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Interview with Salima Ikram

On 26 July the EES had organised a study day: Ancient Animals: Mummies and Mysteries in London.
The first lecturer of the day was Professor Salima Ikram.

To those interested in ancient Egypt Salima is very likely quite well known. She has written books, appeared on television and she is the director of the Animal Mummy Project. I have seen her in several documentaries and was captivated by her passion.
After reading Divine Creatures I was hoping to have a chat with her. She was kind enough to allow just that during a break on this very busy day.

SJ: What sparked your interest in ancient Egypt?
SI: Well, I’ve always been interested in the past and on my 8th birthday I was given the Time Life Book of Ancient Egypt. And then, when I was 9.5 my father said “Do you want to go to Greece or Egypt?”, and I said “Crete?”. He said “No, Athens or Cairo”. So, of course, like an intelligent person, I picked Cairo. We went to the Egyptian museum and I met Rahotep and Nofret and I thought that they were my people. That was the end of that. So I decided that I would study ancient Egypt.

SJ: How did you become involved in the Animal Mummy Project?
SI: I’ve always been interested in animals in the living world and one of my favourite rooms in Cairo museum was that of the ancient Egyptian environment, the natural habitat. My mother was always very interested in flora and fauna and things like that so I’ve always had that background. I’d worked on mummification to a particular extent for my dissertation on food. When I went to live in Egypt I found that the animal mummy room had been closed for some time and I though to resurrect it. Therefore I started my work on animal mummies thinking sideways from my food mummies, doing all kinds of animal mummies.

SJ: Do you have a particular favourite type of animal mummy or a particular site?
SI: Very hard to say, because they are so adorable, many of them. I love the massive crocodiles. I think the little shrews are adorable. Cats and dogs are, of course, charming, especially when they are pets. And it’s just quite funny to get a dung ball as a mummy. So it’s hard to say. I have a snake mummy which has a shrew which is undigested in its belly.

SJ: What would you find more interesting, human mummies or animal mummies and why?
SI: Both are very interesting, but animal mummies are far more fun because they are more than one species. The mode of preparation is greatly varied as is the mode of wrapping. And one never knows what one is going to get. So on the whole I think animal mummies are fare more valuable, bang for your buck, as it where, than humans.

SJ: So you can’t really compare animal mummification and human mummification?
SI: Of course you can! Often I think they experimented on humans before trying it on an animal.

SJ: Not the other way around?
SI: Why not? You have human mummies often before. Just because we choose animals first because we think we can, doesn’t mean it was always so.

SJ: During the lecture you showed a photo of spells which were included in an animal mummy’s wrapping. Are they found often in animal mummies?
SI: No. Those are found on human mummies. Some of the linen I have from TT11 has inscriptions on parts of it and there are occasional mummies of animals with spells. Dieter Kessler has some very nice examples.

SJ: And does the same go for amulets?
SI: Yes, there are much rarer on animal mummies. I think you get them more on sacred animals: rams, some monkeys. Again, I think Tuna has the best representation. I think there are some on Ibises.

SJ: Have you ever encountered any proof of mummification gone wrong? For example: during the lecture you mentioned internal combustion.
SI: Yes, that happened in humans as well, but combustion happened after the mummies were wrapped.

SJ: You mentioned you mummified two cats for people. Does that mean you have now really figured out how mummification was done?
SI: Well, I’m going to open up one of the graves this fall to see how the cat has survived and then I’ll know.

SJ: How often do you find inscriptions on an animal mummy, for example on its wrappings or its coffin/container?
SI: It varies. There are lots of examples as Dieter Kessler said from Tuna and we’ve got quite a few from Saqqara. In fact, if you look at the publications of the EES, there are now examples of the bandages and the jars or wall inscriptions. But the majority are from Tuna el-Gebel. Because you get animal burials in so many places, but Tuna seems to have the concentration of this particular genre of evidence, which of course clues how one looks at that side in relation to others.

SJ: Does this evidence also help to understand why these mummies were made?
SI: Not always. Sometimes it’s just ‘so and so sent this from such and such’. There is space for the extrapolation argument which increases exponentially as you will see perhaps during the question and answer time.

I would like to thank Salima for a very interesting and entertaining lecture and for taking the time to talk to me.


