Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lecture Four


We briefly returned to the Predynastic decorated pottery to clear up the confusion left last time about the sequence light-on-dark (Naqada I) to dark-on-light (Naqada II). The superficial similarity with the ancient Greek distinction between black figure and red figure demonstrates the limitations of the diffusionist approach, characteristically reluctant to admit the possibility of independent invention. With its appearance of a “pasted-on” panel, the first piece (by Exekias) showed the unresolved effort (in my opinion) of much highly regarded Greek ceramics in reconciling the picture format with the shape of the support (the vase). The bulbous shape of the typical pot presents a particular challenge, met better in some cultures than others (at least in my view).

Before turning to the main theme of the lecture--the Early Dynastic Period (D. 1 and 2)--we sought to characterize some major features of the Egyptian style and its legacy. It was the achievement of the late Predynastic period, as seen in the Hierakonpolis mural, to set forth the two major parameters, flatness and the frame situation. (These fundamentals have remained fundamental in easel paintings to the present day, as seen in the Poussin and Albers examples shown).

Egyptian paintings and the closely related medium of low relief show certain typical features, including the maintenance of the elements of representation close to the picture plane, with minimal overlapping, and (sometimes) a combination of views--from the front and above. Typical and indeed systematic is the convention of “fractional representation,” which employs both profile and frontal views. The claim that this device means that the Egyptians had a defective concept of the wholeness of the human body seems gratuitous, as the procedure does not carry over to statuary in the round. One should be wary of the label “aspective,” which seems too limiting. A comparison with modern maps is instructive. No one expects a country map, say, to show all the features, including mountains, the contrast of desert and cultivated areas, and so forth. In reading a map, we make an implicit contract that certain types of information will be recuperable, while other types won’t be. Egyptian paintings and reliefs require a similar tacit understanding on the part of the viewer.

The Early Dynastic Period seems to have lasted some 350 years. As the takeoff phase, it was formative for “canonical” Egyptian civilization. Above all, this was the nation-building phase, as the kings deliberately encouraged a sense of nationalism (focused of course on their own persons). The regalia (including the two crowns, white and red) that were to signify pharaoh-hood throughout ancient Egyptian history debuted in this era. There is also evidence of the emergence of special rituals, including the Sed ovservance, whereby the king “renewed” himself. Unlike the shadowy dynasty 0, we have a secure king list for dynsties 1 and 2. Several deities are clearly distinguishable, including Horus and Seth, royal patrons.

Gazing back into the closing phase of the Predynastic (Naqada III), archaeologists have determined that crystallization took place from three nodal points ruled by territorial kings: This (and Abydos), Saqqara, Hierakonpolis--all in Upper Egypt. The conquest of the North is a well established fact. The conquest led to the emergence of Memphis as a pivotal center of control, and eventually the dominant metropolis in Egypt--a situation that persists to the present day with Cairo. Saqqara, near Memphis, came to rival Abydos as a preeminent royal burial ground, forecasting the emergence of the Pyramid District.

The Narmer Palette is outstanding both as a historical document and as a work of art. We noted the emergence of the system of registers (and the associated phenomenon of the ground line), fractional representation, and the so-called “hieratic scale” whereby size signals the social importance of the figure. The serekh, with its two characters yielding the readings “nar” and “mer,” documents the presence of hieroglyphic. (Recent finds have pushed hieroglyphic back some 150 years, but it still seems that Mesopotamia deserves chronological priority. Of course, the two systems are entirely different, illustrating, together with other early forms of writing, the human capacity for independent invention.)

We can hypothetically trace the antecedents of the Narmer Palette principles in several other early objects, including the Two-Dogs Palette in Oxford, the Gebel el Arak knife, and the knife in the Brooklyn Museum.

A comparison of the superb Wadji stele in the Louvre with the clunky (and later) Raneb stele in the Metropolitan suggests differences in quality. It seems that some patrons were able to command the work of especially fine artists, while others were not. A hierarchy of skill had emerged. In visiting the Met, be sure to examine the Raneb piece as well as the decorated Predynastic pottery.

Turning to architecture. we noted three types of early tomb. The first two types, the common mastaba and the relatively rare palace-facade type, are illustrated by the two examples created for the woman pharaoh Merneith. The third type, a protopyramid, appears in tomb 3038 at Saqaara, with its nine steps, erected for one Nebetka, a high courtier in the time of Den (or Anidjib).

