoil dumps, its huge dimensions only appreciable from the air. The eastern harbor has disappeared altogether under the sprawling modern city of Luxor, but it was clearly discernible when Napoléon visited Egypt. He would surely have approved of its original purpose. Amenhotep’s vision was to provide the most spectacular setting imaginable for the jubilee’s central ceremony.

On the morning of the main celebrations, the courtiers, high officials, royal acquaintances, and other dignitaries were ushered into the palace. There, the king showered them with gifts of gold necklaces, golden ornaments in the shapes of ducks and fish (both potent symbols of fertility), and, as a special jubilee decoration, ribbons of green linen. The guests shared in a great breakfast banquet with their sovereign before being directed to leave the palace and proceed to the artificial harbors. Then, in a spectacular set-piece display of royal power and divine kingship, Amenhotep III and Tiye appeared at the waterside, decked from head to foot in gold, dazzling like the sun itself. At the eastern harbor, they boarded a replica of the sun god’s morning barque. The waiting courtiers picked up the prow ropes and pulled the ship gently along, acting out the daily miracle by which the sun god was towed into the heavens at dawn. The scene then shifted to the western harbor, where king and consort appeared once again, but this time in a replica of the sun god’s evening barque. Dignitaries grasped the tow ropes, and the scene was repeated, symbolizing the sun god’s descent into the underworld at dusk. Well might the master of ceremonies later boast that “generations of people since the time of the ancestors had not celebrated such jubilee rites.”13

Amenhotep III went on to celebrate a second and a third jubilee, each accompanied by further monumental buildings and yet more rituals. Then, in the thirty-eighth year of his remarkable reign, in 1353, and quite unexpectedly, he died of unknown causes, still only in his late forties. The shock, to a population bombarded by royal propaganda and a court convinced of the king’s immortality, must have been profound. Yet nobody could have dreamed of the revolution that was about to sweep the country under Amenhotep’s heir.

Egypt’s dazzling sun had set. When it rose again, it would shine with an unrelenting, scorching light.

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