Interview with Joyce Tyldesley

On Friday 2 May Joyce Tyldesley held a lecture about Tutankhamen at Chowbent Unitarian Chapel in Atherton.

Joyce is quite well-known to many people and this is not surprising. She is a very busy lady.
She is an archaeologist and Egyptologist. She writes books, the latest one about Tutankhamen. She can be seen on television sometimes. She also has a red belt in karate. And to top it all off, she teaches. This is how I met her. I am one of her online students, currently doing the Certificate in Egyptology via Manchester University.

Joyce Tyldesley
Joyce during her lecture about Tutankhamen
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After the lecture she was kind enough to allow me some time to ask her a few questions.

SJ: What sparked your interest in Egyptology?
JT: I think it was several things, actually. People ask me this a lot and I’m not absolutely sure. I think, first of all, coming from the north west, because we have so many archaeological museums around us and particularly in Egyptology. That always interests me. I think being born at the right time. In 1972, I was 12, Tutankhamen was around. So that also was very inspiring. There was a lot on the television at that time about Tutankhamen and that really interested me. And it was the right age I think to get interested. And I quite like detective stories. I think that is in it as well. It’s just a big detective story, isn’t it? So I think it’s three things, to be honest.

SJ: Do you still find those same things interesting now or has that shifted or expanded?
JT: Tutankhamen is quite unfashionable. Luckily, suddenly in the past year or two he has almost become acceptable, but for a long time people have considered Tutankhamen to be too popular. But I find the whole period so fascinating. I’m interested in the idea that we know the name of somebody and yet know so little about them. And yet they clearly were very important in Egyptian history, but we don’t know that much about them. We are still reconstructing the history.

SJ: Based on the lecture you just gave it occurred to me that we have all this material, but still don’t know much about the items and their use.
JT: Yes. Obviously Carter was very good, he conserved as much as he could, but basically it just ended up in a museum and was almost forgotten about. It has only been relatively recently that we started looking at them again. That painted box that I showed, there’s a whole story behind it. Not even looking at the contents, that’s just the outside. There is just so much information there, it takes years to do that. That’s why I wanted to write a book about it. I wanted to show there is a massive amount of information in there that we could access if someone had the time to go through it.

SJ: Do you have a favourite artefact in a museum? If so, which one and where is it?
JT: I’m quite fond of the bust of Nefertiti, which is in Berlin, but that’s because I keep looking at it. I like the two jars with the bandages of the Two Brothers in the Manchester Museum. I find them quite appealing. But they are not on display.

SJ: What is your favourite site in Egypt?
JT: I spent a lot of time working in the Delta and I really liked that. But increasingly I’d like going to Luxor and look at that environment. And Aswan. And possibly the Deir el-Bahari temple of Hatshepsut. But then again, there’s a whole story there. It’s a really obvious one to pick.

SJ: Because it’s so obvious people gloss over it and don’t realise there is so much we still don’t know?
JT: Exactly! If it wasn’t Tutankhamen people would have been doing more. Now they think there’s nothing there.

SJ: As one of your online students, I have noticed there are a lot of women doing the course. Do you see the same tendency among the professionals?
JT: No. When I started there were very few professional female Egyptologists. Rosalie David is the only example I knew of in Britain. She was pretty much the only one that I knew of. And since then, it has become almost half and half. Among the students there’s a lot more women.

SJ: Would you like to hazard a guess why this is the case? Are more women interested in Egyptology or are men perhaps less likely to pick up a study?
JT: I think it could be that. I think it’s also that women may be more open to doing study. Any lecture I give there will be 3 times as many women as men. I mean, some men are quite elderly and may have lost their partner, but it doesn’t explain why more women study it and professionally it’s only recently that women have become equal. Specifically about Rosalie David being professor, I don’t think there’s anybody else.

