The Mut Temple is one of the lesser known temples associated with the vast complex of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, but for me it is a favourite destination whenever I am in Luxor. Next to the famous avenue of sphinxes it initially appears less exciting than Luxor or Karnak Temples as little of the main temple structure survives. However, walk past the howling dogs and through its wooden tourist gates and vast courtyards filled with statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet open before you, along with a kidney shaped lake which surrounds the far end of the site.
What we see today is the product of decades of excavation, research and conservation by archaeological teams from the Brooklyn Museum and Johns Hopkins University, whose work allowed the temple site to be re-opened to the public.
However, go farther back in time and this temple has a deep connection with English writer Margaret Benson (1865–1916). She was the first woman to be granted an official concession to excavate in Egypt, making her the first female Egyptologist.
Benson was one of six children, the daughter of Edward White Benson, a clergyman who rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife Mary Sidgwick. Clearly intelligent and gifted, Margaret was one of the first women to attend Oxford University, studying philosophy and political economy, graduating with the highest marks in 1886. Living in an age where there was still little outlet for women beyond marriage, after university she returned to live with her parents at Lambeth Palace, and spent her time writing, publishing Capital, Labour, Trade and the Outlook in 1891. Increasingly restless and suffering poor health after an attack of Scarlet Fever in 1885, in 1894 she travelled to Egypt to recuperate in the warm sunshine.
She soon found herself entranced by Egypt, and as a woman of both education and position, she was able to successfully petition the Egyptian government for permission to excavate after the archaeologist Edouard Naville interceded on her behalf with Antiquities Director Henri de Morgan. She spent three years, from 1895 to 1897, systematically excavating at the Mut Temple, slowly removing the debris and sand to uncover the remains of the temple, its monuments and statuary, including the many Sekhmet statues that the site was famous for — many of these had been buried in rubble and sand or were knee deep in the muddy earth around the lake. She worked with her travelling companion Janet Gourlay and was also helped occasionally by her brother the author E.F. Benson, best known for his Mapp and Lucia series of books.
Whilst in Egypt Margaret and her brother stayed at the Luxor Hotel close to the Temple of Luxor — two statues of Sekhmet from the Mut Temple were set up in the grounds of the hotel.
Inspired by his time in Egypt with his sister, E.F. Benson published a supernatural thriller set in Egypt and England entitled The Image in the Sand (published 1905). Both the Mut Temple and the Sekhmet statues feature prominently in the book, and Benson described them vividly:
“…the strip of dried mud, curled like pancakes newly friend, that fringed the horseshoe lake, which lay grey and still before them, and went up the steep path to the outer courtyard of the temple. Round it, the result of recentexcavations, were rows of cat-headed statues…sitting there grave and dark,like a congregation turned to stone, waiting for some magician-priest to wake them into life again.” (The Image in the Sand, p.44)
Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay’s finely illustrated book charting their excavations and findings, The Temple of Mut in Asher, was published in 1899. Including hieroglyphic translations by the Egyptologist Percy Newberry, their report is still essential background reading for anyone studying the Mut Temple precinct.
Margaret did not take on any further excavations after her work at the Mut Temple. Her health continued to decline and after a trip to Egypt in 1900, she focused mainly on theological studies and writing. She sadly suffered a nervous breakdown in 1907 and died in 1916.
One of the Sekhmet statues from the Mut Temple that stood outside the Luxor Hotel was eventually sold by Antiquities Director Gaston Maspero in 1911 to E.E. Ayer, one of the founders of the Field Museum, Chicago, where it can still be seen today.
Further Sekhmet statues, many taken from the site well before Margaret Benson began her work, can be found in museums across the USA and Europe. If you have a chance to visit Egypt and Luxor then do visit the Mut Temple to see the magnificent Sekhmet statues. As you walk around its magical courtyards, take a moment to remember the remarkable woman Margaret Benson, a trailblazer of the Victorian age.