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Saqqara

Bonaparte-Before-the-Sphinx_2

Mystery of the Sphinx: Was it built to the likeness of the Pharaoh Khafre?

In 1995, NBC televised a prime-time documentary hosted by actor Charlton Heston and directed by Bill Cote, called Mystery of the Sphinx. The program centered on the research and writings of John Anthony West, a (non-academic) Egyptologist, who, along with Dr. Robert Schoch, a professor of Geology at Boston University, made an astounding discovery on the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt.

At the time, most Egyptologists believed the Sphinx had been carved in the likeness of a pharaoh named Khafre during his reign around 2500 BC (approximately 4,500 years ago.) This was based on a vague hypothesis from the fragments of a stela (stone marker) found near the front of the massive sculpture.

An antique photo of the Sphinx of Giza, circa 1890. (Photo Zangaki brothers/Public Domain)

Shocking Findings

During his many travels to Egypt, West had uncovered the research of R. A. Schwaller de Lubicz, a French Egyptologist who believed the Sphinx to be significantly older than what historians described. To support his research, West invited Schoch to analyze the Sphinx from a geological perspective and make an age determination from his findings. West and Schoch would later publish their conclusions which revealed the Sphinx and surrounding enclosure (made of limestone) to be significantly older by many thousands of years. Dr. Schoch’s conservative estimates were in the neighborhood of 9,000 years, which West felt was somewhat inadequate and privately expressed dates to 20,000 years or older.

The news shocked the scientific world, which could not grasp the possibility of an advanced civilization existing before 2600 BC. The documentary Mystery of the Sphinx highlighted the West/Schoch discovery which today has left the scientific community divided.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, 1867 (Public Domain)

Face of the Sphinx

One of the interesting aspects of the documentary, and the focus of this article, was the forensic reconstruction of the face of the Sphinx and its ethnicity. Most, if not all Egyptologists agree that the head of the Sphinx represents the Pharaoh Khafre, and over the years have presented sculptures of Khafre they felt were a good likeness. West was suspicious of this claim, and called on Frank Domingo, a New York Police Department forensic expert to reconstruct the face of the Sphinx to confirm or deny Khafre’s likeness.

Domingo Head. Photo composite of Sphinx head, by Frank Domingo, NY Police Department. (Image via author).

Domingo took hundreds of photos from a variety of positions inside and outside the Sphinx enclosure, capturing the subtleties of the face of the Sphinx, the carving technique, and the intent of the artisans who fashioned the sculpture. At the end of his analysis, the face he re-established through careful reconstruction was not the Pharaoh Khafre. Using portions of the head that remained after erosion, and the changes resulting from artillery fire from earlier wars in the area, Domingo revealed the head of the Sphinx was that of an African individual, (Nubian) and the possible likeness of an unknown pharaoh.

The Egyptological community was immediately in uproar and dismissed the conclusions of Domingo, Schoch, and West with a series of character assassinations and accusations. Given the new scientific conclusions, rather than consider the possibilities of an even earlier dynasty, they rejected the data as unsubstantiated and unscientific. But, the story doesn’t end here. One of the important considerations of West’s research was the discovery that the face was not Khafre, but distinctly African.

Racial Diversity in Ancient Egypt

My own research of early pre-classic Maya society (1500 BC – 1500 AD) now reveals evidence of racial diversity on a massive scale, thousands of years before Columbus reached the Americas. Abundant images of people from this time period and for centuries after are found on terracotta figurines, pottery, and in some examples, jewelry. It’s not known how these ethnic groups migrated to Central America, but over the last 50 years, a number of authors have documented a Maya society with people from unmistakably different racial groups. Most prominent of these writers was Professor Alexander von Wuthenau, a scholar who fled Nazi Germany, settled in Mexico and lived there until his death in the early 1970s. A keen observer, his collection of ancient Meso-American artifacts is startling, with examples of people from Asia, Africa, and Europe, and is documented in hundreds of photos in his book, Unexpected Faces in Ancient America. Similar racial types can also be found in Dynastic Egypt.

On a recent trip to Paris, I paid a visit to the Louvre, and the Egyptian Antiquities wing to view the artifacts. The current exhibit opens with a beautifully carved, large, red granite sphinx, which leads you upstairs to a collection of monoliths and sculptures collected by French archaeologists in the late 17th century. As you enter this portion of the museum, you face six small but distinctly carved individuals with sphinx bodies. The title of the exhibit reads (translated from French): Six of the Sphinxes bordering: Leading to the Serapeum of Saqqara.

Entrance sphinxes. Six small, beautifully carved sphinxes greet you as you enter the Egyptian portion of the Louvre. Each has the face of an individual from Asia. (Photo by the author).

Each sphinx is executed in the refined style we’ve come to appreciate from early Dynastic Egyptian artisans, but in these examples, all have distinctly different faces; they’re Asian. According to August Mariette, the French archaeologist who excavated the site in 1850, each sphinx was part of 600 small sculptures which lined a causeway entering the Serapeum. This is the first time I’ve noticed Asian features on the head of an Egyptian sculpture and I can only surmise that ancient Egypt was far more culturally diverse that we understand.

Cultural and Genetic Exchange

In a recent paper on DNA and mitochondrial genome research of early Egyptian populations, the authors conclude that because of its close proximity to Africa, Asia, and Europe, “from the first millennium BCE onwards, Egypt saw a growing number of foreigners living and working within its borders and was subjected to an almost continuous sequence of foreign domination by Libyans, Assyrians, Kushites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and Brits. The movement of people, goods and ideas throughout Egypt’s long history has given rise to an intricate cultural and genetic exchange and entanglement, involving themes that resonate strongly with contemporary discourse on integration and globalization.”

It appears that geneticists have determined that, for thousands of years, ancient Egypt was a society made up of multi-racial communities, living, working, and interacting with one another as a cohesive group. Why is it so hard for Egyptologists to accept the possibility of an African or even Asian pharaoh from an earlier epoch?

It appears that the ethnically diverse experiment that is the United States of America is not new after all. Racial diversity has been cultivated in different parts of the world for thousands of years.

Source article on ancient-origins, by Cliff Dunning.

References
Verena J. Schuenemann et al, 2017. ‘Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods’, Nature Communications 8, Article number: 15694 (2017), doi:10.1038/ncomms15694 [Online] Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15694
Alexander von Wuthenau, 1975. ‘Unexpected Faces in Ancient America’. Crown Publishers.
Mystery of the Sphinx, 1993 Documentary. Director Bill Cote.

Meretites-and-Kahai

A Priestess and a Singer Locked in a Lasting Egyptian Love Story

A beautiful love story bloomed around a tomb painting found in Saqqara, Egypt. The image shows an ancient Egyptian couple in a tender scene. While sweet, this type of image isn’t a common one – so researchers may be as interested in the painting and story as romantics are.

The intriguing painting graces the wall of a 4,400-year-old tomb belonging to a couple, their children, and possibly even their grandchildren. A priestess named Meretites and her husband, a singer named Kahai who performed at the pharaoh’s palace, are the primary owners of the tomb, and are the couple depicted in the painting.

Miral Lashien, a researcher at Macquarie University, suggested the beautiful nature of the tomb can be attributed to the social status the couple held in the Pyramid Age.

Saqqara, chapel of Kahai and his family, 5th Dynasty, around 2420 BC – 2389 BC. (Image Source: pinterest http://www.ancient-origins.net/)

In fact, colorful scenes of people singing and playing musical instruments, such as harps and flutes, are splashed across the wall of the duos tomb. However, the scene that draws in the viewer the most is undoubtedly the portrayal of the priestess and singer lovingly gazing into each other’s eyes while Meretites places her right hand over Kahai’s right shoulder.

This type of image would be considered a tame or gentle depiction of a couple in the Western world today, but in ancient Egypt it was not normal – not even for a married couple. There are actually few examples of a face-to-face embrace from the Old Kingdom period (2649 – 2150 BC), the time period when Meretites and Kahai lived and pyramid building thrived. As Lashien reflected, “I think that this indicates very special closeness.”

Although a full-color image of the tomb painting didn’t appear in the media until 2013, the tomb itself was found in 1966 and the couple’s moment was portrayed in low quality black-and-white in a book in 1971. The more striking representation of the ancient Egyptian couple made global headlines thanks to the work of scientists at Macquarie University’s Australian Center for Egyptology.

Lashien explained that making higher quality color images of the tomb available was a necessary action, “This tomb is one of the most colorful examples of Old Kingdom art and certainly deserves a full-color publication.”

Apart from the eye-catching murals, the tomb also has five “false doors” with images of the deceased. The ancient Egyptians believed that these were a conduit between the world of the living and that of the dead. Furthermore, the living loved ones would place food in front of these ‘doors’ as offerings for the dead.

By April Holloway
Source: Ancient Origins (ancient-origins.net)

djoser-head

Djoser

Djoser (read as Djeser and Zoser, also known as Netjerikhet, Tosorthos, and Sesorthos, c. 2670 BCE) was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty during the Old Kingdom and the founder of this epoch. He is well known under his Hellenized names Tosorthros (from Manetho) and Sesorthos (from Eusebius). He was the son of king Khasekhemwy and queen Nimaathap, but if he also was the direct throne successor is still unclear. Most Ramesside Kinglists name a king Nebka before him, but since there are still difficulties in connecting that name with contemporary horus names, some Egyptologists question the received throne sequence.

Djoser statue, 3rd Dynasty Egyptian Museum (image: wikipedia)

Djoser was the first king of the Third Dynasty of Egypt, reigning for over twenty years. Some sources indicate a king named Sanakht as the first ruler of the Third Dynasty but this claim is challenged as Sanakht’s name is only known from two reliefs, the Abydos king list, and the Turin papyrus, not from archaeological evidence. Early archaeologists identified Sanakht’s tomb as mastaba K2 at Beit Khallaf based on the two reliefs mentioned above, which were found there; but this identification has been challenged and largely discredited. Manetho’s chronology, routinely used to date the reigns of the kings of Egypt, is also unclear on who he was or when he ruled. Djoser’s reign, following Khasekhemwy, is far more certain than the vague suggestions of a king named Sanakht and so he is now accepted as the first king of the Third Dynasty. Djoser is best known for his Step Pyramid, the first pyramid built in Egypt, although he initiated many other building projects; so many, in fact, that scholars have suggested a reign of almost thirty years to account for the number of tombs, temples, and monuments he commissioned.

