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.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lecture ten

Last time we briefly considered the Egyptian contribution to town planning: the “Hippodamean” plan before Hippodamus. Most would agree, though, that the two most important Egyptian achievements in architecture were the pyramid and the monumental temple. It is to the latter type of monument that we turn today.


Because of the role of the gods, temples must have always existed in ancient Egypt. Yet our evidence is relatively sparse before the NK. The pyramids are the glory of the OK in northern Egypt, the temples the NK in Upper Egypt. Certainly temples existed in the north, but the habit of rebuilding them has erased much evidence, together with their role as quarries.

During the New Kingdom the status of the priesthood increased, with various temples controlling great estates. They began to play an economic role as centers of redistribution. Egyptians always loved festivals, and the temples capitalized on this predilection.

Two OK precursors help to establish (if only by contrast) the novelty of the New Kingdom development: the Valley Temple of Khafre at Giza and the ruined Sun Temple of Niuserre at Abu Ghurob. The latter consisted of a valley temple, a causeway, and a stone enclosure. The latter featured a stubby obelisk, preceded by an altar. Not far off is the model of a solar boat in brick.
The true temple was the abode or mansion of the god, represented by one or more statues. These statues generally came with boats (or barques) which were used for parading to the people. Normally, however, the cult image resided in seclusion in the inmost recess of the temple, the holy of holies, attended only by the priests. This zone is the true heart of the temple as we will see.

Let us examine first the “template of the temple,” as it were. At the Metropolitan Museum, the Temple at Dendur (from the start of the Roman period) is perhaps too abbreviated, though we see the two key elements: the sanctuary house (at the back) and the pylon or monumental doorway in the front.

One may look at the great Horus temple, perhaps the best preserved of all, for the key elements. The original core (lying athwart an earlier temple’s ruins) goes back to the third century BCE in the Ptolemaic period. This was later enlarged, the whole being complete only in 70 BCE. Generally, speaking the temple proper was only for the priests. The people could gather in the court outside the pylon, being admitted further only under special circumstances.

We pause to note some major features: the residence of the god in the inaccessible gloom of the holy of holies; the sanctuary is not congregational; the whole is kinetic in sequence--open courts vs. covered areas; along with the shrine, the pylon is the other major anchor.

As at Edfu, the choice of a site is often governed by a previous sanctuary. The original choice reflected some natural feature, such as a landscape feature or a water source. (Many temples had articificial ponds or lakes, with the most famous one being at Karnak.)

Ideally, the temple was laid out by the pharaoh. One began by fixing the plan of the temple by “stretching the cord.” Then gypsum was spread all over the site to purify it. Trenches were dug, and the bricks or stones assembled. Foundation deposits were placed at the corners (compare our contemporary “time capsules”). The whole temple was purified, and then presented to its god, whereupon sacrifices were offered.

The two great complexes are at the “twin cities” of Luxor and Karnak
In its present form the LUXOR temple was founded by the great Amenhotep III, with a columned courtyard, a pronaos (32 papyrus columns) a pillared hall, offering room, the barque chapel for the temporary residence of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, and a final area for the local Amun. Then Tutankhamun added a preface in the form of a conlonnade, seven papyrus columns long. Ramses II made a further major extension: columned courtyard and a great plyon with two obelisks in front.

Not only do we need to understand these buildings as complete (as far as we can), we need to see them as theaters of sacred ritual. Of great relevance here is the OPET festival. By the Twentieth dynasty it had come to last 27 days. It took place during the flooding season, when the people could take the time off. Theban citizens and their guests from afar celebrated the fruitful link between their pharaoh and the almighty god Amun. During the celebration the might and power of Amun were ritually bequeathed to his living son, the king. Therefore, the celebration belonged to the official royal ideology of the state and, not surprisingly, witnessed the personal involvement of the pharaoh. 

At Karnak, the northern sanctuary, the people watched the high priests disappear in the temple. In the privacy of the inner recesses, the priests bathed the image of the god. They dressed him in colorful linen, adorning him with jewelry from the temple treasury including magnificent necklaces, bracelets, scepters, amulets and trinkets of gold or silver encrusted with lapis lazuli, enamel, glass and semi-precious gems. The priests then enclosed the glittering god in a shrine, placing the shrine on top of a ceremonial barque or boat supported by poles for carrying.

Carrying the barque on their shoulders, the priests moved into the crowded streets where people elbowed each other to catch a glimpse of the sacred vessel. In Hatshepsut’s time, the complete journey was accomplished on foot, while stopping at different resting stations. Later, the boat was carried to the Nile and then towed upriver to the Luxor Temple. After reaching Luxor, the pharaoh and priests left the crowd behind, maneuvering the boat into the dark recesses of the temple. Incense filled the air. There was a ceremony communing with the other, local holy image of Amun.
During the Festival of Opet, onlookers could ask the god questions that could be answered by a simple yes or no. A man might ask if his brother in another town was in good health, If the boat dipped forward, the answer was yes; if it backed away, the reply was no.

More than anything, the ancient Egyptian population enjoyed the largesse of the priestly class during these festivals. During one Opet festival in the twelfth century BCE, it is recorded that temple officials distributed 11,341 loaves of bread and 385 jars of beer to the citizens. Since these items had been donated to the temple, this largesse was a form of redistribution akin to our own food pantries.

In size and accumulation of major monuments, the Amun precinct at KARNAK is indisputably Egypt’s premier sanctuary. Processional ways connected it with the Mut precinct, the Luxor temple 1 1/2 miles away, and the Nile bank. The MK has the oldest remains: the first huge limestone temple built in the reign of Senwosret I and surrounded by a brick enclosure wall. In front of this structure stood engaged statue pillars. In the rear half were three cult chambers, the last furnished with an alabaster plinth for the shrine of the cult image.

In the NK, beginning with Amenhotep, it rose to the status of Egypt’s national shrine. The temple was surrounded with an enclosure wall connecting with the newly erected fourth and fifth pylons. Pairs of obelisks were erected by the Thutmosids. A new pylon (the sixth) appeared between the barque shrine and the fifth pylon. Two big new pylons were erected in the southern axis towards the Mut precinct, the eighth (Hatsepsut) with four colossal statues, and the seventh (Thutmosis III) with two seated colossal statues and a pair of obelisks. Further major additions were made by Amenhotep III.


Some say that one cannot draw too precise a line between temples proper and mortuary sanctuaries. Certainly, this seems to be so in the NK. At any rate Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri has many features of temples properly speaking, while discarding the last remnants of pyramids.

Erected to surpass its neighbor, the Mentuhotep monument, the complex was probably designed by Senmut, Hatshepsut’s loyal factotum. The sequence of terraces and colonnades is breathtaking--even in competition with the massive cliff behind. Much of the detail of the interior was mutilated by Thutmosis III and Akhenaten. The proto-Doric columns of the Anubis chapel are noteworthy forerunners of the corresponding Greek order. The biographical frieze includes the picturesque detail of the fat queen of Punt.

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.

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?