Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lecture thirteen (and supplement)

We briefly discussed the evidence from Egyptian art for the dialogic link between deity and worshipper, noting that in most cases in the world’s religion this potential symmetry is honored more in the breach and the observance. That is, the worshipper extends offerings, sacrifices, prayers, hymns of praise--even sometimes cajolerie and threats. For the most part, there is no direct reciprocation. However, the famous Amarna panel of the royal family under the Aten’s rays shows an almost aggressive, “in-your-face” reciprocity on the part of the deity.

 The idea of an ongoing loop of reciprocation was expressed in different terms by the noted Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in his “I and Thou.” These issues deserve more pondering than I can provide at this time.


Four rulers round out the Eighteenth dynasty: the mysterious Smenkhare, who may have reigned only a year or so; the now-famous Tutankhamen; the elderly vizier Ay; and the nonroyal Horemhab.

Tutankamun did not receive this name at birth, but rather Tutankhaten (meaning "Living Image of the Aten"), placing him in the line of pharaohs following Akhenaten who was most likely his father.  His mother was probably Kiya, though this too is in question.  He changed his name in year two of his rule to Tutankhamun (or heqa-iunu-shema), which means "Living Image of Amun”--”Ruler of Upper Egyptian Heliopolis.” a reference to Karnak.

The boy spent his early years in Amarna, where he even started a tomb. At the age of nine he married Ankhesenpaaten, his half-sister, later termed Akhsesenatun. At the end of Akhenaten's reign, Ay and the general Horemheb, both senior members of that king’s court, seemed to have realized that the Atenic religion could not continue: it was too disruptive and unpopular. Upon the death of Akhenaten and Smenkhkare, they had the young king who was nine years old crowned in the old secular capital of Memphis. And since the young pharaoh had no living female relatives old enough, he was probably under the care of Ay or Horemheb or both, who would have actually been the factual ruler(s) of Egypt.

By year two of his reign--in keeping with the return to traditional religion--he changed his name, as well as Ankhesenpaaten's, removing the "aten" and replacing it with "amun."

One reason why Tutankhamun was not listed on the classical king lists is probably because Horemheb, the last ruler of the Eighteenth dynasty, usurped most of the boy-king's work, including a restoration stele that records the reinstallation of the old religion of Amun and the reopening and rebuilding of the temples.

Tutankhamun’s building at Karnak and Luxor included the continuation of the entrance colonnades of the Amenhotep temple at Luxor, including associated statues, and his embellishment of the Karnak temple with images of Amun, Amunet, and Khonsu.

Militarily, little happened during the reign of Tutankhamun, a surprising fact considering that Horemheb was a well known general.  Apparently there were campaigns in Nubia and Palestine/Syria, but this is only known from a brightly painted gesso box found in Tutankhamun's tomb, which we have seen on several occasions. It portrays scenes of the king hunting lions in the desert and gazelles, as well as smiting Nubians and then Syrians.

Tutankhamun died young, but the manner of his death has long been a subject of speculation. There is still some support for the theory that he was murdered. In fact, a recent CT scan seems to indicate that he may very well have died from infection brought about by a broken leg, which may have occurred in a chariot accident.


Located in the Valley of the Kings, it is not the grandest tomb in Egypt, and was certainly not occupied by one of Egypt's most powerful rulers.  All the same, the public knows the tomb of Tutankhamen (KV 62) better then any other, because of all the royal tombs, it was found mostly intact. What was found in this tomb surely gives us pause to understand the motive behind ancient tomb robberies.  If such a vast fortune in treasure (approximately 3,700 items) was found in this modest tomb owned by a relatively minor king, what must have dazzled the eyes of the thieves who first entered the huge tomb of Rameses II or one of Egypt's other grand kings? Or possibly for some reason the tomb of the boy king was particularly lavish. We cannot know. Of course, the range of funerary equipment has proved very useful to Egyptologists, giving them an idea of the standard equipment of a royal tomb.

The tomb, which lies in an area that was not normally used for royal burials in the Valley center, was apparently quickly buried deep below the surface. It was forgotten until the English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered it on November 4th, 1922. Part of Carter's luck was that it was not discovered earlier when, his predecessor in the Valley, Theodore Davis who was American, came within little more then a meter of finding it himself.

Carter was told, prior to finding the tomb, that his patron Lord Carnarvon was withdrawing from the project. After pleading his case, he was given one more season of excavation in order to find it.

The sequence of rooms is not arranged according to a linear axis (typical of the great royal tombs) but assumes a somewhat convoluted, cramped space. The entrance Corridor leads to a broad Anteroom. From there one can procede to the Annexe, something of a blind alley, or to the Burial Chamber proper, which is accompanied by the Treasury.

While the king’s mummy has been returned to a climate-controlled glass case in the tomb, the funerary equipment has been removed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. What is to be seen is mostly the wall paintings, which are restricted to the Burial Chamber. Here all the walls have the same golden background.  On the west wall we find scenes depicting the apes of the first hour of the Amduat. On the south wall the king is followed by Anubis as he appears before and as he is being welcomed into the underworld by Hathor, Anubis, and Isis.   The north wall depicts the King before Nut with the royal ka embracing Osiris. On the same wall, we also find the scene of Ay performing the opening of the mouth ritual before the mummy of Tutankhamun.  Finally, on the east wall, Tutankhamun's mummy is depicted being pulled on a sledge during the funeral procession.

This tomb was not found completely intact.  In fact, there had been at least two robberies of the tomb, perhaps soon after Tutankhamen's burial, probably by members of the tomb workers.  

The centerpiece for the whole tomb is of course the housing for the royal mummy. This consists of four big rectangular boxes, one inside the other. These serve to protect no less that three coffins. The associated golden masks of the king are slightly different, but there is no reason to believe that they have been usurped from a previous owner.

Also notable is the Golden Shrine, with its four protective goddesses. A number of figures show the king in the guise of various divine or protective figures. There are two interesting pars pro toto images: the so-called manikin and the wooden image of the king’s head rising from a lotus (an image of rebirth).

Of an almost incredible quality, the jewelry rings all the changes of the ancient Egyptian craft, whether in solid or ajoure’ form.

Any account of the tomb can only scratch the surface as we have done. For further insights, monographs must be consulted.

PART TWO (not given in class):


The following outline of the Egyptian legacy in art and architecture looks beyond Greece and Rome, to modern Europe and North America.

1. Ashlar masonry. The Third Dynasty funerary precinct of Zoser at Saqqara (ca. 2630-2611 BCE) is the first major architectural enterprise to be executed in stone throughout. Moreover, the fine limestone blocks are in ashlar masonry. That is, they are parallelepipeds, six-faced regular solids of standard sizes, laid in regular horizontal courses. Before this, such monuments were of mud brick. Imitating the regularity of the six-faced bricks (top, bottomm and four sides), the Saqqara limestone blocks are examples of skeuomorphism, a learned term for the migration of a form native to one medium into another. Once invented, ashlar masonry had a great future. One thinks of the walls of Greek monumental buildings, not to mention countless stately banks, libraries, and governmental buildings of our own time—all executed in ashlar masonry. It is sometimes assumed, by the way that standardization is a product of our own industrial age. However, standarized bricks and limestone blocks long preceded it.

2. Modularity. The invention of ashlar is probably the first instance of the principle of modularity—the regular "scansion" of space using architectural means. A kind of negative version appears in the regular bays of Egyptian temples and hypostyle halls.

3. Columnar architecture. The Saqqara complex shows several types of engaged (attached) columns. Later, the columns are freestanding, surmounted by capitals, and marshaled into rows (colonnades). Indebted to Egypt, columnar architecture was fundamental in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance.

4. Pyramids. As is well known, the Egyptians perfected the pyramid as a geometrical monument with five smooth faces (counting the base). There is a long history of replication of pyramids, culminating in I.M. Pei’s glass examples in Paris and Washington, D.C., as well as the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. However, the pyramid embodies the broader theme of elementalism. As architects from Le Doux to Le Corbusier have shown, beauty and authority stem from dramatically simple forms.

5. The hypostyle hall. As seen at the Karnak temple, this is a large pillared hall in which the central section, the nave, is higher than the two wings on either side. Light floods into the structure’s middle from the clerestory at the top of the nave. This principle recurs in Roman basilicas, and again in Christian churches, including many modern cathedrals.

6. Orthogonal city planning. Groups of Old Kingdom mastabas are distributed according to a gridiron plan. Like most early towns everywhere, most Egyptian cities were apparently “organic” (higgledy-piggeldy) in planning. Hower, the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun, created anew to accommodate workers, reflects a system of right angles. Broadly speaking this is the pattern found in Greek “Hippodamean” cities, Roman towns, and many American cities. Regardless of whether there is a direct connection, the Egyptians pioneered the orthogonal principle.
Orthogonal planning is evident also in the planning of Akhetaten, Akhenaten’s new capital at Amarna. Foreshadowing Washington, DC, Canberra, and Brasilia, this is the first example known to history of a capital founded afresh, rather than developing organically from an existing town.

7. Monumental sculpture. Beginning in the Third Dynasty the Egyptians created canons of monumental sculpture, life-size or nearly life-size pieces that follow well-defined patterns of arrangement. In this way they invented the s t a t u e, as distinct from the “figurines” and rough “idols” formerly dominant.

8. The nude. During the Fifth Dynasty the Egyptians introduced nude male figures in the tombs. These are shown striding, with the left foot forward. Sporadically recurring, the form was purloined by the Greeks for their k o u r o s.

9. The bust. This conventional form is an abbreviated human being, a type of sculpture showing only the head and shoulders. The earliest surviving example seems to be the Old Kingdom Ankh-haf in Boston. There is a charming wooden example in the Tut treasure—and of course the world-famous Nefertiti in Berlin. The Romans produced busts of revered ancestors. And busts proliferated in the European baroque.

