Sunday, January 2, 2011

Isadora, a postscript

Alas, as I wrote the blog about Isadora, I noted later that there is omitted a comma after "the seventh", when I discussed Cleopatra. (Cleopatra was the seventh in her family with that nomen; I did not mean she was only the seventh descendant of Ptolemy.)

Isadora, in the distant desert

This is a small mortuary temple from Tuna El Gebel, dating to the fourth century B.C., assigned to the family of a High Priest of Thoth, Petosiris, and his family. A larger tomb is nearby, one with much more of the grand facade one comes to expect whilst traveling through an ancient Egyptian archaeological site. Of course these buildings show the affects of Greco-Roman design, with truncated columns, abbreviated Egyptian architectural motifs, from the kheker friezes and cavetto cornices to the engaged columns, with their large, almost over-powering capitals, now reduced to a phlange of papyrus, a wave of sedge, a possible intrusion of a Greek capital element, and reliefs imposed with the more rounded, fuller figures of the Ptolemaic age, seen in a larger and more elegant scale and design at Dendara and Edfu. The sign at this site states that Petosiris' date is 350 B.C., a man who lived in the time of the last real connection to ancient writing and scribal practices and for the epigrapher, a time during which hieroglyphs change, lose weight and meaning, to give way to Greek, then Roman reliefs as historic battles lead to Roman dominance of Egypt and the end of the Ptolomaic Dynasty.
We hear of Cleopatra, the seventh descendent of Ptolemy, General to Alexander the Great, whose father, Auletes, stumbled around the great palace in what is now the harbor of Alexandria, drunk and playing the flute, as some historians would have us believe, sinister harbinger of another famous ruler, Nero, also drunk with power, making music in his palace as the world fell apart.
But here, at this lonely and truly melancholy place in the desert, there is another presence: that of Isadora, whose inconsolable father had her mummified remains laid to rest in a small, Graeco-Roman tomb chamber, not made of limestone, nor faced with it, but of mud-brick and covered with local stucco. And yet, here it stands, a small tribute to a father's love for his child. And what do we know of this young woman, Isadora? That her lover left her and she threw herself into the Nile and drowned. Or, that she was on her way to meet her lover and the boat she was in was overturned, and that she then drowned before she could join him. And why was she in a boat, I wonder? Did she need to cross the Nile, as so many modern travelers do, to go from the inhabited villages on the East side of the Nile, to the Western, tomb-filled land of the dead? Or was she leaving the dead and coming back to the living?
I wonder as if we could ever know what happened to Isadora, except that she is now a blackened corpse, shrouded, laid out in a glass-encased box. She lays parallel to a small altar over which a substantial engaged, plastered shell motif watches over her. It is the same design which the medieval man might have associated with the Virgin Mary, the shell of purity and eternal life. Are we being told, by Isadora's father that she died a virgin and will have eternal rest, or, that he wished that for her? Again, can we ever know the answer?
I find myself absorbed in this reflecting state, despite the fact that when first I saw the small tomb, entered, looked for some time at Isadora herself and then let my eyes travel over the bandages, the shapes of what is left of her face, her body, her small, twisted feet, I did not feel much impact. It is only now, when I am miles away, that the impact of this small tomb with its small teenage girl laying there, as if waiting for something, someone, that I am greatly moved, even saddened.
We expect to see mummies in Egypt, in museums, in books, in media. But they were and still are human beings. They lived and had aspirations. And now they are still. Cleopatra in her fame and downfall looms large in the history of the world. Isadora in her small tomb travels with me; she is the individual whose mystery, like that of the last of the rulers in Alexandria, remains, hovering, never being completely fathomed, never completely known.
But Isadora was just a local girl, one whom we are told loved someone and then drowned. If her spirit is allowed to take flight, like a Ba with its wings full-out, soaring towards the stars, I hope she finds peace, and I hope she even rejoins that person or place for whom she longs, be it her lover, her father, or the mysterious one you and I may never know.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Gods Are Very Much With Us

