Angela van Rose
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Humble Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Art

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Art

Humble Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Art

Ancient Egyptian art

Egyptomania

Ancient Egyptian art became a fad some 100 years ago when in 1922 Howard Carter under the patronage of Lord Carnarvon discovered the tomb of king Tutankhamun. Afterwards, Ancient Egyptian art became a permanent obsession for everyone who is an art lover, and it is still à la mode. It is no coincidence that artworks from Ancient Egypt can be found not only in Egypt itself but also in several other countries that can boast of glorious collections of Egyptian art. If you want to have a glimpse at the splendor of Egyptian art, you can visit New York, London, Paris, Berlin and even Turin in Italy in order to enjoy  the magnetism of Ancient Egyptian art. Of course, the best impressions about Ancient Egyptian art can be gained from a long tour around modern Egypt. 

Ancient Egypt lasted for more than three millennia BCE and Ancient Egypt was isolated for very long periods of time. Thus, it remained free of any military conflicts. Accordingly, the rulers or the kings of Egypt who were called ‘pharaohs’ were able to concentrate on ordering and supervising the construction of imposing structures and monuments. Fine arts thrived as well under the pharaohs. The history of Ancient Egypt is quite interesting and edifying but this blog post of mine will be focused entirely on presenting very few of the most extraordinary Ancient Egyptian objets d’art. It is always helpful for the art aficionado to have some knowledge of the historical context in which the art was created but at the same time art is so transcendent and overpowering that one can admire art without being aware of any details pertaining to the contemplated artwork.

Without being an Egyptologist I was always mesmerized by the uncanny power of Ancient Egyptian art and the history of the people in Ancient Egypt. Needless to say, the artefacts from Ancient Egypt which deserve our attention are numberless. Therefore, what I will present below is a scintilla of Ancient Egyptian art and you should regard it only as a starting point into your journey to the splendid world of Ancient Egypt.

The Pyramids

Mastaba
Mastaba

 The Egyptian Pyramids were such a great achievement that even in Antiquity they were recognized as the greatest miracle in the world. Quite deservingly, the pyramids were considered to be the first wonder of the world (out of 7). And it is no wonder (pun intended 😊) that the first wonder of the world proved to be far superior to all other wonders of the world as only the Ancient Egyptian pyramids have survived to the present day. Moreover, for several thousand years the Ancient Egyptian pyramids remained the tallest buildings in the world. Consequently, the pyramids have become a symbol of Ancient Egypt and they have provided a lot of scholars and investigators with fodder for thought.

I do not want to debunk the most outlandish and untenable theories about the origin of the Egyptian pyramidsalthough this is topic which deserves our full attention because for the last 100 years a lot of pseudo-scientists have written countless books and articles and have produced quite a lot of ‘documentary’ films about the ‘unnatural’ origin of the Egyptian pyramids. Of course, even very low level of critical thinking would unveil the absurdity of most claims about the magical nature ofpyramids.  Some of those theories rely on simple human gullibility and on the lack of sufficient information on the subject. It is highly unlikely that the Ancient Egyptians wanted to code some valuable information in the measurements of the pyramids. It is even more unlikely that Ancient Egyptians were visited by aliens who helped them build the pyramids.

There is plenty of archeological evidence about the building of the pyramids. As you can see from the photo of the mastaba above, the Giza pyramid complex did not appear out of thin air. There was a gradual development from mastabas through step pyramids to classical pyramids. The mastabas paved the way to the classical pyramids from the Giza complex. The mastabas were very simple structures although they proved to be very solid and lasting since a lot of them are still extant. They were built of bricks made of mud. Over time the mastabas became more complicated edifices because they were covered with cut stones.

The Step pyramid of King Zoser (Djoser)
The Step pyramid of King Zoser (Djoser)

Several centuries later the pyramid of King Zoser (or Djoser) was erected. Despite its somewhat awkward shape it is very obvious that the step pyramid of Djoser was the inspiration that the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure needed for their own pyramids. So, the transition from the step pyramid of Djoser to the pyramids in the Giza Necropolis was quite smooth and seamless. No doubt a much fancier way of explaining the origin of the Giza pyramid could be found in extraterrestrial critters that visited Egypt during the time of the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. Yes, the truth can be boring sometimes but better ennuied than bamboozled.

