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Fall 14
The writing on the wall

It is a project that has brought international fame to the University of Memphis for more than two decades, one cloaked in the mysteries of an ancient culture filled with hieroglyphics, tombs and pyramids.

By Greg Russell

It's barely 11 a.m., but beads of sweat are already popping up on Erika Feleg's forehead. Plumes of dust spirited by hot, arid conditions swirl in the distance. Not that the third-year, University of Memphis doctoral candidate really minds: Feleg is intently laboring under the biting Egyptian sun as she and other U of M researchers unravel secrets locked in centuries-old inscriptions found on the walls of the Great Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egpyt.

"It is hotter than Memphis in the summer," says Feleg, who has made three trips to Egypt to study the mysteries of the largest temple in Egypt and one of the most massive religious complexes ever built. "It goes up to 115 degrees, but we usually stop checking the thermometer since it is better not to know the exact temperature," she adds with a smile.

Feleg says the harsh elements don't matter: "I love doing what I do, so it never seems slow moving, and it is definitely very rewarding on many levels. Interesting discoveries happen all the time - I always notice something new while in the field or processing photographs. They may not be as spectacular as finding Tut's tomb, but is just as fun and interesting. Trying to figure out erased signs or traces of original decoration is the best kind of detective work."

Not such ancient history

Twenty-two years after U of M professor William Murnane made a bold prediction, history continues to play out to his thinking: "One of the things we've had to resign ourselves to is that we're not going to get out of the Hypostyle Hall without a major commitment of time and effort."

The year was 1992, and Murnane, the beloved former professor of history/Egyptologist, who unexpectedly passed away in 2000, had just begun a project in Egypt that has become one of the U of M's most enduring and beneficial research initiatives, the Karnak Great Hypostyle Project.

With a mix of steadfast determination and patience, Murnane - and now U of M professor Dr. Peter J. Brand - have worked for years to decipher the Temple of Amun's mysterious inscriptions, which offer a glimpse into the life of the people who once lived along the Nile River. U of M researchers say the inscriptions tell what the Egyptians expected of their world on one level and about the liturgy - the religious life of the Egyptians - on another level. Occasionally they show what was going on in the political life of the kingdom at that time.
The Temple of Amun holds great historical significance. Sety I, the father of Ramesses the Great, began its construction about 1290 B.C. But even though the Hypostyle Hall is one of the most popular tourist sites in Egypt, its inscriptions were never scientifically studied until the U of M's work, the religious function of the building in Ancient Egypt never completely understood.

The enormous size of the Hall - slightly larger than the U of M's University Center and with a taller roof - led to Murnane's prediction of a long-lasting project.

Brand, current director of the Karnak Hypostyle Hall Project, took up where Murnane left off, intensely researching the site and offering graduate students field work, both of which continue to shed positive light on the U of MÕs exceptional Egyptology program.
Brand, the Dunavant Professor of Egyptology and Ancient History, says the project also aims to make a complete scientific record of all the hieroglyphic texts and relief carvings from the Hypostyle Hall. Too, he says, the goal is to make these inscriptions widely available to scientists and the public through traditional publications and via digital technologies such as the Internet, an everlasting preservation of sorts of an important period in history.

"We have completed a couple of major phases of the project over the past two decades and are actively involved in the third and largest stage so far, which is to record the inscriptions and carved scenes on the 134 giant columns of the Great Hypostyle Hall," says Brand.

"This has been a challenge because the columns are giant cylinders and traditional methods of recording Egyptian inscriptions are based on photographing and tracing technical drawings of the inscriptions and carvings of images on flat wall surfaces," Brand explains. "Because the images and texts wrap around the curved surfaces of the columns, you can't simply take a conventional photograph.

"(Therefore) we are using a combination of 3D laser scanning of the columns and digital photography to create high-tech images of the complex inscribed decoration of the columns first in 3D. We next 'paste' the conventional digital photos onto the 3D digital model of the column and then 'unroll' the high-resolution composite 3D image of the column surface into a flat image. It is sort of the reverse process of taking a flat photographic print and rolling it up into a tube. Instead, we 'unroll' the tube into a flat image."

Brand says scientists in the project are currently undertaking systematic photography of the column scenes to make these ÒunrolledÓ images for all 134 columns in the Hypostyle Hall. He says the researchers are then able to use these photos to make accurate drawings and translations of the inscriptions and careful analysis of their religious and historical meaning. The final result, Brand says, will be a publication that has photos and technical drawings of the hundreds of individual scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions on all the columns.

The U of M's work connects to original research into the function of the Temple of Amun that was first conducted in the 1930s by archaeologist Harold Nelson. Murnane was asked in 1977 to organize and publish the work of Nelson for the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

The Hypostyle Hall was built between two massive gateways in front of the Temple of Amun and covers about an acre of land. Enormous columns still line the main passage of the Hall, including two rows with 12 giant columns 70 feet tall and 122 smaller columns that are about 45 feet tall. All the walls are covered with elaborate scenes and inscriptions. Although the temple is in relatively good condition, restoration has been going on for more than 100 years.

Brand says the current research team is an international one with Egyptologists and graduate students from the United States and Canada as well as Egyptian workmen and two French Egyptologists who have developed the high-tech method of scanning and "unrolling" the columns.

"The Hypostyle Hall Project is based in Memphis, but our Canadian colleague Professor Jean Revez from Montreal and his students have worked closely with us for several years," Brand says.

U of M students have traveled to Karnak Temple in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor twice in the past three years, including last May and are scheduled to return this summer.

Playing politics?

Brand says Egypt's ongoing political unrest hasn't really deterred the project, and he says the U of M monitors any potential dangers.

"Our last two seasons in 2011 and 2013 were undertaken in the shadow of the Egyptian revolution," Brand says. "We went to Egypt only a couple of months after the Mubarak regime fell in the late winter of 2011 and this was only possible because the U.S. State Department lifted its travel warning against U.S. citizens traveling to Egypt. If there is an official warning or ban, we don't go. Safety of our students is of utmost importance.

"Our Egyptian friends and the Egyptian government have always taken good care of our security," Brand says, noting that the team lives in a modern apartment "that even has a pizzeria next to it." "I have never felt unsafe or threatened in Egypt and the Egyptians are very hospitable and friendly people. It is also important to understand that the principle of hospitality is central to Arabic culture and Egyptians and other Arab people would always put the safety and comfort of their guests above that of their own."

Brand says the Hypostyle Hall Project is vital to the Egyptology program and the research goals of the University as a whole.

"Like the Center for Earthquake Research and Information and the Center for Research in Educational Policy, the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology is a Tennessee Center of Excellence and is one of the research and teaching programs that puts the U of M on the map," he says. "In the international field of Egyptology the U of M stands as an important contributor to international Egyptology alongside major universities such as UCLA, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Yale, Harvard, Toronto and Brown.

"We are also the largest Egyptology program in the South and tied with the University of Chicago's famed Oriental Institute as the largest Egyptology program in North America. Memphis Egyptology, therefore, plays in the 'major league' of American and international Egyptology."

Brand says grants he secured from the National Endowment for the Humanities ($280,000 for three years) and the American Research Center in Egypt ($66,000 for one year) should enable him and his students to have at least two seasons in Luxor in the coming three years.

Through the U of M's tireless efforts that have a fascinating story of their own, an important piece of history is being preserved for generations to come.

The Karnak Great Hypostyle Hall Project is a joint endeavor of the U of M and the UniversitŽ de QuŽbec ˆ MontrŽal. It also works in cooperation with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Centre Franco-Žgyptien d'Žtudes des temples de Karnak in France. More information is at

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Last Updated: 5/20/14