Part V/X; The Relative Symbolism and Impermanence of Megaprojects: from Amarna to the Freedom Tower

Megaprojects of the New Kingdom must include Queen Hatshepsut’s colonnaded mortuary temple at Deir el Bahari[i]. During her 15 year reign, Hatshepsut built hundreds of monuments, obelisks, and a temple at Beni Hasan. From what remains of Hatshepsut’s Deir el Bahri complex, we see that iconography and symbolism evince traditional subject matter of ritual and procession, and commemorative scenes from her life — now a faceless pharaoh[ii].

Tell el Amarna[iii], an 18th Dynasty unfinished and abandoned[iv] megaproject of the King Akhenaten IV (Amenhotep IV), offers a unique lens into a belief-centric city. This is true despite it being a complete aberrancy in the NK Dynastic timeline. The wealthy and influential Theban priests wanted nothing to do with the “heretic” Akhenaten. He soon realized the danger, and considering the schism he created between the traditional pantheists and himself, felt it in his best interests to build his own sphere of influence in a city in a remote location, that offered protection.

tel el Amarna, before it was trashed by Horemheb and his armies

Amarna’s masterplan was conceived according to the King’s Atenist, or sun-centric religious beliefs, which dictated the demarcation of his stele, and oriented his Royal Palace and temples toward the sun.[v]

Undoubtedly, the desert bay was appropriate as a natural arena for the display of the Aten, or its power, in the form of the sun and its daily progress across the sky; the open-air temples were presumably built with this natural spectacle in mind. The choice to line up the axis of the Small Aten Temple with the mouth of the Royal Wadi may also have been quite purposeful … (Kemp, 2000)

That may be regarded as an elementary observation, or even conjure something concocted in Hollywood, in the 1980’s. Amarna was more contextually a megaproject that never matured, as opposed to some massive undertaking.

The almost total subordination of cosmic ideas to pragmatic considerations in city creation is to be found much earlier in ancient Egypt, as in many other societies. It reflects a broader phenomenon of great significance: the early pragmatization of religion. Those societies which have striven that much harder to convert cosmic dreams into real cities were probably quite unusual (Kemp, 2000)

Shaw comes to the same conclusion: “it is arguable that no other city in ancient Egypt was so closely bound up with the life and ideology of a single pharaoh” (Shaw, 1996) — it began and ended with Akhenaten.

The inner sanctum and temple complex are painstakingly, arranged; yet all else — housing structures, granaries, etc., evolved in a more organic fashion, based on function or necessity. Kemp believes this to be the case with other New Kingdom cities, such as Karnak.

There is a strong temptation in considering the theme ‘were cities built as images?’ to reflect immediately upon grandiose and essentially authoritarian projects in which all-powerful rulers or architects convert into a built reality abstract schemes, which might go beyond social elitism, and derive from esoteric, privileged knowledge from which the rest of the population is excluded (Kemp, 2000)

Kemp, notes surprising similarities between the basic masterplan of London and Amarna — he believes that this represents natural social order establishing itself, or form following function:

Neither city displays a unified integration of the two spheres. Both cities arose from numerous local decisions, and both are images of societies with dispersed decision-making and a strong degree of self-organization (Kemp, 2000)

It is not fully known why Amarna began to languish when it did. Perhaps Akhenaten had no stomach, or interest, in matters of state, or perhaps he was suffering from a disease that clouded his reason, especially after the death of his godwife, Nefertiti. It is clear from the cuneiform Amarna letters that he found the taste of foreign affairs disagreeable[vi]. He allowed the relentless Hittites to reassert themselves into Lower Egypt, as they had done before, as well as invaders from the north, creating great instability, before he suddenly disappeared from history — and Amarna, a one-off ancient Burning Man.

Upon the subsequent 18th Dynasty restoration of Egypt’s regional power, the pharaohs continued to be prolific in battle and conquest, events they commemorated with monuments at Karnak, Abu Simbel, and elsewhere. The Ramesides were the pinnacle of NK power; their conquests were celebrated and memorialized ad nauseum. Size very much mattered– whereas aesthetics took a back seat to bland stylizations in the periods following. This period carried through the 21st dynasty, after which Egypt began to falter.

read previous issues of this feature

[i] The site is adjacent to what is now called the Valley of the Kings.

[ii] Although it was once thought Hatshepsut’s relationship with Senenmut was resented, it seems that they resented a female pharaoh even more so, hence the iconoclasm.

[iii] Akhenaten also had temples at Karnak, the talatat of which were used as pylon ballast.

[iv] Horemheb, then a General, briefly occupied it with his army, and likely plundered its resources — pulverizing every stone bigger than a gum-ball. The talatat were brought to Karnak to be used as pylon ballast.

[v] The sun would appear to rise from between the cusp of two mountains on the east bank of the Nile.

[vi] He is said to have angered foreign kings by sending them gold-plated statues.

#meagaprojects #projectmanagement #CPMscheduling