A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A modern pilgrim visits the temple of Mut.
Turning my back on the great temple of the god Amun at Karnak, I looked out over the remains of the shrine of his consort, the goddess Mut. I'd seen aerial photographs and site plans of the temple precinct, but its scale still surprised me. All around lay colossal arms and knees, chopped-up stone blocks, truncated columns, and sculptures of sphinxes, rams, and goddesses from sloe-eyed Hathor to lion-headed Sekhmet. Straight ahead were the ruins of the Mut Temple itself, with two front courtyards, halls, chapels, and the sanctuary in which the statue of Mut had stood. Beyond the temple was the isheru, a horseshoe-shaped sacred lake. A half-dozen isheru existed in antiquity; this was the only one to survive.
Busloads of tourists make the pilgrimage to the restored temple of Amun, where they gape at monumental gateways and obelisks, and pose for photos next to hieroglyph-etched columns. Yet few know of the temple of Mut, even though it's still linked to Karnak by an avenue of sphinxes. Both the temple and the avenue are closed to the public--only goats and dogs walk the processional these days--so the tourists couldn't visit even if they were aware of it. But in a year or two that may change, thanks to Brooklyn Museum and Johns Hopkins University archaeologists who have worked at the Mut Temple precinct for years. Headed by Richard Fazzini and Bill Peck (Brooklyn) and Betsy Bryan (Johns Hopkins), their projects combine excavation, conservation, and restoration to illuminate the site's history and protect its monuments from a rising water table. Their discoveries have revealed how, for some 1,600 years, rulers from Egypt's famous female pharaoh Hatshepsut to the Roman emperor Tiberius built, rebuilt, expanded, restored, and maintained the only temple in Egypt exclusively dedicated to Mut.
This past winter, I made my own pilgrimage to the site to ask the archaeologists: Why Mut, and why for so long?
Mut never had the widespread popularity of some other goddesses, but she was an elite deity associated with kingly power. Ancient Egypt's mother and protector, she was the wife of Amun, the chief god, and mother of the moon god Khonsu. Her complex character was reflected by an identity that merged at times with that of other goddesses: Isis, the model of wifely love and devotion; Hathor, goddess of love and protector of women; Bastet, a feline-headed deity who guarded against evil; and the fierce Sekhmet. Mut's central position in the pantheon of Egyptian deities and her variable identity contributed to the longevity of her cult. Depending on their needs, rulers might associate themselves with particular facets of her character, perhaps highlighting her might and power, or her familial and motherly aspects.
The site was bustling with activity when I arrived on a shimmeringly hot January morning. There were archaeologists, conservators, and local digging crews at work. The Brooklyn team drew and photographed trenches as diggers in loose-fitting gallabiyas took their trowels to mud-brick rooms built against the temple's first pylon (monumental gateway) in the late second century A.D. Conservators filled cracks in an upside-down sandstone sphinx with epoxy to prepare it to be rejoined to its base. Piles of bricks and cement awaited use by the Hopkins crew, which was excavating, taking apart, and reassembling the temple's interior. Conservators and a mason worked to protect foundations, statues, pillars, and columns, dug up in previous seasons, from disintegrating because of ground water. Beyond the sacred lake, teams of diggers and students labored in trenches along a ridge.
Jennifer Pinkowski is a former editor at ARCHAEOLOGY. See "That Air of Expectation, Still and Assured" for pioneering Egyptologist Maragaret Benson and her excavations at the Mut Temple in the 1890s.