…… Continued from part 1
As my brain started getting overloaded by the infinite glittering visuals of royal burial, I was looking for something different, rather more meaningful and less showy and plenty of such collections were there in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo to meet my interest, renew my energy and make me ignore the feet ache, that already started! I knew where to start, from the father of king Tut!!
He was the most hated pharaoh of Egypt at his time! No, he was not tyrant, he was visionary; and like all other visionaries after him he was also out and out rejected. Akhenaten, proprietor of monotheism, ahead of his time, survived in spite of meticulous destruction of all his feats. As nothing left in his capital Amarna, this small gallery is the only place to be with him, who always have been winning our heart over all other great warrior-kings of ancient Egypt by his unprecedented bravery; bravery to be a nonconformist in all aspects, despite of his pharaonic status.
Like the legendary Cleopatra, Nefertiti, the beauty-queen is another iconic female figure of ancient Egypt, but when we read about her husband Akhenaten during our pre-trip study on ancient Egypt, we were surprised to find that Akhenaten, an ancient Egyptian king was the first leader of human civilization who started worshipping a single God and tried to promote his belief among mass. He imagined Aten, a manifestation of sun, for its life-giving properties as the sole god. Let alone his spiritual inspiration, I am always fond of the scientific correctness of his vision. How did a man, born more than 3300 years ago had come to know that the sun is the ultimate source of energy?
Sweeping all other gods and old traditions of worship and ritual away was like a rebellion, a king’s rebellion against an entire nation! He had even changed his given name Amenhotep IV to Akhen-aten(successful for god Aten) out of immense deference to Aten and founded a whole new city called Akhet-aten(horizon of the Aten), now known as el-Amarna dedicated to the deity. After his assassination, his successors tried to destroy every trace of Akhenaten and his religion so few items have been found left and are now exhibited in this Gallery.
We saw some stone slabs with reliefs showing Akhnaten, along with his family is worshipping the Aten, represented as the sun’s disc, whose rays are shining down on them as blessing.
While Tutankhamun has become an eminent king in the history of ancient Egypt for his funerary grandeur, on the contrary, his father Akhenaten fought against all kind of unnecessary expenditure in the name of religion. He was a thinker. He led a simple life, enriched by the warmth of love and devotion. See the above picture. He is praying with a bundle of papyrus in his hand, while all other kings of ancient Egypt are seen offering valuable items, plenty of food and drinks to the God. There was stela, on which we found Akhenaten and Nefertiti playing with their little daughters. Such display of family bonding had been never seen before or after him in royal art.
Akhenaten, as we found in his statue looked bizarre with his extremely elongated face and neck, thick lips, voluptuous rear. People often talk about his feminine features. But I have some doubts. Did he really look like this? I found the similar elongated face of Nefartiti engraved on other stelas. Did they look alike? There was no blood connection between this royal couple and more to this, the bust of Nefertiti found and now displayed in Berlin Museum revealed a totally different look, a profound beauty indeed. I noticed unusually elongated skulls of the royal couple and three little princesses on their profile view that looked less human and more alien! Therefore what I reckon is that the statue and those reliefs are made with ample exaggeration as the king wanted to abandon all conventional practices, even in the field of art. So he tried to break the monotony of making everything life-like and added a new dimension, what I feel a little bit surrealistic in nature!
Irrespective of time and space, majority people usually don’t accept anything new at first. Same went with Akhenaten. He was killed by his opponents. A mummy-form coffin was there in display. This is assumed to be made for keeping his mummy. Its face had been distorted and the car-touche mentioning his name had been taken out so that the man inside would not ‘survive’ even in his afterlife!
They took all possible steps to make people forget that ‘dark’ period initiated by the ‘heretic’ king, called Akhenaten. They had destroyed his capital, thrown away his religion, re-established old gods & goddesses, buried his son Tutankhamun with royal grandeur to assure the countrymen that nothing had been changed; the age old traditions had been still valid. But did they really win? Nobody in today’s world worship Amun-ra, Horus, Hathor or Osiris! Akhenaten died. But his belief of mono-god is still alive, in the name of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and so on.
Statues of Hatshepsut
It was afternoon. The corridors were getting dark. We were awestruck by the mystifying wide-eyed beauty of her face, half illuminated by the tender blessing of the sun. Just like Akhenaten, his ancestor Pharaoh Hatshepsut was another rare bird to do something ahead of ‘her’ time and needless to say, another hated ruler in her era.
Women were usually omitted from kings-list in ancient Egypt as they were not considered to be suitable for the throne. Hatshepsut had broken the monopoly of this male chauvinism and despite of being a woman ruled as a ‘king’ for almost 21 years. After the untimely death of her husband Thuthmosis II, she started ruling on behalf of her minor step-son Thuthmosis III, but the controversy arose after seven years, when she proclaimed herself as a pharaoh and started ruling jointly with her step-son. It was not easy to swim against the tide. People were not ready to accept a lady on the throne, so she had to add some masculine features on her body and personality like adding false beard on chin, dressing like a man, showing manliness in her gestures and so on. We noticed the red color of her statues as in ancient Egypt red skin was associated with stern masculinity. From the large number of sphinxes with the face of Hatshepsut in the museum-collection, I could interpret that she was keen to make her people trust in her ‘kingship’ and that was why she had chosen sphinx, as it used to symbolize the blend of lion’s strength and pharaoh’s intellect.
