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.

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