The step pyramid climaxed in the Djoser precinct at Saqqara, designed by Imhotep, history’s first known architect. This vast complex (37 acres) was surrounded by a high wall (34 feet). The design of the wall (and the single entrance) reflect the advancing and receding panel design associated with monumental secular architecture (or so we assume), as well as the serekh, its miniature counterpart. The huge pyramid, incorporating several stages of enlargement, sits upon a vast labyrinth of underground chambers. Despite much work on the part of archaeologists, not all of this warren has been explored.

Recovered from the serdab is the noble, but mutilated statue of the seated Djoser. Despite (or perhaps even because of) the depredations it has suffered, this piece ranks as a major landmark in which the almost incredible grandeur inherent in the pharaoh image has been realized. Also surviving is the exquisite low relief of the athletic pharaoh performing his Sed run.

At the break, the first assignment was distributed; see the adjacent posting.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lecture Three


Assignment: Shaw, 61-88; Malek, 66-88.


The expression “Mind of Ancient Egypt” is probably not inclusive enough. This approach encompasses patterns, customs, and assumptions as well as concepts that are made explicit in texts. It might be called the search for the “deep structure” of ancient Egypt.

The endeavor is not unlike the attempt to assess “national character” in relation to modern peoples. Most of us do this in a kind of seat-of-the-pant way. We have been told that the English are polite and quaintly traditional, while Germans are industrious and orderly. And so we find such people in those countries--but not always. Nonetheless, there is a problem of stereotyping. As a result we need to separate misconstruals of national character from persuasive accounts. It is tempting to speak of the “personality” of peoples, but a nation is an aggregate of individuals, not some sort of superindividual.

Still, there are encouraging prototypes. A famous example comes from the brilliant American anthropologist Ruth Benedict. In 1946 Benedict published a book entitled “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” an effort to describe the national character of the Japanese. Her findings are summed up in the title: Japanese culture exhibits a tension between two dominant character traits: a deferential side, which defers to authority and manifests flexibility (the chrysanthemum) and assertive, often unthinking rigidity (the sword). Since she began work during World War II she was unable to visit Japan. She has been criticized for practicing an “anthropology of distance,” but that is all we can do with a “dead” society like that of ancient Egypt. Benedict rose above her lack of sources--she began work during World War II--and succeeded in putting aside the intense negativity revealed in the disgraceful deportation of Japanese-Americans to “relocation camps.” From her anthropological training, Benedict retained two valuable assumptions: 1) one must start from an assumption of sympathy (otherwise there is a rush to judgment); and 2) one must try to understand how the individual parts fit together.

As we noted above, in traveling abroad, even to a relatively familiar society, the temptation to judgmentalism is strong. For example, Americans visiting Britain often say: “Why do they drive on the wrong side of the road? (I suspect that Britons make the same observation when visiting the US.)

The perception that the Egyptians do things the reverse of everyone else occurs in a famous section of Herodotus’ “Histories” (2:33-34). “In keeping with the idiosyncratic climate which prevails there and he fact that their river behaves differently from any other river, almost all the Egyptian customs and practices are the opposite of everywhere else. For example, women go to the town square and retail goods, while men stay at home and do the weaving; and whereas everyone else weaves by pushing the weft upwards, the Egyptian push it downwards. Or again, men carry loads on their heads, while women do so on their shoulders. Women urinate standing up, while men do so squatting. They relieve themselves indoors, but eat outside on the streets. ... Everywhere else in the world priests let their hair grow, but in Egypt they shave their heads. ... Other peoples, unless they have been influenced by the Egyptians, leave their (male) genitals in their natural state, but the Egyptians practice circumcision. . . . As Greeks write and do their sums they move their hands from left to right, but Egyptians move from right to left. ... They have two types of script, sacred and demotic.”

Note that a number of these observations have to do with gender roles and are quite modern. What is not convincing, though, is the idea that a single trope--”they do everything in reverse”--can guide us. Herodotus’ ploy is the first in a series of stereotypes, that we are briefly reviewing. They must be set aside, before proceeding to a more plausible account of the ancient Egyptian national character.

Following the 1822 decipherment, Egyptologists made great progress in publishing and translating the texts that the explorers had been unearthing. Still, these savants often had trouble making sense of the whole. In 1905, for example, Adolf Erman (probably the greatest Egyptologist of his time) found Egyptian religion to be a weird stew, in which he could find no consistency. Such conclusions reflect in part the immaturity of the discipline, influenced also by the fact that Egyptologists had originally been trained in the study of the Greco-Roman classics, where different norms prevail.

At first this sense of bafflement took hold--instead of (ultimately) fading as greater familiarity led to a more sensible approach. In this first approximation to the issue, it was felt that. the problem lay not with the observer (as it surely was), but with the Egyptians themselves. They belonged to a “pre-logical” stage of culture, unable to take the steps that would be needed to resolve their contradictions.

