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Writing on the wall

U of M researchers explore a building 3,300 years old.

By Greg Russell

It's not exactly ancient history, but 22 years after U of M professor William Murnane made a bold prediction, history seems to be playing 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 unravel the secrets locked in centuries-old inscriptions. Found on the walls of the Great Hypostyle Hall of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, Egypt, these ancient inscriptions offer a glimpse into the life of the people who once lived along the Nile River.

The U of M's efforts in Egypt will preserve an important piece of history for generations to come. The above inscription is on a column that is shaped like a cylinder. Researchers are using cutting-edge photographic and scanning methods to produce a "flat" image.

"It tells us what the Egyptians expected of their world on one level," Murnane said at the time. "It tells us about the liturgy — the religious life of the Egyptians — on another level. Occasionally it can show us what was going on in the political life of the kingdom at that time."

While it has the distinction of being the largest temple in Egypt and one of the most massive religious complexes ever built, the Temple of Amun also has 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.

Dedicated to Amun, the king of the gods, the temple offers many insights into Egyptian lifestyles, history and religion. The enormous size of the Hall — slightly larger than the U of M's University Center with a taller roof — led to Murnane's prediction of a long-lasting project.

Brand, the Dunavant Professor of Egyptology and Ancient History and current director of the Karnak Hypostyle Hall Project, says the initiative also aims to make a complete scientific record of all the hieroglyphic texts and relief carvings from the Hypostyle Hall. Too, Brand 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 unrolled 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 students and international collaborations have always been a major part of the project. 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 late this summer.

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.

"We are also very fortunate that one of our Memphis graduate students, Amr Shahat, is Egyptian and has served as tour guide, host, translator and teacher of Arabic to his fellow students from Memphis."

Brand says the Hypostyle Hall Project is vital to the Egyptology program and the research goals of the University of Memphis 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 U of M on the map," Brand 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, to name just a few. But 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 also points out that the program draws dozens of students from across the U.S. and even abroad to the Art History and History programs at the masters and doctoral levels.

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 history 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 University of Memphis and the Université de Québec à Montréal. It also works in cooperation with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Centre Franco-égyptien d'études des temples de Karnak in France. More information is at http://www.memphis.edu/hypostyle/welcome.htm).

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