10. The sphinx. Egyptian sphinxes (atypical examples of animal-human hybrids) generally represent rulers. In Greece the form, always female, is hypothesized. Modern artists like Elihu Vedder and František Kupka have quoted the form as a token of inscrutability.

11. The frame. Early relief carvings, such as the Wadji stele in the Louvre and the wooden Hesira panels, fix the frame situation by raising the surface outside the picture area so as to create a uniform boundary. Later, the Egyptians developed wall paintings that clearly suggest beaded frames. Simulated frames occur in Pompeiian painting, while real three-dimensional examples enclose European canvases from the Renaissance to the present.

12. Illustrated books. In their papyri the Egyptians invented the practice of interspersing pictures amidst columns of text. The illuminated books of Byzantium inherited this practice. It lives on in our art books, with their dialogue of picture and text.

13. Comic papyri of animals simulating human conduct. A striking example is the strip of the lion and the gazelle in the British Museum. These images show that the ancient Egyptians had a sense of humor. Yet such depictions are not just humorous but embody social commentary. Cats peacefully look after mice and geese, while a gazelle must ponder how to cater to her lion master. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck came much later.

14. Abstract art. During the Amarna period (ca. 1372-54 BCE) the old anthropomorphic and theriomorphic (human and animal) forms of deities were discarded in favor of a circular rendering, the concave disk standing for the Aten, the solar principle. Modern abstraction, also rejecting the depiction of living beings, has also favored circles and disks. Among the abstract artists exploiting the disk form are Robert Delaunay, Theo van Doesburg, and Kenneth Noland.

15. Gender variation. During the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom human figures complied with an established gender contrast. Men were robustly muscled, their buff upper torso revealed by the standard kilt. Women were slender, graceful, and lissom, generally wearing a slight slip-like garment. During the New Kingdom major changes became evident. Queen Hatshepsut (r. 1479-1457 BCE) ruled as a man. Her statues sometimes reflect her birth gender (her feminine side) and sometimes her masculine status, with pronounced features and a false beard. With his shrunken upper torso and pear-shaped middle section, the Amarna pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1337) shows a pronounced gender ambiguity. Recent scholarship holds that his wife Nefertiti may have assumed the male identity of Smenkhare, so as to be co-ruler with her husband during his last years. (This idea is speculative.) At all events, the depictions of Smenkhare are notably androgynous.

In their number and variety, these "firsts" speak for themselves. To be sure, there were many firsts in the rival civilization of Mesopotamia, but rarely in art. Egyptian primacy in this realm suggests the following stark conclusion. In all of Western art there are two main sequences, BE (Before Egyptian, i.e. prehistoric) and E plus (Egyptian and after).

APPENDIX: “Red and Black”

A recent B-movie about winning at Las Vegas made me think about the conventions of the roulette wheel. Apart from the numbers on the rim (which are, appropriately, numerous) there are two binary contrasts: odd vs. even, and red vs. black. The first reflects a fundamental property of mathematics that is, so to speak, built into the universe. Every number must be either odd or even.

Not so the red/black opposition. To be sure, hues may be measured in angstrom units, arraying them in a vast rainbow, but the only contrast that seems objectively valid is between white (total fusion of colors) and its opposite black (the absence of color). And we do speak of black-and-white contrasts. Among other things, piano keyboards and old movies reinforce the perception of this complementarity. However, red is just a hue among countless others, with no objective or necessary companion, except as convention dictates. In traffic lights, for example, red contrasts with green.

Why then the red/black antinomy? The answer goes back to the writing conventions of the ancient Egyptians, whose beautiful hieroglyphs we admire in our museums and libraries. In Egyptian papyri black is preferred for the main body of running text. Red, which occurs less often, is reserved for headings and words that need to be emphasized, italicized as it were.

Among the Egyptians this contrast was in part practical, reflecting the ready availability of black ink (carbon black) and red (hematite, or red iron oxide). There were also symbolic overtones. The Egyptians often called their own country Kemet, the Black Land, acknowledging the rich dark soil brought from East Africa by the annual inundation’s. By contrast red was associated with the desert, a potentially dangerous, but inescapable accompaniment of the Black Land.

These symbolic associations faded, but not the idea that black is to be preferred for main texts, red for exceptional indications. Medieval scribes called the use of red "rubrication." Even today, we use the term "red-letter days," which originally referred to special feasts and saints' days in the calendar. At the beginning of her career, the Theosophist Annie Besant wrote a book on "black-letter saints," worthy figures but not as famous as the red-letter ones.

Today a version of the contrast occurs in bookkeeping, where accountants traditionally enter debits in red. This practice has influenced ordinary language. No one wants to be "in the red," while the assurance that one is "in the black" is calming.

The bookkeeping practice draws on the association of red with danger, which may be biological in origin. In the case of the roulette wheel, however, this association is not present. Given the mathematical nature of the odds, a better would be foolish to avoid red.

In Stendhal’s great novel, "Le Rouge et le noir" (1831), red refers to a political career, possibly a revolutionary one, while black means choice of the Church. Roughly they correspond to to our Left and Right. The contrast could also occur within factions of the Left. In 1834, if memory serves, two flags were unfurled in Paris: a red one for socialism, a black one for anarchism. Red has continued to be favored in the symbology of Marxist regimes, while some Anarchists unfurl the black flag.

It is a curious fact that a custom that started in ancient Egypt lingers in two realms where the red/black contrast is significant: in gambling and accounting. Perhaps someone should alert the Las Vegas hotel, the Luxor (where I stayed several years ago). Both types of endeavor, gaming and accounting, figure in the business side of the hotel.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Lecture twelve

Leaving the realm of the private tombs, with their impressive murals, we return to the major personalities of the Eighteenth dynasty. Who was the most outstanding? Hatshepsut would certainly make a claim. She demonstrated the virtues of trade and peace, instead of war. In her own person, she fused (in her view) the perfect female and the perfect male, introducing an androgynous model that resurfaced with Akhnaten (albeit in different form). Her nephew, the macho Tuthmose III could make his claim based on his conquests, which extended Egyptian territory significantly. Amenhotep III, the “dazzling sun” and creator of over 1000 statues of himself, represented the zenith of Egyptian power. His son Amenhotep IV, known as Akhnaten, introduced a new religion and a new style of art. As his virtual coregent, Nefertiti could have made a claim, with her serene beauty and self-confidence. Finally, the boy king Tutankhamen, owing to the happy accident of the survival of his treasure, ranks as one of the most famous--if not the most famous--pharaohs for our own age.

Previously we dealt with the first two of these Great Ones, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Now we transition to the third worthy by means of Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV. The former’s tomb survives in the Valley of the Kings (KV 35) in reasonably good condition. The sarcophagus is superb (note the golden figure of Isis), and the walls are decorated with scenes from the Amduat (the book of “That Which Is in the Netherworld), divided into 12 hours (of the night). He had reigned for 27 years.

The succession of Thutmose IV seems to have been uncertain, confirmed though (as he believed) by a dream in which the sphinx appeared to him, commanding her restoration. Thutmose’s sphinx is clearly “solarized,” by the identification Khepri-Ra-Atum, that is, the rising sun, zenith, and setting sun. He reigned for only 9-10 years.

The Eighteenth dynasty peaked during the reign of Amenhotep III, who reigned for almost 40 years.. Sustained by the enormous wealth of past conquests, by tribute and diplomatic gifts of vassal kings and foreign rulers, Amenhotep III became one of the greatest builders in the history of his country.

Like his ancestors, he continued extending the great temple of Amun at Karnak. He was responsible for rebuilding the Temple core at Luxor. His architect may have been Amenhotep, son of Hapu. On the Theban west bank, he built a large palace complex (known as Malkata) and a funerary temple of which, unfortunately, only the two damaged colossi (“of Memnon”) now bear witness. Excavators have uncovered the basic elements of the plan of the palace which consisted of a succession of halls and courtyards, with satellite villas.

His sculptures show an oscillation of features, from the severe “basilisk countenances” to the baby-faced types. He is sometime shown with his wife Tiye, daughter of Yuya and Tuya (the latter occupied tomb KV 46).

Anticipating Louis XIV, Amenhotep III had himself identified as the “dazzling sun.” The Aten disk appears in the iconography of his reign. As we noted at the outset of this course, a tendency to solar preeminence was always latent in Egyptian culture (note, e.g., the Sun Temple at Abu Ghurob of the Fifth dynasty). In view of the absolute triumph of the sun under his son Akhneten, it is tempting to seek elements of the new, revolutionary religion in the long reign of the father. In this quest for origins, it is difficult to find a balance--in part because the theologians of Amenhotep III did not know where they were going. Akhenaten did.


In the early years of his reign, Amenhotep IV lived at Thebes with Nefertiti and his 6 daughters. Initially, he permitted worship of Egypt's traditional deities to continue, but near the Temple of Karnak (Amun-Re's great cult center), he erected several massive buildings including temples to the Aten or sun disk. These buildings at Thebes were later dismantled by his successors and used as infill for new constructions in the Temple of Karnak; when they were later dismantled by archaeologists, some 36,000 decorated blocks from the original Aten building here were revealed which preserve many elements of the original relief scenes and inscriptions.

The relationship between Amenhotep IV and the priests of Amun-Re gradually deteriorated. In Year 5 of his reign, Amenhotep IV took decisive steps to establish the Aten as the exclusive, monotheistic god of Egypt. With stunning ruthlessness, the pharaoh disbanded the priesthoods of all the other gods, diverting the income from the other cults to support the Aten. This step suggests that their may have been an economic subtext behind his reform, a subtext that would garner support among the military and the bureaucracy, increasingly concerned about priestly domination.

The king officially changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten or “Servant of the Aten.”
As we have previously noted, their is a kind of latent solarism that runs through Egyptian religion. This theme had become stronger in the reign of the father Amenhotep III, the “dazzling son.” Thus Akhenaten’s “heresy” had real roots.