We turn now to the background of this “pre-logical” assumption. The French scholar Lucien Lévy-Brühl (1857-1939) ranks as the first anthropologist to address comparative cognition. In his work How Natives Think (English translation, 1910), Lévy-Brühl posited two basic mindsets of humanity, "primitive" and "Western." The primitive mind does not differentiate the supernatural from reality, but rather uses "mystical participation" to manipulate the world. According to Lévy-Brühl, moreover, the primitive mind doesn't address contradictions. The Western mind, by contrast, uses conjecture, which must be tested, and logic. Like many theorists of his time, Lévy-Brühl believed in a historical and evolutionary teleology leading from the primitive mind to the Western mind. In this passage, evidently the ancient Egyptians got stranded along the way (such at any rate is the view expounded in a once- famous book called “Before Philosophy” written by Henri Frankfort and others). The English anthropologist Evans Pritchard critiqued Lévy-Brühl, arguing that the “primitive mind” does address contradictions, but does so differently.

As we noted previously, the Egyptians had three major creation stories. They compete, yet the stories themselves show an effort to bring order into complexity, as seen in four generations of the Heliopolitan version. The old idea that Egyptian ideas are “hopelessly confused” is the product of a lack of imagination on the part of modern scholars. Even today we must tolerate some contradictions, as in the contrast of Einsteinian physics with Quantum mechanics.

We no longer speak of the “primitive mind,” an expression that reveals condescension and a lack of careful comparative analysis. Today the prelogical claim is pretty much discarded, and we acknowledge that Egyptian culture is consistent within its own terms.

Another misconception is the idea that the Egyptian concept of the universe is “static.” This is clearly an exaggeration. The Egyptians prized stability, and sought to reestablish it when things had gone awry. They did, however, have a concept of improvement. Through careful attunement of the personality one could become worthy of the afterlife; this status did not come automatically.
Let us turn now to some culture traits that can be more plausibly ascribed to the ancient Egyptians.

A. Complementary dualism

Instances of duals are: the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt); the two banks; the black and the red land; the contentions of Horus and Seth. Anyone who could afford it had two houses: a temporary abode and a house for eternity. The two-gender system in language. One of the reasons why the Amarna religion of Aten proved so unpalatable is that is sought to repeal this idea of complementarity. Instead of two factors supplementing one another, there was only a stark contrast between truth and falsitity.

B. Stability

Ma’at, the goddess of justice and truth, did her best to maintain the stability that the Egyptians regarded as essential for individual flourishing. Wary of change per se--it could always be for the worse--the Egyptians acknowledged the need for improvement (kheper, personified by the scarab): through careful molding of the self one could merit the afterlife.

The pharaohs, it was claimed, aided Ma’at in this essential task. The existence of Seth, god of confusion, Attested that some perturbation would occur from time to time. Such “noise” would not affect the overall harmony.

Stability had several visual counterparts, such as the careful alignment of the pyramids, and the gridiron planning of mastaba groups and planned cities. The retention of the block form in statutes powerfully conveys a sense of imperturbability and stability. The execution of paintings was generally preceded by the laying out of a grid of squares. Individual features of the representation were then placed according to the preestablished coordinates. (This procedure is a little like our latitude and longitude, applied to a small scale.) Through the Egyptians showed a preference for the right angle, a view to be echoed in our own time by the architect Le Corbusier--while at the same time it was rejected by Buckminister Fuller.

C. Patrimonial government.

The pharaohs governed Egypt as if it were a family business. They could not do this alone, and required the assistance of the scribe class (the bureaucracy). The premise of pharaonic supremacy was generally accepted; such divine figures could do no harm Not so the bureaucracy, and Egyptian literature gives examples of individuals who appealed to the arbitrary judgments of officials. Implicitly, the protester relied on the principle of Ma’at.

D. Ethnocentrism.

Like some later peoples, the Egyptians were convinced of the inherent superiority of the Egyptian way of life. Their view of the earth was necessarily a restricted one, but it allowed for the existence of neighboring peoples. It was easy to disregard the desert dwellers to the east and the west; a nomads, they had no settled way of life. Encounters with Nubians and the mainly Semitic peoples of Western Asia were more problematic, as they had evolved complex societies. Nonetheless, the Egyptians tended to steretype them, as seen in Tutankhamen’s wood box. These ideas were the accompaniment of imperialism, in which the Egyptians established colonies on their southern and northeastern frontiers.

E. Earthiness

In the literal sense Egypt arose yearly from the mud deposited by the Nile inundations. There was not only mud, but dung. The scarab, a dung beatle, was important because it represents the principle of becoming or transformation (kheper) Khepri is the god of the rising sun.

However, by “earthiness” we generally mean something else--frankness regarding bodily functions and sex that shows their approach to be at odds with any sort of Victorian prudery. For example, the story of Atum’s creation of the first gods (Shu and Tefnut) shows them as emerging from his own body, possibly as the result of an act of autofellation.

By the 19th dynasty the enmity between Seth and Horus, in which Horus had ripped off one of his uncle Seth's testicles, was represented as a separate tale. Seth is depicted as trying to prove his dominance by seducing Horus and then sodomizing him. However, Horus places his hand between his thighs and catches Seth's semen, then subsequently throws it in the river, so that he may not be said to have been inseminated by Seth. Horus then deliberately spreads his own semen on some lettuce which was Seth's favorite food (regarded as aphrodisiac). After Seth has eaten the lettuce, they go to the gods to try to settle the argument over the rule of Egypt. The gods first listen to Seth's claim of dominance over Horus, and call his semen forth, but it answers from the river, invalidating his claim. Then, the gods listen to Horus' claim of having dominated Seth, and call his semen forth, and it answers from inside Seth. (In our eyes, the idea of “talking semen” is a bit bizarre.)

Geb (earth) and Nut (the sky) were entranced with each other. Efforts had to be made to prevent them from perpetually copulating, which would leave no room for humanity in the gap between them.

The ithyphallic god Min is known from earliest dynastic times, and perhaps from before. Other figures emphasize both male and female genitals.

We are tempted to regard such sexual and bodily themes as tainting serious, divine matters. Perhaps, though, the matter could be examined differently, as showing an effort to redeem and integrate aspects of human life that will always be with us.


As we noted earlier, the Egyptians kept careful records of the pharaoh’s reigns, eventually marshalling them into 31 dynasties. We currently place the start of Dynasty 1 about 3000 BC.

What happened before that? The Egyptians had some ideas, very different from those of modern archaeologists. For millions of years, the gods had kept the earth to themselves. Then, about 28,000 years ago, they decided to share the earth with human beings. There were two eras, the Age of the Gods proper (about 10,000 years) and the Age of Horus or the Spirits (a somewhat longer period. They also took a long view of the future. If all was well, one might expect to live a trillion years after being placed in the tomb.

Modern archaeology has established a series of periods. In all honesty, the paleolithic, with its endless scrapers and punchers, is not very interesting in Egypt (skim over those parts of the Shaw book). Things get more interesting about 5500 BC, when there is evidence of a more complex society, with pottery, some small sculptures, and evidence of social differentiation (as seen in the burials).

Flinders Petrie, the first archaeologist to investigate the matter thoroughly, set up a system of Sequence Dates, based on his excavation of burials (from 31-80). Nowadays we reckon on larger periods: Badarian, Naqada I-III. (The first two phases of Naqada were formerly termed Amratian and Gerzean, after two type-sites.) Naqada III corresponds to the transition to dynastic Egypt (sometimes termed Dynasty 0).

Pottery is our best index. Basically, the earlier pottery has light forms on a dark ground (Naqada I), while the later Naqada II ware is the reverse. (NB: In class, the instructor erred in ascribing the first group to the Badarian. This mistake will be corrected next time).

Characteristic scenes involve figures and boats, together with decorative motifs. The imagery finds parallels in petroglyphs from the wadis in the Eastern Desert.

The signature sculpture (as it were) is the Brooklyn Bird Goddess (actually one of a pair). Her gesture is paralleled in the pottery. Generally speaking it is hard to identify the (possibly) divine figures in these representations. The figure of Min is an exception. On the whole, though, it is frustrating the we cannot learn what we would like to learn about the origins of Egyptian religion as seen in Dynastic times from these early anticipations. It may be that the Predynastic people worshipped some gods who have disappeared from the later pantheon, while not yet knowing some figures who became prominent later.

Other small sculptures show different stylizations of human figures and animals. Some have a strikingly “modern” quality. They generally lack the canonical features that characterize representations from the pharaonic period.

The Hierakonpolis mural is a kind of anthology of late Predynastic motifs. Mesopotamian influence is evident, as is the warrior theme.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lecture Two



1) Here at Dynegypt.blospot, com, review the summary of Lecture One (below). Then read my essay, “Greece, Egypt, and the Near East,” which fleshes out the material that we could not complete in class at the end of Lecture One.

2) In the textbooks, read: Shaw, pp. 17-60; Malek, pp. 9-66.


