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Ancient Egypt, Part Two
Robert Guisepi, 2004
The Valley of the Nile
The rock-cut tombs were dug deep into the cliffsides of the Valley of the Kings in an effort—not always successful—to conceal the resting places of the royal mummies. The long descending passageways, stairs, and chambers were decorated in relief and painting with scenes from religious texts intended to protect and aid the spirit in the next life.
As in all periods, domestic and palace architecture was of perishable mud brick. Enough remains have been preserved, however, to convey an idea of well-planned multiroomed palaces with painted floors, walls, and ceilings. Houses for the upper classes were arranged like small estates, with residential and service buildings in an enclosed compound. Examples of the modest workers’ dwellings can even be found, clustered together in villages very much like those of modern Egypt.
The art of the time of Akhenaton, son of Amenhotep III, reflects the religious revolution this king set into motion. Akhenaton worshiped Aton, the sun god, and he believed art should have a new direction. Early in his reign a realism bordering on caricature was employed, but this developed into a style with a subtle beauty and a deep sense of feeling, qualities embodied in the painted limestone head (circa 1365 BC, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) of Nefertiti, Akhenaton’s queen.
The medium of painting made possible a wider range of expression than sculpture, allowing the artist to create colorful tableaus of life on the Nile. Officials are shown inspecting the exotic tribute brought to Egypt from all parts of the known world. The crafts of the royal workshops are depicted in meticulous detail, illustrating the production of all manner of objects, from massive sculptures to delicate jewelry. Funerary rites are illustrated from the procession to the tomb to the final prayers for the spirit. One of the standard elements in Theban tomb painting, known as early as the Old Kingdom, is a representation of the deceased hunting and fishing in the papyrus marshes, pastimes he would have wanted to enjoy throughout eternity.
The decorative arts of the New Kingdom are equal to the sculpture and painting in their high level of accomplishment. Ordinary objects for the use of the court and the nobility were exquisitely designed and made with great care. Nowhere is this better shown than in the funerary items from the tomb (discovered in 1922) of Tutankhamun, in which rich materials—alabaster, ebony, gold, ivory, and semiprecious stones—were combined in objects of consummate artistry. Even the pottery of the New Kingdom partakes of this rich love of decoration, with brilliantly painted surfaces employing mainly floral motifs. From the evidence of tomb paintings and the decorative arts, the Egyptians of this time took particular delight in a richly colorful life.
As may be expected from earlier history, the strong kings of the 18th and 19th dynasties and the first part of the 20th Dynasty were succeeded by weak rulers who allowed the country to fall from their grasp. Ramses III, the last powerful ruler of the 20th Dynasty, built an immense mortuary temple (1198-1167 BC) on the west bank of the Nile at Medinet Habu, near Thebes, which remains one of the best preserved today. A palace adjoined the temple; it is clear that the king visited and used it during his lifetime. Ramses III had to organize the defense of Egypt from foreign invasion; the battles of these campaigns are vividly recorded in reliefs on the temple walls.
The 21st through 24th dynasties are considered the Third Intermediate period, a span of more than 350 years, with rulers at Sais, Tanis, and Bubastis in the Nile delta. The rulers of the 25th Dynasty who reunited Egypt were foreigners from Kush in the Sudan; they worshiped Egyptian gods, however, and practiced Egyptian customs in the belief that it was their duty to restore Egypt to glory. These Kushite kings refurbished temples and built new structures to the gods. They incorporated in their names those of famous kings of the past, and their art imitated scenes and motifs from earlier monuments. The practice of pyramid burial was revived in their homeland of Kush. During their reign the Assyrians invaded Egypt and eventually put an end to Kushite domination.
The Assyrians were not able to hold the country; the appointed vassals of the Assyrians created a new native dynasty at Sais and ruled for nearly 140 years. The Saites carried on the restoration of tradition begun by the Kushites, and the arts flourished. Sculpture and bronze casting became major industries; contacts were made with the Greeks, some of whom served in the Egyptian army as mercenaries. A Jewish colony was even established as far south as Aswân, testifying to contact by the Saite kings with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The art of the 26th Dynasty used many ancient forms, often literally copying motifs from earlier monuments. An interest in perceptive portraiture begun in the 25th Dynasty was continued, sometimes with splendid results.
The 26th Dynasty ended with the invasion by the Persian Empire and, except for brief periods, Egypt was never again completely free from foreign domination. The conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and by the Romans in 30 BC brought Egypt into the classical world, but the ancient artistic traditions persisted. Alexander and his successors were depicted on the walls of temples as Egyptian kings in an Egyptian style of relief carving. Temples were built in the Ptolemaic period (the dynasty founded by Alexander) and in the Roman period that echoed traditional Egyptian styles in architecture.