The Giza pyramids
The Giza pyramids

The Giza pyramids are a stately architectural feat of the Ancient Egyptians. The greatest of the three pyramids was for many centuries the tallest building in the world. What is worrying me, though, is that for a too long period of time (since the Antiquity in fact) everyone admired the Giza pyramids but very few people were concerned about their objective. Each pyramid was designed as the burial place of the respective pharaoh. So, these amazing architectural structures were aimed at securing a passage to the after-life of just one person. However, it is a known fact that  tens of thousands of workers were needed to complete the final resting place of the pharaoh. It is very sad that a lot of people lost their lives while working for the erection of the pyramids. One should admit that architectural projects of such large scale usually involve the loss of human life.

It is no secret that some workers died during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The parallel of the Egyptian pyramids that I am drawing at two of the masterpieces of US architecture is rather misleading, though. Very few American workers lost their lives while working on the two monumental bridges and more importantly the construction of those splendid bridges led to the improvement of the living conditions of all New Yorkers and all San Franciscans (with no exception whatsoever). The pyramids were built to serve only one person. The conclusion that I am reaching is that some architectural achievements come at a very hefty price and the pyramids are a perfect example for such gloomy reality.  

 The Abu Simbel temples

The two temples at Abu Simbel
The two temples at Abu Simbel

After the Giza pyramids,  the second most popular and visited site in Egypt are, without doubt, the two temples at Abu Simbel. Both temples were erected during the reign of probably the most famous Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II sometime in the 13th century BCE.

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel
The Great Temple at Abu Simbel

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel which you can see in greater detail on the photo above was dedicated to the pharaoh Ramesses II himself. He is in the company of some notable Egyptian gods. The Great Temple was planned to commemorate the victory of Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh. It is of no importance that Ramesses II did not win the battle at Kadesh. But he did not lose it either. Anyway, the ordinary Egyptian workers who created this monument of epic proportions and dimensions proved once again that they were master builders.

The small Abu Simbel temple
The small Abu Simbel temple

The second temple at Abu Simbel is known as the Small Temple. It was dedicated to Ramesses’ favorite wife Queen Nefertari. The colossal figures represent Queen Nefertari and who else than Ramesses II himself  again. Four out of the six statues in this incredible structure belong to Ramesses II. Both temples include 10 meter or 33 feet high statues that were carved directly in the mountain. It seems to me that the temples at Abu Simbel definitely deserved to be classified as one of the wonders of the world. And it is worth mentioning that those incredible monuments of the Egyptian architecture could have been lost during the previous century because a dam had to be built and the temples risked being submerged under the waters of the dam.

The dismantling of the big Abu Simbel temple
The dismantling of the big Abu Simbel temple

Luckily for us and for all next generations, the two temples were relocated in their entirety in 1968 thanks to the efforts of the Egyptian government and the international community.  The whole process of moving the temples began in 1964 and more than 1,000 workers were involved in dismantling, relocating, and reassembling the two temples at a new location which was very close to the original site of the Abu Simbel temples. In addition to accomplishing this archeological feat of engineering, the workers were able to built artificial hills as well so that the two temples can be better protected.

The splendor and the grandeur of the Abu Simbel temples are indisputable. The great pharaoh Ramesses II deserves credit for having paid his principal wife and queen Nefertari due respect. Any successful man has at least one woman in his shadow but most successful men are reluctant to admit it. So, in the next paragraphs I would like to outline the achievements of some of the most famous Egyptian ladies through the prism of Ancient Egyptian art.

Illustrious women in Egyptian art (Cleopatra, Hatshepsut, and Nefertiti)

Cleopatra

Roman sculpture of Cleopatra
Roman sculpture of Cleopatra from the mid-1st century BCE Courtesy of the Altes Museum, Germany

Cleopatra is without doubt one of the most famous and influential women in the history of humankind. It is a pity that very few portraits and sculptures of Cleopatra have survived to the present day. So, we should truly appreciate the bust above. The only explanation that I have about the odd fact that there are very few images of Cleopatra is that her nemesis (you will learn about him very soon – I will just partially raise the curtain a little by giving you a tip-off that one of the year’s months is named after him) was so afraid of her that he annihilated almost all remaining images of this remarkable woman.  Cleopatra suffered a tragic death and with her ended the history of the Ancient Egypt. It is paradoxical that Ancient Egypt lost its independence at a time when it was ruled by one of the wisest and most talented Egyptian pharaohs. Yet, the scale of the conflict between the Eastern part of the Roman empire (supported by Cleopatra) against its Western part at the end of the first century BCE was so large that there could be no mercy for the losing party.