1) Cyberland

For the best gateway to Internet material go to Greg Reeder’s, and click on THE BEST EGYPT LINKS ON THE WEB. This collection of 164 items is a mixed bag, for it mingles several levels--advanced sites consorting with introductory ones. (Warning: as is always the case with the Internet, there are some speculative sites and some trivia.) Among the most impressive are the “cutting-edge” sites on two of the most important locales: 10. The Lost City, on the Giza Mapping Project; and 33. the Theban Mapping Project. Several sites offer alphabetical lexica of the gods and goddesses, one with 115 (a realistic figure, alas). There are interactive sites, together with some reflecting special interests (e.g. 95. Autofellatio and Ontology).

For recent discoveries one can consult the site of Zawi Hawass, the flamboyant General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt (The Plateau, at:

On the whole, I find the museum sites disappointing, because they tend to illustrate only a few objects in their care. With some 250 photos, Cairo’s Egyptian Museum has the most. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a valuable Timeline, illustrated with a few objects. This site is best regarded as the prelude to a visit.

2) Printed materials. I still find these essential, because the best ones gather a wealth of material that would take much patience to assemble from the ‘net.

Comparable to our Malek text as general surveys are: Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt; and W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (somewhat out of date, but still the fullest one-volume account, with many references for further research). For quick reference, Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, is unsurpassed.

Mark Lehner’s The Complete Pyramids of Ancient Egypt, ranks as the best handbook on this important subject. The Thames and Hudson firm has produced a number of other books, using the “Complete” formula (which is sometimes a bit of an exaggeration). Among the best of these is Richard H. Wilkinson, The Complete Gods and Goddess of Ancient Egypt. Wilkinson has also produced an enlightening Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture.

As an introduction, I still have a fondness for Joseph and Lenore Scott, Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Everyone (out of print, but easily available); there are of course fuller and more recent manuals on this important subject.

For almost two centuries, specialists have labored to edit and translate Egyptian writings. From a scholarly point of view, the collection of Miriam Lichtheim, ed., Ancient Egyptian Literature (3 vols. 1973-80) remains standard. Yet these translations give little idea of the real beauty that some of these writings display; for that one can turn to John L. Foster, ed., Ancient Egyptian Literature. A good compromise between the two approaches is R. B. Parkinson, ed., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 BC (Oxford World Classics). Oddly enough, there seems to be no real history of Egyptian literature; this is a pity, because literature is one of the major areas of ancient Egyptian creativity.

A lavish monograph on a subject of perennial interest is Salima Ikram and Aidan Dodson, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians addressed issues of sexuality candidly. As yet we have no fully satisfactory monograph, but see Lisa Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt.

There is a glossy magazine called KMT (pricey), which I usually just glance at because the information is mostly available elsewhere.

3) A resource that has few peers is the Metropolitan Museum, right here in Manhattan. The collections occupy the entire North Wing (main floor). It is best to follow the historical trajectory, which is counterclockwise. The main bookstore at the Met is a good general source for printed volumes.

4) Summaries of the lectures appear here at, after the presentation. Supporting materials and research tips will also be found here.


As with most ancient peoples, the Egyptians observed polytheism, revering many deities. Most observers (and even Egyptians themselves) have been struck by the proliferation of Egyptian gods and goddesses, striking even by polytheistic standards. Unlike ancient Greece with her Twelve Olympians, there is no canonical list of the most important ones. (The ones shown on the handout are a personal selection by a French scholar, François Daumas.) To be truly proficient in the pantheon of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, one should know about a hundred, a quantity not expected in this class. In due course it will be evident which ones are most important in the instructor’s judgment.

The following is a basic categorization according to function. 1) Some deities correspond to natural forces, such as the air and moisture, the earth and sky, the sun and the moon. Of particular interest is Hapy, the Nile god. 2) Then there are gods with special responsibilities, such as Tawert who helps with pregnancy and Thoth, the scribe, who keeps careful records. 3) Many deities relate to particular places--towns and nomes--which benefited from the festivals which were found there. 4) Personification deities represent particular qualities, as Ma’at (truth, justice) and her polar opposite, Isfet (chaos). Note also Heh (eternity), and Shai (fate). These deities tend to be somewhat bloodless, lacking the colorful life histories of such figures as Horus and Seth. 5) In principle, the kings were divine. At times, though, this claim seemed to wear a little thin. If they were gods, how is it that they could not protect their tombs from violation by robbers? Addressing these doubts, perhaps, is the later tradition of the merger of the deceased king with Osiris, ruler of the afterworld.

Particularly striking are the animal-headed forms. The animal references may relate, in a general way, to the old idea of totemism (now considered problematic by anthropologists). Rarely does the reverse occur--as in the sphinx, where the human head concludes an animal body. The animal may also appear whole, as the falcon of Horus and the jackal of Anubis.

To be candid, the sheer mass of Egyptian deities, each one set apart with his or her distinctive characteristics and responsibilities, tends to create a bewildering effect. Apparently, the Egyptians themselves sometimes felt this way, so that they developed ways of linking deities: there are pairs (using siblings, such as Isis and Nephthys) and couples. Triads (family groupings) also occurred, such as Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Creation stories entailed genealogies, e.g. the Heliopolitan Ennead :

Shu -- Tefnut
Geb -- Nut
Osiris -- Isis -- Seth -- Nephthys

As worshippers discovered that two deities were “really” one, fusion could occur: Re-Harakhte; Amun-re. Some quarters showed the gradual emergence of the concept of a supreme figure: Amun-Re (cf. Zeus in Greece). This development, sometimes known as summodeism, allows for the existence of other deities, though these are subordinate to the supreme one. Finally there are transcendent principles, preeminently Ma’at, and the solar concept.

It seems that a certain uneasiness lies at the heart of Egyptian polytheism. Many felt must be some underlying principle that governs this welter; netcher (God) instead of netcheru (gods). A similar view sometimes occurred in ancient Greece and ancient India.

We tend to study Egyptian religion as if it were always the same. Yet we must not expect unchanging uniformity in human affairs. According to Jan Assmann, Egyptian religion evolves from a state of almost pure praxis (in the Old Kingdom, when devotion to the gods was unproblematic) to a new, more intellectual form, eventuating in something that we might term theology. This trend towards complexity first emerges after the time of troubles that preceded the Middle Kingdom. Theology reached its full flower in the New Kingdom, especially with the emergence of the New Solar Religion, evident from the reign of Amenhotep III in the 18th dynasty.

As described in the hymns of the mid-18th dynasty, the main features of this New Solar Religion are as follows. 1) The sun is alone in the sky, so that the sun god accomplishes his course in complete solitude. 2) The sun is distant, so that the sun god is inaccessibly remote and unfathomable in his essence. 3) Though distant, the light of the sun is on earth. 4) Light opens up the world. making it visible and useful to humankind. 5) Light fills the world with the incarnate visibility and “beauty” of the sun god. 6) Light reveals the god who is hidden in it. 7) Light grants the ability to see to all eyes. 8) Light gives life to all creatures, who live on the sight of the god. 9) Light is the gaze of the god, with which he beholds his creation. 10) Movement is the “work” of the god, which he accomplishes by rising and setting with miraculous constancy. 11) Considering both space and time, movement is miraculously swift. 12) In the periodicity of his movement, the god ever again create himself as a new and yet the same being. 13) Movement creates time, with its cyclical, rhythmic regularity; 14) Along with time, movement creates transitoriness. 15) And along with time, movement creates the lifetime (‘h’w) of every living creature, in whom individual essence and destiny can unfold. [This enumeration, which I derive from Jan Assmann, was not presented in class because of time constraints, but is a useful reminder that the Amarna revolution did not come out of nowhere.]

It is clear then that such ideas constitute the indispensable precursor of Akhenaten’s monotheism, the Amarna religion centering around Aten, the sun disk. What then was new in it?

The Amarna revolution lasted only about twenty years. It is the first instance of a FOUNDED religion, foreshadowing the religion of Moses, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (as distinct from the polytheistic religions which evolved organically), Amarna challenged the basis of every previous religious orientation. In general, polytheistic devotees acknowledged an easy tolerance. Not so the Aten faith which is based on a stark contrast of truth and falsity. The old cults are simply wrong. Moreover, the imagery of the Amarna faith is essentially aniconic, rejecting human and animal forms in favor of the abstract symbol of the sun disk. By the same token, Amarna aspired to be universal (the sun shines on all peoples), taking issue with the traditional Egyptian sense of ethnocentrism (national chauvinism).

These qualities are strikingly similar to the monotheism ascribed to Moses in the Hebrew Bible. In the past such correspondences have triggered the assumption that Moses might have been an officer in Akhenaten’s court. However, the time gap, amounting to several centuries at least, is too great for such a direct link to be possible.

There would seem to be two solutions to this puzzle. The first acknowledges the human capacity for reinvention. Writing, for example, was separately invented over and over again, in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. This may have happened with monotheism also. There is, however, another possiblity, and that is that a “subterranean” monotheistic religion persisted in Egypt long after the formal profession of the Amarna faith was stamped out. At all events, the emergence of monotheism remains one of the most intriguing contributions of Egyptian civilization.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Lecture One

Full disclosure compels me to acknowledge that I am not a professionally trained Egytologist. Immodestly perhaps, I still feel qualfied to act as your guide. I have visited Egypt twice, reflected closely on Egyptian objects in our museums, and have taught this course at Hunter College off and on for some twenty years.

