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View northwards of the Desert Altars site, showing the Central Altar (no. II).

Desert Altars


Desert Altars is the name given to a group of mud-brick buildings that lie close to the road – on the north side – that leads out to the North Tombs. They were excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society in 1931–2.

desert altars aerial view


They consist of three separate elements, built along a common alignment. From north to south they are:

I: a square platform reached by a long ramp on each of the four sides. A deep hole in the middle of the platform might point to the original existence of a standing stone.

II: a group of three platforms reached by ramps, two of them flanking the approach to the ramp to the largest one, which had been rebuilt during the Amarna Period in stone.

III: a large rectangular platform, reached by ramps on all four sides. The complex pattern of its foundations suggests that several columned rooms stood on top, surrounded by an open colonnade.

Aerial view of the brick enclosure west of the altars. North is towards the left.
Aerial view of the brick enclosure west of the altars. North is towards the left.

Part of the remains of the gypsum foundation layer for a stone building inside the rectangular enclosure, as recleared for planning in 2001.
Part of the remains of the gypsum foundation layer for a stone building inside the rectangular enclosure, as recleared for planning in 2001.

To the west lay a rectangular enclosure surrounded by a mud-brick wall reinforced with external buttresses. A small stone building had stood in the middle of the south side, its position marked by a foundation layer of gypsum concrete on which were the impressions of blocks. Several fragments of carved stonework were found during the original excavation.

Map showing the Desert Altars and the pattern of ancient roadways Map showing the Desert Altars and the pattern of ancient roadways

The whole group stands on ground that has been cleared of stones, that have been left as a faint ridge that surrounds the area on the north, south and east (but not the west). This perimeter is broken on the east side by junctions with two of the desert roadways that also belong to the Amarna Period. The wider of the two led towards the rock tomb of the High Priest Panehsy (no. 6). This connection, and the absence of a clear perimeter on the west, suggests that the altars as a group were an adjunct of the North Tombs and of their high officials, that included two priests, Merira (owner of tomb 4) and Panehsy. At the same time, the enclosure with the small stone shrine belongs within a group of outlying shrines that might be examples of sun temples (‘Sunshades’) that belonged to some of the women of members of Akhenaten’s family.

References

The report on the excavation of the Desert Altars is contained within the single-volume, H. Frankfort and J.D.S. Pendlebury, The City of Akhenaten, Part II. The North Suburb and The Desert Altars (London, Egypt Exploration Society 1933), Chapter V.

Some further details are added in B.J. Kemp, ed., Amarna Reports VI (London, Egypt Exploration Society 1995), 448–52.

 
 

Website first posted September 2000; last updated November 2010 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk