Issue 3: Egypt, Part I – The Amarna Boundary Stelae

Well hello there, archaeo-enthusiasts! It’s been a while, and I blame that mostly on travel (and a little bit on writing my theory chapter, which I finished last week).

Over the next few months I’ll be releasing a series of issues on my trips to Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia this winter and spring. I spent a total of four months away from home, visiting more than a dozen sites—that means lots of ground to cover to recap it all! Between issues, as always, the best way to keep up with me is to follow me on Instagram. Please also feel free to ask questions about my research and travels via email, social media, or comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them as fully as possible.

December ended with a flurry of Post-It Notes, kindly left by my friend and mentor Anne-Claire in her Cairo apartment. The notes were for me and another friend and mentor, Miriam, as Anne-Claire was still abroad for the winter holidays.

We found the tea pretty easily, and even managed to get the hot water heater working, before deciding what to do for New Year’s Eve. There’s a lot going on for New Year’s Eve in Cairo, actually, but the problem was that the two of us, jetlagged old ladies with researchers’ budgets, were not exactly suitable partygoers for the available options. In the end we decided to stay in and watch Netflix over some G&Ts, with the tonic kindly (and fortuitously!) provided by whomever accidentally left them in the fridge before we arrived.

A toast, to Egypt!

We needed to relax a bit, you see, because we’d soon be headed out of Cairo. We had planned to meet Anne-Claire in Luxor the following week, and our goal in the interim was to visit Amarna, the ancient city of Akhetaten, which is located about 200 miles south of Cairo. Miriam is a household archaeologist and had written about Amarna in her dissertation, but she had never visited the site before. I had been once, but that was before I started my project on the living-rock stelae; now I’m interested in it for far different reasons than before.

Amarna was a short-lived capital city, founded by the pharaoh Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) as an expression of his new (or, if you prefer, “heretical”) belief in the primacy of the light of the sun disk, called the Aten, over Egypt’s other gods. When the king laid out his city, he commissioned two series of at least sixteen living-rock boundary stelae to ring the site from high up in the surrounding cliffs and desert escarpment (you can read more about them here, on the Amarna Project website). To the Egyptological community, the Amarna Boundary Stelae are probably the best-known examples of living-rock stelae.

Map of the Amarna Boundary Stelae, indicated by their letter designations, from the Amarna Project website

Today these stelae are known by letter designations given to them by archaeologists. In the map above you can see just how spread out they are—nearly 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) from east to west across the site, spanning both sides of the Nile. Stelae K, M, and X contain what is known as the Earlier Proclamation: they lay out the plans for how the city should look. The other stelae (with the exception of Stela L, which does not fit into either series) contain the Later Proclamation, which updates those plans.

Crucially, the texts of the boundary stelae contain two oaths taken by Akhenaten never to move the city. They demonstrate that the city was carefully planned out and intended to be a permanent fixture in the landscape. Here is an excerpt from one of them:

I shall make Akhetaten for the Aten, my father, in this place. I shall not make Akhetaten for him in the south of it, in the north of it, in the west of it or in the east of it. I shall not [let my border] go farther south than the southern stela of Akhetaten, nor shall I go farther north than the northern stela of Akhetaten, in order to make Akhetaten for him there…I shall make Akhetaten for the Aten, my father, on the eastern side of Akhetaten, the place which he himself made to be enclosed for him by the mountain…This is it!…I shall not say, “I will abandon Akhetaten,” that I may go off and make an Akhetaten in [some] other nice place.

I have argued in print and elsewhere that this is one reason why the stelae were carved into living rock: by inscribing the oath into a permanent and immobile medium, the city could not be moved. Recently I have been researching the numinous qualities of living rock, in particular its association with the Egyptian term dhnt, which is thought to have been used to designate “cultically active” outcrops associated with gods such as Hathor, Meretseger, and Amun, who dwelt in mountains (Adrom 2004, Adrom 2005, Rummel 2013). This sacred character of living rock may also apply at Amarna, as the term dhnt appears in the boundary stelae.

Although I still did not have permission from Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities to conduct any official (non-invasive) archaeological study work at Amarna—government permission being an essential component of ethical archaeological work—Miriam and I did, happily, have connections to the team that works there. Excavation Director Anna Stevens kindly put us in touch with Hamada Kellawy, the inspector for the site, who not only let us visit as tourists, but also gave us an incredible guided tour. My colleague from The Amheida Project, Ashraf, also joined us on our trip.

Finally made it to Stela U! Stela U is HUGE and I am TINY!

Seeing the stelae for the first time was as jarring as it was exhilarating. I was surprised by just how big the city was—and, as a result, how far apart the stelae were. Even in a car, in some cases it took well over half an hour for us to get from one to the next. They are spread out so widely that they are not even located within a single archaeological concession (a designated working area for a single team); some of them “belong” to no one’s concession, as they are out in otherwise barren areas of the desert where no work is currently being conducted.

The long road from the ancient city center, as seen from Stela U

Their broad distribution begs the question, how were they used? The general concensus is that they were meant to be seen and visited, as they would have been painted a brilliant white, and there are roads leading up to them. But they certainly could not have been seen all at once, and in some cases you would apparently need to know which direction to look in before spotting one in the side of the escarpment. The broader function of these stelae is that they marked the boundary of this sacred site, permanently and with divine support, as indicated in their texts.