Block statue was a distinctive art form initiated in the middle kingdom. I found a peculiar block-shaped statue with the heads of an adult and a child. Here, Nefereru, daughter of Hatshepsut is sitting on the lap of her tutor Senenmut, a high official. Rumors were there that there was love affair between vizier Senenmut and Pharaoh Hatshepsut! I don’t know what the truth is, but this statue recognizing the affectionate bonding of a little princess with a non-royal subordinate was something I have never seen in royal art of ancient Egypt.
To strengthen the financial prosperity of her country, Hatshepsut emphasized on international trade over infinite bloodshed of war. Apart from crowning glory of a ‘successful’ female ruler, this practical and humanitarian thought, which was rare at that time, is something that made me adore her.
Statues of Old Kingdom
First work of art is always very special because this is a phase when art struggles to discover its own style and after that usually repetition takes place. So I wished to explore the artifacts of the earliest era of Egyptian art, that is of old kingdom and when I entered into the designated area It was like getting lost in a crowd, a crowd full of ancient royal personalities, though mostly made out of stone, but magically life-like. Here, I am highlighting few of my favorites.
The names of Pharaoh Khafre and his son Pharaoh Menkaure sounded familiar to us because we had already visited their pyramids in Giza. In museum, I stood in front of the statue of Pharaoh Khafre, found a dignified regal expression on his face and was perplexed to imagine how a sculptor, born almost 4500 years ago, could create such work of diligence out of extremely hard stone using ancient tools! And then came the statue Menkaure, standing with his mother and wife! I don’t know why I couldn’t resist myself gazing and gazing to this sculpture! For their flawless musculature, for the shining black color, or for their amazing smoothness, whatever be the reason this sculpture had own my heart over all other stone-made statues I saw during my Egypt-trip.
Ka-Aper, a high priest of old kingdom became immortal for his life-like wooden statue, especially for his incredibly realistic eye-balls made out of translucent rock crystal. Eyes are reflection of one’s soul. It seemed like I was making eye-contact to a living breathing person, full of wisdom! Same goes with the statues of Khufu’s half-brother Rahotep and his wife Nofret. The crystal eyes of Rahotep along with furrows between his brows depicted his dissatisfaction, as I felt, but Nofret’s eyes were telling about her strong and self-possessed personality.
There were plenty of statues made out of stone, metal and wood. I wandered around them, but did not let my brain striving to identify and memorize who is who. In fact I did not bother to do so! Whoever they are, I am here to admire those unknown sculptors, who challenged themselves with hardest of hard stones, had profound knowledge on human anatomy and immense craftsmanship to make every muscle, bone, curving with absolute accuracy and did all these things probably using simple bronze tools as iron age was yet to come in Egypt.
Artifacts of Middle kingdom
While old kingdom promoted strength, durability and realistic appearance in their sculptures and new kingdom showcased their aesthetic sense emphasizing on grandeur, the internal period of middle kingdom should be denoted for portraying common man’s life with simple but careful effort. The artifacts found from this era are little in number and are displayed in a relatively small gallery, which consists of burial treasures dedicated to noble persons. The most noticeable items were small dioramas with tiny human figures projecting daily life scenes like army, fishing, boat-riding, agriculture and husbandry and so on. These models are made with not-so-enduring materials like wood, clay, papyrus stalks etc, but surprisingly still are in intact form.
These miniatures of ordinary people reminded me the engravings revealing similar scenes which we had seen in the tomb of Kagemni, a noble person of old kingdom during our Saqqara trip. Therefore, it is clear that representing commoners in noble man’s tomb was a tradition inherited from old kingdom and the idea had been modified subsequently in making dioramas.
This gallery receives least footfalls as the guides do not consider it worth-visiting. It is true that the craftsmanship is quite primitive and far inferior in comparison to old and new kingdom treasures, but I consider the objects of this era, missing link between old and new kingdom, very down to earth and unique for being not related to deities and royal personalities. For me, these collections signify a lot by recognizing the struggle of laboring men, the real pillars of civilization.
Ostracons and Papyrus Scroll
Middle kingdom art depicts how they used to work but it is great to know how they used to think or prepare themselves before the final work. ‘Ostracons’ were there in display to introduce us with the inner thoughts of thousands of unknown artisans who lived in a village close to the Valley of the Kings, Luxor. Their marvelous artwork can be seen in numerous tombs there, but all these arts started from the ‘Ostracons’, fragmented limestone-slabs. Those craftsmen used the plain surfaces of ostracons to write letters, to make rough sketches of their impending artwork and to produce amateur line drawings just for fun and pleasure. Therefore, along with traditional images usually found in tombs and temples, we could get to see raw line drawings related to daily life, even caricatures of the traditional life and art.
