Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity
- Dates: On view since April 12, 2003
- Location: On view in Egyptian Galleries, 3rd Floor
- Description: Egypt Reborn: Art for Eternity (long-term installation). [04/12/2003 - --/--/2---]. Installation view.
- Citation: Brooklyn Museum. Digital Collections and Services. (DIG_E_2003_Egypt)
- Source: born digital
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The Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art Galleries
These galleries contain more than one thousand works of art made in Egypt and the ancient Near East between approximately 4000 B.C. and the third century A.D. Many of these objects were either donated or lent to the Museum by generous supporters. Some entered the Museum as gifts from the countries where they were excavated by trained archaeologists. Still others were purchased by the Museum on the art market.
The Hagop Kevorkian Gallery of Ancient Middle Eastern Art, at the bottom of the stairs, was named for an art dealer and collector who provided funds for the gallery in 1957. Twelve monumental relief slabs from the Northwest Palace of the Assyrian king Ashur-nasir-pal II (circa 883–859 B.C.) at Nimrud (in modern Iraq) line the walls. Smaller objects from the major centers of ancient Near Eastern civilization are installed in cases throughout the gallery. At the east end of the floor is the Charles Edwin Wilbour Library, named for a nineteenth-century American Egyptologist whose collection of antiquities and books came to the Museum in 1916. Entrance to the library is by appointment only.
For more than sixty years, the Egyptian Department’s curators have sought to acquire and display objects of “Brooklyn Quality”—extraordinary works of ancient art reflecting only the highest level of artistic and technical achievement. The result is a renowned collection exhibited in nine galleries, five of which opened in 1993. In 2003 four more were installed. Both installations celebrate the innovations and long-standing traditions of the ancient world and help us understand how ancient people lived.
Egypt Reborn Art for Eternity
Egypt was the birthplace of the oldest known civilization in Africa and one of the most sophisticated societies in history. Ancient Egyptian culture flourished from approximately 4400 B.C., when people first established permanent homes along the banks of the Nile River, until Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 30 B.C.
Throughout the centuries, from ancient times until today, countless travelers have marveled at the pyramids of Giza, the Great Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings, and hundreds of other monuments and sites. These places are truly impressive, but understanding how the Egyptians lived and what they believed requires a look at the exquisite works of art produced by generations of superbly talented artists. These creations were inextricably linked to all aspects of Egyptian life and belief.
The Egyptians did not accept death as final. Taking their inspiration from the sun, which “died” each night at dusk only to be “reborn” at dawn, they believed that all humans could be reborn after death and exist throughout eternity. Most of the works of art in these galleries were created to aid the Egyptians in this quest for everlasting life. Although the importance of the eternal led artists to emphasize continuity, new ideas in the religious, social, and political spheres frequently led to innovative artistic expressions.
The first section of this installation, where you are now, investigates how aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization—such as the environment, technology, and language—affected artistic creation. A second section—called Temples, Tombs, and the Egyptian Universe—explores the religious basis of Egyptian art.
The remaining galleries contain approximately 800 objects arranged chronologically. The galleries of Early Egypt, to your left, contain objects from the Predynastic Period to early Dynasty 18. Later Egypt is shown in the Martha A. and Robert S. Rubin Gallery to your right. Together these displays vividly demonstrate ancient Egypt’s rich and varied artistic tradition.
Egypt in Africa What Was the Relationship between the Egyptians and Other Africans?
Many European and American universities and museums separate Egypt from the rest of Africa, presenting it either in relation to the European cultures of Greece and Rome or as an isolated phenomenon with no connections to the peoples of central and southern Africa. These “Eurocentric” or “isolationist” approaches are modern. The Greek historian Herodotus—the so-called father of history—fully acknowledged the African aspects of Egyptian civilization when he visited the Nile Valley in the fifth century B.C.
It was not until the 1840s that a group of American authors, writing to justify the Atlantic slave trade, argued that the Egyptians were a separate population with no relation to other Africans. They did not believe that Africans could have produced one of the world’s most sophisticated civilizations. Although prominent African-American intellectuals—including David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and W. E. B. DuBois—challenged these notions, such ideas continued to dominate how Egypt was presented to the American public throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries.
Since the 1960s, western-trained Egyptologists have begun to rethink many of their assumptions about ancient Egypt. This trend is due partly to changes in American society and partly to the efforts of African and African-American scholars who continue to challenge outdated ideas. These modern scholars use the same name the ancient Egyptians used for their kingdom: “Kemet,” or “Black Land.” Linguists have identified similarities in grammar and vocabulary between the language of the ancient Egyptians and several contemporary African languages. Important aspects of Egyptian culture, including divine kingship and devotion to dead ancestors, are now seen as examples of traditional African approaches to social organization.
The debate over whether or when ancient Egyptian influence reached central and western Africa remains open. Some may question the very assumptions underlying a search for cultural traits specific to Africa. In any case, we continue to explore how much of Egyptian thought and behavior survives among today’s African populations.
Early Life along the Nile What Was the Environment of Ancient Egypt?
As farmers, herders, fishermen, and hunters, ancient Egyptians had to pay close attention to the sky, the weather, animals, and plants. The earliest Egyptians were so aware of their dependence on nature that they attributed divine powers to many of these elements. They understood that the sun was the most important of all natural forces, thus they considered the sun god, Re, to be the most powerful of the gods.
The second most important natural element in ancient Egyptian life was the Nile River. Every year from about August until October, the river flooded all but the highest parts of the valley. This inundation provided a reliable source of water for crops and also fertilized the fields with the rich black silt the river carried northward. The Egyptians did not consider the Nile to be a god but rather a semidivine spirit, whom they represented in reliefs and paintings as a very fat man holding a tray heaped with food.
The Nile was also the major highway for travel, communication, and transport. Even the gods were believed to travel by water: designs on some Predynastic pots show boats carrying religious symbols and a female passenger who may be a goddess. The river was not entirely beneficent. While it provided fish for food, it also sheltered lurking mud dwellers such as turtles and dangerous beasts such as crocodiles and hippopotami.