Still, there is no doubting the genuinely revolutionary character of Akhenaten’s new faith, which was, in essence, a “found” religion, and not one that had simply evolved like all previous belief systems. Contrary to some doubters, I believe that it was genuinely monotheistic. As such, it proclaimed a new dichotomous standard of truth and falsehood, seen as absolutely opposed. With regard to the Aten, there was no “complementary dualism,” unless it was the pharaoh himself, the deity’s own vicar on earth. Atenism was both aniconic (no anthropomorphic or animal representation) and iconoclastic (destruction of images of rival gods). In all these respects, it forecasts later forms of monotheism.

As seen in the Great Hymn (possibly written by Akhenaten himself) the new religion presented many appealing aspects. The supremacy of the sun, the source of all life, accounts for both human diversity (what we would term multiculturalism) and human solidarity (the sun shines equally on all lands). The Hymn shows some similarities with other forms of Middle Eastern wisdom literature (cf. Psalm 104).

As if this new religion was not enough, Akhenaten made two other innovations: his new capital and his new style (or styles) of art.


Akhenaten's fifth year also marked the beginning of construction on his new capital, Akhetaten, or “Horizon of Aten,” at the site known today as Amarna. This city ranks as the first effort in world history to create a new capital from scratch, foreshadowing Washington, Canberra, and Brasilia.
The area of the city was effectively a virgin site. It may be that the Royal Wadi's resemblance to the hieroglyph for horizon showed that this was the place to found the city.

Construction started in or around Year 5 of the king’s reign (1346 BCE) and was probably completed by Year 9 (1341 BCE), although it became the capital city two years earlier. To speed up construction of the city most of the buildings were constructed out of mud brick, and white-washed. The most important buildings were faced with local stone.

It is the only ancient Egyptian city that integrally preserves its internal plan, in large part because the city was abandoned after the death of Akhenaten. The city seems to have remained active for a decade or so after his death, and a shrine to Horemheb indicates that it was at least partially occupied at the beginning of his reign, if only as a source for building material elsewhere.

Hastily constructed, Akhetaten extended along approximately 8 miles of territory on the east bank of the Nile River; on the west bank, land was set aside to provide crops for the city's population. The entire city was encircled with a total of 14 boundary stelae detailing Akhenaten's conditions for the establishment of this new capital city of Egypt.

The ruins of the city are laid out roughly north to south along a grand avenue, the Royal Road. The royal residences are generally to the north, in what is known as the North City, with a central administration and religious area and the south of the city is made up of residential suburbs.
Most of the important ceremonial and administrative buildings were located in the central city. Here the Great Temple of the Aten and the Small Aten Temple were used for religious functions; between these the Great Royal Palace and the Royal Residence were the ceremonial abodes of the King and Royal Family, being linked by a bridge and ramps. Located behind the Royal Residence was the Pharaoh’s Bureau of Correspondence, where the Amarna Leters were found. This central zone was probably the first area to be completed.

To the south of the city was the area now referred to as the Southern Suburbs, containing the estates of many of the city's powerful nobles. This area also held the studio of the sculptor Thutmose, where the famous bust of Nefertiti was found in 1912.

The tombs broke with the tradition of location on the west bank of the nile Away from the city Akhenaten's royal necropolis was started in a narrow valley to the east of the city, hidden in the cliffs.

The king was active in architecture outside of his new capital. In honor of Aten, Akhenaten also oversaw the construction of some of the most massive temple complexes in ancient Egypt. In these new temples, Aten was worshipped in the open sunlight, rather than in dark temple enclosures, as had been the previous custom.


Styles of art that flourished during this short period are markedly different from other Egyptian art, bearing a variety of inflection, from elongated heads to protruding stomachs, outright ugliness and the beauty of Nefertiti. Significantly, and for the only time in the history of Egyptian royal art, Akhenaten's family was depicted in a decidedly naturalistic manner, and they are clearly shown displaying affection for each other. Nefertiti also appears beside the king in actions usually reserved for a Pharaoh, suggesting that she attained unusual power for a queen. Artistic representations of Akhenaten give him a strikingly bizarre appearance, with an elongated face, slender limbs, a protruding belly, wide hips, and an overall pear-shaped body. It has been suggested that the pharaoh had himself depicted in this way for religious reasons, or that it exaggerates his distinctive physical traits. Until Akhenaten's mummy is located and identified, such theories remain speculative, though some evidence from mummies of relatives has recently come to light.

Because of its surpassing beauty, the famous bust of Nefertiti (now in Berlin) is both the masterpiece and the exception among the Amarna works. Probably a model rather than a finished work, the Nefertiti relies upon superb detailing and (compositionally) on a kind of counterintuitive balancing, with the most massive element at the top. Several other heads and torsos of female figures suggest that the Amarna approach was (to our eyes at least) more congenial for women rather than for men. There are, however, some eloquent male heads, some apparently modeled from life.


Although it is accepted that Akhenaten himself died in Year 17 of his reign, the question of whether Smenkhkare became coregent perhaps 2 or 3 years earlier or enjoyed a brief independent reign is unclear. If Smenkhkare outlived Akhenaten, and became sole Pharaoh, he likely ruled Egypt for less than a year. The next successor was either Neferneferuaten, possibly a female Pharaoh who reigned for perhaps 2 or three years, or Tutankhaten (later, Tutankhamun), with the country perhaps being run by the chief vizier and future Pharaoh, Ay. Tutankhamun is believed to be a younger brother of Smenkhkare and a son of Akhenaten, and possibly Kiya although one scholar has suggested that Tutankhamun may have been a son of Smenkhkare instead. It has also been suggested that after the death of Akhenaten, Nefertiti reigned with the name of Neferneferuaten.
With Akhenaten's death, the Aten cult he had founded gradually fell out of favor. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun in Year 2 of his reign (1332 BCE) and abandoned the city of Akhetaten, which eventually fell into ruin.

Finally, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Ay were excised from the official lists of Pharaohs, which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This is thought to be part of an attempt by Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and the pharaohs associated with it from the historical record. Akhenaten's name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later pharaohs and it was not until the late nineteenth century that his identity was rediscovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.

Akhenaten has been called by historian J. H. Breasted “the first individual in history." According to taste, he ranks as the first monotheist, the first scientist, and the first romantic. (The scientist claim seems to derive from his understanding of the sun as the source of energy.)

The striking portrayals of Akhenaten, with a sagging stomach, thick thighs, pendulous breasts, and long, thin face--so different from the athletic norm of royal portraiture--have led certain Egyptologists to suppose that Akhenaten suffered some kind of genetic abnormality. However, Dominic Montserrat in Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt argues that "there is now a broad consensus among Egyptologists that the exaggerated forms of Akhenaten's physical portrayal...are not to be read literally.” Montserrat and others argue that the body-shape relates to some form of religious symbolism. Because the god Aten was referred to as "the mother and father of all humankind" it has been suggested that Akhenaten was made to look androgynous in art as a symbol of the androgyny of the god. This required "a symbolic gathering of all the attributes of the creator god into the physical body of the king himself", which will "display on earth the Aten's multiple life-giving functions". Akhenaten did refer to himself as "The Unique One of Re," and he may have used his control of artistic expression to distance himself from the common people, though such a radical departure from the idealized traditional representation of the image of the Pharaoh would be truly extraordinary. (As indeed, it is.)

There has also been interest in the identity of the pharaoh Smenkhare (to be discussed next time), the immediate successor to Akhenaten. In particular descriptions on a small box seemed to refer to Smenkhare beloved of Akhenaten, posing the possibility that Akhenaten might have been bisexual. In all likelihood, Smenkhkare was a half-brother or a son to Akhenaten.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lecture eleven


The new exhibition at the Met, “Beyond Babylon,” fills in much detail from the central area of the “Fertile Crescent.” It is also pertinent to the New Kingdom era with which we are presently concerned. Before sharing with you some preliminary impressions, let us say something about Egyptian penetration into the Levant in our period. As we noted earlier, the expulsion of the Hyksos suggested the need for an Egyptian buffer, which was duly established. Then the Egyptians extended themselves into Nubia, as far as the area between the Fourth and Fifth cataract.

Thutmose I began a period of active imperialist expansion in the Levant, by landing with an army at the key city of Byblos. However, it was the twenty years of campaigning by Thutmose III that really established Egyptian hegemony. Thutmose took three “native” wives. The great temples of Luxor and Karnak are in large measure an evidence of the tribute exacted from the subject peoples.

The Levant that Egypt sought to control was called Retjenu (rṯnw; Reṯenu, Retenu). It covered the region from the Negev Desert north to Orontes River in Syria. The borders of Retjenu shifted with time, but it generally consisted of three regions. The southernmost was Djahy, more or less corresponding with Canaan. Lebanon proper was located in the middle. North of Lebanon was designated Amurru, the land of the Amorites. The latter was particularly strategic, as it included the timber exporting port of Byblos and Ugarit, source of important religious documents.

This area also developed what came to be known as the Phoenician script, based ultimately on Egyptian. The simplified Egyptian script seems not to have been created in the Sinai, as we previously thought, but has been attested in graffiti (1900-1800 BCE) at Wadi el-Kol, between Thebes and Abydos. This is the ultimate progenitor of our own alphabet.

Where do the ancient Israelites fit in? The first (and so far) only mention of “Israel” in Egyptian documents is a stele of king Merenptah (1213-1203)
Did the Egyptians really colonize this area, or were their raids something of a quest for booty, and a “pacification” project? The reality is something in between. There was no massive settlement, but the local elites of the cities were encouraged to acculturate.

Ironically, the incursions showed the limits of Egyptian power by stimulating a countermovement: the rise of Mitanni and the Hittites. Desperate, Tutankhamen’s widow sought to have a Hittite prince come to Egypt as her husband, a step that might have led to the combination of the two empires. This plan came to naught.

The Amarna Letters (late 18th dynasty) tell the story of the decline of Egyptian influence in the region. The Egyptians showed flagging interest here until almost the end of the dynasty. Horemheb, last ruler of this dynasty, campaigned in this region. The neglect had proved costly to Egyptian interests.

