FOR more than two millenniums they lay in hiding: an alabaster
sphinx of King Tutankhamen, a life-size Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the
smiling cow-goddess Hathor. Their long sleep ended when a workman's
shovel unwittingly struck one of their long-buried forms.
The discovery of a major cache of ancient statues in Luxor two
years ago was heralded as one of the greatest archaeological finds
of this century.
Given the country's habit of hyperbole about antiquities, the
news was initially greeted with some skepticism. But experts now
concede that the statues are of an unrivaled caliber, their
execution marking a golden age of Pharaonic art.
In January, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and the
German Archaeological Institute jointly published a journal devoted
to the Luxor sculpture cache. It described the statues as "the most
extraordinary ever found" and "a sensational discovery of great
Peter Kuhlmann, an Egyptologist at the German Archaeological
Institute, adds, "There are obviously some first-rate statuary
among them. Amenhotep III would be the kingpin of any exhibit. It's
a masterpiece, an absolutely sublime masterpiece. This is probably
by far the best piece uncovered. It is beautifully preserved and
from the height of the art of this period."
The march of history had unknowingly passed above their mute
heads. The soldiers of successive invading armies turned their
temple sanctuary into military camps. Later, Egyptians themselves
used the sacred courtyards as stables. They abandoned their faith
in the pharaohs' many gods and turned to just one; first through
Christianity and later through Islam.
Only 100 years ago, peasants living inside the temple itself
were evicted. Today the world's curious fly in from distant places
to marvel at the artistry of a lost civilization.
In 1989, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization began work to
right the tilting columns of Luxor Temple. The 3,500-year-old
monument lies along the Nile in Upper Egypt, 450 miles south of
Cairo. It was begun by 18th-dynasty King Amenhotep III, one of the
great builders of ancient Egypt, who died in the late 1300s BC.
Later rulers - including King Tutankhamen, Ramses II, and Alexander
the Great - added to its expanding complex.
It is a stunning structure. The courtyards are spacious and
surrounded by rows of graceful columns. The monumental gateway is
still flanked by colossal sculpture and one of the original pair of
obelisks. The second stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
But the temple's location, in the center of Luxor and beside the
Nile, has made it vulnerable to deterioration. Seepage from the
river and the town's sewage have increased the level of groundwater
under the temple itself.
In recent years, at least three of the majestic papyrus-shaped
columns had begun to visibly tilt. The first step in repair plans
was to take soil samples to determine the makeup of the temple
In the western part of the temple complex, beneath the courtyard
built by Amenhotep III, laborers discovered the cache of statues.
Almost 6 1/2 feet below the surface, a workman's shovel struck a
smoothly polished stone base. In the immediate vicinity, the
contours of the first statues could also be seen. Work was
immediately halted and the authorities were informed.
By the following day, a nearly life-size statue of the temple
founder himself had been freed from its burial place. The
perfection of the statue, the renderings of detail and proportion,
made it clear that the find was of great importance. …