Though there were dangers, Egypt’s valley seemed safe and orderly compared with the neighboring deserts, where lions, wolves, and other predators prowled. Egyptians did go to the desert to hunt game and some even ventured farther into the wilderness to mine for gold and semiprecious stones.
Life and Belief How Did Egyptians’ Religious Beliefs Affect Their Daily Lives?
Religious beliefs and practices dominated ancient Egyptian daily life. Although American society attempts to separate the sacred and the profane, no such distinction existed in ancient Egypt. Even purely utilitarian objects were designed to express religious ideas. Cosmetic dishes, for example, were often made in the form of lotus flowers or fish, both symbols of rebirth and resurrection. In order to achieve life after death, Egyptians had to fulfill specific responsibilities: making sacrifices to Osiris, god of the dead; preparing a tomb; and arranging to be mummified. Probably because of the unity between their daily lives and beliefs, the Egyptians envisioned an afterlife much like this world, only better. They would still have to plow fields, for example, but they would do so while wearing fancy robes and jewelry.
The Egyptians often included objects from their daily lives in burials, believing that they would be necessary in the afterlife. Thus many of the cosmetic items and jewelry seen here were buried in tombs after a lifetime of use. Other objects, however—such as canopic jars, model food offerings, and tomb stelae (inscribed slabs)—were manufactured strictly as funerary goods.
Because so many classes of objects served both utilitarian and religious functions, craftsmen were reluctant to introduce dramatic alterations in design and decoration. Changes did occur, but underlying religious associations remained constant. For example, although its shape slowly evolved from elliptical to round, the disk of a mirror still represented the sun as creator. When an Egyptian picked up a mirror, he or she was reminded of solar creation.
Art and Communication How did art express the way the Egyptians thought about their world?
The ancient Egyptians had no word for art. Most of the objects seen in these galleries were meant to be used rather than admired. They were created as part of an intricate religious system explaining the Egyptian view of this world and the afterlife. On a very basic level, Egyptian art functioned like writing: statues, reliefs, and paintings were all produced to communicate information. In fact, the formal rules followed by scribes also influenced how a sculptor carved a statue or a painter decorated a tomb wall. Artists and viewers alike understood statues and two-dimensional images as hieroglyphs. The use of statue bases and baselines derived from writing, and the tendency of most two-dimensional figures to face right rather than left can be traced to the fact that the Egyptians usually wrote from right to left.
Because Egyptian art sought to communicate ideas rather than reproduce reality, artists had no need for techniques such as perspective or foreshortening. They did experiment with perspective about 1800 B.C. but quickly dismissed it. Instead, artists isolated each element of a complete figure, depicting each one in the most recognizable way. Thus the individual aspects of a figure were assembled into an image that conveyed the original subject without actually reproducing it. Such a didactic approach first engaged the viewer’s mind; only secondarily did it appeal to the aesthetic sense. Although the Egyptians mastered this technique, it was not uniquely their own. The same method appears in the art of most non- or pre-Classical cultures, including those of the ancient Near East, Minoan Crete, and the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
The Mid -Eighteenth Dynasty (circa 1479–1390 B.C.) Queen Hatshepsut and King Thutmose III to King Thutmose IV
HISTORY When Thutmose II died around 1479 B.C., Thutmose III, his son by a minor wife, became king. Queen Hatshepsut, the chief wife of Thutmose II, acted as regent for her young stepson, emulating earlier queens who ruled until their sons were old enough to exercise authority.
However, at some point between the second and seventh years of the reign of Thutmose III, Hatshepsut ceased to be an “assistant” and declared herself co-king, exercising the same prerogatives as any male ruler. One of her most impressive accomplishments was the funerary temple she commissioned at Deir el Bahri on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes.
Following Hatshepsut’s death, Thutmose III (circa 1479–1425 B.C.) assumed sole control of the throne and extended Egypt’s power as far north as the Euphrates River (in modern Iraq) and south to the Fourth Cataract in Sudan. Thutmose III described himself as “a king who fights by himself, to whom a multitude [of enemies] is no concern; for he is abler than a million men in a vast army. No equal to him has been found, a fighter aggressive on the battlefield.”
Agents of Thutmose III eventually sought to erase any memory of Hatshepsut by destroying inscriptions that mentioned her, thus reestablishing royal succession through the male line. His son Amunhotep II (circa 1426–1400 B.C.) and grandson Thutmose IV (circa 1400–1390 B.C.) ruled during Egypt’s transition from a militaristic society to the more peaceful nationalism of Amunhotep III (circa 1390–1352 B.C.).
THE VISUAL TRADITION Throughout the New Kingdom, Egyptian artists developed new styles, forms, and iconography, but still applied them in ways that conformed to the accepted limits of artistic convention.
Within the less than ninety years between the accession of Thutmose III (circa 1479 B.C.) and the death of Thutmose IV (circa 1390 B.C.), Egyptian aesthetics changed dramatically. At the beginning of their joint reign, Hatshepsut and Thutmose III tried to emphasize political and social stability. One way to do this was through artistic continuity; their sculptors combined placid elegance and archaizing trends in a style very similar to that known under the dynasty’s first four kings.
A somewhat different artistic spirit emerged late in the reign of Thutmose III and throughout that of Amunhotep II. The art of these two great warrior-pharaohs conveys a new sense of monumentality and strength: bodies are heavier and faces are dominated by straight lines, creating a sense of stability and aloofness. Centuries later, particularly during Dynasties 19 to 24 (circa 1292–712 B.C.), royal sculptors tried to link their kings with Egypt’s glorious past by imitating earlier styles. These artists selected the style of the final years of Thutmose III and the reign of Amunhotep II as the Egyptian “ideal.”
Technology and Materials How Were Objects Made in Ancient Egypt and What Materials Were Used?
Ancient Egyptians tended to adapt and refine imported technologies rather than invent new ones themselves. Many developments— wheeled vehicles, for example—resulted from foreign contact. In the Old Kingdom (circa 2675–2170 B.C.), the Egyptians attached wheels to cumbersome objects like ladders to help move them. However, they only began to use wheels for transportation after they saw the chariots driven by invaders from western Asia in the Second Intermediate Period, nearly a thousand years later. They then started making carts, wagons, and chariots of their own.