This process continued in the nineteenth dynasty, with Seti I and especially his son Ramesses II. Historical records exist which record a large weapons order by Ramesses II the year prior to the expedition he lead to Kadesh in 1274 BC. The immediate antecedents to the Battle of Kadesh were the early campaigns of Ramesses II into the Levant. In the fourth year of his reign, he marched north into Syria, either to recapture Amurru (the northernmost region). or to as a probing effort to confirm his vassals' loyalty and explore the terrain of possible battles. Ramesses marched north the 5th year of his reign, and encountered the Hittites at Kadesh. Regrettably, there are varying opinions on almost every aspect of the battle.

Ramesses’ army came equipped with at least 2,000 chariots, an enormous force, divided into four divisions. For their part, the Hittites brought along 19 allies. Unfortunately, Ramesses committed major tactical errors. The Hittite chariotry crashed through the Amun division’s shield wall and began their assault.

The pharaoh, now facing a desperate fight for his life, summoned up his courage, called upon his god Amun, and fought valiantly to save himself. Ramesses personally led several charges into the Hittite ranks, together with his personal guard, deployed and attacked the overextended and tired Hittite chariotry.

The Hittites meanwhile, who understandably believed their enemies to be totally routed, had stopped to loot the Egyptian camp, and in doing so became easy targets for Ramesses's counterattack. Ramesses' action was successful in driving the Hittites back towards the Orontes and away from the Egyptian camp, while in the ensuing pursuit, the heavier Hittite chariots were easily overtaken and dispatched by the lighter, faster, Egyptians chariots.

The next morning a second, inconclusive battle, was fought. The Hittite king Muwatalli is reported by Ramesses to have called for a truce but this may be propaganda since Hittite records note no such arrangement. Neither side gained total victory. Both the Egyptians and the Hittites had suffered heavy casualties; the Egyptian army failed to break Kadesh’s defenses while the Hittite army had failed to gain a victory in the face of what earlier must have seemed certain success.

Today, there is no consensus about the outcome or even what took place, with views ranging from an Egyptian victory, a draw, and an Egyptian defeat (with the Egyptian accounts simply propaganda).

The Kadesh peace agreement-- on display in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul--is believed to be the earliest example of any written international agreement of any kind. Proclaiming victory, Ramesses prudently retired back into Egypt--without taking Kadesh. This episode marked the high water mark of Egyptian power in the Levant.

Now to the Met exhibition, “Beyond Babylon.” Addressing the second millennium, this show is a sequel to the splendid “Art of the First Cities” (2003),

Extraordinary is the find of a Minoan fresco (copy in the exhibition) by the Austrian excavators at Tell el-Dab’a (Avaris). See the illustration in Malek, fig. 149. Another Minoan motif has long been known from the Malkata palace in Western Thebes. Crete, of course, lay beyond the reach of Egyptian arms, but trade was appreciated with these “Keftiu.”

Byblos played a key role, since its prosperity depended on the timber trade (the famous cedars of Lebanon) that passed through it.


First, a word about color symbolism, which tends to vary from culture to culture. In ancient Egypt, red was generally a color of danger (cf. a plea by Isis to protect her from “red things”). By contrast, black has a favorable connotation but not always. (In papyri notice the contrast between red and black; distantly continued by our own accountants.) White is associated with silver, and also favorable. Green is best, because it is associated with resurrection. Note that these qualities are rarely explicit in the paintings, which serve to designate the actual colors of objects.
Egyptian painters used mainly mineral pigments, which tend not to decay over time like colors made from plant sources. Various yellow, red, and brown colors were obtained from ochres, forms of iron oxide, which were common throughout Egypt. A more lemony yellow came from orpiment, a naturally occurring sulphite of arsenic.
White was made from limestone or gypsum (calcium carbonate or calcium sulphate), or from a mineral known as huntite (a magnesium calcium carbonate).
Black was carbon-based, using the charcoal from burnt plant materials or bone, or the soot scraped from an oven or a cooking pot. Green was more of a problem. Even though there were several compounds of copper, such as malachite (copper carbonate), which gave a green color, these tended to oxidize to a brownish tone. Technically, blue was the most elusive color.
There is some evidence that a cobalt pigment was used for coloring pottery during the Amarna Period, but this was unusual. Most blue coloring had to be artificially made by a method similar to the manufacture of glass or glazes. This blue pigment, known as “Egyptian Blue,” was a copper calcium silicate or frit. When mixed with one of the yellow pigments, Egyptian Blue produced a variety of greens.

The grids that are sometimes still visible are now thought to serve as guides for transfer, rather than guarantors of “ideal form.” For the wall paintings supports were of three types: smoothed limestone, stucco, or a loam-and-straw foundation. The artists did not use true fresco (in which the pigment penetrates the drying plaster), but a form of tempera. As a result the paintings are fragile, and suffer from the damp. In addition, some have been prized from the walls and placed in museums (our Met has generally avoided this unfortunate practice, and instead has assembled a collection of good watercolor copies).

At Thebes many of the rock-cut tombs contain wall paintings that rank among the finest products of ancient Egyptian art. Regrettably, many of these have suffered extensive damage since the 1820s, when they first began to be brought to light. Over four hundred tombs and tomb-chapels have been allotted numbers for ease of reference and control. Others are numbered more haphazardly.

The more lavish tombs (cf. Rekhmire, TT 100) typically have an inverted “T” plan, allowing for additional wall space in the vestibule which is perpendicular to the axis.

The imagery of the paintings is partly traditional (hunting; scenes of country life) and innovative (feasts). In the feasts the artists permitted themselves formal liberties in keeping with the occasions, which reflect the human wish to observe “zones of licence” where ordinary rules do not apply. The exuberant Egyptian zest for life is fully in evidence. Significantly, the is the period in which a quantity of Egyptian love poetry, evoking themes that recur later (e.g. in the biblical Song of Songs).

The British Museum has a refurbished site on its Nebamun paintings (also a book); the paintings have parted company with their tomb (no one knows its whereabouts).

We also looked at work from the tombs of Menna, Rekhmire, Nakht and others. Particularly impressive are the murals in the Nefertari tomb in the Valley of Queens (nineteenth dynasty).
For more data on these wonderful scenes, see individual entries on the Internet.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lecture ten

Last time we briefly considered the Egyptian contribution to town planning: the “Hippodamean” plan before Hippodamus. Most would agree, though, that the two most important Egyptian achievements in architecture were the pyramid and the monumental temple. It is to the latter type of monument that we turn today.


Because of the role of the gods, temples must have always existed in ancient Egypt. Yet our evidence is relatively sparse before the NK. The pyramids are the glory of the OK in northern Egypt, the temples the NK in Upper Egypt. Certainly temples existed in the north, but the habit of rebuilding them has erased much evidence, together with their role as quarries.

During the New Kingdom the status of the priesthood increased, with various temples controlling great estates. They began to play an economic role as centers of redistribution. Egyptians always loved festivals, and the temples capitalized on this predilection.

Two OK precursors help to establish (if only by contrast) the novelty of the New Kingdom development: the Valley Temple of Khafre at Giza and the ruined Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurob. The latter consisted of a valley temple, a causeway, and a stone enclosure. The latter featured a stubby obelisk, preceded by an altar. Not far off is the model of a solar boat in brick.
The true temple was the abode or mansion of the god, represented by one or more statues. These statues generally came with boats (or barques) which were used for parading to the people. Normally, however, the cult image resided in seclusion in the inmost recess of the temple, the holy of holies, attended only by the priests. This zone is the true heart of the temple as we will see.

Let us examine first the “template of the temple,” as it were. At the Metropolitan Museum, the Temple at Dendur (from the start of the Roman period) is perhaps too abbreviated, though we see the two key elements: the sanctuary house (at the back) and the pylon or monumental doorway in the front.

One may look at the great Horus temple, perhaps the best preserved of all, for the key elements. The original core (lying athwart an earlier temple’s ruins) goes back to the third century BCE in the Ptolemaic period. This was later enlarged, the whole being complete only in 70 BCE. Generally, speaking the temple proper was only for the priests. The people could gather in the court outside the pylon, being admitted further only under special circumstances.

We pause to note some major features: the residence of the god in the inaccessible gloom of the holy of holies; the sanctuary is not congregational; the whole is kinetic in sequence--open courts vs. covered areas; along with the shrine, the pylon is the other major anchor.

As at Edfu, the choice of a site is often governed by a previous sanctuary. The original choice reflected some natural feature, such as a landscape feature or a water source. (Many temples had articificial ponds or lakes, with the most famous one being at Karnak.)

Ideally, the temple was laid out by the pharaoh. One began by fixing the plan of the temple by “stretching the cord.” Then gypsum was spread all over the site to purify it. Trenches were dug, and the bricks or stones assembled. Foundation deposits were placed at the corners (compare our contemporary “time capsules”). The whole temple was purified, and then presented to its god, whereupon sacrifices were offered.

The two great complexes are at the “twin cities” of Luxor and Karnak
In its present form the LUXOR temple was founded by the great Amenhotep III, with a columned courtyard, a pronaos (32 papyrus columns) a pillared hall, offering room, the barque chapel for the temporary residence of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, and a final area for the local Amun. Then Tutankhamun added a preface in the form of a conlonnade, seven papyrus columns long. Ramses II made a further major extension: columned courtyard and a great plyon with two obelisks in front.

Not only do we need to understand these buildings as complete (as far as we can), we need to see them as theaters of sacred ritual. Of great relevance here is the OPET festival. By the Twentieth dynasty it had come to last 27 days. It took place during the flooding season, when the people could take the time off. Theban citizens and their guests from afar celebrated the fruitful link between their pharaoh and the almighty god Amun. During the celebration the might and power of Amun were ritually bequeathed to his living son, the king. Therefore, the celebration belonged to the official royal ideology of the state and, not surprisingly, witnessed the personal involvement of the pharaoh. 

