Site Saturday: Malqata

Today we are going to talk about the site Malqata. This was a royal palace and associated city built for the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, Amenhotep III.

Who was Amenhotep III?

I wanted to briefly introduce Pharaoh Amenhotep III and his family. I’m not going to go into too much detail, because *hint*hint* he and his wife will be featured next Monday and Wednesday, respectively!

Amenhotep III was born around 1401 and ruled Egypt from either 1386-1349 B.C.E. or 1388-1351 B.C.E. His Great Royal Wife was named Tiye, who was a non-royal. They had multiple children, including at least 2 sons and four daughters. Their heir, Thutmose, predeceased his father, so their second son, Amenhotep IV (otherwise known as Akhenaten) took the throne. Their daughters were named Sitamun, Henuttaneb, Isis/Iset, and Nebetah. Sitamun and Isis/Iset were elevated to the office of Great Royal Wife at the end of his reign. Amenhotep III also married several foreign women to secure alliances with foreign powers. He died around the 38th or 39th year of his reign.

Royal palaces of the ancient Egyptians are very hard to find archaeologically because they tend to be buried underneath modern settlements or cultivation. Royal apartments were also sometimes attached to the larger temple structures but on a much smaller scale. It doesn’t seem like the Egyptians built their royal residences at the same scale of other building projects – possibly because they saw them as temporary or useless, compared to the temples that housed their gods or their tombs, which served as their eternal house in the afterlife.

Map of the East and West banks of the Nile at Thebes/Luxor. Malqata can be seen on the far left, with the Birket Habu harbor. Medinet Habu was the funerary temple of Amenhotep III.

Malqata seems to be on the exceptions. While it was constructed completely out of mudbrick, which is a much more perishable material that limestone or granite, some of it still survives to this day. This may be because it was built on the West side of the Nile, instead of the East. In general, the ancient Egyptians lived on the east side of the Nile, while the west side of the Nile was meant for tombs and funerary temples. The ancient Egyptians believe that the afterlife was located in the west, which makes the location of Malqata even more curious. It is attached to the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III by an ancient road, but it is unclear if building royal residences on the west bank was typical or unique for Malqata.

History of the site

It is debated when Amenhotep III began constructing the palace. Some say that he started in year 11 of his reign, while others say he didn’t start until the 29th or 30th year of his reign. Although mudbrick is more perishable, it does allow for quick construction. Regardless of when he started building the palace, the pharaoh and his family most likely didn’t move in until his 29th or 30th year, mainly to celebrate his Heb-Sed festival, which I’ll talk about more below.

The ancient name of the palace was Per-Hay, “The House of Rejoicing.” It was also called “The Palace of the Dazzling Aten.” Malqata is an Arabic word that means “The place where things are picked up,” alluding to the scattered archaeological remains at the site.

Reconstruction of the Royal Palace of Malqata

If he moved to this palace permanently, then he may have abandoned the capital city of Memphis. Although this is not clear, as the palace may have been abandoned in between the three Heb-Sed festivals of Amenhotep III in the 30th, 34th, and 36th/37th years of his reign. Before every festival, the palace may have been refurbished and new structures may have been built. A temple to Amun was known to be built before they returned for the 34th year festival.

After the death of Amenhotep III, the city was largely abandoned. This is mainly due to his son and heir Amenhotep IV, who later renamed himself Akhenaten and moved the capital city to his newly constructed city of Akhenaten, located at the modern archaeological site Amarna. There is some evidence that the next couple of rulers, Tutankhamun, Ay, Horemheb, but this may just be speculation.

A Temple to Isis that dates to the Roman-Byzantine Period is located south of the main complex and may have been built on older remains. Otherwise, the site had been abandoned since the New Kingdom. The majority of it is just outside the cultivated area of modern Egypt, but this is slowly encroaching onto the site.


The Heb-Sed festival was a ceremony for the pharaoh to celebrate 30 years on the throne. This tradition began in the Early Dynastic Period, with Pharaohs Den and Khasekhmwy participating in this ceremony.

Usually, it involved different trials to prove that the pharaoh was still fit and able to rule. It may have involved the pharaoh running a ritual course four times around. This is most evident in the Old Kingdom funerary complex of Djoser, which had multiple depictions of the king running and a large courtyard where this ceremony may have even taken place. Then the king donned a tight-fitting Heb-Sed robe and was carried in a procession.

The Heb-Sed festival began to be celebrated more often for those kings who ruled past 30 years. Amenhotep III wanted his ceremony to be more elaborate than past ceremonies, which may have been why he constructed an entire palace and city to help celebrate it. He hired an official named Amenhotep (son of Hapu) to plan the ceremony. They apparently enlisted scribes to gather information about this festival from all eras and also collected descriptions of clothing worn at previous festivals.

Amenhotep and Tiye participating in the Heb-Sed ceremony.
From Amenhotep III’s temple of Amun Re in Soleb, Nubia.

It looks like the running of the ritual course was not adopted by the later pharaohs. According to a scribe named Nebmerutef, the pharaoh knocked on the temple doors with a mace while his wife and children followed him in procession. He then would have been enthroned with the two crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt.

This festival may have lasted from two to eight months. This is according to Queen Tiye’s steward Khenruef, who would have accompanied the royal family as they traveled the empire celebrating and maybe even recreated the ceremony for different audiences.

Amenhotep is known to have celebrated this festival at least three times in the 30th, 34th, and 36th/37th years of his reign. Most of the evidence of these festivals come from Malqata in the form of jars bearing the names of donors to Amenhotep. These jars bear the donor’s name, title, and the date and indicated that both rich officials and poor servants donated these offerings to the king.

Jar with hieratic label found in Malqata. Label dates it to the 38th year of Amenhotep III’s reign. The pot contained fat prepared by a man named Iuamen and donated by the royal scribe Ahmose. Metropolitan Museum of Art (17.10.02)

The Layout of the Palace

The site extends roughly 30,000 square meters or 30 hectares along the edge of modern cultivation on the west bank. The main structures are clustered together on the north tip of the site. These include the King’s Palace, the North Palace, the later Temple to Amun, a pavilion, administrative buildings, the west villas, and the south village.

Satellite image of the entire site of Malqata

The palace contained many different apartments for the royal family and other officials. The King’s palace was mainly for the king himself and his children – his wife Tiye had her palace across the grounds from him. The royal apartments for the king were in the south-east corner and contained a bedroom, a dressing room, a private audience chamber, and a haram. There were also festival halls, gardens, administrative offices, a library, kitchens, and numerous storerooms nearby. The bedchamber actually had a raised floor where the bed was placed. Across from the pharaoh’s rooms, there were apartments for his sons and daughters, most likely for Sitamun and Isis/Iset.

Amenhotep III had canals built to bring water to the complex and the associated lakes. The canals ended at a harbor that was called Birket Habu, which is currently under modern cultivation. This was a 900-acre T-shape man-made lake. The soil that was dug out to make the harbor sits in mounds to the west. The canals and harbor allowed for easy travel across the river to the city of Thebes. The harbor was home to the golden bark of Amenhotep III called the Dazzling Aten. The Aten was an epithet of Amenhotep III, which became more famous under his son Akhenaten.

An reconstruction of the Birket Habu

The west villages held extensive administrative buildings, residences, and industrial areas. Workshops were found in the south with other industrial areas nearby. Ancient roads connected the palace to Amenhotep III’s funerary complex, called Kom el-Hettan, in the north and Kom el-Samak and Kom el-Abd in the south.

A mound to the south of the harbor was called Kom el-Samak and is believed to be a platform where the Heb-Sed ceremonies took place. The building or platform was reconstructed in several stages in a short period of time, presumably immediately before Amenhotep III wanted to celebrate another Heb-Sed. In the first stage, the building was composed of a central platform with staircases and a superstructure on top. The platform was later enlarged and another staircase and slope were added. These stairs were actually plastered and painted with depictions of captives. The three races featured were Nubians, Syrians, and another Asiatic tribe. This is to symbolize the Egyptian power over these nations, as anyone going up to the platform would have to walk over them. Kom El-Abd was another mudbrick platform to the south, but it is unclear what this was used for.


