Egyptian civilization was one of the greatest in the ancient world, and certainly the most long lived, lasting for more than 3000 years. In the popular mind the immediate images are those of the pyramids, the great Sphinx at Giza, the enormous temples and the fabulous treasures that have been preserved in the dry sand of Egypt. But what of the people who were responsible for such splendours?
|Copper alloy kneeling statuette of Amenemhet III (1842-1797 BC), part of a rare group of figures in this metal of the king, his wife and chief scribes. George Ortiz Collection, Geneva.|
The ancient Egyptian pharaohs were god-kings on earth who became gods in their own right at their death. They indeed held the power of life and death in their hands - their symbols of office, the crook and flail, are indicative of this. They could command resources that many a mod- ern-day state would be hard pressed to emulate. One has only to conjure with some statistics to realize this. For example, the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) at Giza, originally 481 ft (146 m) high and covering 13.1 acres (5.3 hectares), was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century AD, yet it was constructed in the mid-3rd millennium BC, and we still do not know exactly how it was done. Its base area is so vast that it can accommodate the cathedrals of Florence, Milan, St Paul's and Westminster Abbey in London and St Peter's in Rome, and still have some space left over.
The vast treasures of precious metal and jewellery that, miraculously, escaped the attentions of the tomb robbers are almost beyond comprehension. Tutankhamun's solid gold inner coffin is a priceless work of art; even at current scrap gold prices by weight it would be worth almost £1 million ($1.5 million), and his gold funerary mask £105,000 ($155,000). He was just a minor pharaoh of little consequence - the wealth of greater pharaohs such as Ramesses II, by comparison, is unimaginable.
The names of other great pharaohs resound down the centuries. The pyramid-builders numbered not merely Khufu, but his famous predecessor Djoser - whose Step Pyramid dominates the royal necropolis at Saqqara - and his successors Khafre (Chephren) and Menkaure (Mycerinus). Later monarchs included the warriors Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III, and Seti I, not to mention the infamous heretic-king Akhenaten. Yet part of the fascination of taking a broad approach to Egyptian history is the emergence of lesser names and fresh themes. The importance of royal wives in a matrilineal society and the extent to which Egyptian queens could and did reign supreme in their own right - Sobeknefru, Hatshepsut, and Twosret to name but three - is only the most prominent among several newly emergent themes.
|The royal family: the 18th Dynasty king Akhenaten (1350-1334 BC) and his queen Nefcrtiti with three of their six small daughters. The intimacy of the scene is unprecedented in earlier Egyptian art. Berlin Museum.|
|Ramesses II (1279-1212 BC), in a typically aggressive pose, grasps a trio of Asiatic prisoners by the hair, ready to despatch them with the incongruously small axe held in his left hand. Cairo Museum.|
In Chronicle of the Pharaohs, that emotive and incandescent 3000-year-old thread of kingship is traced, setting the rulers in their context. Where possible, we gaze upon the face of pharaoh, either via reliefs and statuary or, in some rare and thought- provoking instances, on the actual face of the mummy of the royal dead. Across the centuries the artist's conception reveals to us the god-like complacency of the Old Kingdom pharaohs, the careworn faces of the rulers of the Middle Kingdom, and the powerful and confident features of the militant New Kingdom pharaohs. Such was their power in Egypt, and at times throughout the ancient Near East, that Shelley's words, 'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!', do indeed ring true as a reflection of their omnipotence.
Many books are published each year on ancient Egypt, on different aspects of its history and culture. Here, for the first time, an overall view is taken of those incredible people, the pharaohs who, although human after all, were looked upon by thousands as gods on earth and whose very achievements were, and even today still appear to be, the creations of the gods themselves.