At Karnak, the northern sanctuary, the people watched the high priests disappear in the temple. In the privacy of the inner recesses, the priests bathed the image of the god. They dressed him in colorful linen, adorning him with jewelry from the temple treasury including magnificent necklaces, bracelets, scepters, amulets and trinkets of gold or silver encrusted with lapis lazuli, enamel, glass and semi-precious gems. The priests then enclosed the glittering god in a shrine, placing the shrine on top of a ceremonial barque or boat supported by poles for carrying.

Carrying the barque on their shoulders, the priests moved into the crowded streets where people elbowed each other to catch a glimpse of the sacred vessel. In Hatshepsut’s time, the complete journey was accomplished on foot, while stopping at different resting stations. Later, the boat was carried to the Nile and then towed upriver to the Luxor Temple. After reaching Luxor, the pharaoh and priests left the crowd behind, maneuvering the boat into the dark recesses of the temple. Incense filled the air. There was a ceremony communing with the other, local holy image of Amun.
During the Festival of Opet, onlookers could ask the god questions that could be answered by a simple yes or no. A man might ask if his brother in another town was in good health, If the boat dipped forward, the answer was yes; if it backed away, the reply was no.

More than anything, the ancient Egyptian population enjoyed the largesse of the priestly class during these festivals. During one Opet festival in the twelfth century BCE, it is recorded that temple officials distributed 11,341 loaves of bread and 385 jars of beer to the citizens. Since these items had been donated to the temple, this largesse was a form of redistribution akin to our own food pantries.

In size and accumulation of major monuments, the Amun precinct at KARNAK is indisputably Egypt’s premier sanctuary. Processional ways connected it with the Mut precinct, the Luxor temple 1 1/2 miles away, and the Nile bank. The MK has the oldest remains: the first huge limestone temple built in the reign of Senwosret I and surrounded by a brick enclosure wall. In front of this structure stood engaged statue pillars. In the rear half were three cult chambers, the last furnished with an alabaster plinth for the shrine of the cult image.

In the NK, beginning with Amenhotep, it rose to the status of Egypt’s national shrine. The temple was surrounded with an enclosure wall connecting with the newly erected fourth and fifth pylons. Pairs of obelisks were erected by the Thutmosids. A new pylon (the sixth) appeared between the barque shrine and the fifth pylon. Two big new pylons were erected in the southern axis towards the Mut precinct, the eighth (Hatsepsut) with four colossal statues, and the seventh (Thutmosis III) with two seated colossal statues and a pair of obelisks. Further major additions were made by Amenhotep III.


Some say that one cannot draw too precise a line between temples proper and mortuary sanctuaries. Certainly, this seems to be so in the NK. At any rate Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri has many features of temples properly speaking, while discarding the last remnants of pyramids.

Erected to surpass its neighbor, the Mentuhotep monument, the complex was probably designed by Senmut, Hatshepsut’s loyal factotum. The sequence of terraces and colonnades is breathtaking--even in competition with the massive cliff behind. Much of the detail of the interior was mutilated by Thutmosis III and Akhenaten. The proto-Doric columns of the Anubis chapel are noteworthy forerunners of the corresponding Greek order. The biographical frieze includes the picturesque detail of the fat queen of Punt.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lecture Nine

[Middle Kingdom continued]

In the previous class we presented the case for a major shift in mentality during the MK. For this change we noted two pieces of evidence: the pessimistic literature (including Amenemhat I’s “Instruction,” picturing the king’s life as insecure) and the “existential” portraiture of the later Twelfth dynasty. A particularly striking instance of the pessimistic literature is the “Dispute of a Man with His Soul,” in which the man proposes suicide, the soul (ba) opposes it. This little piece demonstrates wavering about that “sure thing,” the afterlife. At a more fundamental level, it shows the emergence of dialectical thinking--the principle that counsels that sometimes one must choose between alternative views, with the choice not being simple.

Another aspect is what might be called the beginnings of multiculturalism, the appreciation, however tentative, that foreign ways may have their merits. Sinuhe “went native” in Syria--he acculturated--but eventually decided to return to Egypt. Others, though, may have stayed.

To put the matter in a nutshell, the key word for the Old Kingdom is CERTAINTY; the word for the Middle Kingdom is DOUBT.

Let us step back a bit: are we perhaps overinterpreting? After all, the main task of the MK was to restore the good old days after the horrors of the First Intermediate Period. This meant reaffirming “truth, justice, and the Egyptian way.” At the start of the 21st century, we are attracted to the idea of a changed mindset in the MK because it seems more modern, more like our own way of approaching things (including dialectical thinking). In reality, though, what is new in the MK is probably more a matter of accents than essence.

We return to PORTRAITURE. A striking example of Senwosret III (S3) is the statue in the British Museum. One of four, these introduce a new royal pose: the attitude of prayer with hands on the kilt. Among the several characteristic features of the face the mouth is perhaps most striking, with its narrow upper lip, rising steeply to the center. One scholar notes the “hauntingly somber emotion that sometimes seems to approach anguish? An undecidable question is this: do such statues express the inner man in a way that almost anticipates Rembrandt and Hals, or are they more impersonal icons of the era?

The statues of S3, some 100 of them, are relatively uniform. For his son A3, three styles have been discerned: realistic, idealized and stylized. The head from a colossus in the British Museum belongs to the stylized class. It has an almost mocking quality.

The wooden statue of the ka of King Hor is an isolated masterpiece of the otherwise scrappy Thirteenth dynasty. The head, torso, and left leg are from one log; the other limbs were carved separately and attached by tenons. As Cyril Aldred remarks, “[T]he slender, somewhat elongated forms belong to the elegant distortions of a sophisticated art which is already trembling on the verge of mannerism.”

We then turned to some examples of the MINOR ARTS. Two pieces of open-work jewelry showed the superb techniques of metalworking and incorporation of precious stones. The so-called “concubine figures” found in the tombs remain a problem. Some may have been fetishes, as it were, originally made for popular use, that went into the tombs. The function of the beloved Met hippo “William” in faience also remains uncertain. The “tattooing” of landscape features on the body is a special creative application of the principle of interaction between the animal and its environment.


Excavated by W.M.Flinders Petrie in 1889-90, Kahun (or more properly Lahun) was the pyramid city of Senwosret II, situated near the entrance to the channel that took Nile waters to the Fayum. The plan of the settlement is divided into two unequal parts. That to the west was reserved for what appear to have been workmen’s houses and humbler dwellings. The eastern quarter was nearly three times bigger. The whole complex was surrounded by walls about ten feet thick at the base and about twenty feet high. The Manhattan-like blocks of the eastern quarter are readily apparent. In this way the scheme anticipates the Hippodamian (orthogonal) town planning of the Greeks. The houses followed a basic design pattern: the rooms grouped together in sets of six with only one outer door to the street.

The houses in the eastern quarter show six types: the so-called acropolis (possibly the governor’s residence) and adjacent guard building to its south, together with six other similar mansions along the north wall and three more to the south of the great east-west road; the houses built against the inner wall dividing this quarter from the western; the storerooms behind the great southern mansions; the workmen’s street behind the great southern houses; five similar streets of workmen’s houses on the east of the city; some further undesignated buildings at the extreme east side of the city.

Recent finds at the workmen’s quarters at Giza have revealed a similar type of planning. Not an innovation of the MK, such orthogonal layouts are characteristic of new towns. From what we can tell, the older towns followed the typical winding layout of villages and towns in all traditional societies. The house types, though, are probably a representative sample.

The finds include doctor’s implements and a gynaecological papyrus. Seeds show that there were flowers (poppies, lupins, mignonette, jasmine, heliotrope, and irises) and vegetables (peas, beans, radishes, and cucumbers).


Some scholars speak of the “democratization of the afterlife” in the Middle Kingdom. This claim may go too far, but there was definitely a broadening of access to the afterlife. In principle, during the OK, immortality was limited to the pharaoh. The Pyramid Texts, starting at the end of the Fifth dynasty with Unas, apply only to him. Queens of course sometimes had their own pyramids. Leading courtiers would huddle their mastabas around the royal tomb in hopes that they could benefit from the coattails effect (cf. the practice until recently of churchyard burial).

During the First Intermediate period, however, the nomarchs no longer had any confidence in the feeble “central government” in Thebes. They began building their own tombs in the provinces, demonstrating that nonroyals of means could aspire to the afterlife.

In due course private tombs become more lavish, many bearing elements of a new body of spells, adapted in part from the earlier Pyramid Texts. These texts emphasize the role of personal responsibility, whereby the deceased offers assurance that he has lived a good life. The idea that only those who have proved themselves worthy in this life deserve the next is of course the cornerstone of other religions that stress the afterlife,which is not a certainty, but a reward for living a good life. Inscriptions make clear the personal qualities that are needed to be worthy of resurrection into a happy afterlife: self-control, generosity, and honesty. One cannot simply barge one’s way into immortality (as a pharaoh might do), but the privilege must be earned by being a good person in this life. Otherwise one will fail the qualifying exam administered be the gods, or perish in the dangerous passage to the fields of eternal happiness.

The Coffin Texts, to give the new writings their conventional name, are a collection of funerary spells appearing on coffins and the walls of tombs beginning in the First Intermediate Period. Drawing on earlier exemplars, they contain substantial new material related to everyday desires that reflects the fact that the texts were now used by private persons.

As the modern name of this collection of some 1,185 spells implies, the texts are mostly found on Middle Kingdom coffins. However they are sometimes inscribed on tomb walls, stelae, canopic chests, papyri and even mummy masks. Because of the limited writing surfaces of some of these objects, the collection was often abbreviated, and this gave rise to long and short versions of some of the spells, a number of which were later incorporated in the later compilation known as the Book of the Dead.

