Where the digital age meets ancient Egypt

HUMANITIES, January/February 2010, Volume 31, Number 1

“Oh that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult be no more!” This was a prayer said daily in the temple complex of Karnak in ancient Egypt. The priests may have been asking for respite from the ringing of chisels and the shouts of stone masons. Karnak, situated on the east bank of the Nile, was their sacred place of worship. It was also a site with periods of near constant construction.

Egyptian rulers after 2000 BCE made their mark here, as did the Greeks and Romans who followed, turning what began as a modest temple into the ancient world’s largest and most impressive complex of religious buildings which, even today, inspires awe.

Gold colored sandstone carved with scenes of royal Egyptian life and religion
Photo caption

A detail from one of the hall’s walls shows Sety I kneeling before the deity, Amun-Ra. The artisans who worked the walls and columns, used raised/bas relief and sunk relief to create the vivid scenes we see today.

Courtesy of UCLA.
Tall columns carved with Egyptian illustrations of religion and royal life
Photo caption

Sety I, who reigned from 1294 to 1279 BCE, built one of Karnak’s wonders, the Hypostyle Hall, which was modified by his successor, Ramesses II.

Courtesy of UCLA

The first work, begun around 1950 BCE, was followed by five centuries with no known additions. But endless construction, destruction, and renovation over the next millennium and a half has proved challenging to modern-day researchers. Each change at this vast site can illuminate a political, religious, or social aspect of ancient Egypt, a text in stone chronicling the levels of prosperity, nature of beliefs, and the power of central authority. But, until now, the best that scholars could do to visualize the complex as it once existed was to visit the static wooden model of Karnak carved by French archaeologists at their nearby dig house. And conveying the complicated changes to students was even more difficult. “I was completely frustrated with the materials available—I wanted to show all the phases,” says Diane Favro, who teaches architectural history at the University of California at Los Angeles. “Slides and two-dimensional photos left out all the experiential aspects of the place.”

By pulling together a team of computer experts, archaeologists, and architects, Favro helped create a virtual Karnak—an exciting alternative to poring through archaeological reports, tourist guides, and maps to make sense of this fascinating, overwhelming, and confusing site. You can avoid the crowds at what is the most popular attraction in Egypt after the Great Pyramids, have a bird’s-eye view as temples take shape, and follow the path of the annual festival processions that were part of ancient Egyptian life. Digital Karnak offers a fresh way of understanding this vast site.

The task of the UCLA team has been to piece together how Karnak was pieced together. Three-dimensional models, ranging from Stonehenge to Aztec temples, are common now across the web. But quality varies; many are used primarily for entertainment purposes, and there are no accepted standards or guidelines for accuracy. Archaeologists have shied away from such models, since they inevitably involve guesswork.

“The training of archaeologists is to document the objects they find,” says Favro. Foundations may not reveal whether or not a house had a second story, for example. “When you get into reconstruction, you have to deal with the speculative.”
The Karnak project is, in effect, what Favro calls “reverse archaeology”—a new approach to envisioning the past that archaeologists are only now starting to embrace.

With its collection of temples, stone kiosks, obelisks, a sacred lake, walls, and pylons built over fifteen hundred years and spread over more than six hundred acres—nearly twice the size of the National Mall in Washington—Karnak is mind-bogglingly vast in both space and time. Even in partial ruin, Karnak provides a window into the formidable engineering and artistic abilities of ancient Egypt.

The pyramids may be more stupendous and the Parthenon more beautiful, wrote British adventurer Amelia Edwards in 1877 after wandering through the famous Hypostyle Hall which alone covers nearly 1.5 acres. “Yet in nobility of conception, in vastness of detail, in mystery of the highest order,” she wrote, the pillared space of Karnak at the heart of the complex surpasses them all. It was, she insisted without reservation, “the noblest architectural work ever designed and executed by human hands.”

