The so-called speos were “cave” or “rock” temples carved into the rock and located in Nubia. The limit of Egypt itself was considered to be determined by the first cataract of the Nile; beyond this point was the beginning of Nubia which the Egyptians called Kush. In Nubia were the gold deposits used by ancient Egyptians. The two greatest and best known Egyptian subterranean temples are the two speos of Abu-Simbel. They are on the left bank of the Nile about 40 km north of the second cataract. The larger of the two speos is dedicated to the glory of Ramesses II and in its façade are four colossal statues of the Pharaoh enthroned and carved into the rock. Each one of these statues is little more than 20 mt high. On top of these four gigantic figures is a frieze with thirty-three baboons facing east and worshiping the rising sun. Each one of these monkeys is more than 2 m high. Inside the speos there is a first room with 8 Osirian pillars and reliefs that tell the Pharaoh’s victory over the Hittites at Kadesh. After this first room there is a smaller space which served as the hypostyle hall and finally there is a third square excavation which corresponds to the sanctuary. The other important speos is much smaller and was carved to glorify Ramesses II’s wife, Queen Nefertari, who appears carved on its facade along with her husband’s effigies and statues of the goddess Hathor.
Civil architecture wasn’t so splendid in Theban Egypt and didn’t have the permanent character that temples had. The palaces were often exclusively built of brick. The large area of the city of Thebes was probably full of simple mud houses, thus it can be explained the fact that the main sanctuaries have been found in the middle of a desert with no trace of urbanization. The houses were of two or three types with a patio or central corridor sometimes in the form of a pavilion surrounded by beautiful gardens.
Temples of the Middle and New Kingdoms were all decorated with reliefs covering the walls: wherever there was an empty space on the wall or columns the sculptors filled them with reliefs which were later painted in bright colors. These reliefs have admirably drawn silhouettes. During the Middle Kingdom reliefs were raised above the plane of the wall, but during the New Kingdom the “sunken” reliefs (with the plane of the wall above the relief itself) were preferred.
The sculptors also carved huge statues which often showed a taste for exaggerated colossal dimensions, a characteristic of ancient Egyptian art. Some of the Pharaohs’ statues placed at the doors of their temples were truly colossal. Sculptors during the New Kingdom demonstrated extraordinary talent to represent the personality of the portrayed: the priests and monarchs. The psychology of each of the great princes of Egypt appears in these family portraits as well as individuals of his family and the royal princesses. These secondary figures rarely have the large dimensions of the portraits of the pharaohs: queens are often close to their husbands, smaller, and next to an ankle of the monarch their husband and lord. In the reliefs of temples the Pharaoh is represented larger than natural size. He was considered a superior being involved in a battle of pygmies if we compare his size to the other characters surrounding him. Even the great horses of the Pharaoh’s chariot are also disproportionate in size thus reflecting a semi-divine nature given to them by its owner the King of Egypt.
In chronological order, these are some of the most famous portraits carved by the sculptors of the New Kingdom:
1. The statue of Queen Hatshepsut.
2. The statue of Hatshepsut’s brother, who became her husband and successor, Tuthmosis III.
3. The portraits of Amenhotep III, the builder of Luxor and the Colossi of Memnon.
4. The many beautiful female portraits of Queen Tiyi (young wife of Amenhotep III) and her service ladies, including a relief featuring her nude chest, in the fashion of the XVIII Dynasty, and with two holy cobras on her forehead (Brussels Museum). Also, the small wooden statuettes representing some ladies of the court of Amenhotep III, including that of Lady Tui (Louvre).
5. To end this royal portrait gallery we have to refer to the great personality of the XIX Dynasty: Ramesses II the Great (1292-1225 B.C.). The conqueror of the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh left a glorious memory of his long reign, that even the pharaohs of XX Dynasty (which were not of his lineage) were called themselves without exception also Ramesses. Ramesses II’s portrait in full gala dress kept in Turin Museum is noteworthy.
The truly Egyptian artistic revolution did not come until the reign of the “heretic” Pharaoh Akhenaten. Crowned with the name of Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten dared to think, believe, and make public his faith but without imposing it to his subjects like an inevitable orthodoxy. Akhenaten’s faith was strictly monotheistic which despised the large pantheon of Egyptian gods and saw a representation of the one God in the great sun disk Aten. The new religion of Aten was more naturalistic and more sentimental than the purely symbolic and geometric mysticism of Amun-Ra. He started by moving the capital of the kingdom to a place farther north now called Tell-el-Amarna where he established the imperial services. Amenhotep IV was surrounded by a group of friends that thought like him and changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten.
Akhenaten changed not only his name but he changed his appearance. At least for the official portraits, he ordered to be represented with entirely opposing factions to the traditional type of strong, muscular, well fit, and athletic Pharaoh. Decisively breaking with the old traditional models, Akhenaten’s representation degenerated into an emaciated, skinny, immaterial character. In the same way the queen (Nefertiti) and princesses were transfigured with thin necks and elongated skulls.
The artistic school we call Tell-el-Amarna, or Amarna style, was created in the short-lived capital of Akhenaten where its masterpieces were produced. This school was short-lived because at the death of the reformer pharaoh the capital was restored in Thebes. Amun regained its hegemony and no one else thought of Aten. But the liberating and expansive artistic impulse given by the school at Tell-el-Amarna influenced all the Ramessides era, i.e. the XIX Dynasty. This school was more “naturalistic” and was characterized by a sense of movement and activity.
Among the most important pieces of sculpture of the Tell-el-Amarna school is the polychrome bust of Queen Nefertiti that undoubtedly is one of the most admired sculptures of all mankind. It is one of the most charming female images that was ever represented in art with surprisingly modern features enhanced by the elegant royal tiara on her head. Her regular and exquisite features: her long neck, her languid eyes, and her finely arched, full lips express a serene calm. Several stelae with polychrome reliefs were found also at Tell-el-Amarna. The most famous of these stelae is the so called “The lovers in the garden”. In it, Akhenaten leans on a long cane and seems fascinated by the sight of his beloved. Nefertiti, looking away, offers him the fruit of the mandrake whose aphrodisiac power was known in ancient times.
When Akhenaten died he was succeeded by his son-in-law Semenekhkará who married the older of the two princesses, but his reign did not last even one year. His successor would be other of Akhenaten’s son-in-law whose name was Tutankhamun. This 15 year old boy is the famous pharaoh whose intact tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 . The city of Tell-el-Amarna was then completely abandoned and the capital was again restored in Thebes along with the cult of Amun.
*Speos: (Greek for “cave”). A funerary construction carved into the rock which combined a temple and an hypogeum. It was characteristic of Ancient Egypt, although there are also magnificent speos in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra (Jordan) but built in more recent times than the Egyptians.