Monday, October 27, 2014

Egypt: 4000 Years of Art

Jaromir Malek
Phaidon Press Ltd.
ISBN 0 7148 4200 1

This 376 page book is a substantial weight though luckily for the reader not too large so that it can be read with little propping oneself into place. Egypt; 4000 years of Art opens with a nice introduction on the evolution of the arts of ancient Egypt.

The author makes really nice use of clear large pictures on virtually every page starting with a lovely Predynastic Naqada palette in the Ashmolean museum and Brooklyn's beautiful terracotta"bird woman" dated c.3400 BC. The objects chosen are a pretty standard fair of the most famous with a few harder to find objects such as the sower from the tomb chapel of Itet at Meidum and now in Manchester.

Jaromir Malek has made nice choices of objects though the provenance of his choices is almost completely omitted within the text. The authors choice of the broken off summit of an obelisk belonging to Hatshepsut at Karnak as a demonstration of ancient alteration was particularly interesting.

It is for me the lesser objects that make the connections between the famous and great pieces with the authors descriptions representing not only for the obvious appearance of the objects but the artistic value placed on it in ancient times and modern times. The wooden cosmetic container of a servant carrying a jar in the Liverpool museum an excellent example of a piece altered in modern times by a misguided former owners perception.

The author every once in a while introduces quaint and unusual details including about the leather funerary canopy of Esiemkhebi c.1040 BC. The presentation of the works presented in chronological order has been extremely helpful with Jaromir Malek writing an insightful study on the evolution of Egyptian art.

Egypt: 4000 Years of Art is designed and written in such a way that it is suitable for an enthusiastic 10 year old but sophisticated enough for readers of all ages.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Pharaoh's People

T. G. H. James
Oxford University Press
Great Britain
ISBN 0-19-281883-X

The late great T. G. H. James was, among other things, a Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities for the British Museum for many years. Mr. James opens his book with a break down of the sketchy records which tell the tale of the ancient people including the authors chosen subjects for his book from c. 1500-1400 BC.

These surviving documents include the tomb of the Vizir Rekhmire and other monuments of the reigns of the XVIII Dynasty kings, Hatschepsut, Thutmosis III, and Amenhotep II. The vandalized tomb of Rekhmire numbered 100 in the Theban necropolis, has an entrance corridor that starts at 3 meters in height and rises to a height of 8 meters with the statue niche at the end of the hall 6 meters above the floor, though no statue is present

The trustworthiness of ancient sources is reviewed with the blatant example of the battle of Qadesh in its many depictions and its use as propaganda where for thousands of years left Ramses II with a reputation as a heroic king. The discovery of the Hittite archives by modern archaeologist has now revealed Ramses II did not win a glorious victory at Qadesh but left a false piece of propaganda, which worked!

On the other hand the annals of Thutmosis III were carved on walls at Karnak that were deep within the temple where they would have not been seen by anyone other than priests and were likely carved in memorium to Thutmosis III. Tomb records of lesser officials though often glorify the tomb owners accomplishments sometimes do provide details not found in the official or royal records.

Mr. James takes up the role of Vizir from an inscription in the tomb of Rekhmire known as "The Installation of the Vizir", this documents Rekhmire's duties to be just and fair when carrying out his responsibilities, of which are many including judicial and bureaucratic in nature. This document is found in four tombs within the Theban necropolis and believed to be reproduced in all four tombs from a Middle Kingdom document.

As interesting as the book is, it will likely not be suited to a young person or those looking for a storybook but it is rather a more academic read with a page or two of authors attribution notes at the end of each chapter. The book is filled with tomb biographies from various nobles of the New Kingdom, of which on the subject of agriculture familiar to many if not most of the tombs, the farmer is an undesirable job and hard way of life, certainly compared to that of a scribe.

This message is further incorporated into these burials by the presence of shabti figures to do the owners work in the afterlife, including the sowing of the fields. Mr.James next explores the hieroglyphs and surviving literature involved in the teaching of young students to become scribes.

The materials possessed by scribes are explored as is the manufacture of papyrus and its allocated uses in documents. Fresh pages for liturgical documents such as "books of the dead" or rewashed pages written over with new texts for personal use such as letters. Mr. James informs the reader of the contents of many different styles of documents found and collected for the various museums particularly Cairo and the British Museum.

Metal workers are presented from the wall paintings found in many tombs but here of particular interest in the tomb of Rekhmire showing the Vizir visiting the workshops and the various activities occurring within. The creation of objects of necessity and beauty seems to have left little appreciation for the craftsmen who were responsible for them as these workers did not appear to live luxuriated lives and as a whole remain mostly anonymous.