Djoser’s Reign

Very little is known of Djoser’s youth or family life. His name Netjerikhet means “divine of body” and ‘Djoser’ is derived from the Djed symbol of stability. He succeeded his father, Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty, and his mother was the queen Nimaathap. His wife was Hetephernebti who was probably his half-sister. Although it was common for the pharaoh to have a queen and lesser wives, Djoser took no other women besides Hetephernebti.

Once he assumed the throne, he almost instantly began commissioning his building projects. Historian Margaret Bunson writes that Djoser “ruled during an age witnessing advances in civilization on the Nile such as the construction of architectural monuments, agricultural developments, trade, and the rise of the cities” (66). Although cities had begun to grow during the First Dynasty, under Djoser’s reign they became more numerous and the architecture more ornate. Djoser’s pyramid complex alone is the best example of the great advance in architectural design at the beginning of the Third Dynasty. Ornamentation was taken to a much higher level and symbols used to remind people of the blessings of the gods and the harmony of the land. The Djed symbol which, besides representing stability, is associated with the god Osiris, was used in the pillars in Temple T of Djoser’s Saqqara complex and appears on his other monuments as well.

The stability of the country under Djoser was due in part to his success in securing his borders and then extending them. Expansion of the realm into the region of Sinai was accomplished through military expeditions. He defeated the Libyans in battle and annexed part of their lands. The position of the king was linked to military ability and victories were a sign of the gods’ favor. The armies of Djoser, therefore, brought honor to his name and to the country but he became legendary, without these campaigns and long before his Step Pyramid was built, for another reason: the re-building of the Temple of Khnum which ended a famine.

Famine Stela

The Famine Stele is an inscription from the Ptolemaic Dynasty (332-30 BCE), long after Djoser’s rule, which tells the story of how the king saved his country. A famine broke out in Egypt which lasted for seven years. No one knew how to resolve the problem and none of Djoser’s consultants seemed to be of any use. Djoser had a dream in which the god Khnum, the god of the source of the Nile River, came to him and complained that his temple on the island of Elephantine (near modern-day Aswan) was in disrepair and people had lost their respect for the god who gave them life through the river.

The Famine Stele is an inscription from the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt (332-30 BCE), which tells the story of how King Djoser saved his country. (image: www.ancient.eu)

Djoser consulted with his vizier Imhotep and with one of his governors, Medir, and they suggested he sail to the island of Elephantine to pay his respects to Khnum and see about the temple. Djoser did so and, finding the temple in the poor condition his dream had foretold, erected a new one in its place. Once the new temple was completed, the famine ended and Djoser was hailed as the hero of his people.

The temple built by Djoser, and the surrounding courtyard and outer buildings, may still be seen in the modern day, although the temple went through renovations during later dynasties. These modern-day ruins date from Djoser’s reign and so the Famine Stele has been accepted by some as history and interpreted by others as legend. As the stone dates from almost 2,000 years after Djoser’s reign, the actual significance of the inscription lies in how Djoser was remembered by his people; whether the event actually happened as described is immaterial. An unpopular pharaoh would not have generated such a legend, no matter what miraculous feats he was involved in, and the Famine Stele attests to the honor and high esteem Djoser was regarded with.

The Pyramid of Djoser

The step pyramid of Djoser, located at Saqqara, was the first of its kind. It consisted of six mastabas; a tomb structure built on top of one another with the lower one always being the smallest. Using this construction technique created a stepped structure-type pyramid that would be used by future pharaohs. This type of construction method would continue to be used under the Pharaoh Sekhemkhet and Pharaoh Khaba. The design was created by Imhotep, chancellor to Pharaoh Djoser and high priest of Ra at Heliopolis. As the designer of the step pyramid, Imhotep became known as the world’s first great architect.

Djoser Step Pyramid

There are multiple canopic jars that mention Queen Nimaethap as “Mother of the King’s children” and “Mother of the King of the Two Lands.” These writings have identified Nimaethap as Djoser’s mother, and Khasekhemwy as his father. Djoser’s queen was Hetephernebti, who was an important queen during the period and is believed to have also been a daughter of Khasekhemwy. If this were true, this would stand to reason that Hetephernebti would also be a step-sister to the pharaoh as well as his wife. Together, Djoser and Hetephernebti had only one daughter, Inetkaes.

Successor

Since Djoser died without a son, another family member most likely became pharaoh. Sekhemkhet would only reign for about seven years before dying; however, the family connection is unknown. This particular pharaoh’s name was unknown until an unfinished step pyramid was discovered in 1951 AD. This unfinished step pyramid is also believed to have been designed by Imhotep, but was probably not finished due to Sekhemkhet’s death during its construction. Only the first mastaba was finished, and is buried beneath sand dunes. Because of this structure being underneath a sandbank, Sekhemkhet’s temple continues to be known as the Buried Pyramid.