Digital rendering of the temple complex, from a birds-eye view
Photo caption

Overview of the temple complex at Karnak.

Courtesy of UCLA.

A thousand years after the Great Pyramids were built, Karnak was still a small temple in Upper Egypt dedicated to the local god Amun. But with the rise of the Eighteenth Dynasty, which began in 1550 BCE, the once sleepy area became a focus of Egypt’s power and wealth, and Amun became an important deity. Karnak quickly grew into a national religious center, and pharaoh after pharaoh added courtyards and gates, built new temples and remodeled old ones, and occasionally dismantled older structures to reuse their materials. By the time of the only female pharaoh—Hatshepsut—the tops of obelisks were sheathed in gold and a new set of gates oriented the complex toward Luxor Temple a few miles to the south, rather than toward the Nile, which flowed just to the west. Every year, a grand procession took place on a broad avenue bordered by sphinxes between the two temples, one of the great festivals of ancient Egypt.

There was only one interruption to the steady growth of Karnak, when the heretic king, Akhenaten, snubbed the god Amun and the priests serving him by building a temple to the sun god Aten just east of Karnak’s walls to catch the life-giving rays before they struck Amun’s temple. But Akhenaten’s successors razed the structure and incorporated the stone into new projects.

Several pharaohs continued to embellish Karnak in the centuries that followed. Nectanebo I—who deposed and killed his predecessor and seized the throne in 380 BCE—made the last great changes, adding—but not completing—the First Pylon which visitors pass through as they enter the complex today. The Greco-Egyptian rulers who followed made more modest changes to Karnak, adding small temples. And even the Romans contributed, by completing a temple dedicated to Osiris. By the early centuries of the Common Era, the old ways began to dissipate. The incense was extinguished and the chants silenced. The new religion of Christianity moved in, and small churches were built within the massive pagan walls.

For Egyptologists, Karnak offers a treasure trove of data on Egypt’s evolution into an international power with great wealth, a unique and mysterious religion, and a way of life centered on the ebb and flow of the Nile, which coursed through the country’s heart. One relief, for example, which lists pharaohs stretching back to the Old Kingdom, provides scholars with important information on the ruling class. Even destruction tells a tale: Some pharaohs chiseled away their predecessors’ names in an attempt to wipe out any memory of their existence and accomplishments.

Favro, who directs UCLA’s Experiential Technologies Center, tends toward seeing a building as lived-in space rather than as a static object. That interest prompted her to midwife a project begun in 1997 called Rome Reborn, a three-dimensional tour of the Eternal City in ancient times. She was inspired in part by the massive plaster model of Rome during the time of Constantine, which was commissioned by Benito Mussolini. Although impressive, it is stuck in a particular time and lacks historical authenticity. The goal of the effort was to feed existing data into complex software programs in order to provide the best guess as to what Rome looked like when it was the center of an empire. The model avoids the guesswork that comes with many computer simulations—such as Hollywood movies. “We’re not talking the hyperrealism of the movie Gladiator,” she says.

The effort led archaeologists to consult with architects about the structural integrity of their recreated blueprints—a rare collaboration between two fields that are traditionally quite separate. Such computer models not only are teaching tools; they can forward research agendas as well. With a colleague, Favro modeled a funeral in the Forum, which provides a sense of sight lines and acoustics. It represents not just how Rome looked, but how it might have felt and sounded as you walked through its crowds.

To tackle Karnak, Favro turned to Elaine Sullivan, who had spent five seasons working at the Temple of Mut within the complex while a graduate student at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. Sullivan arrived in Los Angeles in 2007 with her newly minted doctorate in Near Eastern studies and set to work in a darkened lab far from the hot and dusty streets of the modern town of Luxor. Her first task, however, was decidedly low tech. She spent the first couple of months poring through archaeological reports, authored mainly by the French team overseeing work at Karnak. Written in the past four decades, they form the backbone of current knowledge of the complex. “Luckily for the project, the publication record is excellent,” Sullivan says. A twelfth volume of the French excavations just came out, and there was additional material from before the 1970s to fill out the picture. Few archaeological sites in the world have been so exhaustively documented as Karnak. Generations of archaeologists have made painstaking measurements, sketches, photographs, and excavations at this sprawling area.

Hunkered down in the center’s Technology Sandbox, Sullivan and computer programming colleague Eunkwang Kim sat next to each other in front of massive screens to translate the data into visual information. Another student worked on map and video designs that were to be part of the website as well. They were assisted by models created by UCLA’s Department of Architecture and Urban Design. Periodically, Sullivan presented her results to Favro and another UCLA colleague, Egyptologist Willeke Wendrich. “We’re not displaying the way things looked,” Sullivan says, “but a reproduction of the data we have today.”

Even with the copious data, pulling together a coherent picture of what took place and when at Karnak proved complicated. For example, Amenhotep III had great plans for the complex. After the Egyptian pharaoh ascended the throne in 1391 BCE, he ordered a wave of construction and renovation projects. His workers enlarged what was already Egypt’s largest temple, embellished its many sanctuaries, and added two colossal statues of himself for good measure. After all, he was named for the very god—Amun—to whom the temple was dedicated.

Though he ushered in a thirty-seven-year reign of peace and prosperity, Amenhotep III never quite finished all the work he planned for Karnak before he was buried in a sumptuous tomb across the river in the Valley of the Kings. And that posed a problem for Sullivan, living nearly two and a half millennia later and halfway around the world. While Amenhotep started a tenth pylon—or massive gate—it wasn’t finished until the time of a later successor named Horemheb. So Favro suggested she show the image of the gate as nearly transparent—a signal that it was planned but unfinished. That simple adjustment allows students and Egyptologists to follow one step in the complicated evolution of the site.

Huge sandstone statues of rulers and gods flank the entrance to a temple, also made of yellow sandstone
Photo caption

Ramesses II built a small temple that may have been used by average Egyptians entering the temple complex to pray to Amun-Ra.

Courtesy of UCLA.

But it is not the finished product that is most important, Favro insists. “Everyone is fixated on the final project, but the most exciting part is making the model.” Keeping such models in working order once they are up and running, however, poses a new problem for their creators. “Sustainability is an issue,” admits Favro. “This is not like a book on a shelf—you have to upgrade and refresh the digital data, and that’s a big challenge.”

While many researchers would like to see uniform software and hardware packages to provide clear guidelines and quality standards, that does not appear to be in the cards. Favro sees little chance that there will be a common package that could be used by architects and archaeologists the world over. That means it will remain difficult to ascertain quality. “The Holy Grail of everyone building models to the same criteria should be abandoned,” Favro says.

But for Karnak at least, each data point is accessible to scholars who want to check. “We have footnotes, just like a book,” she says.

Digital Karnak is already being used by professors across the country. Egyptologist Peter J. Brand at the University of Memphis, who brought Sullivan to his class to explain both the process and results of the effort, says, “Showing the growth of this incredible complex was just not possible using only paper.” In visits to classrooms like Brand’s, Sullivan says she sees students using the material in a fresh way. Freed from the drudgery of sorting through static models, they experience Karnak as a growing and complex entity which provides a constant reflection of the larger trends in ancient Egyptian society.

And the new technology offers more than an alternative way of presenting reams of paper data. In January, UCLA launched an interdisciplinary effort to explore the relationship between physical spaces and culture (Favro is one of four directors of the endeavor). With a $500,000 grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation—the first time the foundation has funded a liberal arts effort—the project will use photographs, videos, geographic information systems as well as personal histories and cultural concepts to explore ways in which humans make sense of the space around them, and apply the results to social science questions. Favro hopes the effort will “promote thinking about the evolution of space.” But unlike those who labored at Karnak for the ancient pharaohs, UCLA’s researchers will be pushing around bits instead of brick.