Not Just Another Bit of Karnak Temple

The temple at Karnak is a vast site – the biggest temple complex built, ever, anywhere. And when you visit it, it feels like that – overwhelmingly huge, and you only seem to have time to see a fraction of it no matter how many hours you are there. But even that isn’t the whole of the religious structures in the area: there’s more there than most tourist trips even tell you about. The bit that you get taken to is the main precinct, which is dedicated to Amun (and has all sorts of other temples inside it too, e.g. one to Khonsu, one to Ptah). But there are two more precincts – one to the north which is dedicated to Montu, and one to the south which is dedicated to Mut. The Mut precinct has only relatively recently been opened to tourists and I was lucky enough to visit in 2014 just a few months after its opening. There’s not much still standing at the site, it’s one of those places where you have to use your imagination to see what it once was. But once you do, it’s not just “another bit of Karnak” – it’s a fascinating site in its own right.

Temple of Mut, Showing the Sekhmet Statues that Remain in the First Court

All three precincts at Karnak are dedicated to key gods in the Theban region. Montu was once the primary god at Thebes, and in the early Middle Kingdom he was the primary god for the state religion (in the era of the Montuhoteps). Amun, as I’m sure everyone knows, was the primary state god from the later Middle Kingdom onward (and even the Amarna Period is in a sense centred on Amun as it’s a reaction against him). Mut is Amun’s wife – Egyptian gods were often grouped into groups of three to form families: father, mother and child (normally a son). And when Amun was the primary god his triad or family were the most important triad – so Mut and Khonsu were also prominent gods in the pantheon. But Mut wasn’t only important because she was Amun’s wife – as a uraeus goddess and a Daughter of Re she was important in her own right. The separateness of her complex from that of her consort reflects this, and it’s not until the late 18th Dynasty that her relationship becomes the most important aspect of her. Before the time of Amenhotep III there were no images of Amun in her temple, just mentions of him by name. When the damage done by Akhenaten’s iconoclastic removal of the images of the Theban Triad was repaired (by later kings) Amun’s image was added to many scenes in the temple (including replacing Mut herself in some cases!).

As with Amun’s complex the temple of Mut does not stand in splendid isolation. Within the precinct walls there are several shrines, of which the primary one is her own temple. The complex faces north, towards the precinct of Amun along an avenue which is lined with sphinxes dating to the reign of Tutankhamun. Or at least, that’s the way they are now: ram-headed sphinxes with a statue of Tutankhamun cradled protectively between their front paws. But these statues started out life as human-headed sphinxes depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they once lined an eastern avenue towards Akhenaten’s temple of the Aten at Karnak. Tutankhamun had them re-carved as rams and his own image added, then re-dedicated them to Amun – Horemheb later usurped them and carved his own cartouches on to the pedestals.

The temple of Mut itself is also aligned in a north-south direction, with its entrance facing the compound entrance and the avenue of sphinxes. A large first pylon led to a narrow court, at the end of which was the second pylon. Behind this were the inner areas of the temple. The temple was surrounded on three sides (east, south and west) by an unusual curved sacred lake (normally they are rectangular). Its name is isheru, and Mut is referred to in this temple as “Mut of isheru” – the word derives from the name of a lion’s watering hole, which links it to the lioness form of Mut (and Sekhmet). There were two quays on the lake – one on the east and one on the west – which if you look at it now seems a bit silly as it’s quite some way from the Nile, but the course of the river once ran much much closer to the temples. And even once it had shifted away there were canals connecting these quays so that the sacred barque of Mut had direct access to the Nile allowing her to travel for festivals. These quays also have stairs leading into the water so that the priests could enter the water in order to purify themselves.

There are two other shrines still visible within the complex walls that are of a reasonable size. To the west of the sacred lake is a small temple built by Ramesses III – it’s a single room structure, again with its entrance facing north. The outer walls, as with many temples, are decorated with military scenes, some of which survive. And at the front of the temple stood two colossal statues of Ramesses III, which are now missing their heads. The other of these shrines is dedicated to a form of Khonsu called Khonsu the child, which is the form most associated with the Theban triad. This structure was mostly built from reused blocks from New Kingdom structures. Here the decoration that survives is appropriate to the nature of this god as a divine child of Amun – there are a number of birth and circumcision scenes, calling to mind the mythology of the Pharaoh also being divine child of Amun. At the back of the complex was a contra-temple that dates to much later in Egyptian history – it was built or extensively re-worked by Ptolemy II. Geophysical surveying of the precinct has also shown traces of other structures that no longer exist (and haven’t been excavated yet). There is a chapel positioned to the south of the shrine of Khonsu the Child on the same axis, as well as some sort of structural elements to the north of the Ramesses III temple.