Cleopatra was an ally to Mark Anthony and both of them lost a key battle against the nephew of Gaius Julius Caesar – Octavian Augustus. It is ironic that Cleopatra was Caesar’s lover and even bore him a son. The son of Cleopatra and Caesar was called quite naturally Caesarion and technically he was the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt since he outlived his mother Cleopatra for a very short period of time. Cleopatra’s death has become the subject of numerous portrayals in literature, painting, and films as well. Yet, the legacy of Cleopatra lies, in my opinion, in her amazing talents which allowed her to come very close to assuming control over the entire Roman Empire in addition to being one of the wisest and ablest Ancient Egyptian rulers. But regretfully I have to agree with the maxim ‘Vae victis’ as the Romans used to say and think (the phrase can be translated as ‘Woe to the vanquished’).

Hatshepsut

Statue of Hatshepsut
Statue of Hatshepsut Courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Museum

Another prominent lady of Ancient Egypt which deserves our admiration is Hatshepsut. She was the daughter of a famous pharaoh – Thutmosis I (or Thutmose I). She was quite exceptional in many regards and she was allowed to share the throne with her farther. After the death of her father she ruled together with her half-brother Thutmosis II who was also her husband. After the death of Thutmosis II Hatshepsut decided to get rid of Thutmosis III who was the son of her husband and a concubine so that she can start her sole reign. I am sure that she surprised a lot of people in Egypt who believed that a woman is incapable and unworthy of being a ruler because her reign as a single pharaoh lasted for 22 years. Despite her competence and power she was aware of the fact that a woman cannot be fully accepted as a ruler by her subjects and courtiers. For that reason she decided to appear in public disguised as a man.

Statue of Hatshepsut with a false beard
Statue of Hatshepsut with a (false) beard

As you can see from the picture above, Hatshepsut was forced to look like a man and she wore a false beard. Besides, on several monuments and bas-reliefs she appeared as a male warrior. Accordingly, she was depicted without breasts. It is no surprise that she chose to title herself ‘Son of the Sun’ and ‘Lord of the Two Lands’ (instead of ‘The Lordess of the Two Lands’ 😊). By the way, Hatshepsut ruled some 1,400 years before Cleopatra came into power.

Nefertiti

The bust of Nefertiti
The bust of Nefertiti Courtesy of the Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany

The third Egyptian queen that I would like to present is the lovely Nefertiti who lived over a century after Hatshepsut. She was known as the principal wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten (also spelled as Echnaton). Akhenaten turned the official religious cults in Egypt upside down by abandoning them and replacing them with a form of monotheism (worshipping just one god). For that reason he was detested by the next generations and most of his statues and images were destroyed. Nefertiti was not particularly liked by Ancient Egyptians as well because she was the consort of the heretic king Akhenaten.

It is unclear whether she had a chance to become a pharaoh in her own right after the death of Akhenaten. Besides, it is also uncertain if she was the biological mother of king Tut or Tutankhamun – the pharaoh whose tomb and the treasures in it made Ancient Egyptian art so popular around the world some hundred years ago. The mask of Tutankhamun is so widely known that it is almost impossible  nowadays to think of Ancient Egypt without instantly recollecting the sublime image of the pharaoh-boy from his tomb.

The mast of Tutankhamun
The mask of Tutankhamun Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt

The back of the mask is also very impressive as you can see from the photo below.

The mask of Tutankhamun back
The mask of Tutankhamun (back) Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt

The bust of Nefertiti from the Berlin Museum, however, is also very famous and it is one of the iconic masterpieces of Ancient Egyptian art. Without doubt Nefertiti is a paragon of beauty and nobility and we are very lucky to have her visage preserved in this fantastic art object.

Some ordinary women in Egyptian art

Apart from the Queens of Egypt which I have just discussed there were some ordinary Egyptian ladies who were not so fortunate as the female rulers or royal consorts. I am providing an example with a beautiful lady who was a dancer.