In 1972 I studied the architecture of the Egyptian New Kingdom, or Empire, as my directing professor, Dr. Alexander Badawy called it, and our major text, A History of Egyptian Architecture, by Badawy, identifies these monumental scuptures at Luxor Temple as (see page 237)belonging to Ramses II and his wife Nefertari. (He then goes on to identify two standing statues at Amun and Amunet at Karnak Temple.) Whilst our ARCE OC group was examining these very handsome statues, our group was told that they are no less than Amun and Amunet, fashioned after the idealized likenesses of Horemheb and his wife. It's possible that Horemheb usurped these works and that their primary benefactor was Tutankhamun, then Aye. I've always been fascinated by troubling attributions and mis- or confused identifications. I spent some time examining these statues because something grabbed me when I was looking at them. I was struggling with the patterns worn by the female statue. If you are able to come in close to her torso and upper thighs, being careful to watch the tracery of the wing patterns descending down towards her feet, you just might be rewarded with yet another Amarna period design. This past Wednesday, whilst my gal Isabel and I were at the Tutankhamun exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, I saw these self-same wing patterns on the gold foil bodies of several gods and ushabti, incredibly carefully executed scalloped lines denoting feathers,and I couldn't help but instantly recall Amunet. Wing patterns on royal sculptures are common in the
New Kingdom. Into the Late Period, when private persons adopted royal customs and
elevated themselves into the hierarchy of royal status, the care with which artisans recreated these designs slipped, as did the media with which they worked. But the wing patterns of the earlier sculptures set the bar high for all artists who came later. Compare the exactness and care used in the inlays still extant from the Old
Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom and then the New Kingdom, paying close attention to how they reached their zenith with the funerary objects of Thuya and Yuya, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, and then Aye and Horemheb. Of course, we exact correlations because between the fantastic gold coffin of Thuya, and those of Tutankhamun, we cannot, to date, compare such objects with anything having belonged to later burials. But in the case of sculptures such as Amun and Amunet, we see the designs and they have survived the millenia, standing out-of-doors in the sun and moonlight of Luxor Temple. If you see something of Tutankhamun in Amun's face, I, too, see something there. If you see Ankhesenamun in the statue of Amunet, here at Luxor or at Karnak, then, perhaps, like me, you feel a grave sadness, relfecting on the shortness of their lives and the passage of time. The tenuous reign of the boy king and the usurping of his works by later Pharaohs may belie what came afterwards but the care and attention to the 18th dynasty patterns remain and there is nothing tenuous about their beauty. For all the time that has come and gone, and for all the time which is passing and will continue, we know for whom these pieces were designed, even if they are misappropriated by conflicting scholarly reports. They were designed for
Amun and Amunet and they are still very much with us.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Amarna Stela: Looking at ancient Egyptian Art

Splayed perspective is not only an ancient Egyptian art conceit but it is perhaps the best recognized worldwide. How great then is the contrast between Amarna examples of bas relief and fresco painting in comparison to the art which came before and after the collapse of the Atenist cult?
I remember my first trip to the Cairo Museum, fresh from some time in Athens, Greece, when I looked up at the colossal sculptures of Akhenaten and I wondered then, as I still do now, if there were any form of entasis used in the execution of the works, inasmuch as the columns of the Parthenon, for example, were designed to slant upwards in order to create a more harmonious effect in the overall scheme of the architecture. When I stood directly below the face of Akhenaten, I tried to see as if this could be the case in the exaggerated features of the Pharaoh but I didn't see it. I have just come back from the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibit at the new De Young Museum in San Francisco and, again, I looked at the face of Akhenaten, wondering about the distortions and the affects they had and do have on viewers. I pointed out to my daughter that the cloth/nemes head-dress was surmounted by stylized Maat feathers, which one can readily see from a side glance. This piece was meant to be seen from the sides as well as the front, I would say, otherwise the full affect of the rebus writing (Maat, Speaker of Truth) ould not be appreciated. Now, looking at the photograph of one of the boundary stelae from Amarna, the distortions are again easy to see: the so-called spindly arms and legs, the convex thighs and the overall splayed perspective. But what is the affect on the viewer? I find this problem fascinating. I have looked again and again at the faces of Amenhotep III and his chief wife-consort Tiye, and I saw again the upturned, almond eyes of the king and the fierce and beautiful expressions of his wife. There is a lot of visual psychology here; that is, the overall impact of the portraiture could suggest the impression that the father of Amenhotep IV/ Akhenaten was a sort of laid-back fellow but his wife was vigilant, and that the move from the old capital(and the old ways of showing royals) to the new city of Amarna allowed for innovations and experiments in the royal artworks: the exaggerated portraiture, the move towards more naturalistic works, the fresh fresco paintings in the palaces and the garden pictures, and the overall feeling that this was an experiment on many levels, most of which faded back into the desert once Tutakhamun and his successor Aye died and Horemheb began his campaign of using up the talatat from Amarna to fill his 9th pylon at Karnak.

