Saturday, September 29, 2018

History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia, and Assyria, Volume II

Gaston Maspero
The Grolier Society
London, UK
Volume 2

I have had this series of 114-year-old books for many years but never read them. The author Gaston Maspero was the head of Egypt's Egyptian Museum and in charge of giving excavation permits in the late 19th century early 20th century. Mr. Maspero was chief Egyptologist and expert archaeologist of Oriental history. It must be noted that the use of and spelling of English words from 1904 differs from today's vocabulary. It must further be noted that interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs particularly names have also changed over the past century.

In volume two we open with the political makeup of ancient Egypt and in particularly the Memphite dynasties and their cemeteries at Gizah and Saqqara. The author deals with the inscriptions and decorations of the tombs of the nobles to tell of their services to the king and enjoyments they hope to attain in the afterlife. Various methods are used to ensure this happy after existence with offering chapels for priests and relatives to bring food and other offerings, these chapels often contain a statue of the deceased. Unfortunately for the deceased, these funerary venerations towards the dead within a couple of generations run out either of the finances to continue or relatives who remember the deceased ancestor. The backup plan includes images of offerings carved onto the walls of the funerary monument to sustain the dead for eternity.

The king and his families roles are examined with the king providing his people with their share of Egypt's bounty. The author goes on to describe the various functions the common or princely peoples played in the running of and distribution of the products of that land. These functionaries often obtain the hereditary departments of their father though some are schooled as scribes.

Mr. Maspero delivers a rundown of each Egyptians lot in life and obligations to taxation from humble land-owners to the serfs who worked the land, digging and cleaning out canals to water the fields. The crafts created by the people to barter with others for needed or desired goods including linen and sandals rings made of copper, silver, and gold or other such luxuries.

In chapter two we are introduced to the Memphite dynasties of the Old Empire and the pinnacle of pyramid building. The technique of constructing pyramids from the 3rd Dynasty King Djoser to the 2nd King of the 4th Dynasty Khufu was a period of rapid learning with a couple of mistakes that produced hard-won lessons.

     "We rarely find at Medum finished and occupied sepulchres except that of individuals who had died shortly before or shortly after Snofrui. The mummy of Ranofir, found in one of them, shows how far the Egyptians had carried the art of embalming at this period. His body, though much shrunken, is well preserved: it had been clothed in some fine stuff, then covered over with a layer of resin, which a clever sculptor had modelled in such a manner as to present an image resembling the deceased; it was then rolled in three or four folds of thin and almost transparent gauze."1

The author describes the building of the pyramids and their apartments at Dashur by Snofrui and those at Giza by his successors. The details laid out for these constructions is largely out of date though because of the reliefs in these kings courtiers tombs surrounding the pyramids and stele from expeditions to the various quarries including granite from Aswan some semblance of the duties of the king's officials can be gleaned. Mr. Maspero puts forth the gifts the king gives his loyal courtiers including their tombs near his pyramid, a funerary stele, statues, and offering tables all cut from stone collected on behalf of the king.

The reliefs become repetitive in the tombs while the statues were cut into one of a few traditional poses with the heads left rough to receive the courtier's portrait. Of the reliefs, the author admires the skill which varied animals are represented but of the people in the reliefs Mr. Maspero says,

     "The human figure is the least perfect: everyone is acquainted with those strange figures, whose heads in profile, with the eye drawn in full face, are attached to a torso seen from the front and supported by limbs in profile. These are truly anatomical monsters, and yet the appearance they present to us is neither laughable nor grotesque. The defective limbs are so deftly connected with those which are normal, that the whole becomes natural: the correct and fictitious lines are so ingeniously blent together that they seem to rise necessarily from each other. The actors in these dramas are constructed in such a paradoxical fashion that they could not exist in this world of ours; they live notwithstanding, in spite of the ordinary laws of physiology, and to any one who will take the trouble to regard them without prejudice, their strangeness will add a charm which is lacking in works more conformable to nature."2

The book is filled with many drawings taken from photographs with explanatory details of the object or scene presented these include an 1881 picture of the author in the burial chamber of King Unas standing in front of the king's sarcophagus. By the time of Dynasty V, the peak of the Memphite empire had passed leaving the kings of dynasties V. and VI much weakened with resources to build only smaller rubble filled pyramids at Saqqara unlike the great cut stone monuments at Gizeh, Dashur, and Medum but with the reign of King Unas the interiors of these cased rubble monuments now contained the Pyramid Texts carved on their walls. With the long reign of Pepi II, the Memphite empire became divided up by provincial nomarchs who claimed the power of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt when in reality these king's bore only local authority. Under these conditions, the two lands would remain divided for more than a century until unified by the Prince of Thebes.

Mr. Maspero directs the reader to the battles which ensued during the 7th to 10th dynasties between the Heracleopolitan princes and those at Thebes. It is the unification brought about by Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty, the Theban princes attained the rightful kingship of the two lands while the Theban kings of the 12lh Dynasty extended the southern boundaries with fortresses with each kings reign carrying away slaves, precious metals, turquoise, crops, and the defeated inhabitant's herds of livestock.

The kings of dynasty 12 left many beautiful monuments including the obelisk at Heliopolis now all that remains of the temple of the sun god Ra. Most of the monuments of this age have all but disappeared leaving only the odd block to remember the kings of this great dynasty. We are introduced into the literature of this period which has left us with such a tale of that of the Shipwrecked Sailor and the instructions of King Amenemhat I to his successor Usertasen I.

Certainly, volume two was much more enjoyable and easier to read than volume one was this being the case by the more tangible relics of Pharaonic history compared with the abstraction in the mythology of the first book in this set. The book is not suitable for young readers and those looking for a romantic read on ancient Egypt but for those in the need to know.


1. page 172
2. page 248

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Ghosts of Brazil's National Museum

The tragic fire of September 2, 2018, which destroyed Brazil's National Museum, as well as most of its collections, took with it one of South America's most important Egyptian collections likely including the lovely 23rd Dynasty mummy Sha-Amun-em-su and her coffin. The museum's website says this of her,

"This coffin was a present offered by the Khedive of Egypt Ismail to the Emperor of Brazil D. Pedro II when he visited Egypt in 1876. D. Pedro II kept it standing upright in his study, near a window open one day, the coffin was hit by a window-catch, breaking part of its side. Its left side was then repaired, this feature is still visible today"

Sha-Amun-em-su was not the only mummy in the collection along with 700 other ancient Egyptian artifacts. The museums display of at least 21 stone stele probably have the best chance of having survived the fire though if they have their likely in shattered pieces but some hope lingers at least to this writer. One of my favorites of these monuments is a 19th Dynasty limestone stele belonging to a man named Amenemopet.

Here we have the museums Egyptology website, Seshat from the Egyptological Laboratory of the National Museum of Brazil. The site has a number of the prized objects from the collection and a short bio on each as well of the museum's ongoing researches and publications.

The unfortunate fire could have been avoided had the 200-year-old palace been subject to regular upgrades over the years  So often we see museums around the world which do not seem to benefit from their millions of visitors

I would hope that the curators and trustees of the worlds ancient Egyptian collections will be able to reach into their reserve collections and donate some of their doubles to help replenish this Brazilian institution of learning so that one day Brazil's 200 million plus people and future generations will again be excited and inspired by ancient Egypt in Brazil. But first, a new museum needs to be found or rebuilt with proper funding perhaps, foreign donations to help so that any future collection in Brazil will not be relegated to another neglected building.


1. Images of the coffin of Sha-Amun-em-su and stele of Amenemopet by Luiza G. da Silva, Antonio Brancaglion  National Museum of Brazil

2. Seshat: Egyptological Laboratory of the National Museum of Brazil

3. Photo of the mummy known as "Princess Kherima" 

4. Wikipedia for more photos

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Pyramids by Ahmed Fakhry

Ahmed Fakhry
The University of Chicago Press
Library of Congress No. 61-8654

This 249 page read from the University of Chicago press contains many images and schematics to help in the explanation of the monuments including at the back of the book a listing of all the known Egyptian pyramids as of 1961 and their base measurements. The author is extremely knowledgeable on the subject and introduces interesting information that I have not heard before. Mr. Fakhry explains the pyramids in their apparent chronological order including their associated mortuary and valley temples.

     "The approach to the southern pyramid complex of King Snefru at Dashur is through a Valley Temple situated near the edge of the cultivation. At the time of writing, this is the earliest Valley Temple discovered." "... there was no temple of this type for the Step Pyramid of Zoser, nor any remains of a causeway which would suggest that such a building had never existed."1

The author explains the rise of building of these monuments culminating in the great pyramids on the Giza plateau and their accompanying causeways, temples, and boat pits, including the discovery of royal statues found during excavations. We are told about the previous excavator's discoveries to the various sites including the measurements of the monuments which at times caused me to glaze over. Mr. Fakhry gives admirable insight into the enigmatic pyramid site at Abu Rawash excavated in 1901 by E. S. Chassinat.

     "South of the Mortuary Temple on the east side is a large rock-cut boat pit. With its long axis pointing north-south, it measures 35 meters long, 3.75 meters wide at its widest part, and 9.3 deep. At the bottom of the debris filling this boat pit, Chassinat found three beautiful heads from statues of Rededef. They had been wantonly knocked off the bodies and flung there during the upheavals that followed the Old Kingdom. (Two of the heads are now in the Louvre, and one is in the Cairo Museum.)"2

When Perring and Vyse entered the third pyramid at Giza, that of Menkure in the late 1830's they found a wooden coffin and the mummified body of a man, the inscription on the late period style coffin reads.

     "Osiris, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menkure, living forever. Born of the sky, conceived by Nut, heir of Geb, his beloved. Thy mother Nut spreads herself over thee in her name of 'Mystery of Heaven.' She caused thee to be a god, in thy name of 'God,' O King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Menkure, living forever."3

As the Old Kingdom descended into anarchy the pyramids of the fifth and sixth dynasties became smaller and built in poorer quality work. The burial practices changed and the pyramid texts appeared carved on the walls of these kings and a number of their queens. It is during the following period that most of these monuments were opened with the royal burials robbed and destroyed leaving only fragments of their once opulent contents.

The rise of the Princes of Thebes in the expulsion of the foreign overlords who ruled over the northern half of Egypt resulted in the reunification of the country with a period of great prosperity. It is in the Twelfth Dynasty that the kings returned to building pyramids but this time with complex corridors and hidden entrances to baffle looters who found the entrances of the Old Kingdom pyramids in the north face.

In Egypt, the pyramid age dwindles down to small mudbrick pyramids above simple tombs both royal and commoner. In the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, pyramidal burials are found south of Egypt in Sudan at sites like El Kurru, Kerma, and later at Moroe. These royal constructions are much smaller and much steeper.

Mr. Fakhry's presentation of the pyramids was both of interest and knowledgeable as I had suspected he would be, and though almost sixty years later this book is well put forward and suitable for ages ten and up.

     "...they are perished also,
Those walls of Thebes which the Muses built;
But the wall that belongs to me has no fear of war;
It knows not either the ravage of war or the sobbing.
It rejoices always in feasts and banquets,
And the choruses of young people, united from all parts.
We hear the flutes, not the trumpet of war,
And the blood that waters the earth is of the sacrificial bulls,
Not from the slashed throats of men.
Our ornaments are the festive clothes, not the arms of war,
And our hands hold not the scimitar,
But the fraternal cup of the banquet;
And all night long while the sacrifices are burning
We sing hymns to Harmakhis (Hor-em-akhet),
And our heads are decorated with garlands." 4


1. page 80
2. page 129
3. page 150
4. page 165, An ancient Greek visitor to the pyramids on the Giza plateau wrote this poem on a toe of the Great Sphinx.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Tombs of the Kings

Where the mummied Kings of Egypt,wrapped in linen fold on fold,
Couched for ages in their coffins, crowned with crowns of dusky gold,

Lie in subterranean chambers, biding to the day of doom,
Counterfeit life's hollow semblance in each mazy mountain tomb,

Grisly in their gilded coffins, mocking masks of skin and bone,
Yet remain in change unchanging, balking Nature of her own;

Mured in mighty Mausoleums, walled in from the night and day,
Lo, the mortal Kings of Egypt hold immortal Death at bay.

For - so spake the Kings of Egypt - those colossal ones whose hand
Held the peoples from Pitasa to the Kheta's conquered land;

Who, with flash and clash of lances and war chariots, stormed and won
Many a town of stiff-necked Syria to high-towering Askalon:

"We have been the faithful stewards of the deathless gods on high;
We have built them starry temples underneath the starry sky.

"We have smitten rebel nations, as a child is whipped with rods:
We the living carnation of imperishable gods.

"Shall we suffer Death to trample us to nothingness? and must
We be scattered, as the whirlwind blows about the desert dust?

"No! Death shall not dare come near us, nor Corruption shall not lay
Hands upon our sacred bodies, incorruptible as day.

"Let us put a bit and bridle, and rein in Time's headlong course;
Let us ride him through the ages as a master rides his horse.

