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?

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