SJ: In the late 1700s and early 1800s we had Egyptomania. Do you think that at the moment the interest in ancient Egypt is on the rise again?
JT: I think it’s been raised a lot. It’s all the new discoveries. It’s the fact it’s on the television a lot. Because 30, 40 years ago it was very rare to have a programme about ancient Egypt on television. Beyond the Tutankhamen one there was virtually nothing. So you’d have no access to it. You’d have to go to Egyptologists to find it or do a degree in it to learn it. And it’s about getting access to books. I remember writing my first books, I couldn’t access the books. Even when I was at Liverpool, if it wasn’t in that library there I couldn’t access it. It wasn’t possible to go on to JSTOR and get access to things. There’s so much access to stuff. But in a way it’s good, because a lot of people can access ancient Egypt in their own home. They can go online and read about it. They can watch television. But I have noticed that societies – I do a lot of society work to try and promote the subject – they’re dwindling. People aren’t turning out at night. I wonder also about our online course. Whether the fact that people are starting to do free online courses, whether people will be expecting to be able to get everything for free and in their own home. It possibly requires a different approach.

SJ: Without naming the best or the worst, how do courses in Egyptology at various universities (in the UK and abroad) compare? Can you even compare them on quality and the material they cover?
JT: They are very varied. It depends what you’re interested in. some will focus on period, some will focus on language. It’s hard to compare them. Each one, even in the same country, has to be looked at differently. To say you got a degree in Egyptology almost means nothing unless you know where you got it from. Because it can mean so many different things. Some people only concentrate on the Ptolemies, for example.

SJ: What are your plans or wishes for the future of your career?
JT: I would like to do some field word, because I haven’t done any for a long time; my own field work. But I’m stuck at the moment, because I’m in teaching and learning and I can’t apply for grants. And I’d like to write some fiction about ancient Egypt. I’m always very careful to say ‘this could happen’ because I don’t like it when people put their own impressions into it. But sometimes it would be nice to say what I really think has happened.

SJ: Are you considering completely fictional or strongly based on history? Like Alison Weir who wrote a book about Elizabeth I and in the back of the book explained where she had taken liberties.
JT: I don’t know. I don’t even know if I can write fiction. I’ve never done it. I’m thinking it should be completely fictional. I have read Alison Weir, but not that one. I’m very interested in the idea of using fiction to tell history. That it’s not true, but it’s not wrong either. It’s more or less accurate. The danger is that people will think the character you’ve drawn is the character, but it’s a very useful way of teaching history. You have to make it very clear that it is fiction. That’s my secret ambition, but I don’t mind sharing it.

I would like to thank Joyce for a very interesting lecture and afterwards taking the time to talk to me.

Coming soon: interviews

It’s with great shame I acknowledge the lack of activity on this blog. My many interests are each taking up too much time which leaves me too little time to write on my blog(s). But I promise you I will do better.

What better way to improve then by adding a new section?
Very soon I will launch a series of interviews. I will be speaking to people with an interest in ancient Egypt to find out why they are so passionate about it. At the moment I’m planning 2 to 4 interviews per year and the subjects of my ‘interrogation’ can be anyone – from an enthusiastic amateur to an experienced professional.

If there is anyone in particular you’d like me to speak to or if you have any questions you’d like me to ask, please let me know in a comment below.

I did say ‘very soon’ above and with that I mean that my first interview will be this Friday. So watch this space!

Finding ancient Egypt in Dublin

National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology
Earlier this month I went back to Dublin, Ireland. A few years ago I went for the first time and only spent one day there. On my first visit I discovered National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology and the Egyptian artefacts they have. This year I decided to go back to have a better look.

The Museum itself has several departments, each housed in a different location in Dublin.
The Archaeology museum is on Kildare Street. The building was custom built for the museum, which opened to the public in 1890. Let me tell you, it is stunning.
The doors are made of thick wood and on them you can see beautiful carvings. Some rooms have mosaics on the floor which relate to historic events or nations. There are cast-iron columns (as you can see below) and the shop is in the domed rotunda. The building alone is worth visiting.

National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology
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The Egyptian department is very small. If you are looking for big halls filled with big statues, this is not the museum for you.
Even though the room is small and quite dark, they did manage to fit in three mummies and some beautiful artefacts and smaller statues. They have a huge cat mummy, but unfortunately the area around the cat is so dark I couldn’t make a decent photo…at least not without a monopod or tripod. I live in the UK and a monopod or tripod is not something you want to travel with on a plane.

It’s quite interesting there are Egyptian artefacts in this museum, because its main focus is Ireland: its history and anything found in Ireland. The ancient Egyptian items were most definitely not found there! Unfortunately the guidebook doesn’t explain where the collection comes from (other than Egypt, of course) and what the link is with Ireland and this museum.

