As I walked to the British Library last week, enjoying the brilliant sunshine of the Indian summer, I began to wonder about Amenhotep III. If I can’t figure him out, then I’m not likely to understand why he commissioned hundreds of statues of the goddess Sekhmet. While I may not know everything about him, I think it’s fair to say that millenia before Louis XIV began building Versailles, Amenhotep III was the original Sun King.
Strangely there are a few parallels between the two men – both came to the throne as children and as they grew into manhood, enjoyed hunting and beautiful women in equal measure. Amenhotep III collected a gaggle of near-eastern princesses for his harem as a way of cementing diplomatic relations with his neighbours, while Louis XIV enjoyed an impressive array of mistresses who kept his boredom at bay. Louis XIV centred his court within his father’s favourite hunting park at Versailles, while Amenhotep III commemorated the early years of his reign with a Wild Bull hunt at Wadi Natrun. The slaughter of 96 wild bulls by the King symbolised his strength and prowess as a semi-divine monarch and his ability to defeat chaos and maintain order.
While there is no actual link between the two, Louis and Amenhotep seem to have instinctively grasped the value of art and architecture as a propaganda tool. Louis’s monumental palace of Versailles still stands as a monument to his imperial glory. Amenhotep enjoyed unprecedented peace and wealth, built up by his forebears who had waged wars and successfully expanded Egypt’s borders into Syria-Palestine. With this wealth, and a steady stream of gold from Nubia, he built monuments throughout Egypt. Some of the grandest were in Thebes, where he made substantial additions to Luxor and Karnak temples and built an enormous funerary temple for himself – the famous Colossi of Memnon (associated by Greek and Roman travellers with the myth of Memnon, son of Eos, goddess of the dawn) once a tourist stop for Roman Emperors and today photographed by hundreds of tourists daily, remain as sentries before the meagre ruins of this once massive temple.
In these temples and monuments he increasingly associated himself as the son of a god – the divine offspring of Amun-Re. He certainly wasn’t the first to spin this yarn – Queen Hatshepsut had used the same story to justify her rule as a female pharaoh. And all Egyptian pharaohs were semi-divine; the Horus in life and Osiris in death. Amenhotep was expanding on a family interest in solar cults – his father (Thutmose IV) and grandfather (Amenhotep II) before him had made dedications to various manifestations of the sun-god – the most famous being his father Thutmose IV’s famous Dream Stele between the paws of the Sphinx. Louis XIV also associated himself with the sun – but in his case it was the greek god Apollo.
With Amenhotep everything is bigger, grander, more elaborate. When you don’t have wars to fight you can concentrate on your own personal grandeur. By the time of his death he had erected more statues of himself than any pharaoh before him, built temples from Nubia to the Delta, and cultivated excellent diplomatic relations from Crete and Mycenae to Babylon and Mitanni. Art and craftsmanship flourished during his reign too – from fine pottery and glass to jewellery and painting. All the arts reached new and dazzling heights.
His reign truly was a golden age of prosperity and grandeur. I sometimes wonder if all those Sekhmet statues had more to do with making a statement about his wealth and power than honoring the sun-god. Amenhotep was after all a grandmaster of personal propaganda. Looking at his massive statues in the British Museum or the Colossi, you can’t help but think he had one hell of an ego. It is really too bad Louis XIV never knew of Amenhotep III – they were kindred spirits.