In contrast to the pyramid texts which focus on the celestial realm, the coffin texts emphasize the subterranean elements of the afterlife ruled by Osiris, in a place called the Duat. In principle, an Osirian afterlife is available to everyone, and the deceased is even referred to as "the Osiris-[name]." The subterranean path to one’s final destination is described as being filled with threatening beings, traps, and snares with which the deceased must contend. The spells in the coffin texts allow the deceased to protect themselves against these dangers, so that one does not "die a second death."

A new theme recorded in the coffin texts is the notion that all people will be judged by Osiris and his council according to their deeds in life. The texts allude to the use of scales, which became the pivotal moment of judgment in the later Book of the Dead. The texts address common fears of the living, such as being required to do manual labor, with spells to allow the deceased to avoid these unpleasant tasks. The figurines known as shabtis (shawabtis, ushabtis) stand ready to assume these duties of manual labor.

The texts combine ritual actions intended as protection, expressions of aspiration for a blessed existence after death and of the transformations and transmigrations of the ba and akh and so on. In addition there are descriptions of the land of the dead, its landscape and inhabitants. These include the Sekhet Hotep (Field of offerings or peace), the paths of Rostau and the abode of Osiris.


The wooden coffins, mainly from Middle Egypt, are the major venues, so to speak, of the Coffin Texts. There are beautifully painted interiors: note in particular the one of Seni in the British Museum and Djehuti-nakht in Boston. The latter is reproduced as a two-page spread in Malek.


This marks a period between the end of the MK and the start of the NK when Egypt once again fell into disarray. Its earlier counterpart had been the product of internal devolution; by contrast, the new era of decline saw the intrusion of a hated foreign group, the Hyksos.

Stepping back a bit, we note that the brilliant Twelfth dynasty had been succeeded by the much weaker Thirteenth dynasty. The Thirteenth dynasty is notable for the accession of the first formally recognizable Semitic king, Kendjer. Demographic changes were under way.

The Thirteenth dynasty proved unable to hold onto the entire territory of Egypt, and the provincial ruling family in Xois, located in the marshes of the western Delta, broke away from the central authority to form the Fourteenth dynasty. The splintering of the land accelerated after the reign of the Thirteenth Dynasty king Sobekhotep IV, when the Hyksos may have made their first appearance, taking control of the town of Avaris in the eastern Delta. From their base in the northeast the Hyksos were able to overrun much of Egypt, led by Salitis, the founder of the Fifteenth dynasty.

This dynasty was succeeded by a group of Hyksos princes and chieftains, who ruled in the eastern Delta with their local Egyptian vassals. These individuals, who sought to assimilate to Egyptian culture, are known primarily by scarabs inscribed with their names.

The Hyksos kings, however, were not able to maintain their control over the whole of Egypt, and only a few years after it had been conquered, Thebes again arose as an independent state, and home to the Seventeenth dynasty. This dynasty was to prove the salvation of Egypt and would eventually lead the war of liberation that drove the Hyksos back into Asia.

In later times the Hyksos were execrated. However, they were responsible for one major innovation: the use of the horse, together with chariots and the characteristic trappings. It was with the aid of chariots that the New Kingdom was able to conquer the Levant.

The first historically recorded traces of a native Egyptian war against the Hyksos are dated to the reign of Kamose at the end of the Seventeenth dynasty. Two stelae commemorate Kamose's struggle against the Hyksos and their vassals. Against the advice of his council, Kamose started or continued the war, punishing all those who had collaborated with the hated foreigners.

It would be Kamose's brother, Ahmose, who would finally succeed in overthrowing the Hyksos. With his reign, a new era of prosperity and wealth would begin: the New Kingdom.

THE NEW KINGDOM (Shaw: 1550-1069)

The New Kingdom comprises the period from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth dynasties. This was Egypt’s most prosperous time, marking the zenith of its power. Possibly as a result of the foreign rule of the Hyksos occupation during the Second Intermediate Period, the New Kingdom saw Egypt attempt to create a buffer between the Levant and the kingdom based on the Nile, which attained its greatest territorial extent. Egyptian dominion expanded far south into Nubia and held wide territories in the Near East.

In keeping with these developments, the former isolationism of Egypt yielded to a new cosmopolitanism. For the first time, as the Amarna Letters show, Egypt entered into a pattern of international relations, with diplomatic links with foreign countries. The new opulence encouraged flexibility regarding gender, as seen in the emergence of characteristic themes of love poetry, and the “gender bending” of Hatshepsut and Akhenaten. This new approach to gender informed the emergence of the Amarna style, unlike anything Egypt had ever seen.

Hatshepsut concentrated on expanding Egypt's external trade, sending a commercial expedition to the land of Punt in the Horn of Africa. Thutmose III ("the Napoleon of Egypt") expanded Egypt's army, wielding it with great success. He created the largest the largest empire Egypt had ever seen.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lecture Eight

Last week we bade a reluctant farewell to the Old Kingdom, so formative not only for ancient Egypt, but in some respects for all subsequent civilizations in the West. We then turned to the enigma of the First Intermediate Period, where the older idea of catastrophic decline has been challenged by the newer revisionism. Perhaps the appeal of the newer view is that it makes the era seem more like our own, with regional pluralism and a degree of personal freedom. (This approach is sometimes labeled “present mindedness,” about which there are both pros and cons.) At the same time, we saw that there was a price to be paid for these putative advances, as seen in the generally marked decline in quality of the surviving objects.

Assuming, as I think we must, that an actual deterioration occured in some sectors, the era poses for the first time the recurrent historiographical problem of Decline and Fall, exemplified most notably by the fate of the Roman Empire. Once the possibility is entertained, there arises the disturbing possibility that our own society might be scheduled for such a devolution.

Undoubtedly, this possibility lurked behind the facade of perfect restoration in the Middle Kingdom. Yet there was a dividend, in that the new wariness promoted a more complex view of human destiny than heretofore.


Earthly salvation, as the ancient Egyptians conceived it, came in the course of the Eleventh dynasty. Everything was put back as it was. The gods are in their heaven, and all is well again, hopefully forever and ever. But things were not so simple. The wound to Egyptian self-confidence could not be so readily erased.

Another way of looking at the matter is that this is the first Renaissance in human history: the happy return to a lost utopia (or so it was perceived).

The MK saw the first great flowering of Egyptian literature. (OK writings were restricted to funerary autobiographies and the Pyramid Texts.) For this reason, the language of the period was adopted as the norm among the scribes of later eras (including our own).

In literature, the period sees the emergence of the genre of fiction, as exemplified by the tales the Shiprwrecked Sailor, the Eloquent Peasant, and Sinuhe.

The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is an account of a southerly voyage to the land of Punt (Somalia). The tale expresses the anxieties castaways experience, together with loneliness, and the fear of dying in a foreign country, a recurrent theme in Egyptian literature. The story seems to be presented as a lesson for a scribe as there are many recurring phrases used in different ways; notably aha n ("Then I").

In a short introduction the master asks his servant to tell him his story. The servant narrates how his ship, manned by one hundred fifty sailors, had sunk in a storm and how he had managed to hold on to a piece of timber and had been washed up on an island, all by himself. Nothing was lacking on this island: there was food aplenty, grain, fruit, fish, and fowl. As the castaway was making a burnt offering to the gods to thank them for his salvation, the earth shook and an enormous magic serpent approached him, speaking perfect Egyptian.

The snake foretold that a ship from Egypt would come and take him back to his country. When a ship did arrive the serpent gave him valuable presents to take back, such as incense, fragrant wood, and ivory. The “Shipwrecked Sailor” is the first in the tradition of castaway narratives, of which the best-known are the stories of Sinbad and Robinson Crusoe.

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant begins with a poor peasant named Khun-anup who is tricked off the road by the greedy overseer of a nobleman named Rensi, and forced to lead his donkey through the edge of the nobleman's crop field. The donkey, naturally, ate some of the grain, and the overseer confiscated the donkey and beat Khun-anup for his trespass.

Khun-anup searched out the landowner Rensi to appeal to him for justice. Although Khun-anup did not have any witnesses, the nobleman found his speech to be so eloquent and moving that he agreed to hear the case anyway. Rensi then brought the case before the king and told him of the peasant's amazing speaking prowess. After hearing of the speech, the king was also quite impressed. So much so, in fact, that he ordered that the peasant's case should continue to go on and that all of his speeches should be written down for the Pharaoh to ponder.

For nine days Khun-anup begged Rensi for justice, with each of his speeches more eloquent than the last. Finally, when it seemed like his case was getting nowhere, Khun-anup insulted Rensi and was punished with a beating. After one last speech—the best speech of all—he gave up and left to go home.

Rensi sent for the peasant to come back and, rather than being punished further, the peasant was finally given justice. The Pharoah Amenemhat, after reading Khun-anup's last speech, was so impressed with his eloquence and righteousness that he ordered the donkey to be given back and that the peasant would be compensated with all the property of Rensi's greedy overseer, including his job.

The story deals with issues of class--showing how even a proletarian could have the gift of eloquence--and justice, always difficult for the disadvantaged to obtain.

The Tale of Sinuhe is a narrative set in the aftermath of the violent death of Amenemhat I. The tale opens as the traveler Sinuhe speaks from his own tomb. Sinuhe has died and has been properly buried in Egypt. The tale begins with the death of the king Amenemhat (who we know from the “Teaching of Amenemhat” was assassinated). Sinuhe at this point is returning from a campaign in Libya with the eldest son of the king (probably the future king Senwosret I). He overhears a messenger speaking of another brother who also heard of the news and is returning and in a blind panic flees the country. Arguably, Sinuhe was momentarily taken over by the forces of “chaos,” as here was no logic behind his actions. Settling in Syria, he marries the daughter of an local chieftain, who adopts him. Over time he rises to power within his adopted tribe. Eventually, though, he returns to Egypt at the invitation of Senwosret I. The king accepts that Sinuhe had no control over his actions and blames the fallability of the human heart.

The tale ranks as a major achievement of ancient Egyptian literature. It combines into a single, economically expressed narrative an extraordinary range of literary styles, and is also notable for its nuanced examination of the motivations of its central protagonist. The poem continually examines the reasons for Sinuhe's flight and his possible culpability for it, without reaching a conclusion.