National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology
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I couldn’t really discover a pattern in the layout of the room. It doesn’t seem to be set up by item type, period or category. This does make it a little haphazard, but at the same time forces you to have a good look. You’re not likely to glance over anything this way.

Figure of a man from the rim of a bowl for libations
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The rest of the museum is also definitely worthwhile, but I won’t discuss that here. This is a blog about Egyptology, after all.

Guinness Storehouse
I suppose there aren’t many people who have never heard of Arthur Guinness and that beautiful, dark stuff he brewed.

Pulled my own pint at Guinness Storehouse
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There is something ancient Egyptian in the Guinness Storehouse. It wasn’t there (at least not on display) during my previous visit, but they have now incorporated it into the tasting experience. When Howard Carter found barley grains in Tutankhamun’s tomb, a sample of it was sent to Dublin. The good people at Guinness analyzed it. It’s this sample in its original bottle which is now on display.
You have to drink some Guinness before they let you see it, though. Not fair, is it?

Not really Egyptian
What I saw at Christ Church Cathedral is not actually Egyptian. However, my unwavering interest in animal mummies caused me to take a photo or two anyway.
The story goes that a cat and a mouse got trapped in one of the organ pipes at the cathedral and consequently died. So there you have it, two natural mummies in an organ pipe, now on display.

The cat and the rat at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin
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If you want to see the mouse too, you’ll have to visit my photoset on Flickr with all the photos I took in Dublin. There are some additional photos of the Egyptian artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland as well.

Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden

Years ago I visited Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden (the Netherlands) for the first time. My visit is so long ago I can barely remember what I saw there. I do, however, remember it was an impressive collection, especially considering the modest size of the museum.
Last week I was back in the Netherlands for Christmas and I decided to include a visit to the RMO to refresh my memory.

At this moment in time the number of museums I visited which have anything to do with ancient Egypt (sometimes remotely, I have to admit) is getting very close to 20. So when I say that I’m impressed with the items on display in Leiden, that means something. Let’s not forget that there are a few very well established museums on my list, like the British Museum (London, UK), Neues Museum (Berlin, Germany) and Louvre (Paris, France). Most of the museums I have visited are considerably bigger than the RMO, and so are their Egyptian departments.

RMO, Leiden
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Why do I like this museum so much? That has to do with a few factors.
First of all, the way the collection is set up is sometimes quite different. For example, there is a corner in one of the rooms where several stelae have been set up together. You can press a button on an interactive map to hear the text on the stela of your choice (in Dutch). That’s something I have only seen in Manchester Museum (Manchester, UK); they have a replica stela which can be explored in a similar way.

Second, there is plenty of room to move about, but still there is a lot on display. You can easily spend a few hours just looking at the Egyptian artefacts.

Finally, they have some truly exquisite items on display. And some are quite well known, like Maya and Meryt.

RMO, Leiden
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I also like the fact it is all set up in chronological order, neatly starting with the predynastic period and ending with their mummy collection. Oh, and they have cat mummies.
You cannot avoid damaged artefacts, but most items in this museum are in a wonderful condition. When things are damaged or unfinished they make the most of it. Like with the statue below, which is unfinished; they stress the fact it’s not completed by setting it up just a little differently.

RMO, Leiden
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To be honest, I’d love to include all 33 photos I have of this collection in this post, but that would be bit much. There is, however, so much to like! I liked the baboon mummy, the cubit, the beautiful statues and the offering table.

RMO, Leiden
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It would be a lot easier to advise you to go see it for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Louvre, Paris

The Louvre.
It is on the list of must-see museums. It houses some iconic pieces. In fact, the museum itself is iconic.
Quite a few people who have visited the Louvre assured me I would love it. The downside of such assurances is that my expectations rise to a higher level.

While spending a week in London for my studies I hopped over to the European mainland for a day. My destination: Paris, the Louvre.
I won’t bore you with stories of rude personnel. After all, a visit can be improved by good staff, but a museum’s impression cannot be destroyed by bad staff. The museum is what it is.

Think what you will of the glass pyramids, the old building is beautiful. In some places it is overdone, but such was the style of the time this was built and decorated.

