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.


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