This conservatism grew, in part, from the way the Egyptians worked. Laboring in teams rather than individually, each person had a very specific job. New tools or techniques might have disrupted the work pattern of the other team members. Also, skilled craftsmen were usually attached to royal or temple workshops or to large private estates, where there was little need to speed up production or lower cost. The quality of the finished product mattered more than time and expense.
In manufacturing, the Egyptians did make inventive use of natural resources, especially the rich stone quarries in the deserts flanking the Nile Valley. They also imported many of the materials used to make the objects in these galleries—copper and turquoise from Sinai, gold from Nubia, and fine wood from Syria and Lebanon.
Amunhotep III (circa 1390–1352 B.C.) A Case Study in Permanence and Change in Dynasty 18
Artists working for King Amunhotep III were simultaneously conservative and innovative: they looked to the past to learn the ways of their predecessors, but they also broke new ground, especially in the development of fresh sculptural styles.
An interest in earlier art was only one part of a comprehensive concern for the past that arose during the reign. Amunhotep’s antiquarian fascination may have been ideologically motivated. By associating himself with the remote past, he broke with the political and military policies of his immediate predecessors.
Under Amunhotep III, priests searched through ancient archives to learn how traditional rites such as the royal jubilee (sed-festival) had been performed in the earliest dynasties. Artists borrowed details from Old Kingdom tomb and temple decoration that had been carved a thousand years earlier. Perhaps the most significant development was the new king’s devotion to solar worship, which had dominated Egyptian Old Kingdom religion throughout Dynasties 5 and 6 (circa 2500–2170 B.C.). This renewed movement came at the expense of the god Amun—the favorite of all previous Eighteenth Dynasty kings—whose importance diminished under Amunhotep III.
New ideas developed and coexisted with the old. Egypt became a truly cosmopolitan country with ties to kingdoms throughout Africa, western Asia, and Europe. Treaties linked Egypt to major centers of power, including Babylon, Assyria, and Mittani (all in modern Iraq) and Arzawa (modern western Turkey). In addition to his powerful wife, Queen Tiye, the king married several foreign princesses who brought non-Egyptian art, clothing, and ideas to his court.
Perhaps inspired by the style of ancient Near Eastern art, artists under Amunhotep III depicted humans in an elegant, stylized manner with slanted, almond-shaped eyes, short noses, and long, dainty fingers. Women’s bodies were rendered as sensuous, with physically impossible hourglass figures. At the same time, some depictions of the king show him in a highly naturalistic form with swollen cheeks and a noticeable paunch. These representations contrast with images of earlier kings that always depict the pharaoh with a youthful face and body.
New trends in royal iconography also reflect the innovative nature of art under Amunhotep III. Since before the First Dynasty, Egyptian rulers were depicted as valiant warrior kings—executing enemies or leading their armies into battle. Such traditional images essentially vanished under Amunhotep III and the king appeared as a god incarnate, peacefully receiving his subjects’ worship.
Provenance How Do Museums Obtain the Antiquities They Exhibit?
Museums most often acquire antiquities as loans or gifts from generous individuals and foundations, through archaeological excavations, or by purchasing them.
Official archaeological excavations were a major source of antiquities for the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the first four decades of the last century. In the early years of Brooklyn’s fieldwork in Egypt (1906–8), the Museum retained most of what it found. In the 1920s, the Egyptian government began exercising its right to keep most excavated material. Some antiquities, however, came to Brooklyn during the 1920s and 1930s through “archaeological division,” a process that allowed the excavating institution to retain objects not claimed by the Egyptians. Current antiquities law permits only official gifts from the Egyptian government or objects lent temporarily for scientific study to be released to other countries or museums. Museums and universities continue to excavate in Egypt; today the goal is to obtain knowledge rather than treasures to remove and display.
Before a museum buys an object or accepts it as a loan or gift, curators must check its history. Sometimes antiquities stolen from archaeological excavations or unearthed by tomb robbers appear on the art market. Purchasing stolen antiquities contributes to the destruction of archaeological sites and the loss of knowledge. The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Egyptian Department will not buy an object that left Egypt after 1983, when current antiquities law went into effect.
Why are the Noses Broken?
After excavating hundreds of sculptures, nineteenth-century archaeologists recognized that a large number of Egyptian stone statues have broken noses. Egyptologists still find mutilated statues in sealed tombs that have not been disturbed for millennia, indicating that the breakage occurred in ancient times.
There are several explanations for this phenomenon. The first and most practical is that when a statue falls forward, the nose is the first point to hit the ground. But many statues show evidence of deliberate disfiguring with a hammer and chisel, a fact that highlights the religious function of Egyptian art. The ancient Egyptians believed that tomb statues could be transformed into living beings through a funerary ritual called the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony. The “living statue” then served as an eternal home for the deceased’s soul. Smashing the nose effectively “killed” the statue. A tomb robber or a person anxious to destroy the soul of a dead enemy simply broke the statue’s nose to prevent the deceased from exacting revenge.
Also, certain crimes in ancient Egypt, including perjury and temple robbery, were punished by cutting off the culprit’s nose. Perhaps some of the damaged statues belonged to individuals whose crimes were discovered and punished posthumously.
The most famous broken nose is probably that of the Great Sphinx at Giza. Napoleon is often blamed for destroying the nose of the Great Sphinx when he invaded Egypt in 1799. According to tradition, his artillery practiced their skills by shooting at the Sphinx’s face with a cannon. However, numerous renderings of the Sphinx made long before 1799 show it with the nose already gone. According to several medieval Arab authors, the Giza Sphinx was defaced in 1378 by a zealous adherent of Sufism named Mohammed Sa’im al-Dahr who felt that the legendary statue was sacrilegious.
The Predynastic Period and the Early Dynastic Period (circa 5000–2675 B.C.)