Most of the stelae are heavily damaged, weathered, or destroyed. Although some of them were subject to selective erasure of their texts after Akhenaten’s death, the full-on destruction of others is actually the result of modern activity. At Amarna and elsewhere, living-rock monuments are favorite targets for looters, because they are erroneously thought to mark the location of buried treasure. This popular legend has persisted for at least a century (de Garis Davies 1908: 25):

Stela P was blown to pieces by gunpowder a few years ago by Copts, who expected, as all Egyptians do, to find that the stela was a door to a hidden treasure-chamber.

Today some of them are protected by overhangs, which used to have glass coverings. Several are accompanied by sculpture in the round depicting members of the royal family; these, too, are mostly destroyed.

We were able to visit about half of the extant stelae, thanks to Hamada and the local police who rode with us. At one point we acquired an entourage that included a man on a motorcycle who insisted that his bike make a cameo in our pictures:

The infamous motorcycle!

Ashraf lent his excellent balance and photography skills to the cause, tiptoeing onto pointy and very scary looking outcrops in order to help me get the best images I could!

Since I take a landscape-based approach to this material, rather than a primarily philological or art historical one, knowing where a stela is, or used to be, is of great value to me—even if it is eroded, or has modern graffiti all over it.

Stela B, with graffiti at right

We spent three days visiting Amarna, seeing as many of these boundary monuments as we could, in addition to some other major attractions:

As you can see from some of the below photographs, the landscape at Amarna offers a lot for visitors to take in. Stark contrasts are everywhere: between the desert and adjacent cultivation, the brilliant blue paint in use during the Amarna Period and the backgrounds to which it was applied.

Notice that we were wearing jackets and scarves. I recently gave a lecture series at a local middle school about what Egyptologists do, and the most common question was about the weather. Is it hot in Egypt? Generally, it’s warmer than most places in the US. But in the winter and at night, especially in the desert, I often wear multiple pairs of socks at once!

Entering the tomb of the official Mahu, and freezing

One of the major highlights of this trip was a visit to the brand-new Amarna Visitor Center, which boasts plans, artifact displays, and an incredibly detailed walk-through model of a house. I took lots of embarrassing photos of Miriam geeking out in this house, but I’ve decided not to post them here. 🙂

While we were at the Visitor Center, we randomly caught a clip of my professor, Jim Allen, talking about the site in the very same video as a clip of Miriam’s supervisor from her PhD days. We joked that our advisors are always looking after their students, wherever they are!

Professor Allen made it to Amarna, too!

Over the course of our trip we stayed in Minya, the nearest major city, in a hotel that looked like it was built in 1978 but was actually built in 2008 (!), where our duvets were artfully shaped into swans and we rode a rickety golf cart to and from the room. All in all, an awesome stay. I once slept on the floor of a hot concrete room in an unfinished art museum in Cyprus for seven weeks while on a dig, so this was comparative bliss.

My main takeaway? In the case of all of my trips to this type of monument, inside Egypt and elsewhere, I find that what I see on a map can never do justice to the reality I experience on a visit. Monuments, especially those that are part natural and part manmade, cannot be extricated from their surroundings. Although photographs often depict them as isolated, framing them as if they stand alone, the situation on the ground is quite the opposite.

In my next issue I’ll recount my trip to Luxor and the First Cataract. Stay tuned, and stay in touch!




Mini Bibliography (Three out of four are in German. Ouch, sorry!)

  1. Adrom, F. 2004. “Der Gipfel der Frömmigkeit? Überlegungen zur Semantik und religiösen Symbolik von tA-dhn.t.” Lingua Aegyptia 23: 1-20.
  2. Adrom, F. 2005. “‘Der Gipfel der Frömmigkeit’ (Soziale und funktionale Überlegungen zu Kultstelen am Beispiel der Stele Turin CG 50058 des Nfr-ꜥbw).” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 33: 1-28.
  3. de Garis Davies, N. 1908. The Rock Tombs of El Amarna, Part V – Smaller Tombs and Boundary Stelae. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
  4. Rummel, U. 2013. “Gräber, Feste, Prozessionen: Der Ritualraum Theben-West in der Ramessidenzeit.” In Neunert, G. et al. (eds.), Nekropolen: Grab – Bild – Ritual: Beiträge des zweiten Münchner Arbeitskreises Junge Aegyptologie (MAJA 2) 2. bis 4.12.2011. Weisbaden: Harrassowitz, 207-232.

2 thoughts on “Issue 3: Egypt, Part I – The Amarna Boundary Stelae

  1. Dear Jen

    Fascinating. I’m beginning to see why you chose the topic for your PhD.

    The Minya Hotel “bedsheet turn-down team” clearly excelled themselves with the swans. What luxury!?

    Shame that they look like sinister, muddy cobras!

    Tell us when you are next going to that hotel and I’ll ask them to do a duvet ‘roach just for you!

    With love, David xx

    1. Dear David,

      Several of my friends have suggested that they were in fact supposed to be cobras! You may be on the right track.

      A duvet roach… excellent. I’m sure James is already plotting sinister duvet origami on reading this!


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