Why have I elected to do this? I believe that Egyptian art and culture are of vital, universal importance. Many of the things that matter to us started in ancient Egypt. In fact the cycle of ancient civilization starts not with Greece but on the Nile.

Much of what is usually said about ancient Egypt--Kemet as they called it--is important and true. Still there is reason question some of the conventional wisdom about Egypt of the pharaohs.

1) Let us start with a famous truism: Egypt is the gift of the Nile (Herodotus) . There is no doubt that ancient Egypt is Nilotic, dependent for its very existence on the great river. (Only about a sixth of the Nile is in question--up to the First Cataract; further upstream lie Nubia, Axum, and Ethiopia). Each year saw a regular pattern of inundation from late June to September. Nature did much of the work that human toil had to perform elsewhere. The corollary, it seems, is that the need to control water resources led to absolute centralization under a single authoritarian ruler, the pharaoh, regarded as divine.

A great historian, Karl Wittfogel, addressed the question, why are some societies more despotic than others? (“Oriental Despotism,” 1957). He found the key in management of water resources. Where rainfall is regular and predictable, there is little need for such management. Yet scarcity is another matter, opening the way for domination: “agromanagerial despots claim to be benevolent, but the actually seek to maximize their own power and privileges.” One result is the pyramids. Wittfogel introduced the term “hydraulic society.” Ancient Egypt might almost be termed hyperhydraulic.

Is this analysis true? Each year as the waters receded the kings supervised adjudication of property rights. Maintenance of canals was required.

Still some comparative perspective is helpful. River systems characterize ALL the four primary civilizations of the Old World: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and Shang China. The other three all seem to have a city state organization, rather than centralization under a supreme monarch as in Egypt. So it seems that we cannot derive the poltical system in Egypt, so important for art and architecture, directly from the riverine environment. Ideology, including religion, played a significant ancillary role. (Note that it is no disgrace being a secondary civilization: viz. Greece and Japan.)

2) The Egyptian geographical details are as follows. Upper and Lower Egypt are the “two lands,” unified about 3100 B.C. E. Behind this dualism we can glimpse a pattern of local settlements, villages that became foci of little realms, a pattern that seems to survive in the 42 nome system, each with its god or gods.

Nomenclature tends to show a triad of options (ancient Egyptian, Greek, Arabic: Waset, Thebes, Luxor. Further; Mer, pyramidion, Haram (al Ahram). Current usage shows a shift in royal names. so that Chephren becomes Khafre; Sesostris, Senwosret. From Arabic come a number of recurrent name elements: wadi, gebel, kom or tell, bahr.

3) The sequencing of Egyptian history follows several templates. Egyptians tended to segment their history only into reigns, calling for a formidable feat of memory. At the end of the pharaonic era Manetho stipulated 31 dynasties. We still feel that certain dynasties have a “personality”: 3d the prodigy era (adolescence) of Old Kingdom; 4th the pyramid age par excellence; the 18th, worldliness. Before dynastic Egypt was the predynastic period. The now conventional sequence of Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom is of modern origin; this triad seems to have been introduced by the German archaeologist Karl Richard Lepsius in 1842.

4) Language: The Afro-Asiatic languages constitute a vast language family with about comprising more than 300 million speakers spread throughout North Africa, the Horn of Africa, northern West Africa, northern Central Africa, and Southwest Asia (including some 200 million speakers of Arabic). Egyptian is, of course, now a dead language (except in the film Stargate). The Afro-Asiatic language family includes the following subfamilies: Berber, Chadic, Egyptian, Cushitiic, Semitic.

The term "Afroasiatic" was coined by Joseph Greenberg to replace the earlier term "Hamito-Semitic" after his demonstration that Hamitic is not a valid language family. It is now most often spelled "Afro-Asiatic.” Afro-Asiatic is one of the four major language families of Africa identified by Greenberg in his book The Languages of Africa (1963). It is the only one also spoken outside of Africa.

No agreement exists on where Proto-Afro-Asiatic speakers lived, though the language is generally believed to have originated in Northeast Africa. Some scholars (such as Igor Diakonoff and Lionel Bender) have proposed Ethiopia, because it includes the majority of the diversity of the Afro-Asiatic language family and has very diverse groups in close geographic proximity, often considered a telltale sign for a linguistic geographic origin. Other researchers (such as Christopher Ehret) have put forward the western Red Sea coast and the Sahara.