HISTORY The two thousand years between the oldest known settlements in Egypt (circa 5000 B.C.) and the unification of the land under a single king (circa 3100 B.C.) are now called the Predynastic Period. In this formative time, the basic techniques of Egyptian craftsmanship originated and worship of many of the Egyptian gods emerged. The main stages of Predynastic development have been named for sites where their remains were first discovered: Badarian (circa 4400–3750 B.C.), Naqada I (circa 3800–3500 B.C.), Naqada II (circa 3500–3300 B.C.), and Naqada III (circa 3300–3100 B.C.).
Late in the Predynastic Period, tombs for the elite became larger and more elaborate, indicating that some local rulers had extended their territories and power. By about 3100 B.C., the land had apparently been consolidated into two kingdoms, Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt. According to Egyptian records, the semilegendary King Menes unified the two kingdoms into one. Menes was considered the first king of Dynasty 1 and the founder of the capital city of Memphis, near present-day Cairo. After him, all kings bore the title King of Upper and Lower Egypt. Dynasties 1 and 2 (circa 3100–2675 B.C.) are now called the Early Dynastic Period.
THE VISUAL TRADITION Most objects from the Predynastic Period come either from graves—where possessions such as figurines, jewelry, palettes for grinding cosmetic pigments, and pottery were often buried with their owners—or from the ruins of a few temples built toward the end of the period. Artisans worked the principal materials of the period—pottery, ivory, and stone—with increasing technical skill. Abstract figures of humans and more naturalistic representations of animals dominated the artistic imagery. These objects—some showing signs of use—probably had religious or ritual significance, but the relatively scarce archaeological remains from this early period reveal little about their specific meaning or how they were used. In some cases, material from later, better-known periods of ancient Egyptian art may provide clues. A statuette of a falcon, for example, is probably an early representation of the falcon god Horus. Also, amulets in the form of powerful animals may have been worn for protection, as they were in later periods.
The Early Dynastic Period inherited and developed many Predynastic traditions, such as the crafting of cosmetic palettes, fine stone vessels, and figures of animals. Much of this development occurred under the auspices of the kings, who were already commissioning monumental tombs and whose representations include early versions of crowns, poses, and royal ceremonies.
The Old Kingdom Dynasties 3–6 (circa 2675–2170 B.C.)
HISTORY During the Old Kingdom, religion, politics, and artistic production revolved around the king. In the early part of this period, during Dynasties 3 and 4, members of the royal family appear to have dominated a very centralized administration. This system became more complex during Dynasties 5 and 6, when an expanding economy and society produced increasing numbers of officials and priests. Archaeological and inscriptional evidence indicates that toward the end of Dynasty 6 power began to shift from the palace to the provinces. At the end of this dynasty, the central government collapsed.
The excessively long reign of the Dynasty 6 king Pepy II (circa 2288–2224/2194 B.C.) probably contributed to this breakdown. Ancient records suggest that he reigned for 94 years, the longest reign of any king in world history. A nearby case contains a small statue of Pepy—who became king at a very young age—sitting on his mother’s lap. Not long after Pepy’s death, Egypt fell into a destabilized period of social unrest and civil strife that modern historians call the First Intermediate Period (circa 2130–2008 B.C.).
THE VISUAL TRADITION The most famous monuments of the Old Kingdom were produced early in the period, during Dynasties 3 and 4. They include the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the tomb of the Dynasty 3 king Djoser (circa 2675–2625 B.C.)—the earliest-known monumental stone structure in the world— the Great Pyramid at Giza, and the colossal Great Sphinx at Giza. These constructions of the early Old Kingdom reflect the importance and power of the kings for whom they were built.
At the same time, the Egyptians developed and refined traditions of sculpture and relief inherited from Dynasties 1 and 2 into the definitive forms and conventions that characterize Egyptian art. Artists established poses and relatively naturalistic anatomical proportions for standing and seated figures, as well as the composition of family group statues that show the husband, often the largest figure, in the center. Early Old Kingdom artists also standardized the distinctive way of depicting the human form in relief and painting, with the head in profile, one eye and both shoulders in front view, and the rest of the body in profile.
Shortly before the end of Dynasty 5, sculptors began to present the figure in a new and less naturalistic manner, with an oversized head, huge eyes, a very slim body, and big hands with extremely long fingers. Thus the artists of the Old Kingdom developed two styles of representing the human body; both proved to be extremely influential in later Egyptian art.
Old Kingdom Tombs
In the Old Kingdom, kings were buried in or under pyramids. The Great Pyramid of the Dynasty 4 king Khufu (or Cheops, circa 2585–2560 B.C.) at Giza is the largest structure built in ancient times. Egyptians likened the pyramid’s shape to the sun’s rays and believed it helped the king’s spirit ascend to join the sun god in his daily migration across the sky.
Later in the Old Kingdom, the walls of burial chambers and other rooms inside pyramids were carved with hieroglyphic texts known today as the Pyramid Texts. Like the pyramids themselves, these magic spells were intended to help the king achieve his divine destiny. Each pyramid was also surrounded by a walled compound containing the royal funerary temple and other structures, such as smaller pyramids for the burials of queens.
The Egyptians buried private (nonroyal) people in underground chambers in order to protect their mummies. Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterworld where their spirits would continue to require food, drink, and the other necessities of life on earth. Tomb structures over burial chambers thus contained chapels where funerary priests placed offerings of real food or drink and recited offering prayers promising sustenance to the deceased. Representations of offerings were also depicted on the tomb walls, offering tables, and decorated slabs of stone called stelae. On some tomb walls, scenes of hunting, fishing, cattle herding, and farming were intended primarily to guarantee eternal renewal of the food supply. All these forms of real, pictured, and spoken offerings were believed to be received magically by images of the deceased in the form of tomb statues and representations on the tomb walls and stelae.
Women could have their own tombs but most shared one with their husbands. Depictions in a tomb—such as statues or images on false doors—may have shown a woman with her husband or by herself. Women did have their own coffins and, in many cases, separate burial chambers.