On the previous day we visited a papyrus shop near Giza and got an idea on how time-consuming and hazardous the entire process of making paper-like papyrus scroll from papyrus stem is. Probably for this reason, in spite of sufficient growth of papyrus on the bank of River Nile during ancient era, papyrus scrolls were too luxurious to use for the rough works or daily communication purpose, so commoners preferred stone-slabs like ostracons. But when it comes to the matter of aristocracy and religion, the choice of papyrus was no doubt obvious. I saw long papyrus scrolls occupying the entire length of a rectangular hall. Cursive hieroglyphics and colored illustrations depicting ‘The Book of the Dead’, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, were painted thereupon. Later, I found similar paintings inside the tombs of Valley of the Kings, Luxor.
I appreciate those museologists who designed this gallery for accommodating ostracons and papyrus scroll together; it’s like recognizing both mediums of writing equally, irrespective of the social status related to them.
Animal Mummy Room
Though ancient Egypt is better known for their royal mummies, but the practice of mummification was not limited to humans only rather animal mummification was very common during that era. Initially I had thought it as a freaky idea of rich people, only to assure afterlife for their beloved pets. But later I came to know that they often used to mummify the pets of a deceased person and bury along with so that the pets would accompany their master in afterlife, even animal mummies were offered as food that would help to sustain persons in afterlife. Some animals were worshipped as physical manifestation of specific deities, so their bodies were mummified and considered as a sacred offering to those designated Gods.
Animals played starring roles in ancient Egyptian art and religion. People used to observe that animals could predict natural phenomena and behave accordingly; therefore they figured it out as animal’s special power to communicate with the God and to know what the God was going to do. Therefore, whenever they painted or engraved any animal, they did it with heart-full of devotion and dedication, resulting something astonishingly lifelike.
A dazzling blue hippo made us stop and we found small items made of similar materials are displayed along with. Though they looked like lapis lazuli, but was actually made of Egyptian faience, the oldest known type of glazed ceramic, composed by the mixture of crushed sand, crushed limestone and copper oxide resulting bright colors, especially sheds of turquoise, blue & green and varied textures from glossy & translucent to matte & opaque. This magical alchemy was used in ancient Egypt to replicate lapis lazuli, which was too expensive to import from Afghanistan.
Out of thousands of showy items, it is hard find those few red potteries with black motifs painted on them, but these pale looking items, called Naqada potteries hold immense significance because they are almost 6000 years old, created far before the making of the first pyramid. I was surprised to know that even in this primitive stage of Egyptian civilization, their fascination for afterlife was adequately relevant, because these potteries were made for keeping burial offerings like food and drink. Here, the red color means the barren land of west and the black symbolizes the irrigated fertile soil after the flood of Nile. The river was so important in their life that wavy patterns, representing Nile were painted on most of the potteries.
For a while in the next room I felt like visiting a European museum. The room was full of colored portraits facing front, while profile view of one’s face is mostly seen in ancient Egyptian art and more to this, the style of painting was so distinct from all other artifacts exhibited in the museum that foreign influence was evident. These are Fayum portraits. This style was introduced to Egypt when it was under Roman rule. These are probably the youngest collection of Egyptian Museum. Though the ancient Egyptian civilization was ended with Roman invasion, but here we could see that mummy-form coffins, painted with Fayum portraits are revealing the inclusion of Egyptian tradition in Roman culture.
From Naqada potteries to Fayum portraits, the history of almost 5000 years is recognizable here through the preservation of their remnants. Though it was quite impossible to observe everything with equal attention, But I, being fully contented was finally ready for departure. I looked back to the gigantic statues of King Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye and started to fantasize the central hall of the ground floor as a royal court, with the king and the queen sitting on their throne surrounded by other smaller statues, who seemed like their high officials. My ‘royal’ day-dream got disrupted by the shrill sound of whistle as it was time for closing and the security guards were alerting visitors to leave the museum. Dusk was falling fast on last representatives of Egyptian civilization, last rays of sun kissing the stone sphinxes. Let the people of bygone days ‘live’ their ‘afterlife’ undisturbed.
- Egyptian Museum is a two storied building. Two Royal Mummy Rooms, Tutenkhamun’s gallery, treasures of Yua and Tuya, Middle Kingdom Gallery, Fayum portrait gallery, animal mummy rooms, ostracons, papyrus scrolls, faience objects, Naqada potteries are found in the upper floor. And the ground floor is full with statues of old and new kingdom including artworks related to Akhenaten and Hatshepsut. Please remember that during my visit, the Egyptian Museum was situated in Tahrir Square, Cairo, but in future it will be shifted to Giza. Therefore alterations in arrangement may take place.
- There is one single counter for entry ticket, ticket for the Royal Mummy Rooms and camera fee.
- Photography is prohibited in the Royal Mummy Halls, but permitted inside the animal mummy room. Please keep in mind that the rules regarding photography change often.
- Some of the artifacts are always sent to exhibit in different other museums all over the world. Therefore, you may not see all the items I have mentioned above. Again, you will be fortunate to see other objects that I could not get to see.
- It is best to visit the museum in slow pace and at least 4 hours are required for detailed observation.
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat