Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Life & Times of Cleopatra Queen of Egypt

Arthur Weigall
Keystone Library
Thornton Butterworth Ltd.
ISBN 0-7103-1001-3

     "You shall not tell me by languages and titles a catalogue of the volumes you have read. You shall make me feel what periods you have lived."

This attractive book comes with three foldout maps, some black and white pictures being originally published in 1914. The author Arthur Weigall is perhaps best remembered for his work in the excavation of Egypt's Valley of kings tomb 55 which some believe contained the mummy of the Pharaoh Akhenaton.

The book opens with a look at Cleopatra's character which has been much laid out by Rome and those who might be less than sympathetic to the young Ptolemaic queen as to see her a temptress rather than a young girl manipulated by the much older Julius Caeser, who possessed a long history of womanizing. The young queen is remembered as a dotting mother to her four children including twins and the dynasty's heir Caesarian.

The reader is made acquainted with the city of Alexandria, its monuments, layout and populace of Cleopatra's time, the character of which is more European than Egyptian. We are told of the Ptolemaic royal family that they were a little dysfunctional,

     "Ptolemy III, according to Justin, was murdered by his son Ptolemy IV, who also seems to have planned at one time and another the murders of his brother Magas, his uncle Lysimachus, his mother Berenice, and his wife Arsinoe." "Ptolemy VIII murdered his young nephew, the heir to the throne, and married the dead boys mother, the widowed Queen Cleopatra II, who shortly afterwards presented him with a baby, Memphites, whose paternal parentage is doubtful. Ptolemy later, according to some accounts, murdered this child and sent the body in pieces to the mother. He then married his niece, Cleopatra III; and she, on being left a widow, appears to have murdered Cleopatra II. This Cleopatra III bore a son who later ascended the throne as Ptolemy XI, whom she afterwards attempted to murder, but the tables being turned she was murdered by him."

This familial behaviour goes on but if this is not bad enough our Cleopatra VII finds herself at 18 married to her 10 year old brother who is surrounded by the most powerful of the palace staff and soon finds herself in flight for her life. The arrival of Pompey the great to seek refuge in Alexandria places King Ptolemy and his men in a difficult situation of taking sides against Julius Caeser by welcoming Pompey who has just lost a battle against Caeser on the plains of Pharsalia.

The solution for the Ptolemaic court out of this conundrum is the murder of Pompey complete with decapitation, an act which is not entirely pleasing to Caeser.  The character of the elderly Caeser is examined including the bedding of many of the wives and daughters of his fellow men.

     "He had no particular religion, not much honor, and few high principles; and in this regard all that can be said in his favour is that he was perfectly free from cant, never pretended to be virtuous, nor attempted to hide from his contemporaries the multitude of his sins. As a young man he indulged in every kind of vice, and so scandalous was his reputation for licentiousness that it was a matter of blank astonishment to his Roman friends when, nevertheless, he proved himself so brave and strenuous a soldier."

The relationship between Caeser and Cleopatra is viewed as the young queen who's position at the Alexandrian palace is shaky against her brother and his men and who conspire to rid Ptolemy of his sister. Unfortunately for them Caeser destroys the conspirators including young Ptolemy who is sent to his army to die in a vain effort to recapture the palace and his throne.

With Caeser's men in control of the palace and Cleopatra's position on the throne secure Caeser stays until Cleopatra gives birth to his son, Caeserian. After months of pleasure in Egypt Caeser now returns to Rome and his ambitions found there, though he is soon followed by Cleopatra, who together plan an Egypto-Roman empire with Caeser and Cleopatra ruling as king and queen.

 These ambitions are a threat to Octavian and the senate of Rome who's members thwart these grandiose thoughts and kill Caeser sending Cleopatra packing. The standard story has it that the death of Caeser brings on Antony in Cleopatra's life as Caeser's replacement in his and Cleopatra's dynastic ambitions.

Cleopatra employs her enormous wealth to impress on Antony with costly parties and extravagances including dissolving a valuable pearl in vinegar as a drink for herself. Antony has a reputation as a bit of a wine lover, being always up to a practical joke and less refined than Caeser, none the less a lonely Cleopatra finds love for him and a renewal of her ambitions.

Like Caeser, Antony spends a little too much time in Alexandria in a state of opulence he had never known leaving the queen to give birth six months later to twins. Yet it would be three and a half years later before Antony would return to Cleopatra and not before marrying Octavian's sister, Octavia.

This absence had left the Egyptian queen feeling used and discarded and perhaps wiser to Antony's fleeting charms. The author sees the queen as a lonely, solitary figure vulnerable to the older men who court her alliance with passions.

The reunion of the two brought Antony willing to hand over large territories to Cleopatra's realm while she would supply money and resources to the goal of world domination. These fantasies being dispelled in Antony's defeat in his war on the Parthians after which he would be convinced by the queen to forget the Orient instead seek to attack Octavian directly.

Now reaching middle age Antony's drunken antics had begun to tarnish him in the eyes of Cleopatra who in her own paranoia began to loose respect for his rationalizations and his sincerity towards her. Cleopatra herself had matured into a shrewd politician who could converse in many languages to foreign rulers and with enough wealth to impress them all in luxury.

As the events unfold at Actium it is not the great young Antony present but a dramatic actor enlivend and drawn out by years of debauched living who presents the worst qualities of a man in his flight from the battle, abandoning his forces to chase the queens boat, in his moment of death he does the worst thing possible, he lives. The next couple of years Antony burdens Cleopatra with his presence, and she builds him a villa away from the palace on a nearby island and calls it the Timonium where her husband can seclude himself behind the villas walls.

Cleopatra herself is at the height of her abilities, and though Octavian is slowly making his way with his army to conquer Alexandria she is cementing her alliances with the powers of the oriental world. She sends her son with Antony, Alexander Helios to Media where he is to someday be king of that country by marrying that kings daughter.

Caeserian now a man of 17 is sent with retinue and a huge sum of cash to live in India until the time when it is safe for him to claim his Egyptian throne. The final blow to Cleopatra's dreams of dynastic succession come when hers and Antony's forces are faced at Alexandria by the forces of Octavian.

With the Roman presence in the city the Egyptian forces change sides and join Octavian's army rallied against the queen and her pathetic lover who finally kills himself. In the end the dreamed of Egyptian- Roman dynasty is in fact formed but at its head was to be found Octavian who soon becomes Augustus King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Arthur Weigall's interpretation of these historic events is well researched and presents the queen in a light that frees Cleopatra of villainy while representing her as sympathetic and at heart under her royal concepts as fragile as any other woman and perhaps if not certainly stronger than many of the men she encountered.

Though I have read too many books about this queen, likely one of the most overwritten about historical figures, I can say that I did enjoy "The Life and Times of Cleopatra Queen of Egypt".

     "History", said Emerson, "no longer shall be a dull book. It shall walk incarnate in every just and wise man."

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".