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Some of the many rooms with Egyptian artefacts look like this.

It is also a labyrinth. Thankfully the signs are not too bad and a map is available as backup.

I have to admit, even now (11 days after my visit) I’m still struggling to form an opinion. Was I blown away (as I was told I would be)? Not at all. Did I hate it then? No, I wouldn’t go that far either. I guess I think the Louvre is ok. So why did I not love it?

There are 30 rooms with ancient Egyptian artefacts. That seems a lot to go through. The setup is so generous and the information so minimal that it didn’t take me all that long. And the order eludes me. The rooms’ themes seem to go from topical to chronological to material and vice versa. I found myself walking back through time and then forward again. I really did follow the numbers and walked from room 1 to 30 in the correct order (which is, at times, a bit of a puzzle). My conclusion is that the Louvre is quite unorganised. And that is not a good thing for a world renowned museum.

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A very famous inhabitant of the museum

Does this all mean I didn’t enjoy my visit? Of course I did.
You can’t really go wrong with a large number of ancient Egyptian items. I’m old enough to find my own way, so the puzzling ‘order’ of the rooms I could manage too. But I didn’t love it; not in the slightest. From the museums I’ve visited so far I’d pick Neues Museum in Berlin as my favourite.

As a photographer I was often cursing the large amount of glass in this museum. The generous setup allows the visitor to get around easily, but at the same time nothing blocks the light coming through the often large windows, causing horrible reflections.

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There is no avoiding the reflections on the glass in some cases.

On the other hand, glass displays allow you to get very close to objects. There is a good and a bad to every situation, isn’t there?

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I was quite taken by this little statue.

I did mention at the beginning of this post that the Louvre has some iconic pieces. One of them is the Dendera Zodiac. I did try to take photos of it, but they just don’t do it justice. It is one of those things you have to see for yourself. And it is truly beautiful.

I am often more interested in the not so famous pieces. I’m quite emotional when it comes to what I like and what I don’t like. For example, the wooden statuette of which I put up a photo above. I think it’s lovely.
The following four ladies were also quite lovely to look at, they are on display in one of the first rooms.

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There are a lot of statues of scribes and some wonderful examples of palettes. And did I mention the cat mummies? Actually, I was quite surprised by the amount of cat statuettes they have on display (see above for a few of them).
Some of the statues are simply stunning and stand out, like this one of Horus:

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Of course I have to mention the interior in a little more detail. I have read a book about Jean-Francois Champollion and in that book I read that he had a lot to do with the Louvre. Apparently he was quite appalled at the decoration. I believe I know why.

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Part of a ceiling painting in one of the Egyptian rooms

Let me say this as a conclusion: it is unfortunate I didn’t enjoy my visit as much as I could have and that I am not as overwhelmed by the Louvre as most people I spoke to. At the same time I will say that I think they have some wonderful pieces. It is telling that I ended up with 45 photos in total, taken in the space of 2.5 hours. I’m happy I have been, but the Louvre will very likely not see me again (unless they put on an amazing temporary exhibition of course!).

Statues of Amenhotep III in British Museum

One would think that it’s a bit pointless to visit a museum more than once. After all, they have a reputation of being a bit boring and the ‘general public’ (if they even exist) seem to think museums are very static. Wrong on both counts.

Through the years I have noticed that museums do not only alter their temporary exhibitions often (it’s in the name, after all), they also move their permanent display around every now and then and they have started to add modern technology and innovative displays to their repertoire.

In addition, people should also realise that they change too. Not only are you likely to notice things during your second visit that you never saw the first time around, you also learn. The result of that is that even things you may have seen several times all of a sudden seem more interesting.
This is what happened when I saw the statues of Amenhotep III in the British Museum a few weeks ago.

Statue of king Amenhotep III
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EA5 – statue of Amenhotep III

Earlier this year I wrote a review of Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s book about his travels through Egypt and Nubia. Until I read that book I hadn’t realised quite a few of the items he found had gone to the British Museum. One of my favourites, part of a rather large statue of Ramesses II, was the first thing he set out to find as ordered by Henry Salt.
At the time it was not unusual to mark an artifact to ensure people knew it was yours. The competition was strong (to put it mildly) and it could take some time before the larger artifacts could be moved. So it shouldn’t have surprised me to find Belzoni’s name on one of the statues.

