Three-thousand, five-hundred years is a long time for any building to stand, and it comes as no surprise that, today, Luxor temple is in need of some help. Many of its columns in the first court, for example, have been showing the very serious effects of exposure to the elements and prior maintenance efforts. To address these issues, ARCE began a project in 2008 to assess and conserve the columns in the Ramesses II court. This work runs in tandem with our larger conservation initiative on the East Bank and forms part of our Egyptian conservator training program.
ARCE conservator Khadiga Adam
Under the management of ARCE Luxor’s Associate Director, John Shearman, ARCE conservator Khadiga Adam has supervised and instructed 28 conservators and 10 craftsmen over the past two years to address the columns’ problems. Visitors to the temple can immediately see our team’s progress, as they work in plain sight to the west of the Ramesses II court’s Amun, Mut and Khonsu shrines.
Between 2010 and 2011 this exacting work has involved a number of stages. Before conserving anything, each column needed to be studied and documented. This was done so that the ARCE staff and students might understand the different phases of conservation that have taken place over the many decades the temple has been open, and then correct any problems associated with that intervention.
A ‘condition map’, a visual record of damaged areas on a column
It was also done as a means of understanding the different ways in which each column has deteriorated. Once the conservators felt they had come to grips with this information, proposals were put forward on how to help the ailing columns.
Salt crystals and the erosion of a column’s exterior
These proposals were then tested and treatments were implemented. One of the greatest detriments to the columns has been previous efforts to shore up gaps in the structures by means of cement. Not only have these cement patches expanded and contracted at a different rate from their adjacent sandstone, they have also assisted the movement of water through the stones. Such moisture has weakened the columns by encouraging the production of salt crystals, which form on the surface and very quickly erode the stone.
Salt damage of this sort is found throughout Luxor and Karnak temples, and is addressed by ARCE through other initiatives, such as our groundwater-lowering efforts, and our work in Khonsu Temple. In addition, these cement patches have actually obscured historical information, as many covered inscribed texts and figures.
Introduction of lime mortar patches by ARCE conservation students
For all of these reasons, the cement patches on the Luxor columns are being removed and replaced using lime slaked in the ARCE-built Karnak Conservation Lab, and mixed into mortar on site in Luxor Temple. In order to better appreciate the texts and images on the columns, a program of mechanical and chemical cleaning, as well as the consolidation of loose pieces, was undertaken. Perhaps the biggest, and most obvious, recent challenge to this project takes the form of a broken capital.
A capital in need of urgent repair
This enormous piece of stone is currently being repaired in collaboration with Frank Helmholz, a stone mason working with the University of Chicago’s Permanent Epigraphic Survey to Luxor (Chicago House). Securing such an integral piece of masonry is, of course, vital for the continued existence of the temple’s first court. This project helps to ensure the continued existence of a very visible part of one of the most important ancient monuments in Egypt; one enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.