'Pharaoh' awes Egypt enthusiasts
By Olivia Snaije
Special to The Daily Star
Thursday, October 21, 2004
['Pharaoh' awes Egypt enthusiasts]
PARIS: Ancient Egypt never disappoints. "Pharaoh," the latest blockbuster show at the Institut du Monde Arabe, opened late last week and the lines have been snaking around the handsome building along the Seine ever since.
The exhibition is an elaborated sequel to a major exhibition held at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice two years ago. With a greater number of objects, "Pharaoh" focuses on the omnipotent role of the pharaoh over the course of 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history.
Christiane Ziegler, head of the ancient Egyptian antiquities department at the Louvre museum, curated both the Palazzo Grassi show as well as the Institut du Monde Arabe exhibition. The two main lenders for the present show are the Cairo Museum and the Louvre, Ziegler explains, adding that the Arab Institute benefited from a privileged relationship with the Cairo Museum. This was especially crucial when it came to obtaining precious objects on loan. Indeed, some of the pieces featured in "Pharaoh" have never left Egypt before, nor have they ever been displayed publicly.
What makes this latest exhibition original and particularly enriching is the concept, which Ziegler orchestrated carefully, without losing sight of her public.
"You can't plan an exhibition on ancient Egypt without talking about the pharaohs. But the subject of the pharaonic institution - the reigning structure - had never been treated before. What was this royalty that was essentially religious? Why did the pharaoh intervene on all levels? I tried to present the different aspects of this institution, and built the show around an explanation."
For a show of this magnitude - displaying over
200 objects - Ziegler has succeeded in
bringing into the 21st century the reality of a pharaoh's life 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
Visiting the show can be a little bit like touring the ancient monuments in Egypt - timing is of the essence in order to avoid throngs of people. Once inside the museum, however, the sheer splendor of a colossal painted quartzite statue of Tutankhamon, placed squarely at the entrance, compensates for the crowd.
In the first section of the exhibition, a portrait gallery of pharaohs spans 3,000 years of history. A strange fetishistic little statue of a bearded pharaoh wearing the headdress that became the crown of Upper Egypt marks the pre-dynastic period. An alabaster statue of Chepren represents the ancient empire (2700-2200 BC) while a beautiful painted terra-cotta head of Amenophis III found in the temple of Karnak, one of the rarest pieces in the show, provides an emblem for the new empire (1550-1069 BC).
The next section addresses the issue of the pharaoh acting as an intermediary between mankind and the gods. Even though the pharaoh was above all human, the monarchy was considered divine in its essence; the pharaoh's aura was supernatural.
Ziegler wanted to demonstrate the religious role that the pharaohs played as priests of the gods. A limestone relief from the palace of Merenptah in Memphis shows the god Atoum handling the pharaoh scepter, crosier and flail, the symbols of power. In an adjacent glass cabinet, these objects, on loan from the Louvre, bring into three-dimensional reality what is seen in the limestone relief.
It was in the temples that the pharaoh's link between mankind and the gods was glorified. The pharaoh's name was inscribed all over the temples as well as on small plaques surrounding the temple's foundations in order to protect it. A collection of these plaques discovered under the temples is on view here, as are various cartouches bearing pharaonic names.
A famous sandstone pillar statue of Akhenaton is included in the exhibition as well. The magnificent colossus of Akhenaton - the 18th dynasty (1353-1337 BC) king who worshiped only the sun god, Aton, and shunned the rest - comes from a temple in Karnak. The extraordinary face is elongated, the lips are full and the eyes are almond shaped.
A metal incense holder accompanies a bas-relief of a pharaoh offering a god incense.
Besides his role with the gods, the pharaoh was expected to keep the forces of disorder at bay and maintain a balance in his kingdom. He was often represented as a warrior, triumphant, massacring his enemy.
"The images are ritualistic and repeat the victory of order over disorder incarnated by the pharaoh who benefited from the gods' help," says Ziegler. "The ancient Egyptians had a very egocentric vision - everything was centered around them and their neighbors had to be subdued since they might have imperiled the pharaohs' prosperity and equilibrium."
In a chilling limestone relief from the 19th dynasty (1295-1186 BC), a pharaoh strings up his enemies by their hair.
"Of course reality was different," Ziegler says with a smile, referring to images of the pharaoh ever triumphant. "We know some battles were lost and the situation wasn't always ideal."
The fourth section of "Pharaoh" is one of the most revealing. It treats the subject of the pharaoh and his government, which resembled a contemporary totalitarian state albeit with far more culture and spirituality.
"Ancient Egypt was one of the first to have an administration like those we have today," says Ziegler. "They had a council of ministers, regional governors, ministers of finance, justice and agriculture. There were archives, decrees were published and officially sealed. So it was a real government with the exception that the king was omnipotent."
Ziegler illustrates this with relief images of the king surrounded by his Viziers and other ministers, or foreign dignitaries bowing before the pharaoh. A gold and bronze papyrus cutter belonging to a scribe called Neferhor is exhibited next to a golden-ring seal belonging to the pharaoh Horemheb, from the 18th dynasty.
Domestic objects from the royal court follow the section on government. The visitor sees how the pharaoh and his family lived in the palace. There is a plaster wall gracefully frescoed with ducks and reeds in delicate tones that once adorned the palace of Amarna during Akhenaton's reign.
The pharaohs' private life is revealed through personal effects and furniture, including necklaces, a bed and wooden chest that belonged to Tutankhamon, a treasure of a box in wood, ivory, bronze and leather belonging to Ramses IX and a chest in gilded wood painted turquoise with the name Amenophis III on it.
Lovely objects such as jewelry, hairpins, mirrors and rolls of linen from the Gourob harem are on view. According to Ziegler, harems were often great domains and economic centers. "It wasn't like a harem in Istanbul, where the women just lay about. Papyrus texts have been found describing how they wove linen and produced glass vases. It was also a place where plots against the king were hatched."
The exhibition closes with the death of the king. In the Valley of the Kings, most of the tombs besides Tutankhamon's were pillaged. But the treasures discovered at Tanis were comparable to those found in Tutankhamon's tomb and many of these precious objects are on display including rings, necklaces, bracelets and masks. An extraordinary funeral mask in solid gold encrusted with lapis lazuli belonging to Psousennes I is on loan from the Cairo Museum. The gold symbolized the solar, imperishable flesh of the gods - the representation of the deceased king made it eligible for eternity.
Ancient Egypt is an ongoing discovery for Egyptologists. Christiane Ziegler is quick to point out that while many sites have yet to be explored, there are countless objects in various museums that have never been studied nor shown.
"Pharaoh" succeeds brilliantly in bringing visitors closer to an understanding what being a pharaoh was all about.
"Pharaoh" is on view at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris through April 2005. For more information, visit www.imarabe.org