Outside the entrance to the complex are two more structures – to the east is a temple of Amun-Kamutef (“Amun, Bull of His Mother”, the ithyphallic form of Amun), and to the west is a small barque shrine dating to the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III . The barques containing the gods “rested” at this barque shrine and others whilst the procession of the Festival of Opet was moving between Karnak and Luxor – and decoration on the Red Chapel of Hatshepsut shows her burning incense in front of these shrines.

The temple of Mut as I’ve described it and as we see now (albeit in ruins) was primarily constructed by Amenhotep III, and provided with a plethora of statues of Sekhmet! As I discussed when talking about Sekhmet there are two main reasons put forward for why there were so many of these statues. One is that Sekhmet was increasingly merged with Mut, and so the temple of Mut was an appropriate place to worship Sekhmet in addition to her primary cult centre at Memphis. The other possibility is that there was an outbreak of plague during the reign of Amenhotep III so he was dedicating many statues to Sekhmet to seek her help against the sickness. There were later additions by kings such as Taharqo of the 25th Dynasty (who built a colonnade in front of the temple and renewed the sacred lake) and Nectanebo I of the 30th Dynasty.

But this was not the first structure on the site. The earliest known structure dates to the Middle Kingdom and is a mudbrick platform that once supported a Middle Kingdom temple. Although not much of this structure has been excavated it’s known that it was oriented on the same axis as the currently standing temple. In the mudbrick platform the excavators found a fragment of relief that has a partial text on it – with part of the name of one of the Senwosrets (all three of whom were kings of the 12th Dynasty), and also part of the word isheru. So this means that a temple dedicated to Mut of isheru was on the site from at least the 12th Dynasty onward.

At that point the landscape surrounding the Precinct of Mut and the Amun Precinct was very different to what we see today. As I alluded to above, the course of the Nile has significantly altered over the millennia. It’s not just that it shifts from side to side exposing or covering different parts of the land, it also creates land. Islands get formed due to build up of silt during the inundation, and the main complex at Karnak and the Precinct of Mut were once on separate islands. This state of affairs lasted until the early New Kingdom – it was only in the reign of Hatshepsut that the land between the two structures (and the mainland) became dry for most of the year. So this explains the unusual shape of the isheru lake – this is remnant of the water that once flowed around the back of the island. It also explains why the processional ways aren’t developed until the New Kingdom – there wasn’t land there before to put sphinx lined avenues on! And may well be why the relationship between Amun and Mut gets less distant during the New Kingdom – theology influenced by the fact that they were no longer on physically separate pieces of land.

At the back of the precinct, to the south of the isheru there is quite a large area that is now open space. In the Second Intermediate Period this was a domestic space across the river from the temple, with lots of houses. And rather unusually also a large number of burials in amongst the houses – generally burials aren’t in the same place as settlements, except sometimes those of infants. There are a lot of unanswered questions about these burials, but one suggestion is that some sort of illness that swept through the town and for some reason people were buried in situ rather than being taken to the usual burial ground. One burial from the late Second Intermediate Period has a more obvious interpretation – a rather gruesome one. The position he was found in suggests that his feet were tied to his elbows behind his back, and then he was tied to a stake in the ground. He was then executed by having his neck broken, and covered over where he lay without being properly interred in any fashion. He might have been of Near Eastern origin, so was possibly a Hyksos prisoner from the conflict at the beginning of the New Kingdom. A physical reminder that the bound prisoners in Egyptian iconography aren’t just art, they’re a representation of something that was done. Ancient Egypt was not the New Age paradise of social harmony that some people would have you believe, it was also a place where brutal punishments like this took place.

In the early New Kingdom the rear wall of the complex enclosed much less space than the current precinct, just outside the lake boundaries on the east, west and south. So the settlement I discussed above was outside these boundaries, but the parts near the south wall become re-purposed as an industrial area for the temple in the 18th Dynasty. These facilities include granaries, grain processing areas, bakeries and breweries to serve the temple. All watched over by an overseer sitting in a raised kiosk – built directly on top of the executed prisoner!

This industrial area serviced the new stone-built temple constructed during the reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. A lot of the stone of this temple has been found under the Amenhotep III temple acting as foundations. Some of the blocks that have been found were decorated, and because temple decoration tends to follow a formula more can be figured out about the structure than you’d expect for “just” a collection of blocks. One part of this iteration of the temple was large room on the western side called the “Hall of Drunkenness”, which was probably built on the site of an earlier hall as the inscriptions talk about Hatshepsut building it “anew”. It was the site of a form of worship that was unique to the goddesses who were referred to as the Daughter of Re. These were mass participation festivals, where the worshippers drank until they were drunk and fell asleep, before being woken up by the arrival of the statue of the goddess to communicate with them accompanied by drums to communicate with them. To help with the sleep and the communication the drink was laced with soporific and hallucinogenic herbs. It might also be coloured red in a reference to the myth where Sekhmet’s destructive fury is brought to an end by tricking her into drinking beer by making it look like blood. Given that Egyptian society generally frowned on public over-indulgence (judging by the wisdom literature) these festivals remind me a bit of the Lord of Misrule appointed at Christmas time in Tudor England to rule over a festival where the strict hierarchy of society was turned upside down. A release valve that kept society ticking along properly the rest of the time, as well as a means of communicating with the goddess in this case.