"On the changing earth unchanging let us bide till Time shall end,
Till, reborn in blest Osiris, mortal with immortal blend."

Yes, so spake the Kings of Egypt, they whose lightest word was law,
At whose nod the far-off nations cowered, stricken dumb with awe.

And Fate left the haughty rulers to work out their monstrous doom;
And, embalmed with myrrh and ointments, they were carried to the tomb;

Through the gate of Bab-el-Molouk, where the sulpher hill lie bare,
Where no green thing casts a shadow in the noon's tremendous glare;

Where the unveiled Blue of heaven in its bare intensity
Weighs upon the awe-struck spirit with the world's immensity;

Through the Vale of Desolation, where no beast or bird draws breath,
To the Coffin Hills of Tuat - the Metropolis of Death.

Down - down - down into the darkness, where, on either hand, dread fate
In the semblance of a serpent, watches by the dolorous gate;

Down - down - down into the darkness, where no gleam of sun or star
Sheds its purifying radiance from the living world afar;

Where in labyrinthine windings, darkly hidden, down and down,-
Proudly on his marble pillow, with old Egypt's double crown,

And his mien of cold commandment, grasping still his staff of state,
Rests the mightiest of the Pharaohs, whom the world surnamed the great.

Swathed in fine Sidonian linen, crossed hands folded on the breast,
There the mummied Kings of Egypt lie within each painted chest.

And upon their dusky foreheads Pleiades of flaming gems,
Glowing through the nether darkness, flash from luminous diadems.

Where is Memphis? Like a mirage, melted into empty air:
But these royal gems yet sparkle richly on their raven hair.

Where is Thebes in all her glory, with her gates of beaten gold?
Where Syene, or that marvel, Heliopolis of old?

Where is Edfu? Where Abydos? Where those pillared towns of yore
Whose auroral temples glittered by the Nile's thick-peopled shore?

Gone as evanescent cloudlands, alplike in the afterglow;
But these Kings hold fast their bodies of four thousand years ago.

Sealed up in their Mausoleums, in the bowels of the hills,
There they hide from dissolution and Deaths swiftly grinding mills.

Scattering fire, Uraeus serpents guard the Tombs' tremendous gate;
While Troth holds the trembling balance, weighs the heat and seals its fate.

And a multitude of mummies in the swaddling clothes of death,
Ferried o'er the sullen river, on and on still hasteneth.

And around them and above them, blazoned on the rocky walls,
Crowned with stars, enlaced by serpents, in divine processionals,

Ibis-headed, jackal-featured, vulture-hooded, pass on high,
Gods on gods through Time's perspectives - pilgrims of Eternity.

There, revealed by fitful flashes, in a gloom that may be felt,
Wild Chimeras flash from darkness, glittering like Orion's belt.

And on high, o'er shining waters, in their barks the gods sail by,
In the Sunboat and in the Moonboat, rowed across the rose-hued sky.

Night, that was before creation, watches sphinxlike, starred with eyes,
And the hours and days are passing, and the years and centuries.

But these mummied Kings of Egypt, pictures of a parished race,
Lie, of busy Death forgotten, face by immemorial face.

Though the glorious sun above them, burning on the naked plain,
Clothes the empty wilderness with the golden, glowing grain;

Though the balmy Moon above them, floating in the milky Blue,
Fills the empty wilderness with a silver fall of dew;

Though life comes and flies unresting, like the shadow which a dove
Casts upon the Sphinx, in passing, for a moment from above;-

Still these mummied Kings of Egypt, wrapped in linen, fold on fold,
Bide through ages in their coffins, crowned with crowns of dusky gold.

Had the sun once brushed them lightly, or a breath of air, they must
Instantaneously have crumbled into evanescent dust.

Pale and passive in their prisons, they have conquered, chained to death;
And their lineaments look living now as when they last drew breath!

Have they conquered? Oh, the pity of those Kings within their tombs,
Locked in stony isolation in those petrifying glooms!

Motionless where all is motion in a rolling Universe,
Heaven, by answering their prayer, turned it to a deadly curse.

Let them fixed where all is fluid in a world of star-winged skies;
Where, in myriad transformations, all things pass and nothing dies;

Nothing dies but what is tethered, kept when Time would set it free,
To fulfill Thought's yearning tension upward through Eternity.

Mathilde Blind

Source: The Universal Anthology, edited by Richard Garnett, The Clarke Company, limited, London, 1899, Vol. I, pgs. 116-119.