FOR more than two millenniums they lay in hiding: an alabaster sphinx of King Tutankhamen, a life-size Pharaoh Amenhotep III, the smiling cow-goddess Hathor. Their long sleep ended when a workman's shovel unwittingly struck one of their long-buried forms.
The discovery of a major cache of ancient statues in Luxor two years ago was heralded as one of the greatest archaeological finds of this century.
Given the country's habit of hyperbole about antiquities, the news was initially greeted with some skepticism. But experts now concede that the statues are of an unrivaled caliber, their execution marking a golden age of Pharaonic art.
In January, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (EAO) and the German Archaeological Institute jointly published a journal devoted to the Luxor sculpture cache. It described the statues as "the most extraordinary ever found" and "a sensational discovery of great importance."
Peter Kuhlmann, an Egyptologist at the German Archaeological Institute, adds, "There are obviously some first-rate statuary among them. Amenhotep III would be the kingpin of any exhibit. It's a masterpiece, an absolutely sublime masterpiece. This is probably by far the best piece uncovered. It is beautifully preserved and from the height of the art of this period."
The march of history had unknowingly passed above their mute heads. The soldiers of successive invading armies turned their temple sanctuary into military camps. Later, Egyptians themselves used the sacred courtyards as stables. They abandoned their faith in the pharaohs' many gods and turned to just one; first through Christianity and later through Islam.
Only 100 years ago, peasants living inside the temple itself were evicted. Today the world's curious fly in from distant places to marvel at the artistry of a lost civilization.
In 1989, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization began work to right the tilting columns of Luxor Temple. The 3,500-year-old monument lies along the Nile in Upper Egypt, 450 miles south of Cairo. It was begun by 18th-dynasty King Amenhotep III, one of the great builders of ancient Egypt, who died in the late 1300s BC. Later rulers - including King Tutankhamen, Ramses II, and Alexander the Great - added to its expanding complex.
It is a stunning structure. The courtyards are spacious and surrounded by rows of graceful columns. The monumental gateway is still flanked by colossal sculpture and one of the original pair of obelisks. The second stands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
But the temple's location, in the center of Luxor and beside the Nile, has made it vulnerable to deterioration. Seepage from the river and the town's sewage have increased the level of groundwater under the temple itself.
In recent years, at least three of the majestic papyrus-shaped columns had begun to visibly tilt. The first step in repair plans was to take soil samples to determine the makeup of the temple foundations.
In the western part of the temple complex, beneath the courtyard built by Amenhotep III, laborers discovered the cache of statues. Almost 6 1/2 feet below the surface, a workman's shovel struck a smoothly polished stone base. In the immediate vicinity, the contours of the first statues could also be seen. Work was immediately halted and the authorities were informed.
By the following day, a nearly life-size statue of the temple founder himself had been freed from its burial place. The perfection of the statue, the renderings of detail and proportion, made it clear that the find was of great importance.
"Two nights I could not sleep. I always had to return to the digging site," Mohamed Saghir, the director of Luxor Museum and Upper Egyptian antiquities, said at the time. "We continued at a fast pace but I had to force myself to suppress my curiosity. We had to refill the digging holes in order not to endanger the surrounding columns of the courtyard."
IN the months that followed, an additional 25 statues were recovered from the site. Many were in perfect condition. Seven of the statues of pharaohs, gods, and goddesses are unique survivors from the New Kingdom's 18th dynasty, a more-than- 200-year golden age of Egyptian culture.
The purple quartzite statue of Amenhotep III, almost nine feet tall, is among the most incredible of the group. The delicacy of the king's features and depiction of ornamentation is both spare and exquisite. He wears the high double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and the short shendyt-kilt. His sandaled feet rest upon a sledge.
The figure compares favorably with two seated statues of Amenhotep III that mark the entrance to the British Museum's Egyptian sculpture gallery in London. The figures were taken from the king's mortuary temple on the west bank of the Nile. The most recently discovered statue appears to be of superior craftsmanship and depicts a younger, more classically beautiful king.
Why or when the statues were hidden is still not clear. Museum director Saghir suggests that temple priests buried the statues when Roman troops occupied the city, for fear they would be destroyed.
But it was not until the latter part of the 2nd century AD that Rome garrisoned Luxor as part of its campaign to suppress revolts in its far-flung empire. Archaeologists surmise that the temple ceased to function as a religious site not much later than 300 BC, during the time of Alexander the Great.
More likely is that the cache was put underground 900 years earlier, when Egypt was invaded by the Assyrians. Their armies went on to sack the ancient city of Thebes, where Luxor now stands.
Dr. Kuhlmann offers yet another theory: "[The burial] could have been because of the Assyrian invasion. But it also could have nothing to do with it.
"It could be that the knowledge of where the cache would be found was traded among the priests. So, whenever they had statuary that they wanted to dispose of they would dig in that spot and simply add to the pieces already lying there," Kuhlmann says.
"One of the sacred obligations of every pharaoh was that he must add to the temple statuary during his reign. Obviously, at some point in history, you would reach a saturation point and need to get rid of the old.
"But since the statues were considered sacred images, you couldn't just throw them in the Nile," he adds. "You had to put them in sacred ground - like in the Luxor Temple."
In late November, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak officially opened a new wing at the Luxor Museum, where the statues are now on display.
The Italian-designed extension was specially built to house the collection. The Luxor Museum is the country's only such facility to meet international museum standards.
While today the statues are celebrated for their unusual beauty, the importance of a Pharaonic sculpture originally lay in the name affixed to it. True portraiture was not a requirement. Whatever name appeared upon the sculpture took on that identity.
The artists themselves, considered more tradesmen than creators in ancient Egypt, remain anonymous.