Take me to Chicago."
Say that in Luxor, in Upper Egypt, and you'll find yourself before the iron gates of Chicago House—called simply "Chicago" by local residents—and some 34 centuries back in time.
Egyptologists, artists and photographers working out of this rambling headquarters are rescuing history, recording the inscriptions and reliefs on endangered ancient monuments before they crumble into dust. With what they learn, they're rewriting history, too.
Among the most intriguing recent discoveries is that the pharaoh Tutankhamen, long held to have been a youth with no real claim to fame when he died in 1325 BC, may in fact have been a mature, chariot-riding warrior who led an army against Hittites and Nubians. One hypothesis: An official "coverup" after Tutankhamen's death, perhaps of a battle wound, expunged records of his military exploits (See box, page 45).
Established 70 years ago by James Henry Breasted, the father of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute (See Aramco World, November-December 1993), Chicago House is home, six months a year, to the Institute's Epigraphic Survey. Epigraphy is the careful study of monumental texts—in this case hieroglyphic inscriptions that represent some of humankind's earliest writing.
But the job involves more than just copying. "We're not only trying to record, but to interpret as we go," said Peter Dorman, Survey director since mid-1989. "That's part of 'reading' a wall, especially if it's damaged."
He was speaking from high on a ladder inside the colossal Colonnade Hall in Luxor Temple, where Chicago House recently completed the fieldwork of a 20-year project. The temple was a paramount structure in ancient Thebes, which took in the precincts of modern-day Luxor and the opposite west bank of the Nile and was long the religious capital of ancient Egypt.
Experts from Chicago House have been tackling projects in and around Luxor since 1924, barring only the World War II years, making the Survey the longest-running foreign archeological expedition in Egypt. Work lasts from October to March, the coolest months of the year. In recent seasons, the Luxor crew has numbered about 20; the Survey has a year-round staff of five artists and three Egyptologists. Their main goal is to produce drawings so precise that—if necessary—they could replace the originals. And indeed, they may have to.
Egypt is now facing "great problems" in preserving its monuments, said Dr. Mohammed Bakr, former chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. Bakr worked closely with the Epigraphic Survey until he left his post last May. "The ancient Egyptians built these temples to remain forever." But, he added, they didn't reckon with industrial pollution, changes in conditions above and below ground since the construction of the High Dam at Aswan, and ever-increasing numbers of tourists, whose very breathing and sweating inside certain monuments have damaged fragile rock decoration.
"We are trying to do something for the monuments because the heritage is so great," said Bakr. "In case we need to preserve or restore them, we have to depend on the good documentation of the team of Chicago House in Luxor."
His words would please Breasted, who devoted much of his life to documenting and deciphering the past in the Middle East so that people might better understand the present.
James Henry Breasted made his first trip to Egypt in 1894-95, combining a post-doctoral holiday, his honeymoon, and an antiquities-buying expedition for the University of Chicago. On that trip, he discovered that many of Egypt's ancient monuments had been damaged or destroyed by man or nature or a combination of the two. As a scholar who knew the value of primary evidence, he was also shocked to find that much of what remained had been incorrectly published.
In the decade that followed, Breasted compiled ancient Egyptian historical texts and translated them into English, work which convinced him even more of the need for an in-depth epigraphic survey, for the science of field documentation was still in its infancy. "A more highly developed organization," Breasted wrote, "combined with better equipment, improved processes, and especially much more time, must be brought to bear on the great problem of salvaging the ancient records still surviving in the Nile Valley."
In two more expeditions up the Nile, in 1905-06 and 1906-07, Breasted developed his own methodology for precision recording. He also made plans for a survey to cover "all of Egypt." He reckoned—incautiously, it seems today—that he could do the survey in 15 years, at a cost of $375,000. But he could get neither university backing nor financing until after World War I.
It was through the Oriental Institute, established in 1919 by the University of Chicago with substantial donations from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., that the Egyptologist put his plan to work.
"Mrs. Rockefeller read Breasted's book Ancient Times to the children at bedtime," noted Carlotta Maher, assistant to the director of Chicago House. "That was, I believe, the beginning of a personal friendship between Rockefeller and Breasted. He gave him the support he needed."
The original Chicago House opened on the west bank of the Nile in 1924, with room for just four people—a photographer, an artist, an Egyptologist and the Survey director. It was built next door to the initial Survey project, the huge Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu.
That first project demonstrated the realism of Breasted's dream of having "much more time" to record a monument: The eighth and final volume of photographs and line drawings, covering the temple's 7000 square meters (75,350 square feet) of decorated surface, did not appear until 1970, a full 35 years after his death.
