The Maru-Aten Cult Complex at South Amarna

The Maru-Aten Cult Complex at South Amarna

by Jimmy Dunn

Pavement paintings from the Maru-Aten Complex

The complex known as the Maru-Aten is well to the south of the main residential areas of Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) and is located near the river and the village of el-Hawata. Though now lost beneath modern fields, it was excavated by Leonard Woolley in 1921 and later by others, so we know that it once consisted of two contiguous enclosures oriented on an east-west axis. The larger of these enclosures contained a symbolic complex of temples, a lake and a palace.

Within the southern enclosure is what has been called the entrance hall, a large court with four rows of nine columns each. The limestone capitals of these columns were palmiform and filled in with colored pastes. A central path through the columns opens at both ends where, to the west is the street and to the east the interior of southern enclosure and the garden and its pool within. Just to the north of the entrance hall was a columned court and to the south, a court with an altar or throne surrounded by three or more columned rooms. At the eastern end of the garden, which was planted with shrubs, are two houses.

The western end of the northern enclosure is segregated from the remainder of its plan by a wall, and within the wall are uniformly planned houses in a row. These house are of the same type as in the Eastern Workers Village at Amarna, with a narrow common yard along their long, eastern side, where it seems animals were kept. Each has a tripartite plan that consists of an entrance or front hall, a living room with two columns and two small rooms in their rear. Of course, these seem to be the houses used by workmen or officials of the precinct.

Plan of the maru-Aten

Plan of the maru-Aten

From the wall that divided off the small front section of the northern enclosure, a quay extended along the enclosures axis to an artificial lake which dominated its interior space. The quay extended into the water and has a breast wall on both sides and presumably an awning at its end. The rectangular lake was about one meter deep and measured some 120 by 60 meters. It had sloping gravel sides similar to the lake in the palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata. The lake in the northern enclosure was surrounded by a garden planted with trees in holes filled with Nile humus and enclosed within a low mud wall.

On the northwest end of the lake is a building on a symmetrical plan along a east-west axis with an entrance through a long passage between two screen walls on its western side. Its ground plan consisted of three adjacent courts divided by two transverse walls. In the first court are two rows of three columns. It may have contained a throne and a painting of the Aten on its back wall. The balusters were decorated with colored stripes. In the southern section of this court stretched a long room and at the rear of it was an alcove which may have functioned as a bedroom where the pharaoh might withdraw while worshipping his god, Aten. In the north part of this first court were three contiguous rooms with brick floors and whitewashed walls.

The second court of this structure was the largest. It had two rows of columns along two series of four contiguous lateral rooms. A brick coping less then a quarter of a meter high was built against the column bases and enclosing the central part of this court, which was left open to the sky. From the west a central alley flanked by two smaller columns led to two mud compartments The walls were decorated with painted patterns of grapes and pomegranate designs. There were also two staircases that led up to a roof terrace.

The third court of this structure has a central hall with three rooms, each of which have four columns. They are flanked by two series of three lateral rooms, probably used as cellars, evidenced by the quantities of broken wine jars found in their ruins. The walls of this area are plastered with cement and painted in tempera with vine patterns and pomegranate designs.

It has been suggested that this building may have been a temple palace, which would have typically been laid out in front of the funerary temple in the New Kingdom at Thebes.

To the northeast of the lake, and running along its eastern side was the largest and probably the most important grouping of elements, consisting of buildings (a temple and a kiosk on an island, flower beds and a water court. This was most likely a maru which was a religious building that would have served as a "viewing place" of the solar god so that members of the royal family might be rejuvenated by the sun's rays.

The front temple was situated on a north-south axis with the remainder of this complex, and on a east-west axis of the large lake. This temple is in the typical Amarna style, with an outer court with four column. The lower part of these columns were made from alabaster, while the upper sections were sandstone. There was also a pronaos with four columns and a sanctuary open to the sky, including a central altar exposed to the sun flanked by two columns along each side wall. It has been suggested that a window of appearance opened in the east rear wall of this sanctuary just above the altar so that the Aten could be seen and adored as it rose in the morning.

This sanctuary was probably very richly adorned. The shafts of the columns are carved with wreaths of grapes and ducks while the capitals had lotus carvings. The lintels were made of alabaster and the walls were adorned with inlaid reliefs and inscriptions.