Statue of king Amenhotep III
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The statue in question is one of Amenhotep III. In fact, there’s two of them, side by side, on the ground floor of the museum. Both of them were found and transported by Belzoni, who at the time worked for Henry Salt.
EA5, as one of them is known in the museum’s collection, is the only one of the two that is marked with Belzoni’s name. Statue EA4 is restored, as is clearly visible.

Statue of Amenhotep III (restored)
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EA4 – the restored statue of Amenhotep III

The strange thing is that I found that the information for both statues seems to have been swapped. It’s EA4 which doesn’t have any hieroglyphs on it, but its information states there’s text all over it. The online collection also seems incorrect in some places. For example: the website claims that on EA4 the name Belzoni is carved on the base, but it isn’t. It’s on EA5.
Another example: as you can see on the previous photo, there is no text on the pharaoh’s belt. This is statue EA4 – the restored statue of which the face is in tact.
On EA5 (I took a photo of the number on the statue to ensure I don’t mix them up) – the one with the damaged face – there is text on the belt.

Statue of king Amenhotep III
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Ultimately it doesn’t really matter if the information is correct or swapped, because these are two beautiful artifacts which can be enjoyed without any knowledge of them. I have to confess, however, that I prefer to know more about the things I see at museums. I would wholeheartedly advise anyone interested to have a look at the websites for EA4 and EA5, because they do give valuable insight in where these statues come from, who acquired them, how old they are, but also what restoration and preservation work has been done on them. Don’t think that statues are found, moved and simply put on display. It’s not that simple.
But enough about the museum’s work, let’s spare a few words for the subject of these beautiful statues. Who was Amenhotep III?

He was a late 18th Dynasty king who lived from 1390 to 1352 BC (1)). His father was Thutmose IV. It is believed he came to the throne as a child (the exact age is not known) and he reigned for 38 years. (2)

Statue of king Amenhotep III
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EA5 – statue of Amenhotep III

As far as we know his reign was peaceful and prosperous, at least at court. One of the sources I consulted ((1)) claims that, though peaceful, Amenhotep III’s reign was not completely successful because of is suspected disinterest in military achievements. Interesting in this respect is that his foreign correspondence is (at least partly) still available to us – the Amarna letters.

It is also believed he was deified during his lifetime. In the source I used for this (2) it is clearly stated that not everything is certain (what else can we expect for something which happened so long ago?), but it seems very likely Amenhotep III was seen as a god before his death.

He built a lot! Arguably the best known items to remain are the Colossi of Memnon. If you don’t know them by name, you may know them by reputation. They are the two massive statues which used to stand in front of the mortuary temple (Kom el-Heitan) which used to ‘sing’ at daybreak due to the multiple cracks in them. (3)

The two statues in the British Museum are from Thebes, where he also built a temple. His tomb is KV22 in the Valley of the Kings.

I have to admit I don’t know much about Amenhotep III at this time, but I expect that will change as this year’s subject on the online course I follow is the 18th Dynasty. Hopefully I will be able to get my hands on some books about him so I can inform you in more detail at a later time.
Nevertheless, the two statues in the British Museum have my interest and I can tell you they are not the only items in the museum which can be linked to him.
Those of you who have been to the British Museum may recall the enormous head on display (right next to a similarly enormous arm). That is also Amenhotep III.

British Museum
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Colossal granite head of Amenhotep III

In order to place him in history correctly I should also mention his son, Amenhotep IV, who became better known as Akhenaten. Yes, that pharaoh.
These were interesting times. And through Henry Salt, Giovanni Belzoni and the British Museum this has all come together for us to enjoy. If you ever find yourself in London, go to the British Museum (again, perhaps?) and have a look for yourself.

(1) Shaw, I and Nicholson, N., The illustrated dictionary of ancient Egypt, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2008, p. 30-31
(2) Bryan, B.M., The 18th Dynasty before the Amarna period in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, ed. I. Shaw, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 260-262
(3) Weeks, K.R., The temple of Amenhotep III in Valley of the Kings, ed. K. Weeks, White Star, Vercelli, 2011, p. 62-65