By placing an Egyptian character in a non-Egyptian (i.e. Levantine) society, the poem also explores the nature of what it is to be an Egyptian, subtly questioning, without ultimately undermining the standard Egyptian assumption that life outside Egypt is meaningless.

The story formed part of the inspiration for an international bestseller, the novel “The Egyptian.” originally written in Finnish by Mika Waltari (1945). Although set during the reign of king Akhenaten in the Eighteenth dynasty, the book features a lead character named Sinuhe who flees Egypt in disgrace, to return after achieving material success and personal redemption in foreign lands. Yours truly (like many others of his generation) read the novel, so that for good or ill it laid the first foundation of his understanding of ancient Egypt. The novel was also the basis for a 1954 Hollywood film.

Other MK writings have a more probing character. These texts reveal a new sense of the precariousness of human life and our situation in the cosmos. We must expect that history will “fluctuate between order and disorder, from generation to generation, and eventually end in a return to primal chaos, in which only the creator would survive.” (Parkinson).

We have already noted (in the previous class) the pessimistic accounts of social decline, which refract the events of the First Intermediate Period through the sensibility of the MK. There are also evidences of a new concept of kingship , anticipating Shakespeare’s “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” The poem known as the “Teaching of King Amenemhat I” takes the form of an intensely dramatic monologue delivered by the ghost of the murdered Twelfth dynasty ruler Amenemhat to his son Senwosret I. The narrator describes the conspiracy that killed Amenemhat, and enjoins his son to trust no-one. The poem forms a kind of apologia of the deeds of the old king's reign, It ends with an exhortation to Senwosret to ascend the throne and rule wisely in Amenemhat's stead.

All this literary evidence, it has been argued, reveals a major shift in world view, yielding what J. H. Breasted termed the “Dawn of Consciousness” in his book of 1933. For the person who is aware, the world does not “add up” in the simple sense that prevailed in the OK. Instead, paradox and uncertainty rule.

Two sculptures serve to exemplify the new mood. The first, of Sahathor, is an instance of the new category invented in the MK: the block statue, where the lower body is encased in a kind of “security blanket.” This particular piece was set within a confining niche, further reinforcing the idea of reclusiveness. Wrapped in his tight-fitting mantle, the worldweary treasurer Khertihotep provides a more subtle version of the theme.


This dynasty divides into two parts, the first essentially corresponding to the last phase of the First Intermediate Period, when three principal rulers, all named Intef, ruled the southernmost five nomes from the town of Thebes. The second part consists of three rulers named Mentuhotep. On coming to the throne (apparently in 2055) Mentuhotep II Nebhepetre started a relentless drive northward. In his ninth year, this was crowned by the conquest of the rival capital of Heracleopolis, speedily followed by the submission of the rest of the North. Egypt was whole again.

The other accomplishment of Mentuhotep II was his great funerary complex at Deir el-Bahri on the west bank looking back towards Thebes proper. The head of an Osiride statue in the British Museum comes from this site; cf. also the relief of the king embraced by Montu (damaged), plus Osiride statue and relief in Met.

The mortuary shrine nestles in a bay of the rock cliffs facing the town on the east bank. It continues the tradition of the more modest saff tombs with a courtyard and pillars. However, the new complex innovates with the use of terraces, and the verandalike walkways the complemented the central edifice. Thee were groves of sycamore and tamarisk trees. A long unroofed causeway ran up from this tree-line court to the upper terrace, with the central edifice. The main construction probably took the form of a square mastaba; behind it lay a hypostyle hall and the intimate cult center. The king was buried in a dromos tomb at the rear of his temple.

All in all, the great complex of Mentuhotep constitutes a revolution in Egyptian architecture. The classic pyramids had been free-standing, with four equal sides. The new concept is that of a linear trajectory, to be experienced by traveling (as the sun does) from east to west. The new “kinetic” layout was to enjoy great influence, notably in Hatshepsut’s complex which was built on an immediately adjacent site. Arguably, the kinetic concept finds an analogue in the grand avenues of European and American cities. Think, for example, of the way in which lower Fifth Avenue culminates in the Washington Square Arch.

We looked briefly at some other objects from the Eleventh dynasty, notably the fine sarcophagus of Queen Kawit. The sunk reliefs of this commanding monument show the royal lady at her ease at home, being attended by her hairdresser and a servant. The carving manages to combine an almost crude boldness of detail with subtlety of action (the hand gestures).

We also looked at some examples of grave goods. The servant woman in wood from chancellor Meketra’s tomb (now in the Met) is beautifully realized. The finery of the servant’s costume illustrates the emergence of the concept of livery--that aristocrats may flaunt their status by the garments assinged to their staff.


The new royal family moved the capital to the north, to Ijtawy, near Lisht, where they resumed pyramid building. (Thebes retained great importance.) The rulers are all named Amenemhat (“Amun is at the head”) and Senwosret (“the man of Wosret,” an obscure Theban goddess). The order of the seven kings can be remembered by the formula ASASSAA.

Towards the end of his reign A1 was joined by S1 as coregent; after his father was murdered, S1 took over as sole ruler. In portraiture AI is not well documented, but his successor S I is: the headless statue in the Met has an amazing sensuality. Note the beautiful little White Temple from Karnak, covered with reliefs of the highest quality.

In a number of respects, the reign of Senwosret III is a turning point. His sculptural portraits exhibit a remarkable transformation. The “air-brushing” process of idealization, so cherished in the OK, yields to a new honesty. It is not exactly realism in our sense, but in a most remarkable way the human face becomes a kind of membrane in which the record of experience produced over time appears in the folds and puffiness of the countenance. Indirectly, these portraits pose a kind of "diagnostic problem" that persists to our own day, the challenge of physionomic interpretation. To what degree is the character of the inner person detectable in the specific features of one’s appearance?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lecture Seven

The Old Kingdom established the grandeur and uniformity of the Egyptian canon in two major realms: architecture, with the pyramid; and figure sculpture. Later pyramids are rare, though sometimes impressive. Yet statues (that Egyptian invention) are everywhere: just visit Central Park. Momentously, the Egyptians placed figure sculpture at the center of the nonarchitectural arts. This is not inevitable, witness paleolithic cave painting and Turner, not to mention Chinese landscapes. Thus the ascription of centrality to the human body, usually idealized, is not a cultural universal. We tend to ascribe this innovation to the ancient Greeks, but it is the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom who deserve the credit.

Amid the uniformity, some EXCEPTIONS stand out. These bend the rules, but do not overtly flaunt their singularity.

The dwarf Seneb (Cairo) is a rare instance where, as an apparently realistic gesture, the common tendency to enlarge the scale of the male head of household was resisted.

Over against the idealized athletic body, whose fashion was set by royal statuary, some pieces demonstrate either obesity or emaciation. While obesity is permissible for members of the elite, outright emaciation is not. Bodies subjected to involuntary anorexia, as it were, include those of workmen, foreigners (especially desert dwellers), and prisoners.

Previously we saw instances of partial rendering in the so-called “reserve heads” and the bust of Prince Ankh-haf in Boston.

The so-called pseudo-groups represent another anomaly: paired representations of the same figure.

During the Predynastic era, small nude figures, male and female, have been plausibly ascribed to the fertility motive. Throughout Egyptian history small children have been conventionally shown naked, with one finger touching the lips and the hair treated as a braid on one side. With the generally delicate nudes that emerge in the Fifth dynasty another concept seems to be at work: the idea of rebirth (into the afterlife) as a second birth, when of course nakedness prevailed. Nudes occasionally refer in later Egyptian art. Comparative analysis shows that the nude does not have just one meaning (as Sir Kenneth Clark assumed in his monograph, “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form”) but several: it is polysemous. Among the meanings are fertility and eroticism; humiliation; vulnerability; challenge and hostility; display of the ideal body; and primal innocence.

We now turn to the other side of the coin, that is, the factors making for uniformity. According to an old, perhaps excessively rigid scheme, Egyptian sculpture permitted only six normative types of sculpture in the round. These are standing, seated, scribe (or squatting), kneeling, asymmetrical, and the block figure (in which the lower body is enclosed in a kind of impenetrable cloak). The first five stem from the Old Kingdom. Only the last, the block figure, had to await the Middle Kingdom to appear.

The more varied figures of servants show that this sextet of typological norms was not absolute. Nonetheless, it constitutes a kind of set of default settings to which the Egyptian artists recurred again and again.

Comparable, though different norms that govern bas reliefs and paintings. Different as they are these media share a common root in what might be called “the homage to the square,” as seen in the grid schemes that are preparatory to the bas reliefs and paintings, as well as the block origin of sculpture in the round. Parenthetically, we noted the Old Kingdom invention of sunk relief, which seems to have had a protective function.

Returning to our chronological survey, we noted that towards the middle of Fifth Dynasty Old Kingdom culture seems to enter into a kind of autumnal period, with less ambitious undertakings.
Still reflective of the grandeur of the Fourth dynasty is the colossal head Userkaf, the first pharaoh of the new dynasty. The Brooklyn Museum possessed three exquisite pieces from the sixth dynasty: the figure of Pepi I with the Horus falcon, another of him kneeling, and the dual seated image in alabaster of Pepi II as a child on his mother’s lap. Pepi, who ascended the throne as a boy, was reputed to have lived to the age of 100.

The often scanty information about the lives of the ancient Egyptians has called forth many works of imagination to make up the slack. The first, some say, was Herodotus, who thought he was writing history, but in many cases was just relaying gossip. Nowadays, the palm seems to belong to Christian Jacq, who has published at least 23 novels on ancient Egypt. Most of these are about later periods, as the pharaoh’s of the Old Kingdom kept their secrets well. Not suprisingly, fantasies have clustered around Khufu, as seen in the preposterous story of his prostituting his own daughter, and the magician episode.