Egyptian dancer c. 1200 BCE
Egyptian dancer c. 1200 BCE Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy

The pose of the lady reveals her acrobatic skills and I am also very impressed by her gorgeous hairdo. It is interesting that the image of this lady has come to us in a fragment of broken pottery (it is also called potsherd). I cannot but feel pity for this lady’s skimpy outfit. I can only guess that this semi-naked lady was dancing for the pleasure of some rich Ancient Egyptian ‘gentlemen’. Anyway, this image alone convincingly demonstrates that the exploitation of women  dates back to Antiquity and for sure in earlier times as well but we do not have enough evidence about the inferior status of ladies from pre-history.

I would like to share another picture of two Egyptian dancers and a couple of female musicians. The painting comes from a tomb.

Egyptian dancing detail from a tomb painting in Egypt c. 1400 BCE
Egyptian dancing detail from a tomb painting in Egypt c. 1400 BCE Courtesy of the British Museum, London, United Kingdom

Once again I suppose that the dancers are lacking clothes not because the temperature was too high. This explanation does not sound right because the musicians who are in the same room with the dancers wear marvelous robes. I also do not believe that the dancers were so much  absorbed in their Terpsichorean activity that they got rid of the clothes which were no longer necessary for them. I can’t accept such an interpretation, either. I just think that men’s utmost pleasures and wildest phantasies have remained the same for millennia and they certainly include naked beautiful women. But this is an issue which deserves a thorough discussion and I hope that I will have the time and the opportunity to expand on this subject in a future blog post of mine.

Of course, I certainly do not endorse extremist views according to which all women in Ancient Egypt were disrespected by men and society as a whole. I am sure that some Egyptian ladies were properly treated but at the same time I simply cannot connive at the abject humiliation suffered by the dancers whose images were shown above.

Fashion?

Just like the Ancient Greek ladies on the island of Crete (whom I discussed in my previous article on Minoan art) the Egyptian women were extremely interested in fashion. However, this is a topic that most certainly is worthy of a separate article and I will do my best to revisit the subject of Ancient Egyptian art by writing at least one more blog post that will be dedicated entirely to Ancient Egyptian fashion.

My personal assessment of Ancient Egyptian art

I have always been an admirer of Ancient Egyptian art but contrary to the common perception of Egyptian art as an epitome of perfection I believe that Egyptian art was too static and conventional. Egypt was geographically isolated from other civilizations and that reason alone can explain the uniqueness of Egyptian art. Conservatism played a major role in the Ancient Egyptian society and that feature of Egyptian life left its indelible imprint on Egyptian art as well. Despite its incredible achievements which I already tried to showcase in the previous paragraphs Egyptian art reveals some flaws. The artists from Egypt were prone to following strictly the traditions and thus they did not care too much about discovering and displaying their own talent and individualism.

Of course, I realize that it is more often than not dangerous and unjust to second-guess the practice and the motivation of people who had lived and died thousands of years before you. At the same time I admit that  it is always quite convenient to do so because those people from past and distant epochs cannot contradict  you and disagree with you 😊 Yet, I am not particularly impressed by the fact that for three thousand years Egyptian art was subjected to paradigms and canons set in stone at the very beginning of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Evidently the Egyptian artisans did not endorse the Roman maxim ‘Tempora mutantur and nos mutamur in illis’ which in plain English should read as ‘Times change and we change with them’. 

I am sure that the artists in Ancient Egypt are not the only persons who should be blamed for this status quo. It was the pharaohs and the priests in Ancient Egypt who as the main patrons of Egyptian art and the key representatives of the ruling class in Egypt allowed this state of affairs to continue for so long. I have no doubt that the pharaohs and the priests had their ulterior motives to hamstring the development of Egyptian art but it is really a pity that Egyptian artists were not encouraged to pursue their own creativity. Yet, Egyptian art is an awe-inspiring collection of sublime specimens that still make us wonder how it was possible to attain such high level of artistry at the very early stage of human civilization.

Last but not least, I would like to share with you that I highly appreciate the efforts of the Egyptian government to preserve the priceless artworks from Ancient Egypt and I am equally grateful to the Egyptian authorities for encouraging and sponsoring excavation works which have led to the discovery of new amazing artefacts from Ancient Egypt. Thus, sooner or later I will have no choice but to broach again the subject of Ancient Egyptian art in my blog. Thank you very much for your patience to read this article of mine 😊

You can read my article on Cretan (Minoan) art HERE

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