I must say that when I saw the tomb of Meryre, I was astonished by the sheer beauty of the painted images on the brilliant gypsum plaster, utterly and thoroughly astonished and thrilled. Even the subject of the Pharaoh and his Queen Nefertiti in their chariots with a large police escort running around them and beside them, suggesting that the royals were not safe, not even in this new capital, still, I was overcome by the layout of the scene, the sheer depth of the bas reliefs, the shadows cast in the cut plaster---this one thing really got to me---felt as if it had been created quite recently and the feel of the artist's tools, the sweat of the hours of work, seemed to move in the very room! That is the impression with which I was left and still am. The brilliance of the paints and the plaster, the open-air qualities of the rooms and the entrances, especially in comparison with the other 18th dynasty burial chambers, both before and after Akhenaten's reign. As I think, even now, of the carved images, my thoughts go back to the shadows and how they influence the compositions. And I have looked again and again at the Akhetaten boundary stelae
with this in mind: how do these contrast between light and dark make me feel, about art, about the Amarna Era, about the Gestalt of it? It is a complex and very engaging exercise for me. From the most elegant single papyrus stalk erected at Karnak by Thutmosis III, a gorgeous, dramatic, regal statement of power and design, to the heavier figures of Aye and Tutankhamun on a field of thick ochre-imbued yellows in the latter's romb, in the Opening of the Mouth scene, there, in the middle is this seeming aberration, the enormous figures of Akhenaten and his wife cut deeply into the plaster, with great energy both in its cutting and design and also in the subject matter.
We expect grand artwork in public settings such as Karnak and Luxor; we expect the ritual scenes in tombs. What we haven't seen before or
since are the personal scenes we get in the Amarnan works, the glimpses of daily life, companionship between husband and wife and children, and the sheer energy of those scenes, produced in materials chosen for their easier transport (the talatat,for example) or for their ability to dry quickly and to cover up poor stone quality in rock-cut tombs (the plaster).
There are so many interpretations of what might have happened to cause this pharaoh to become the Atenist he did, to move the capital for self-protection, self-indulgence---to be sure---and for a purposeful change in the status quo. What did emerge was the art. We may not know as much as we may want to about this Era but the impressions left by the stelae, the bas reliefs and the layout of the city
and its structures cause an affect on the viewers. I hope we all keep looking.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Horemheb and the Amarna Royals

