Luxor Museum, Egypt: Restoring the history of Tutankhamun's rebel father Akhenaten

It's not often you get to spend time one-on-one with a pharaoh. Not that coming face-to-face with one of Egypt's ancient rulers is any great feat: you will find their giant statues and carved likenesses in every temple you visit. But usually when you stand in front of one of these monumental statues, you are surrounded by other awe-struck admirers.

Not at the Luxor Museum. This well-designed museum is filled with treasures: no surprise, given that it is located in the city that was the religious heart of the ancient Egyptian empire. What the museum doesn't have, oddly, is hordes of visitors, which means you have many of Egypt's mightiest rulers to yourself.

There are plenty to choose from. Right now I'm standing in front of Amenhotep III, one of Egypt's most prolific builders, who is positively glowing. It's not that he's happy to see me; it's due to the fact that this double statue, which also depicts the crocodile-headed god, Sobek, has been carefully carved from alabaster.

There are plenty of other pharaohs waiting to meet me, both in statue form and as mummified corpses, but the one that I am most interested in is the royal renegade, Akhenaten. Akhenaten was a rebel who took on Egypt's powerful priestly class, declaring that the thousands of gods whose worship they supervised were all pretenders, and that the one true god was Aten.

Akhenaten's attempt to transform Egypt into a monotheistic state also involved massive infrastructure projects, including the creation of a brand-new capital which fell into ruin after Akhenaten's early death. When Akhenaten's son, the 10-year-old Tutankhamun, assumed the throne, the old gods were reintroduced, and Akhenaten was written out of history.

Luxor Museum contains some eye-catching portraits of Akhenaten, who is consistently depicted with an elongated head, a pot belly and rounded hips – traits that were once believed to indicate some kind of congenital deformity but which, Egyptologists now believe, were an artistic statement, an attempt to infuse both masculine and feminine features within the person of the pharaoh.

However, it's not the statues that I've come to see. Rather, I've come to look at a wall. The wall, which predates Akhenaten's religious revolution, was made of thousands of small tiles and was erected, on Akhenaten's orders, at Luxor's vast Karnak temple. What is remarkable about these tiles is the images that they contain. When we think of Egyptian art, we think of the regal, stylised images seen in tombs and temples. These images are very different. For a start, rather than depicting gods and rulers, they portray everyday life: we see bakers piling up loaves of bread, sailmakers stitching sails and other daily activities. The images are full of life and movement and are the first signs of a revolutionary change in art that would come to full bloom after Akhenaten launched his revolution, during which even royal art became naturalistic and relaxed.

Sadly, many of the tiles are missing or damaged. This is more than just damage caused by the passing of time: this was wilful destruction. After Akhenaten's fall, the Karnak wall was deliberately demolished, with many of the tiles used to fill in one of the temple's pylons. Rescued thousands of years later, they are once again on display in their full glory.

TRIP NOTES

Ute Junker was a guest of Bunnik Tours.

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traveller.com.au/egypt

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FLY

Etihad Airways and Emirates both fly from Australia to Egypt. See etihad.com; emirates.com

TOUR

Bunnik Tours' 12-day Highlights of Egypt includes several days in Luxor, as well as visits to Cairo, Abu Simbel and a Nile cruise. Rates start from $6345 a person twin share, including return airfares from Australia and internal flights in Egypt. See bunniktours.com.au

SEE

Luxor Museum is open daily with varying closing times. See sca-egypt.org/eng/MUS_LuxorMuseum.html

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