The Early Middle Kingdom Late Dynasty 11 (circa 2008–1938 B.C.) King Montuhotep II to King Montuhotep IV
HISTORY After the Old Kingdom, Egypt fell into about 165 years of social and political turmoil. This era, now called the First Intermediate Period (circa 2170–2008 B.C.), included the first half of Dynasty 11. During this period, Egypt was divided into a northern kingdom centered at Herakleopolis and a southern kingdom ruled from Thebes. Eventually a Theban ruler named Intef I (circa 2075–2065 B.C.) began attacking many allies of Herakleopolis. About sixty years later, Montuhotep II (circa 2008–1957 B.C.) came to power in Thebes and adopted the throne name Sankhibtawy (“He Who Causes the Heart of the Two Lands [Upper and Lower Egypt] to Live”) signaling his intention to defeat Herakleopolis and reunite Egypt. After prolonged military struggle, Montuhotep II succeeded, marking the beginning of a brilliant epoch of political and social stability now known as the Middle Kingdom.
The southern city of Thebes had been an insignificant place in the Old Kingdom, but quickly became an important urban center after reunification. Montuhotep II moved the capital there from the northern city of Memphis. He also elevated the war god Montu, whose main temple was at Armant near Thebes, to unprecedented importance, and he filled his court with loyal Theban officials. Even the visual arts reflected a new, southern flavor. When building a tomb for Montuhotep II at Deir el Bahri, for example, architects abandoned the traditional northern pyramid form in favor of a low, flat structure more in keeping with Theban architecture.
The dynasty ended with a whimper. The Egyptians characterized the obscure reign of the era’s last ruler, Montuhotep IV (circa 1945–1938 B.C.), as the “seven empty years.”
THE VISUAL TRADITION The unrest of the First Intermediate Period prevented southern artists from traveling north to see the great Old Kingdom works at sites like Giza and Saqqara. These artists thus developed distinctly local traditions. Under Intef II (circa 2065–2016 B.C.), for example, Theban relief carvers executed works in a vigorous, emphatic style that had little relation to classic Old Kingdom creations in the north.
Dramatic changes in artistic style occurred in the decades following the reunification of Egypt by Montuhotep II. Restored national unity allowed Middle Kingdom artists working in the south to travel freely to the north’s great artistic centers. They began reviving stylistic elements popular during Dynasty 6, such as large, exaggerated eyes and elongated fingers. This archaism—the conscious evocation of an earlier period—formed part of an effort by Montuhotep II to legitimize his reign by linking it to Dynasty 6, the last “Golden Age” before the First Intermediate Period.
Artists working for Montuhotep III (circa 1957–1945 B.C.) sought even older models. The soft modeling and delicate features seen on works from his time reflect the finest relief carving of Dynasties 4 and 5.
The Apex of the Middle Kingdom Dynasty 12 (circa 1938–1759 B.C.) King Amunemhat I to Queen Sobekneferu
HISTORY During the Twelfth Dynasty, while Egypt enjoyed nearly two hundred years of political and social stability, artists demonstrated unprecedented creativity and innovation.
The dynasty’s founder, Amunemhat I (circa 1938–1909 B.C.), sought to legitimize his reign and restore the stability and prosperity of the Old Kingdom that had been lost during the First Intermediate Period. He took the throne name Wehem-mesut (“Repeater of Births”), heralding his intent to aid in Egypt’s cultural and political resurrection. He also restored northern importance—which had diminished during Dynasty 11—by establishing the new capital there called Itjtawy. He also followed the Old Kingdom practice of being buried in a pyramid near the capital.
For the next one hundred years, a succession of capable, energetic kings made Egypt one of the most dominant countries in the ancient world. Egyptian merchants traded with Nubia, western Asia, and the powerful Minoan kingdom of Crete. Military engagements were few and generally insignificant. Architects constructed pyramids in the north and cult temples throughout the land, and writers composed some of the most important literary works in Egyptian history, such as the Tale of Sinuhe.
Perhaps to safeguard royal wealth and authority, King Senwosret III (circa 1836–1818 B.C.) stripped the nobility of its traditional status and power. One official lamented: “Hearts are sad. One who is used to giving commands is now one to whom commands are given.” Such pessimism appears in many other late Dynasty 12 texts and signals a distinct shift from the optimism of the dynasty’s early years. The dynasty ended with the poorly documented reign of Queen Sobekneferu.
THE VISUAL TRADITION Many works of art dated to specific Twelfth Dynasty reigns survive from sites throughout Egypt. This material enables scholars both to trace the rate of change in Egyptian art and to identify important local styles.
During the reigns of Amunemhat I (circa 1938–1909 B.C.) and Senwosret I (circa 1919–1875 B.C.), distinct regional styles arose. A comparison of two statues of Senwosret I, one from Memphis in the north and one from Karnak in the south, shows striking differences (see illustrations above). The Memphite carving imparts a sense of understated calm, while the Karnak sculpture exudes power and confidence.
Under Senwosret III (circa 1836–1818 B.C.) and Amunemhat III (1818–1772 B.C.), sculptors developed a style far more naturalistic than any previously known in Egypt’s history. Instead of the idealized, almost divine style of the past, the new depictions of the king began to include physical imperfections, such as deep facial lines and creases. The motivations behind these changes will probably never be known, but royal artists—governed by strict rules—would not have dared to execute such radically new images of the king without his explicit approval.
Second Intermediate Period Late Dynasty 13 to Dynasty 17 (circa 1630–1539 B.C.)
HISTORY During the Second Intermediate Period, Egypt was a divided country. Foreign kings called Hyksos (from the Egyptian word Heka-khast, or “Rulers of Foreign Lands”) controlled most of the country from their capital city Avaris (modern Tell el Daba) in northern Egypt. The Hyksos came from a west Semitic group known as Amorites and ruled during Dynasties 14 through 16. A small band of Thebans who resisted Hyksos domination in the south comprised the contemporaneous Dynasty 17.
Precisely how the Hyksos came to power is uncertain. Propagandistic texts written long after they were driven from Egypt characterize them as military conquerors. Queen Hatshepsut (circa 1478–1458 B.C.) of Dynasty 18 remarks: “I have raised up what was dismembered from the first time when the Asiatics of the North Land, [with] roving hoards in the midst of them, overthrew what had been made.”