Given that wavy-line pottery is found widely in the Sahara from 8000 BCE, and that the Neolithic agricultural technologies arrived around 5000 BCE. this finding sets a possible context for Proto-Afro-Asiatic dispersal. As it is known that the Ethiopian farmers moved into the highlands from the direction of Nubian Sudan, and attempts to translate the Meroitic script found in this area show significant Afro-Asiatic characteristics, Lionel Bender suggests that this area of the Southern Nile was the centre from which the Afro-Asiatic languages dispersed. The dates of pottery and agriculture set approximate early and late dates for this linguistic dispersal. The date of Proto-Afro-Asiatic would thus lie somewhere between ca. 8000 and ca. 5000 BCE or, expressed differently, between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Climatically this was the time of a "wet Sahara" phase with large rivers and lakes. The dispersal of Afro-Asiatic may thus have been a response to the recent operation of the "Sahara pump.”

Common features of the Afro-Asiatic languages include: a two-gender system in the singular, with the feminine marked by the /t/ sound; VSO typology with SVO tendencies; a set of emphatic consonants, variously realized as glottalized, pharyngealized, or implosive; and a templatic morphology in which words inflect by internal changes as well as with prefixes and suffixes (e.g haram/ahram)

Apart from these questions, are there cultural traits that spread along these linguistic paths? Pottery (not yet fully investigated in this light) might show some interesting common properties, assuming that pottery was invented before the dispersal. There is also the question of sacred kingship as found in West Africa (e.g. the Oba of Benin).

The stages of the Egyptian language are as follows: Old, Middle, Late, Coptic.

So much about the natural features of this group of languages.

What about the distinctive Egyptian writing system, commonly known as hieroglyphic? Egyptian writing is a mixture of phonetic, determinative, and ideographic elements. The matter is complicated by biliteral and triliteral signs. The example of mer (pyramid) was noted. The key to this complex task of interpretation was given by Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822.

At their finest, hieroglyphs have a beauty and clarity that makes them works of art in all but name. Indeed the transition from hieroglyph to art is a gradual one.

5) At the outset we said something about the origins of pharaonic Egypt. What of its legacy?

A. Coptic. By tradition the founding of Christianity in Egypt is due to the missionary work of St. Mark in Alexandria. In some instances, Coptic (written in a modified Greek script) preserves the original vowels, which were not written in hieroglyphic. A considerable number of gnostic Christian documents have survived (e.g. the Nag Hammadi finds). The stylized mummy portraits of Roman times contributed to the emergence of icons. Institutionally monasticism is the greatest contribution of Coptic Christianity. There may be some remote connection with the organization of pharaonic temples. Generally, though, the Copts were unappreciative of their pharaonic heritage: some monks deliberately defaced murals and sculptures of earlier times, as survivals of “pagan superstition.”

B. Islamic. The Arab conquest in the 640s yielded an uneasy coexistence with Coptic Christianity. According to Okasha El Daly, a contemporary Egyptian researcher based in London, progress was made by Muslim scholars in Egypt and elsewhere from the 9th century C.E. onwards In this writer’s view the first known attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made by Dhul-Nin al-Misri and In Wahshiyya in the 9th century, who were able to gain some understanding of what was written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, by relating them to the contemporary Coptic language. Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi, a teacher at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University in the 13th century, wrote detailed descriptions of ancient Egyptian monuments, Similarly, the 15th-century Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi produced detailed accounts of Egyptian antiquities. [In Dynes’ view, this is exciting research, which will go far to redress the balance. Yet some claims may be a little overenthusiastic.]

C, The hermetic tradition. This is a largely fantastic European elaboration of Egyptian wisdom based on speculative interpretations of the hieroglyphs, set against the background of the Corpus Hermeticum, ostensibly written by the sage Hermes Trismegistus in early times. In principle this approach was demolished by Champollion's decipherment of 1822. Yet something of the hermetic approach survives in the modern fashion for pyramidology, a series of speculative interpretations of the pyramids.

D. Influence on ancient Israel. In the Hebrew bible Egypt figures as a negative role model: the bondage from which one must free oneself. Yet modern scholarship has questioned the historicity of the exodus story. Egypt did, however, anticipate monotheism with Akhenaten in the mid-14th century B.C.E. A new analysis of Egyptian religion, currently underway, may recast the problem.

E. Influence on Greece. In three massive volumes (so far) of “Black Athena,” Martin Bernal has questioned the conventional view of ancient Greece as autonomous and self-generating, an approach that is encapsulated in such phrases as “the Greek miracle.” Bernal believes that Egypt made an enormous contribution to Greece. In all likelihood, time constraints will prevent us from returning to this important matter in class. See, however, my paper above: "Greece, Egypt, and the Near East."