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.

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