Archaeological evidence contradicts Hatshepsut’s claims. Excavations, particularly recent work at Tell el Daba, suggest a peaceful infiltration of foreigners who gradually became a majority in the eastern Delta.
Whether they came as conquerors or immigrants, their takeover was facilitated when a now-unknown king of Dynasty 13 abandoned the traditional capital at Memphis about 1630 B.C. The Hyksos quickly filled the resulting power vacuum and gained control over most of Egypt. Eventually, this situation became intolerable for the Theban rulers. Sequenenre Ta’a II, the penultimate king of Dynasty 17, began military action against the Hyksos that eventually led to their expulsion by Ahmose, the first king of Dynasty 18 and founder of the New Kingdom.
THE VISUAL TRADITION The Hyksos closed the royal workshops that had produced statues and reliefs for fourteen centuries. A Hyksos ruler who wanted a sculpted image of himself simply ordered his workmen to find a statue of an earlier king, chisel off the old monarch’s name, and substitute his own. Many early Egyptologists mistakenly assigned statues to the Second Intermediate Period because they bore the names of Hyksos kings. Not until the 1920s did scholars realize that these “Hyksos” objects were really reinscribed works from the Old and Middle Kingdoms.
There was neither an official standard for style and taste nor a means of training young artists during the Hyksos’ reign. Local workshops staffed by self-taught artisans sprang up throughout the country to provide statues and reliefs for the local populations. The objects made by these workshops reproduce the form and iconography of traditional Egyptian art, but often in highly provincial styles. Human figures, particularly on stelae, look more awkward than those on objects made during the more stable Dynasty 12. Only the personal arts continued without significant disruption. The scarabs and pottery of the Second Intermediate Period, for example, are similar in form and execution to late Middle Kingdom pieces.
The New Kingdom Early Eighteenth Dynasty, circa 1539–1479 B.C. King Ahmose to King Thutmose II
HISTORY Early Eighteenth Dynasty kings ushered in a period of unprecedented wealth and power, now called the New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20). The first ruler, Ahmose (circa 1539–1514 B.C.), came to the throne at age eleven and his mother, Queen Ahhotep, assumed many early responsibilities. After her death, Ahmose memorialized his mother’s achievements: “She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt. She has watched over [Egypt’s] troops and protected them. . . . She has pacified Upper Egypt and hunted down the rebels.”
In the eleventh year of his reign, Ahmose destroyed Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, who had settled in the Delta. He later subdued northern Nubia, gaining control of the region’s rich gold supply.
The next two kings sought to restore stability and tradition. King Amunhotep I (circa 1514–1493 B.C.) erected a shrine in the temple of Amun at Karnak, linking the new dynasty with Dynasty 12 kings who had built extensively there. His actions also started a precedent; nearly every later king of Dynasty 18 constructed a shrine, gateway, or obelisk at Karnak, making it the largest and most elaborate temple in Egypt.
King Thutmose I (1493–1481 B.C.), who succeeded Amunhotep I, established another precedent by constructing his tomb in a secluded valley across the river from Thebes. Almost all subsequent kings of the New Kingdom placed their tombs in this remote area, now known as the Valley of the Kings. Thutmose I also adopted an aggressive foreign policy toward western Asia. He was the first of a succession of kings to invade Syria and Palestine to prevent the local populations from posing a threat to Egypt.
THE VISUAL TRADITION Artistic expression in early Dynasty 18 reflected the rulers’ desire to evoke Egypt’s past glories. King Ahmose modeled many aspects of his reign after the first two rulers of Dynasty 12, Amunemhat I and Senwosret I, who had also assumed the throne following troubled times and succeeded in restoring stability. Not surprisingly, Ahmose wanted to do the same. His artists expressed this goal by consciously reviving the stylistic tendencies of early Dynasty 12. Early Eighteenth Dynasty artists chose their models carefully but never slavishly copied older forms. Instead, they almost always infused archaizing works with some detail or stylistic peculiarity unique to their own era. For example, although a sculptor depicted Ahmose with the same wide-open eyes and sickle-shaped mouth found on statues of Senwosret I (see illustrations above), his face appears much broader and his sweet expression more subdued than the Twelfth Dynasty example.
The Amarna Period
In 1352 B.C. young Amunhotep IV succeeded his father, Amunhotep III, as ruler of Egypt. Almost immediately the new king ordered the construction of sandstone shrines, dedicated to an obscure solar deity called the Aten, in the precinct of the god Amun at Karnak.
Reliefs from these shrines show a major departure from trad-itional Egyptian art. The king and his queen, Nefertiti, appear with greatly exaggerated facial features, and their fleshy bodies display none of the physical perfection found in earlier images of the royal family. The Aten is depicted not as a typical Egyptian god but as an emblem: a solar disk with long projecting rays end¬ing in tiny hands.
In the fifth year of his reign, Amunhotep IV moved the court from Thebes, adjacent to Karnak, to a site about two hundred miles north. He changed his name to Akhenaten (“That Which Is Benefi¬cial to the Aten”) and christened his new city Akhetaten (“Horizon of the Aten”). Today this site is known as Amarna and the years the royal family spent there are called the Amarna Period (circa 1347–1334 B.C.). Eventually Akhenaten closed the temples of tradi¬tional Egyptian gods and ordered the destruction of all divine images other than the Aten’s. Particular attention was paid to Amun, whose name was effaced wherever it was found.
Often cited as an early example of monotheism, Akhenaten’s religion was actually polytheistic. The official Amarna creed de¬manded the worship of three divine beings: the Aten, Akhenaten, and Queen Nefertiti.
Akhenaten ruled at Amarna for twelve years. His successor was a boy of about eight named Tutankhaten (“Living Image of the Aten”). Not long after he became pharaoh, the young king re¬turned the capital to Thebes, reopened the temples Akhenaten had closed, and took the name Tutankhamun (“Living Image of Amun”).
The Late Eighteenth Dynasty
Beginning with the reign of King Tutankhamun (circa 1336–1327 B.C.), Egypt entered a period characterized by a return to religious and social orthodoxy. Tutankhamun strove to resurrect the former grandeur of Egypt’s main religious centers, which had fallen into decay under Akhenaten. He reopened ancient tem¬ples and restored their priesthoods. In addition, the king’s artisans made costly images of traditional gods such as Amun and Ptah that were erected in newly renovated sanctuaries throughout the land. Of all the king’s building projects, the most conspicuous is the entrance colonnade to the Luxor Temple.
After Tutankhamun’s untimely death, he was buried across the river from Thebes in the Valley of the Kings. His tomb lay virtually undisturbed until it was discovered and excavated by the English archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
An elderly official named Ay succeeded Tutankhamun. Ay had been an active member of Akhenaten’s court and may have been his uncle. Ay’s elevation to the throne indicates that Akhenaten’s family had not yet fallen into disfavor.
After a brief four-year reign (circa 1327–1323 B.C.), Ay was succeeded by the ultimate king of Dynasty 18, Horemheb. A former general, Horemheb filled the ranks of the priesthood with loyal followers drawn from the military. He devoted much of his formidable administrative skill to the reorganization of the Egyptian state, including the judicial apparatus. In the latter phase of his twenty-eight-year reign (circa 1323–1295 B.C.), he initiated numerous building campaigns, including beginning the Hypostyle Hall at the Temple of Amun at Karnak.
The Ramesside Period
The second half of the New Kingdom (Dynasties 19 and 20, circa 1295–1070 B.C.) is called the Ramesside Period because eleven of its eighteen pharaohs were named Ramesses. Much of Dynasty 19, especially the reigns of King Seti I and King Ramesses II, saw Egypt prosperous, in control of Nubia and Kush to the south, and wielding considerable influence in parts of the Near East. However, Egypt was soon faced with hostile powers in all directions but the south, and Dynasty 19 ended in brief and troubled reigns.
Egypt again prospered under Dynasty 20’s King Ramesses III, who successfully defended Egypt against invasions by Libyans and a coalition of Mediterranean, Aegean, and Near Eastern peoples who destroyed many states in the Near East. After his reign, royal power declined, weakened by numerous factors including inflation, governmental corruption, too great a dependency on Libyan mercenaries settled in Egypt, and pressure from other Libyans seeking to enter Egypt. Many important positions that had been royal appointments now passed from father to son, and formerly separate military, religious, and political powers became concentrated in the hands of a few families or individuals. Before Dynasty 20 ended, the control of Egypt by pharaoh was as much fiction as reality.
Dynasty 19’s art, some of which was influenced by the art of pre-Amarna Dynasty 18, represents the completion of the post–Amarna Period restoration of traditional Egyptian art. This restoration did not, however, mean turning the clock back completely to the period before Akhenaten’s reign. For example, much Ramesside art continued post-Amarna Dynasty 18’s tendencies toward complex and elegant costumes and the increasing prominence of divine images and other religious symbols on private statues, in tomb decoration, and on funerary furnishings such as coffins.
The Third Intermediate Period and the Beginning of the Late Period
Ancient Egypt was usually united under a single king. Egyptologists refer to eras when this was not the case as intermediate periods.
The Third Intermediate Period consists of Dynasties 21 through 25. In Dynasty 21 (circa 1070–945 B.C.), rule was split between the kings residing in the north and high priests of Amun living in the southern city of Thebes. Some of these priests and kings were of Libyan origin.
Dynasties 22 through 24 (circa 945–718, 820–718, and 730–712 B.C., respectively) were all of Libyan origin, and their kings often shared power with one another and with a number of local rulers, many of them Libyan chieftains. This sharing of power, which may reflect Libyan traditions of rule, in turn abetted the loss of Egyptian control of Kush to the south and the rise of a Kushite state. Without eliminating all the local powers in Egypt, the Kushite kings came to rule as Dynasty 25 (circa 775–653 B.C.).
The Third Intermediate Period ended when the Near Eastern power Assyria drove Dynasty 25 back to Kush and Egypt was gradually reunited under the second king of the northern Egyp¬tian Dynasty 26 (664–525 B.C.). With Dynasty 26 began the era known as the Late Period, the history of which is described in the next section of the gallery.
Despite political and ethnic disunity, the Third Intermediate Period was not an era of artistic decline. Egypt’s Libyan and Kushite rulers generally supported Egyptian culture. While monumental architec¬ture and sculpture decreased dramatically in Dynasty 21, the minor arts flourished. And from late Dynasty 21 on, a revival in all the arts, based in part on much older artistic traditions, occurred. This revival laid the basis for much Late Period art and culture.
The Late Period and The Macedonian Period
The Late Period began when Dynasty 25 was driven back to Kush by the Near Eastern power Assyria and Egypt was gradually reunited under Dynasty 26 (664–525 B.C.), successor at Sais, in northern Egypt, of the Libyan Dynasty 24. Dynasty 26 was prosperous but not sufficiently strong to prevent Egypt’s conquest by the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, five of whose kings formed Egypt’s Dynasty 27 (525–404 B.C.).
Egypt enjoyed home rule again during Dynasties 28, 29, and 30 (404–342 B.C.), when the main residences of the kings were located in turn at Sais, Mendes, and Sebennytos—all in northern Egypt. Dynasty 31 (342–332 B.C.), however, was another era of domination by the Achaemenid Persians. This second Persian Period—and the Late Period as a whole—ended with Egypt’s takeover by the Macedonian Greek Alexander the Great, whom the Egyptians welcomed as a liberator. The Macedonian Period (332–305 B.C.) encompassed Alexander’s brief reign as pharaoh and, after his death, the period in which his general, Ptolemy, son of Lagos, governed the country before assuming the throne as Ptolemy I.
Although ancient Egypt’s population often included significant groups of foreign origin, this was especially the situation from Dynasty 26 on. Many of the newcomers to the land were Greeks, in part because of the strong military, political, and commercial ties between the Greek world and Dynasties 26, 29, and 30. Being included briefly in two far-flung empires also helped in-crease the presence in Egypt of still other peoples. Hence, some late Egyptian art is only partially Egyptian or even un-Egyptian. The Egyptians, however, clung tenaciously to their culture, and foreign rulers knew that their acceptance depended on playing the traditional role of pharaoh. Consequently, most late Egyptian art is totally Egyptian in nature.
