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Restoring Ancient Temple: A Tricky Job, Moving Six-Ton Stone Blocks

November 20, 1996

LUXOR, Egypt (AP) _ The yellow crane lifted the 3,500-year-old stone block attached to a thick, blue silk rope. Workers looked up, nervously.

It’s tricky work restoring the ancient Temple of Luxor.

One of the great monuments of Pharaonic Egypt, the 22-column temple was starting to lean and threatened to collapse because of spongy earth around its base.

Engineers must take apart each of the engraved columns, draw the water out of the ground, replace the soil, and then put all the pieces back together again _ something like piling up children’s building blocks, only each block weighs six tons.

``It is a huge responsibility,″ said Ibrahim Helmy, chief engineer for the restoration. The $2 million project, financed by Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, is to be finished in June.

The graceful 43-foot-tall columns, with crowns sculpted like papyrus buds, make up a court considered the glory of the ancient temple. Each column consists of 10 rounded blocks, which restorers are lifting with silk rope to avoid leaving marks on the stone.

The dismantled blocks of the columns sat like colossal wheels of cheese near the temple’s entrance. There, artisans worked with chisels and small brushes to clean the engravings.

``The columns were in a bad shape and some of them started to lean,″ said Mohammed el-Saghir, the antiquities council’s director for Southern Egypt. ``The soil was affected by Luxor’s sewage water and irrigation of nearby fields.″

He said the butterscotch-colored waters of the nearby Nile were not to blame. Instead, he said, salts in sewer water crystallized and weakened the columns’ bases, many of which are being replaced.

Behind el-Saghir, workers poured mortar to fasten together two huge stones _ one of the new bases. The stones were hewn from the same quarries used by the ancient Egyptians, 90 miles south of Luxor.

Before a new column base could be laid, workers dug out the earth below and filled the hole with a sand-and-gravel mixture to keep the water from rising again. ``Just like what the old Egyptians did,″ el-Saghir said.

The temple is part of the court of King Amenhotep III, who ruled from 1417 to 1379 B.C. The king dedicated the court to the sun god Amun, the chief deity of Thebes, which stood at the site of modern Luxor, 315 miles south of Cairo. The moon god, Mut, and Amun’s wife, Khonshu _ sometimes represented as a lion _ also were worshiped at the temple.

Digging up part of the temple has produced an unexpected boon for archaeologists.

El-Saghir said archeologists unearthed 12 inscriptions in the digging, abbreviated hieroglyphs that describing the size and placement of stones. They also found the name of the supervising engineer ``Bakrenef,″ written in faded red ink on a wall.

Though meticulous record keepers, the ancient Egyptians almost always neglected to list the names of engineers who built their temples.

The supervising engineer’s name will help link him to other builders and shed light on the different professions involved in ancient architecture, el-Saghir explained.

As for the engineers and archaeologists undertaking the massive restoration job, el-Saghir said, their work is fueled by pride in Egypt’s past.

``I feel the Egyptians of today ... are able to rebuild and to achieve what their forefathers achieved.″

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