While I was in Egypt last month, I learned that the art and religion of the Pharaohs were much more complex than I had been taught in high school and college. My impression from studying art history and religion and even from reading Elizabeth Peters’ novels featuring Amelia Peabody Emerson was that ancient Egypt’s culture was homogeneous and largely unchanging for thousands of years, with the notable exception of the reigns of Akhenaten and Hatshepsut.
We visited the following during our trip:
Museums–Egyptian Museum (Cairo), Coptic Museum (Cairo)–MIT Rahina Museum (Memphis)–Cheops Boat Museum (Giza)–Imhotep Museum (Sakkara)–Nubian Museum (Aswan)–Luxor Museum (Luxor)Ancient Sites–Giza (Pyramids and Sphynx), near Cairo–Sakkara, Dahshur, near Cairo–Unfinished Oblisk (Aswan Granite Quarry)–Philae Temple (Agilkia Island – near Aswan)–Kom Ombo Temple, Edfu Temple (on the Nile between Aswan and Luxor)–Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple, Valley of the Kings, Karnak, Luxor Temple (Luxor)
Just considering the three tombs we walked through in the Valley of the Kings (Queen Twosret in KV14, Thutmosis III in KV34, and Ramses III in KV11), there was a remarkable variety. The wall paintings in the tomb of Thutmosis III include hundreds of almost cartoon-like small stick figures (like an ancient book of XKCD drawings), very different from the large highly colored figurative processions painted in the other two tombs. Queen Twosret’s tomb is the deepest in the valley – in the new visitor’s center, a three dimensional translucent plastic model shows how impressively far her tomb extends into the earth – while Ramses III’s tomb is majestic but relatively short.
It was hard not to get lost in either the grandeur or the infinite detail. Ashraf Azap, our guide, patiently coached us to notice that earlier pharaonic columns had uniform capitals (often in the shape of the papyrus plant or the head of Hathor the mother goddess), while in columns created later by the Ptolemaic dynasty, the capitals were more varied, sometimes each top being different within one temple: palm, papyrus, and lotus all providing design inspiration. Once at Sakkara, we saw a real dog sitting in the cool shade on top of a truncated column.
I became particularly fascinated by the variety among Hieroglyphs. Several of these ancient graphical figures became favorites. Some of the carvings are shallow (or very weathered) scratches, others are abstracted, while still others are deeply cut and much more elaborate. Sometimes a figure faces right to left, other times the same figure faces the other way. I noticed that in large hieroglyphs of animals, the sculptor sometimes added realistic details like individual feathers on birds. I even found a hieroglyph which irresistibly reminded me of President Barack Obama…