The Ptolemaic Period and the Beginning of the Roman Period
The accession to the throne of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemy, son of Lagos, in 305 B.C. helped guarantee one of Alexander the Great’s legacies: the existence in Egypt of two official civilizations.
Following the lead of Alexander and many foreign pharaohs before him, King Ptolemy I and the members of his family who succeeded him played the roles of traditional Egyptian royalty. Also like Alexander, they resided in the basically Greek city of Alexandria that he founded. Like him, too, they were Hellenistic rulers and supported their native civilization.
During the first part of the Ptolemaic Period, Egypt was prosper¬ous and powerful beyond its borders. As time passed, however, the Ptolemaic dynasty faced occasional civil unrest, especially in southern Egypt, as well as court intrigues and, most importantly, the growing power of Rome. The last great Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII, attempted, through her associations first with Julius Caesar and after his death with Marc Antony, to preserve her dynasty’s independence and even to vie with Rome for world power. In 30 B.C., however, she and Marc Antony were defeated by Rome, led by Octavian, who soon became the emperor Augus¬tus. Thus began Egypt’s Roman Period, when the country was the property of the emperors of Rome.
If Ptolemaic Egypt was home to two civilizations, it was also home to two different arts created in their service. As in earlier times, the vitality and tenacity of pharaonic culture meant that pharaonic art was amazingly little influenced by foreign ideas. Although native Egyptian civilization and its art would begin to decline soon after Egypt’s conquest by Rome, their death was still centuries off when Augustus became the first of many Roman emperors to play the role of pharaoh.
The Egyptocentric Universe
Because of its situation in Africa at the juncture of the African, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean worlds, Egypt both influenced and was influenced by other civilizations. Nevertheless, Egyptian civilization remained essentially self-centered. Egyptian thought often equated Egypt with the universe and considered everyone and everything outside habitable Egypt, even Egypt’s deserts and swamps, part of the ocean of chaos called Nun within which the universe was believed to have been created.
Egypt’s environment was normally benign and dependable, contributing to a belief in a divinely established order to the universe personified by the goddess Ma`at. In the Nile’s annual flood, which kept Egypt from being barren, and in the sun’s daily journey, so dramatic in Egypt’s cloudless sky, the Egyptians found inspiration for the conviction that all existence was a recurring cycle of creation (birth), degeneration (death), and re-creation (rebirth)—an idea reflected in much Egyptian art. As long as Ma`at was maintained, the solar Creator would “die” each evening, bring renewed life to the dead in the netherworld each night, and be “reborn” each dawn.
However, the chaos surrounding the universe always threatened Ma`at, meaning Egypt’s sociopolitical order as well as the equilibrium of the natural world. Egyptian art is thus full of images of order triumphing over chaos, and the main focus of these images is pharaoh, whose task it was to orchestrate earthly adherence to Ma`at while assisting the deities in protecting Ma`at and regenerating creation.
With the Egyptians’ emphasis on cycles came a sense of cyclical time in which the past, particularly the time of creation, was a model for the present. This concept helps explain both Egyptian conservatism and the frequent revivals in Egyptian religion and art. However, Ma`at was a flexible equilibrium, and the Egyptians also had a sense of linear time. If Egyptian art and theology display great continuity, they also show major chronological and regional variations. The Egyptians could accommodate many viewpoints, as long as Ma`at was preserved.
Temples, Tombs, and the Egyptian Universe
Art does not exist in a vacuum. It expresses the circumstances, feelings, beliefs, and aspirations of its makers. Most ancient Egyptian art was made, in whole or in part, for religious purposes. In ancient Egypt there was no division between church and state, and religious beliefs and practices were a part of most aspects of life.
The goal of this installation is to provide an introduction to the main religious and archaeological contexts of ancient Egyptian art, the basic elements of its iconography, and some of the ways that its subject matter and style functioned to express spiritual beliefs.
The objects and didactic labels in this first of the installation’s three galleries are arranged as indicated in the plan. Displays 1–3 concern the Egyptian environment and how it may have been the basis for fundamental beliefs concerning the creation and preservation of the ordered universe and the existence of a divine kingship. Display 4 illustrates the idea that the king of Egypt was considered the earthly heir of this divine office, and Displays 5–7 concern such aspects of the king’s paramount position in the Egyptian state as his role as leader of the human effort to preserve the universe. Further information about ancient Egypt and its art is available at the Resource Center.
Although the daily rites of Egyptian temples were accessible only to the king, the queen, and the senior clergy, the population at large was not entirely cut off from the major deities and their state cults. Certain temple areas, such as entrances and courtyards, were sometimes open to the public, and some temples had special public places where the temple’s god or gods could “hear prayers.” Some temple statues of kings served to convey prayers to the deities, and visitors to a temple could leave votive offerings such as stelae or bronze figures of gods in thanks or supplication. In the later periods of ancient Egyptian history some cults even al¬lowed public access to the single live animal that the cult treated as the living manifestation of its deity, and mummified animals of species sacred to gods became common votive offerings.
The public’s greatest opportunity to take part in the official cults, however, occurred during religious festivals featuring processions of special enshrined cult images borne on boats sailed or carried by priests. We know most about such festivals, the ancient Egyp¬tian equivalent of public holidays, at the ancient city of Thebes, where those that linked the temples on the east bank of the Nile to the temples and funerary monuments on the west bank were believed to benefit both the living and the dead.
There were also religious beliefs and practices whose main focus was not temples but the home or even the tomb. In the home, for example, one might invoke divine protection in connection with maternity and childbirth, and in both the home and a tomb one might hope to contact one’s deceased relatives, who were believed capable of helping or harming those they had left behind. Unfortunately, the actual evidence we have for such relatively humble religious practices is confined mainly to objects and images made for individuals economically far removed from the mass of the Egyptian people, about whose religious life we know extremely little. Although Egyptian art was made mainly in the service of religious beliefs, both “official” and “popular,” it was created for that small portion of the population who could afford it.