The choice of the Temple of Ramses III, large as it was, reflected Breasted's vision of history, one which saw Egypt and the Near East as the base from which civilization had progressed. On the temple's northern exterior wall is a relief of the first recorded collision of Egyptian culture with that of Europe—a battle between Egypt and the so-called Sea People of the Aegean that took place in the Mediterranean Sea in the 13th century BC.
"Breasted felt that our civilization's roots were in the ancient Near East," said Maher. "He felt very much that Mesopotamia, Egypt, Turkey and the Holy Land fed directly into Greece and Rome."
The Survey carried out a number of other projects, on both sides of the Nile, while work at Medinet Habu was under way, and a branch of Chicago House operated at Sakkarah near Cairo in the 1930's.
The Survey has published 17 folio volumes on seven different projects in the Theban area, and two volumes on Sakkarah. Since 1979, the volumes have included translations of the inscriptions, along with a textual commentary.
Only in its first project, at Medinet Habu, did the Survey do any of the digging that is normally associated with Egyptian archeology. Excavation was required to carry out the epigraphic work and the results are published in five separate architectural volumes.
Breasted's painstaking survey process, known as the "Chicago House method," is respected worldwide today for its pinpoint accuracy. It remains basically the same as when it was devised.
Work begins with black-and-white photography of inscriptions and reliefs using a 20-by-25-centimeter (8x10") studio camera. Drawing directly on an enlargement of the photo, an artist then makes on-site pencil tracings of the carving, eliminating accidental marks or peripheral damaged areas that might obscure the decoration. Back in the studio, pencil lines are retraced in ink. Then the photo emulsion is bleached away, leaving only the artist's work.
From this drawing, photographers produce a "blueprint," which is cut into small sections that are pasted onto a white collation sheet. These are reviewed and annotated on location by two Egyptologist-epigraphers, working independently. On the basis of their knowledge of related texts and scenes, they can often suggest restorations for damaged or missing areas of the surface.
The artist then revises the drawing in consultation with the epigraphers. The revision is reviewed by the Survey director, who often comes up with a few more questions to be resolved. It may take up to a year to complete one drawing, although experienced artists often work on half a dozen at one time.
In the Colonnade Hall, the work was stretched out even farther by the decision in the mid-1980's to revise documentation standards. That required the complete redrafting of some earlier jobs.
Using photography alone "just can't replace the Survey's epigraphic process," noted Dorman, because it combines photographic accuracy with human interpretation. Nor can digital images of the walls.
"You have to examine the inscriptions literally two inches from the wall, from different angles, eliminating the distracting shadows with lights or mirrors to see if the carving is old or new, scraping away the cobwebs to see what's underneath," the director said. "Computers—at this point anyway—can't speed up the process, nor can they really give us a better product. Epigraphy is, and always will be, a matter of human interpretation."
The objective is to ensure "we catch everything that's there but don't read anything into it that isn't there," said Dorman. Often, the path to an accurate representation is complicated by the fact that pharaohs sometimes obliterated or modified their predecessors' inscriptions.
Survey artists may draw in dashed lines to represent the missing portions of a relief, using old photographs and other archival material for reference. The final drawing provides a sharply clearer picture than otherwise possible.
Key resources in the process are the Chicago House photo archive and its large library. They are also widely used by other expeditions and researchers in the Theban area.
The photo archive holds more than 17,000 large-format negatives and some 20,000 prints from negatives owned by Chicago House or other institutions. It provides "the most extensive photo coverage of Theban tombs and temples anywhere in the world," said Lanny Bell, who preceded Dorman as Epigraphic Survey director.
In 1989, the archive got a shot in the arm when Chicago House landed a $139,000 grant from the J. Paul Getty Trust in Santa Monica, California, to copy disintegrating old silver-nitrate negatives and other early negatives of work done before the advent of safety film in the 1950's, and to computerize its records.
The 16,500-volume library is said to be one of the best in the world on ancient Egypt, rivaled in scope within Egypt only by the library of the Cairo Museum. The library also has "dictionary" and "paleography" files containing hand copies of every inscription and every hieroglyph it has ever documented—even those partially damaged.
Both facilities have proved valuable to surveyors in the Colonnade Hall, where big sections of delicate carvings done by Tutankhamen's artists, undermined by salt blisters, are flaking off. The reliefs are important because they provide a vivid snapshot of an Egyptian riverine festival of more than 3000 years ago, in detail found nowhere else.
Most of the 24.5-meter-long (80-foot) side walls of the hall are taken up by reliefs depicting the barge-borne Opet Festival procession. On the west wall, great boats bring the gods of Karnak, located just downriver, to Luxor Temple, amid rejoicing people from all walks of life. In the temple, at the climax of the festival, the divine kingship of the pharaoh is reaffirmed and the god Amun-Re is reborn, rejuvenating the world for another year and saving it from chaos. On the east wall, sails furled, the procession is shown returning to Karnak.
The dramatic panorama was deemed so important that it was selected for inclusion in the Survey's long-awaited first volume on Luxor Temple. Entitled The Festival Procession of Opet, the folio was published late this summer. A second volume on Luxor is projected for publication in 1996, and a third volume after that.
The Colonnade Hall, named after the double row of giant columns that runs down its center, has a mixed history. Its foundations were laid by Amenhotep III, who ruled from 1386 to 1349 BC and who built the oldest standing part of the temple. His successor, Akhenaten, abandoned the temple and built a new city on the Nile in a bid to change Egypt's religious course. Tutankhamen, who followed him to the throne in 1334 BC, returned to the fold, completed the hall and decorated most of its walls. Later pharaohs finished the decoration and modified some of the inscriptions.
Though Akhenaten's religious coup failed, his associated artistic revolution was a magnificent success. Its imprint is visible in the mammoth scenes of the transportation of the barges adorning the walls of the hall.
"They are enormous in scope, lively in detail and very realistic," representing a sharp break with earlier reliefs and certainly reflecting the influence of Akhenaten, said Dorman. "Akhenaten realized the possibilities for large-scale composition on temple walls. This innovation was kept, and later artists found it ideal for religious and narrative scenes."
The cancer that's eating away at the walls occurs when rising, salty ground-water is absorbed into the sandstone of the temple. Salt crystalizes on the surface of the rock, causing it to crumble. Salt damage is evident throughout the Theban area and is probably related to the construction of the Aswan High Dam; prior to 1970, the annual Nile flood washed away much of the natural ground salt. At Luxor Temple, the problem is exacerbated because the monument stands atop a main drainage route from Luxor to the Nile.
Salt erosion is "insidious," said Dorman. "It's so slow and it's not immediately visible. You can't put a deadline on exactly when things will be lost. They just crumble off very, very slowly."
Tourists also contribute to the demolition of ancient structures. Millions of people have tramped through the Colonnade Hall over the years, sometimes at the rate of 3500 a day.
Instead of banning sightseers, Dorman urges educating them about how to treat temples and tombs. Chicago House itself welcomes tourists. With advance warning, arrangements can be made to tour the facility's library. Once a year, a special tour of ancient Thebes is offered to members of a support organization called Friends of Chicago House.
Because of salt blistering and other ills, the long-range prognosis for the Luxor monuments is poor. "We can document temples," said Dorman, "but without enormous sums of money there is no way we can reasonably save them."
The Colonnade Hall didn't get kid-glove treatment in the olden days, either. When the temple fell out of use in the sixth century after Christ, townspeople moved in, building homes and quarrying away the walls for building blocks.
Over the years, the ground level rose some 7.5 meters (25 feet), covering—but protecting—most of the lowest register of the hall's walls; the top two registers, containing other religious scenes, were carted off and used in other structures. Recovered blocks from the upper registers have been reassembled in a yard just east of the hall.
A Coptic church was built in the first court of the temple. After Islam came to Egypt in the seventh century, a mosque was built on the site. Named after a virtuous man called Abu el-Haggag, it stands high up in the temple today, at the level of the ground before excavation began in 1892. Equally notable is the annual festival of Abu el-Haggag in Luxor. During the celebration, boats are borne through streets by celebrating townsfolk, suggesting a possible link with the Opet Festival of long ago.
Though the precinct of Luxor Temple has been used continuously for religious proposes for some 3400 years, it was only in 1985 that Lanny Bell, who worked in the temple for 12 years as Survey director and had spent the previous 10 years there on another project, discovered that the building had had dual religious and civil functions. Bell came to that conclusion by taking careful note of the scenes and hieroglyphs on the ancient walls around him, and he worries today that there are many more secrets that may never be discovered.
Every hieroglyph or relief that's lost without being recorded, he warned, means "a bit of mankind's heritage, a bit of human history, a bit of the activity of people long ago, is gone forever. We'll never be able to reconstruct it."
The experts at Chicago House know that, too, and new projects are beginning.
Work has started at the Small Temple of Amun on the west bank, within shouting distance of the Temple of Ramses III, the Survey's original project. The temple, built by Hatshepsut, Egypt's only female pharaoh, and her co-regent Thutmose III, dates to 1400 bc and in ancient times was held to be the burial place of the eight primeval Egyptian gods. It has some outstanding reliefs which, cleaned by conservators from Chicago House between 1981 and 1985, retain their rich, original colors. A privately financed color publication of these paintings is planned.
And the job won't stop there. Late in 1991, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization gave the Survey the green light to complete the rest of Luxor Temple built by Amenhotep III, south of the Colonnade Hall. That will take Chicago House—and the task of preserving Egypt's past and the world's heritage—well into the 21st century.
Arthur Clark is a staff writer for Saudi Aramco and a frequent contributor to Aramco World.