Throughout the complex, mudbricks were stamped with either the cartouche of Amenhotep III or in the case of the Queen’s chambers, the cartouche of Tiye. The buildings were also incorporated with wood, limestone, sandstone, and ceramic tiles. These mudbrick walls would have been plastered and painted white on the outside, most likely to represent limestone. On the interior, the walls were decorated with vibrant colors and decoration schemes. In general, there were both geometric designs and scenes that featured the gods and nature.

The harem walls had a floral pattern with birds and red and white calves, while the floors were painted to resemble the Nile river and banks, filled with fish and birds. A similar motif to those found in the Kom el-Samak, featuring bound captives, was found in the audience halls and on the steps to the throne. The wooden columns in this chamber were painted to look like lilies supporting the ceiling.

In the royal bedchamber, the vulture goddess Nekhbet was painted on the ceiling with her wings open. The dressing room of the king was decorated in red, blue, and yellow S shape spirals and stylized bulls heads, with Nekhbet on the ceiling.

Excavation History

The palace was discovered by archaeologists several times over the years. In 1888 it was excavated by Georges Daressy. Robb de Peyster Tytus and Percy Newberry excavated here from 1902 to 1902. From 1910-1920 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York excavated the site with the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. After the excavations, they divided the finds. The MET’s finds are located in rooms 119 and 120 of the museum, featured the beautiful Menat necklace that was found in the remains of a linen bag in one of the private houses. You can read more about this necklace here. The MET team excavated areas of the palaces that the previous excavations did not and mapped the entire site and surrounding area.

Large Menat necklace found in a private home in Malqata. Metropolitan Museum of Art (11.215.450).

From 1971 to 1977, the site was excavated by the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum. Egyptologists David O’Conner and Barry J. Kemp determined that the town was far larger than originally thought. From 1972 the site has been excavated by the Archaeological Mission of Waseda University from Japan. They originally were focused on the south, where they discovered the Kom el-Samak building and associated staircases. Then in 1985, they re-excavated the Great Columned Hall, the Kings Bedchamber, and several other rooms. They also produced multiple reconstructions of the wall and ceiling paintings found in these rooms.

And in 2008 the Joint Expedition to Malqata (JEM) began work there. This was directed by Dr. Diana Patch and Peter Lacavora and sponsored by the MET and the Ancient Egyptian Heritage and Archaeology Fund. They also received grants from the American Research Center in Egypt. The JEM, “has carried out substantial clearance and restoration of the mud-brick walls in the King’s Palace; cleared and mapped part of the Amun Temple; re-cleared and mapped the North Village; opened two new excavation areas, the West Settlement and the Industrial Site; and implemented a number of site management projects, including the installation of site lighting, many meters of fence, and the construction of a guard house. In cooperation with the Ministry of Antiquities, the JEM is working to stabilize the site, restore certain buildings, and protect all of the ancient remains with the ultimate goal of making some areas of Malqata available to visitors.” You can read more about this project here and read more reports here.

Check out this link to access more reports and articles about Malqata excavations!

If you would like to see what the site looks like recently (in 2013), check out this link!


Photo Credits

ARCE page – pictures of 3D reconstruction of palace and hall, and layout of palace

Waseda University – Layout of Palace, remains of painted plaster, reconstructions of ceilings, Kom el-Samak reconstruction, map, and captives images – Reconstruction of Malqata – Satellite image of site

Flickr (kairoinfo4u) – Hot air balloon pictures of the entire site – Map of all sites in Thebes/Luxor – Birket Habu reconstruction – Maps and layouts of the city and palace

Wikimedia commons (Einsamer Schütze) –  Amenhotep III and Tiye photos

Wikimedia commons (EbonyLabelOfDen-BritishMuseum-August19-08.jpg: CaptMondo) – Heb-Sed of Pharaoh Den

TourEgypt – Queen Hatshepsut Heb-Sed and Lepsius Book III, Band 5, Bl. 86 – Amenhotep III’s heb sed


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