This building's connection with the lake is clearly indicated by the west-east axis that is common to both. The quay on the other side of the lake would have formed the parallel element to view the Aten in the morning across the lake, and the sun disk could have been viewed at sunset from the temple as it went down over the lake. It is possible that the lake was symbolic of the Nile River, which is said in the solar hymns of Akhenaten to have been created by the sun.

A kiosk forms the central element of this eastern complex. It seems to be a chapel surrounded on all sides by columns and raised on a platform accessed by a stairway. Four columns with reed style shafts connected by high screen walls form the sides of the pavilion. In the middle rose a dais for an altar or throne. The outside of these walls were adorned with naturalistic designs of plants and animals. According to some scholars, the kiosk would have served as a "sunshade" which was mentioned in a number of inscriptions.

Cross section of the Kiosk Island

Cross section of the Kiosk Island

The kiosk stood amidst an artificial moat so that it formed a small, square island. The approach to the kiosk was flanked by two houses that were similar in design and decoration. Each had a pavilion with an open front facade on two pillars flanking the doorway. These structures were carefully made, with reeded doorjambs, screens that were perhaps in the shape of inlaid quartzite or alabaster stelae, floors of alabaster and internal walls lined with faience.

Recreation of painted pavement at the Maru-Aten

It has been suggested that this kiosk might have functioned as a temple where the initial monthly festival of the Aten, called "Birth of Aten" (mswt-ltn), was celebrated. It may have been connected with the eleven tanks in the northern most water court, which could have symbolized the remaining eleven monthly festivals. The flower beds flanking the pathway between the kiosk and the water court would then symbolize the beneficial action of the sun upon plants. One of the solar hymns of Amarna read, "Thy rays nourish every garden".

The water court itself was a long rectangular space with a central row of thirteen square piers in the midst of a series of contiguous T-shaped shallow tanks. The design of these tanks is interesting. The T-shaped elements alternate in plan and are separated by ridges that are triangular in section and plastered with mud. The sloping sides of the tanks were adorned with designs of water plants above the water level, and below were painted white. The floor of the passage that bordered the tanks was also decorated with motifs such as fowl and heifers. The rich colors were probably symbolic of the flora and fauna of each month, and calls to mind the treatment of the pavement in the Northern Palace. The artwork shows a good sense of composition and technical ability with a mixture of details and impressionistic treatment.

In the initial phase of construction of this water court, the whole area of the tanks was excavated and cross walls were built in brick as were the floors. Two of the pillars were reinforced with timber beams laid crosswise in superimposed layers. It should be noted that the tanks were laid out asymmetrically about the alley and the axis of the kiosk. This may be explained if we accept the assumption that each tank symbolized a specific month with its particular flora and served the celebration of the monthly "Birth of Aten".

Detailed plan and section  of parts of the tanks in the water court

However, we must point out an alternate theory. Some scholars believe that the complex was a miniature representation of the cosmos for the celebration of the birth of the Aten, with the eleven tanks representing the eleven stretches of water that the sun god had to cross during the nightly journey, while the Kiosk would form the island emerging out of the waters to form the primeval mound.

On the southeast corner of the lake are the remains of an unusual square structure with two wings flanking a central core and a tank. In the wings, cellars formed the lower story, perhaps surmounted by a loggia, while the central element consisted of various rooms of uncertain distribution.

With the exception of the cenotaph of Seti I at Abydos, the Maru-Aten is probably the most elaborate symbolic layout in religious architecture built during the New Kingdom. It would have represented by means of architectural elements and layout the various aspects of Aten in his potentiality as Creator. However, we must also point out that a number of scholars may point out that, due to the limited remains of this structure, its real purpose could differ. Most of the excavated pavement remains from this temple are now located in the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery.

A final notation: It would seem that a number of sites on the internet describing Maru-Aten confuse this site with the Northern Palace. They are two very distinct sites located almost as distantly from each other as two complexes could be in the valley at Amarna, though there may be some similarities in their design and even in their function. Certainly one reason for this is that both seem to, from all accounts, have had inscriptions originally engraved for the King's consort, Kiya, that were apparently usurped by his daughter Meritaten. However, it is likely that the Maru-Aten never served as a principal palace for his daughter or Kiya, as possible did the Northern Palace.






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