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.

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