The subject of the book is utilitarian in nature based on the occupations exemplified on the walls of the tombs and surviving documents. I was taken back for though the book was filled with excellent details it was a read of daily survival which I do not think would interest most readers.

The book is certainly a must read for anyone who wishes a career in Egyptology but I would not recommend it for the casual reader as in its dry minutia I lost interest in "Pharaoh's People".

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt

Robert A. Armour
The American University in Cairo Press
Fourth Printing 1989
Cairo, Egypt
ISBN 977 424 113 4
Dar el Kutub no. 4130/85

Though my readers will understand that the subject matter is not really my cup of tea, I have been fortunate to find this book recently in my favorite thrift and as it appears to come from a fine press I cannot help resist reading it at once. The book opens with the symbolism of the lotus flower and its appearance at dawn and retreat under the water at dusk.

The Great Ennead and the creation myths are explored beginning with the story of Ra of Heliopolis and his children, Shu and his sister Tefnut, who in turn beget their children Geb and Nut, who in turn beget Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. From within this incestuous clan the earth and all things are created including man through the tears of a god.

The book is amply filled with rather crude black and white line drawings which accompany the various descriptions of these principle characters. Professor Armour's interest in the subject is clearly reflected in the detail provided to the reader in language suitable to a teen and at times providing thought new to this reader.

     "At one point a black pig (an animal often associated with Seth) was brutally cut into pieces upon a sand altar built on the river bank. At another time a model of a serpent was hacked to pieces. At another festival, recently captured birds and fish representing the god were trampled underfoot, to the chant: "You shall be cut to pieces, and your members shall be hacked asunder, and each of you shall consume the other: thus Ra triumphs ..."

The author tells of the tales of the elderly supreme God Ra from his daily journey across the heavens and nightly through the underworld in his barque accompanied by various lesser deities who fight the evil manifestations of the underworld who seek to harm Ra. To the treachery employed by his great granddaughter Isis who covets Ra's powers.

To gain it she seeks to find out Ra's secret name, so that when the elderly Ra drools on the ground Isis takes possession of the earth and with this clay Isis creates a poisonous snake which bites Ra causing the god excruciating pain. Isis continues to torture Ra to gain his secret name which through pain he eventually gives.

Ra growing old retires from his position as supreme deity though he retains his power it is Isis' son Horus who becomes supreme god. The legends of Osiris and Isis are explored with great fluency on a subject most often too simply recounted without its contradictory stories.

Osiris is a beloved king who teaches civilization to his people including agriculture and dam building while Isis is a protective mother with terrifying possession of great magic. Isis' magic causes two of a friends sons, on separate occasions, to die of terror from the sight of Isis weaving her spells, these sons were not intended victims of the goddess but just happen to observe her magic, while in another case Isis offers to save a queens incurable son.

     "Every day the child seemed stronger, but no one knew what Isis did to help him. Finally the queen hid herself in the nursery to uncovers Isis' secret, and what she saw shocked her. Isis first locked the door and then built a high scorching flame behind them. Putting the child to the flames, she turned herself into a swallow which flew around and around the pillar making the most mournful twitterings."

The great ages to which Osiris and Isis have passed has left a large body of literature through the Old Kingdom pyramid texts with rising prominence in the Middle Kingdom and the worship at Osiris' tomb at Abydos. As Egypt became provincial the Romans loved Isis creating a body of work of her deeds and as the last of Egypt's gods she perhaps evolved the most of the gods as her powers became suited from one epoch to another to Roman ideals though Isis remains well known, even today.

It is Horus who dominated the Egyptian religion taking his father Osiris place as King of Egypt after winning the epic battle of the religion against his uncle Seth. Most of Egypt's kings ruled as "The living Horus" though a multiplicity of gods bear the name of Horus such as Horus the Elder, Horus the younger. Horus the child a Graeco-Roman period god displayed as a child with his finger at his lips and a side lock of youth was often depicted on bronze plaques known as the cippi of Horus.

The triad of Memphis consisted of the creator God Ptah, his fierce sister wife Sekhmet and their rather benign son Nefertem. The Apis bull lived its life within its enclosure at the great temple of Ptah in the center of the capital and was seen as a representation of Ptah.

It was believed that Ptah and Sekhmet were the parents of the deified architect of King Djoser's pyramid, Imhotep who became a god in the Late Period being represented on numerous surviving bronzes. The triad of Thebes is next explored with the sacred family being Amun, his consort Mut and their offspring Khons.

Amun being known as " the hidden one" was a relatively minor god until the Middle Kingdom when the Theban King Mentuhotep II brought the local Amun to prominence. Amun's priests assimilated Ra of Heliopolis' powers and divinity with Amun to create Amun-Ra.

Professor Armour lays down the common biographies usually put forward for the central cast, yet the reader is also presented with material such as gods who are not part of a triad, with father, mother, child components. The books characters are a pretty standard group but the author has created biographies which take the often two dimensional figures and mould them into much more complex individuals.

Nowhere is this true more than the depictions of Isis in this book, which is usually limited to her picking up Osiris' pieces and hiding out in a marsh protecting Horus. It is here however within Mr. Armour's fine book that entirely different and sometimes unsettling entities emerge from the Abyss of volumes on the subject making "Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt" well worth a read.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Death in Ancient Egypt

A.J. Spencer
Penguin Books
Great Britain
ISBN-10: 0140136894

    "Bodies were also set on fire after robberies, perhaps with the intention of avoiding any evil influence,". "In one case at Thebes, however, the reason was more prosaic, mummies of children having been ignited for the purpose of illuminating the chamber while the robbers carried out their work."

This 256 page paperback has within it numerous schematics to demonstrate the authors words as well as a nice section of black and white pictures, many of unusual note. Mr. Spencer opens with a standard rundown of ancient Egyptian history, periods, dynasties and rulers of note.

The author moves forward on the subject of mummification beginning with the desiccated corpses of the ancestors lying in simple shallow desert burials exposed by the desert winds. The desire of protecting the ancestors caused elaborate developments which encased the burial in tombs and boxes, this causing a rapid and unintended destruction of the body.

The author points out examples of important mummified bodies found, including the arm decorated with bracelets discovered in the First Dynasty tomb of King Djer which was thrown out at the museum along with its delicate linen wrappings, minus the bracelets, one of which was damaged deliberately by the museum director for better display. While the extremely rare and important Fourth Dynasty mummy of Ranefer found at Meydum was destroyed during bombing of London in World War II.

Mr. Spencer moves on in chapter 3 to the provisions of the dead from simple food pots, blades, combs and makeup palettes to tombs filled with every luxury a noble could afford not to leave to his, or her greedy heirs.This stock of dusty valuables would have been well known to the mortuary officials who did not rob the poor tombs within the individual cemeteries but only the rich burials, knowledge of which could only have been gleaned by those who buried the dead in the first place.

This problem made even the most clever tomb builder to ultimately fail at the protection of the grave from false corridors plugged with blocks of stone to sand devices that continuously bring more debris on the robbers as they dug. The unfortunate of many such devices intended to stop robbers is many were never put in place or closed after the burial perhaps with the intention for the return of the burial party to access it later.

     "Some details of the robbing of certain sarcophagi reveal once more that the robbers had accurate knowledge of the layout of the chamber; in one tomb at Dendera the sarcophagus stood tightly up against one wall, and it had been rifled by someone tunneling through that wall and the side of the sarcophagus in a single operation, without even entering the chamber."

The author delves into the various techniques of embalming including the basic three forms mentioned by Herotodus. The development of the art of mummification up to Herotodus' time has left little evidence of early dynastic embalming though the presence of resins and wrappings on corpses is known of, as are the various canopic boxes and canopic emplacements within tombs of the IV'th Dynasty nobles including the burial of King Khufu's mother.

The following two thousand years the embalmers perfected the preservation of the corpse achieving the best consistent results in the XXII'nd Dynasty with the art of mummification degenerating down to Herotodus' time and on into the Graeco-Roman era. The aforementioned section of pictures presents here the reader with excavation images including a fascinating funerary feast left in a II'nd Dynasty tomb and another picture of Ptolemaic mummies as left by robbers.

The ultimate goal  of a goodly eternity brought on a system of evolving fetishes as individual or group devices, such as servant statuettes or kingly devices like "magic bricks" inscribed with spells to keep harm at bay while placating the necessary gods. Mr. Spencer delves into coffins and sarcophagi of various periods including construction and development from a contracted coffin to anthropomorphic coffins in nests with vaulted lidded sarcophagi.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters is on the various animal cemeteries and cults practiced through animal sacrifices and burials from the elaborate Apis bull catacomb at Saqqara to lesser vaults containing millions of feathered occupants. We are told of the burial of the mothers of the Apis bulls,

     "The layout of the place is similar to the Late Period galleries of the Apis bulls, although on a much smaller scale and far more ruined. The axial passage is flanked on either side by sunk emplacements for sarcophagi, which had been deliberately smashed to fragments by Coptic intruders."

The presentation brought forward fine details not found in many books on Egyptian funerary constructs and beliefs resulting in substantial ground works for the reader to base future studies in the interest of students young and old on "Death in Ancient Egypt".