With the current excitement stemming from two different trials of DNA studies carried out
on the mummies found in Egypt, most notably The Elder Lady, the Young Man, the Younger
Woman, and Pharaoh Tutankhamun, showing familial markings, comes a new era of marvelous
archaeological research and publishing.
Aidan Dodson's book AMARNA SUNSET and Charlotte Booth's HOREMHEB, The Forgotten Pharaoh, are no doubt two of the newest in a wave of provocative and fascinating archaeological explorations; both authors have given us their ideas of what may have happened during the reign of Amenhotep III, his son, Akhenaten, his grandson, Tutankhamun, and what followed in the wake of the demise of the Atenist cult.
When I was a graduate student at U.C.L.A., my professor Alexander Badawy disliked Horemheb practically as if he had known him; indeed, Badawy was quite elderly and I often used to smile at the idea of the two ever having met. But this is an ancient prejudice among many students of Egyptology; who could possibly like an army General who might have brought about the death of the boy-king, Tutankhamun, as well as usurped his throne? Of course, if Horemheb did have anything to do with the death of Tutankhamun, why then did he allow Aye to be Pharaoh for some three to four plus years afterwards? Was this a staging period for the move back to Thebes and Memphis?
We have questions. But since the DNA reports of Dr. Zahi Hawass were announced, as well as the information about the illnesses which Tutankhamun suffered in his lifetime, a serious form of malaria, a broken femur, a seriously misformed foot---if not both feet---and a problem which his grandfather had as well, the scene is being set for what happened during this complex time period.
I welcome the challenges to old ideas about the personality of each player as well as the marvelous bibliographies published for our perusal.
The first time I saw the coffin of the lady in KV55, it was a photograph published by Christianne
Desroches Noblecourt. Her take on whose sarcophagus it was as well as how it got where it was and how all of this fit into the time of Tutankhamun seems very far away now. But I did not forget it. I wondered about that face, first a woman's, covered in heavy gold foil with inlaid
eyes, then a man's, probably a king's, with an attached beard and a uraeus, arms folded, holding
the crook and the flail (?).
But now we are told that the body found there was none other than Akhenaten's and what a
facinating story is emerging from all of this, from the first archaeologists to find the tomb up to today! And then, there are the thoughts each of us have as we attempt to reconstruct what might have happened as Amarna fell and the Restoration of the Old Gods took place.
These are wonderful things, to quote Carter, and I do believe more shall be revealed.
Stay tuned!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Horemheb Receives Collars of Gold, from his mortuary temple at Saqqarah, Egypt

After traveling in Egypt and seeing so many things I'd studied when I was both an undergraduate and a graduate student at U.C.L.A., I was flooded with feelings about everything I had ever associated with loving Ancient Near Eastern Studies. I've put up this photograph from a moment in Horemheb's life because, like Horemheb, I myself am bridging several parts of my own life. For one thing, it was truly a collar of gold to travel with an illustrious group of people who came together to visit hard-to-see sites in Egypt and for another thing, it was a coming home of sorts for me. I studied Egyptian studies for many years but after I was married to an archaeologist whose field was Classics, I found myself more involved in Greek and Roman studies than in my own area. I love Classics but it was never my first love in the realm of archaeology; no, that was Egypt. I even diverted from Egyptian studies over to Pre-Columbian for a while and even though I love that work, too, my thoughts never strayed very far from Egypt, its history, architecture, archaeology, art, religion and languages. When I found myself arriving in the new Cairo airport I was elated and stunned by the fact that I'd actually made it there.
Horemheb was a general for Pharaoh Ankhenaten and, later, for Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The enormous political and sociological changes which the former implemented and the latter reinstated all took place whilst Horemheb was living in Thebes, Memphis, Saqqarah, Amarna and then back to Thebes and Memphis. He lived a long life, from civil servant to commander of the chariotry to Pharaoh, himself.
Changes in history, like changes in one's own life, can be stunning, amazing, life-changing. If Horemheb had not outlived the time of the Atenist leader, we might know very little about him but he did survive and he did so very well.
Therefore, I am starting this blog, hoping to comment on how ancient history of all sorts has shown me how to live, how to recast old scenarios and to see them differently, and how to move forward, past old histories.
There is so much we do not know about Horemheb, or, for that matter, about all of the players in the Amarna Era; but the good news is that the mysteries of those times are enticing, fascinating and challenging.
Ah! Such is life!
Deborah Nourse Lattimore,
member of
The American Research Center in Egypt OC
The Egypt Exploration Organization
The Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators