Restoring the House of Rejoicing

The Carlos Museum teams up with the Met to save an ancient Egyptian palace-city from destruction with help from cutting-edge surveying technology, Google Earth, and a hot-air balloon.

By Peter Lacovara

It was one of the most sumptuous buildings the ancient world had ever seen. Its floors, walls, and ceilings were decorated with exquisite paintings; its furnishings glittered with gold and colored faience inlay. Erected by Amenhotep III (1390–1353 BC), Egypt’s greatest builder, the palace-city was composed of an extensive complex of structures stretching out more than four miles in Western Thebes. To the north stood his immense mortuary temple and site of the famed Colossi of Memnon—statues of Amenhotep himself. 

The palace–city of Amenhotep III was created for the festivities marking the king’s heb-sed, or jubilee. This festival, an important milestone celebrated during the 30th year of a pharaoh’s reign, marked a renewal of his rule. As in everything else, Amenhotep III was not to be outdone, and he elevated this ceremony to a major spectacle. He named the palace at the center Per-Hay, “the House of Rejoicing,” and in it he celebrated not just one but three of these festivals, marking the 30th, 34th, and 36th years of his reign. 

The buildings, which were made almost entirely of mud brick, included a temple dedicated to Amun, several palaces, administrative buildings, storerooms, housing for officials, and settlements of the artisans, servants, and other people needed to support the royal court. The structures also included a vast harbor (the Birket Habu), two isolated platforms along the desert edge, and an immense causeway running from the Nile’s bank to the west through the desert up to the high cliffs at the edge of the Sahara. 

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Follow the progress of the Malqata excavation through the Carlos Museum's blog, iMalqata.

After Amenhotep’s death, his son moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna, where he and his wife Nefertiti promoted a new monotheistic cult and artistic style. The religious revolution did not last long, and the old beliefs returned—along with the young King Tutankhamun—to Thebes. Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun appear briefly to have moved into their grandparents’ palace (probably while building their own), but it seems to have been destroyed in a rare torrential storm. The palace was long forgotten—until modern times, when its treasures began to attract attention. 

The site became known by the locals as el Malqat—the place where things are picked up or found—for the myriad faience ornaments, jewelry fragments, and decorated pottery shards that littered the area. It was excavated repeatedly, first by the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1888, followed by Massachusetts State Senator Robb de Peyster Tytus in 1902, and then by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1910 to 1920. The site was revisited more recently by expeditions from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s and Japan’s Waseda University in the late 1980s. 

The expeditions found many fragments of beautiful mural paintings of animals and plants celebrating Egypt’s bounty. These fragments were packed off to museums in Tokyo, New York, and Cairo; many others were left in storerooms hidden in the cliffs and tombs of ancient Thebes. 

As more of the palace was cleared, it was left exposed to the elements and deteriorated during the course of several decades. With the pressures of modern Egypt’s burgeoning population and a need for more housing and farmland, as well as increased tourist traffic, this important site was threatened with total destruction. The authorities in Luxor approached me for assistance, knowing my dissertation had been on royal cities—and that I couldn’t resist a challenge. I discussed the fate of Amenhotep’s palace with colleagues in the Egyptian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we decided to collaborate on a project to preserve the site and publish the long-neglected records from the Metropolitan’s original excavations. 

The first season of the Joint Michael C. Carlos Museum/Metropolitan Museum of Art Expedition to Malqata began in winter 2008 with subsequent seasons in 2010 and 2012. During those seasons, we mapped the site with the aid of state-of-the-art surveying equipment, Google Earth, and a hot-air balloon. We worked with our colleagues in the Egyptian Antiquities Service to build a vast wall to protect the site from urban and agricultural encroachment. Clearing and re-excavating many of the ancient buildings, we were able to check and correct the plans of earlier archeologists and gain a better understanding of what they had found. 

With much of the basic recording now finished, we can turn our attention to our next season, when we will concentrate on the delicate task of conserving, protecting, and restoring the pharaoh’s palace. Joining the expedition will be the Carlos Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Advanced Fellow in Objects Conservation Kathryn Etre and Emory PhD candidate Annie Shanley. They will survey and record the fragile paintings that are still in place and help oversee the reconstruction of the palace walls, which will be capped with new, unbaked mud bricks handmade just as they were 3,500 years ago. The courses of new bricks—marked with the logo of the expedition—will help protect the ancient walls underneath, as well as make the complex labyrinth of rooms, corridors, and courtyards understandable to tourists who flock to this important site. 

Future seasons will see the palace and its surroundings rise again above the plain of Thebes, along with a visitor museum and signage. The work of Emory’s joint expedition to Malqata will increase our understanding of this magnificent palace-city, and in cooperation with the Ministry of State of Antiquities, ensure the long-term preservation of Malqata so that future generations will also have an opportunity to view and learn from this remarkable place. 

Peter Lacovara is the senior curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern art at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum

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