An unexpected, and highly personal aspect emerges from an authentic ancient Egyptian document, the Middle Kingdom story of Pepi II, who was alleged to have been conducting a homosexual affair with his general Sasinet.

Discovered in 1864, the Fifth dynasty tomb of the Two Manicurists at Saqqara of Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep offers interesting visual evidence. Greg Reeder is probably right in interpreting the two as “more than just friends.”

As noted, beginning about the middle of the Fifth dynasty, the Old Kingdom enters into an autumnal or post-classical period. What are the reasons for this change? In principle all autocracies rely upon ideology (in this case the myth of divine kingship) backed by brute force. In practice, though, these two things are not enough. Comparative study of European and Chinese monarchies shows that they maintained their power through a gradual dispersal of assets to their followers. These assets comprised real property (estates) and honors. As a rule this process of gradual alienation was accelerated by usurpation on the part of the gentry, who were constantly seeking to convert lifetime appointments into permanent ones. The result of this process was an erosion of the central power and an increase of provincial prerogatives--decentralization in short.
Some have thought that a series of shortfalls in the Nile inundation produced periodic famines. The inability of the kings to deal with this problem would have lessened their authority.


[To begin with there is a small chronological glitch. Most authorities start the First Intermediate Period with the Seventh dynasty, while Shaw and co. prolong the OK through the Seventh and Eighth dynasties, on the ground that they were centered in Memphis. I follow the traditional sequence.]

The Old Kingdom had lasted about 500 years, a record that has rarely, if ever been equaled since (by my calculation, the British Empire lasted only some 340 years, from 1607 to 1947). Prizing stability above all else, the ancient Egyptians assumed that the good times would role on forever. After the death of Pepi II (about 2180), who lived to be 100, it became increasingly clear that this was not so. Egyptian society had experienced a nervous breakdown. Or in their own terms, Maat had fled.

After the reestablishment of order in the New Kingdom, Egyptians looked back in horror at the experience they had gone through, even though it had only lasted, at most, 129 years. Middle Kingdom writings paint a dire picture of breakdown: compare the lament of Ipuwer and other commentators. Here is Ipuwer: “The land spins around as does a potter’s wheel. The robber is now the possessor of riches. ... All maid servants make free with their tongues .. . The ways are not guarded roads. Men sit in the bushes [waiting to rob and even kill the unwary traveler]. . . . Ah, would that it were the end of men, no conception, no birth! The the earth would cease from noise, without wrangling! [As it is] the children of nobles are dashed against the walls. The once-prayed for children are laid out on the high ground. ... Noble ladies are now gleaners, and nobles are in the workhouse. ... Behold, the owners of robes are now in rags. ... If three men go along a road, they are found to be two men; it is the greater number that kills the lesser.”

Another commentator, Nefer-rohu, adds his voice: “This land is helter-skelter and no one knows the result. ... I show you the land topsy turvy. That which never happened has happened. ... I show you the son as foe, the brother an an enemy, and every man killing his own father. Every mouth is full of ‘Love me!’, and everything good has disappeared.”

Recent scholarship has shown that perhaps things were not so bad in the First Intermediate Period as later generations thought. To be sure, there was a marked decline in artistic quality, as we shall see. However, the decentralization process allowed provincial centers to assert their individuality, laying the groundwork for the more varied art of later Egypt. Freed of the all-seeing pharaonic bureaucracy, there was probably more personal freedom, marred of course by licence and some violence.

Examination of wall paintings, as at el-Gebelein and Mo’alla, seems to bear out the idea of decline. On the other hand, some small sculpture seem not notably different from works of the Sixth dynasty.

At all events, the following lecture will portray the recovery, which opened the way to the Middle Kingdom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lecture Six

[The best source of up-to-date information on the material covered in this lecture is the Met Museum catalogue “Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids” (1999).]

The Great SPHINX of Giza (known in Arabic as "The Father of Fear") is a colossal reclining statue, half-human, half-lion, Thought to be the largest monolithic statue in the world, it ia 73.5 meters (241 ft) long, 6 m (20 ft) wide, and 20 m (65 ft) high. Most Egyptologists think that the foreparts of the Great Sphinx represent the likeness of King Khafre. (The ascription to his father Khufu is generally discounted). There may have been an additional association with the lion god Ruti, and in its turn to Atum, the creator god. In later times the sphinx was connected with the sun.

As far as we know, the sphinx form was the creation of the Fourth Dynasty, specifically of Khafre’s predecessor Djedefre.

The Great Sphinx resides within part of the greater funerary complex credited to Khafre which includes the Sphinx and Valley Temples, a causeway, and the second major Giza pyramid. It is generally accepted that the temples, along with the Sphinx, were all part of the same quarry and construction process.

Hewn from the living rock, the sphinx consists of three major horizontal layers (called “members” in the technical literature). These have weathered at different rates, opening the way for some speculation, since discounted, that the sphinx is the survivor of an earlier civilization. At least once the Sphinx had to be rescued in antiquity, when Thutmosis IV had it partly excavated, following a dream.

The one-meter-wide nose on the face is missing. A kind of urban legend holds that the nose was broken off by a cannon ball fired by Napoleon’s soldiers and that it still survives. However, sketches of the Sphinx by Dane F. L. Norden made in 1737 and published in 1755 illustrate the Sphinx without a nose. Writing in the fifteenth century, the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi attributes the vandalism to Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi. In 1378, upon finding the Egyptian peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest, Sa'im al-Dahr was so outraged that he destroyed the nose, and was hanged for vandalism.

In addition to the lost nose, a ceremonial pharaonic beard is thought to have been attached, although this may have been added in later periods after the original construction.


The fine quartzite head of Djedefre (aka Radjedef) is probably the forepart of a sphinx. Another sphinx was found in the ruins of Djedefre’s pyramid at Abu Roash.

Most likenesses of Khufu are lost to history. Only one miniature statuette has been fully attributed to this pharaoh. Since he is credited with building the single largest building of ancient times, it is ironic that the only positively identified royal sculpture of his is also the smallest that has ever been found: a 7.6cm (3 inch) ivory statue that bears his name. In 1903 Flinders Petrie discovered it not at Giza, but in a temple at Abydos. Originally this piece was found without its head, but bearing the pharaoh's name. Realizing the importance of this discovery, Petrie halted all further excavation on the site until the head was recovered three weeks later after an intensive sieving of the sand. Zahi Hawass thinks that this unusual miniature is in fact a copy of the 26th dynasty, when there was a renewed cult of the king; in this case it would be the replica of a lost monumental statue.

The great Khafre in the Egyptian Museum is one of the most impressive of all Egyptian statues. It is carved of hard stone, now identified as anorthosite gneiss. Apart from the imperious majesty of the monarch, the statue is notable for the remarkable connection, fused yet separate, of the Horus falcon with the human figure. To judge by the surviving bases, it was originally one of twenty-three such figures in the Valley Temple of the king at Giza.

The relatively small pyramid of Menkaure finds its compensation, so to speak, in the wonderful sculptures of the king. The dual portrait of Menkaure and his wife (Khamerernebty?) is in Boston. The two figures connect, but do not interact emotionally. Close-ups show that both share the high cheekbones, bulbous nose, gentle furrows from the eyes, and slightly pouting lower lip.

These family resemblances suggest that the two were related, perhaps half siblings. (There seems no justification for the suggestion that the woman is the king’s mother.) This pair provided the template for many private dyads showing a husband and wife interacting in this way.

There are five surviving triads, all showing Menkaure with Hathor and nome gods for districts in which the goddess was particularly revered (there may have been eight originally). One is in Boston, the others in Cairo. The presentation of the figures shows a remarkable interplay: all are similar, but different. The Boston piece is unusual for the central position of Hathor.
Boston has two other likeness of Menkaure, a colossal statue (restored) and a head.


The pair of Prince Rahotep and Nofret is remarkable for retaining its pigmentation (the dark-light gender contrast, is conventional, not somatic). Rahotep, who held several offices, is characterized as “of the body of the king,” so that he was presumably a younger son of Sneferu. The group therefor belongs to the earlier part of the fourth dynasty.

The bust of Prince Ankh-haf in Boston is special in several ways. The figure displays a light coating in gesso, facilitating the realistic detail. It has been speculated that it originally had arms, but maybe not. Busts are occasionally found in later times (a Tut example was shown).

The 31 surviving reserve heads are also an example of pars-pro-toto. Their significance remains mysterious. Stylistically, they represent an extreme point of the idealization process.

The obese Hemiunu, now in Hildesheim, was a vizier to king Khufu. As superintendent of the king’s construction works, he may have been the architect of the Great Pyramid.

Ka-aper, the “village headman,” was another high official. Again corpulence is permitted to the high aristocracy, while reigning monarchs are never, to my knowledge presented this way.

The Seated Scribe in Paris is a superb example of the squatting type. In addition to being a scribe, Kay (apparently his name) was the governor of a province.

Ranufer, was supervisor of sculpture and painting. Accordingly, his two statues are very carefully executed--but in my opinion a bit dull.


These are found in tombs. Private tombs, even for the most prominent, were mastabas, generally in brick, with offering shrines above and the burial chamber below ground. The Perneb tomb at the Met gives a good idea of the above-ground offering areas and decoration. (Only a portion of this mastaba, which with its ashlar masonry is particularly luxurious, has been transferred to New York. One doesn’t see the air shaft or the underground burial chamber itself.)

The Ti reliefs come from one of the most luxurious tombs at Saqqara, located about 500 yards north of the Djoser complex. Ti was a palace administrator in the early 5th dynasty. One scene shows hippopotamus hunting, another cattle fording a stream. The purpose of the scenes is to recall episodes of the life of a prosperous member of the rural gentry, anticipating the continuation of such pursuits in the life to come.

The geese of Meidum, very carefully executed, are an example of pure painting, using local color within contours (no chiaroscuro).

The small figures of WORKERS reveal a more intimate picture of Egyptian life. Significantly, the sculptors felt free to depart from the strict canons of Egyptian representation.