So I hope I’ve been convincing – not just “another bit of Karnak”, not just “where they found the Sekhmet statues” but a genuinely interesting site in its own right. I wish I’d known all this before I visited it myself!

Resources Used:

Blyth, Elizabeth. 2006. Karnak: Evolution of a Temple. New York, NY: Routledge.
Bryan, Betsy M. 2020a. “Introduction & Excavation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, April 29.
———. 2020b. “Interpreting the Ancient New Kingdom Temple and the Rituals of the Goddess Mut.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 20.
Bryan, Betsy M., and Salima Ikram. 2020. “Bioarchaeology & Conservation.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 13.
Bryan, Betsy M., Kristian Strutt, and David Anderson. 2020. “Unexpected Discovery & Geophysical Survey.” presented at the Investigating the Temple of Mut Mini Course, May 6.
Dodson, Aidan. 2020. “Sethy I – King of Egypt.” presented to the Essex Egyptology Group, June 7, see my writeup on my other blog.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and expanded ed. British Museum.
Teeter, Emily. 2011. Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge University Press.
Weeks, Kent R. 2005. The Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples, and Museums. American Univ. in Cairo Press.
Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.
———. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. Thames & Hudson.

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Rich in Gold, Rich in Meaning

With the centenary coming up in a couple of years, and the exhibition of his burial goods touring (for the last time! or so they tell us), Tutankhamun’s tomb is a rather topical subject. It’s easy when you think about it, and when you visit the exhibition, to concentrate on the bling – everywhere the glint of gold, after all. But these objects aren’t just pieces of treasure, they also tell us about the rich symbolic culture of Ancient Egypt and how the people of that place lived out their lives. So today I’m going to talk about one of my favourite items from his tomb – the fan handle decorated with scenes of Tutankhamun out hunting ostriches – and talk not just about the beauty of the object, but how it fits into the culture it came from.

The Return of the Ostrich Hunt

Tutankhamun was buried within several coffins and shrines that practically filled the room they were in – a veritable Russian doll of an assemblage. There were three nested coffins around the body, which sat within a granite sarcophagus. Surrounding that were four gilded wooden shrines – giant bottomless boxes. Objects had been laid between the layers of this assemblage, and between the third and fourth shrines (counting from the outermost in) there were ceremonial bows and arrows as well as two spectacular fans. The one I’m talking about today (Carter Object 242, Cairo Museum JE62001, or GEM 284) is made of gilded wood, and was found with a mass of insect eaten ostrich feathers which had clearly once been attached to the business end of the fan. Enough remained to see that they had been alternating white & brown feathers, which must’ve been quite a striking look. It was found at the western end of the shrine – the same end as Tutankhamun’s head beneath its many layers. It was in pretty good nick when it was found, other than the feathers – Carter talks on the object card for it about having to clean it with warm water and ammonia, and re-attach some of the sheet gold which was loose but it doesn’t sound like there was any full-on restoration work going on.

This fan has some rather fine decoration on it. At the head end of it, where the feathers were attached are two scenes that, as I mentioned, show Tutankhamun going ostrich hunting. On the front side you see the king in his chariot aiming an arrow at two ostriches running in front of the chariot, with a hunting dog running alongside him and all of them surrounded by desert plants. Behind the king is an ankh carrying a fan just like this one that we are looking at. The inscription over the top of the scene says “the good god, Nebkheperure, given life like Re forever” (Nebkheperure is one of Tutankhamun’s names) and in front of the king’s face is “Lord of Might”.

On the reverse side (pictured) is my favourite of the two scenes, and why I picked out this object to talk about – it’s the aftermath of the hunt. Tutankhamun is returning triumphant, with servants preceding him carrying his defeated quarry and the fantastic detail of the ostrich wing feathers which will be used to make this very fan carried under the king’s arms. I can’t quite articulate why I like it so much – I think it’s the proud teenager returning home to say “Look, I did this!” aspect of it. It has a much longer inscription which tells us all about how wonderful a hunter the king is.

Down the staff there is an inscription as well – it tells us that this is a real event that is being pictured. This commemorates a hunt that Tutankhamun went on in the Eastern Desert at Heliopolis, where he killed the ostriches that provided the feathers that were an integral part of this fan.

Ostriches provided resources for the Ancient Egyptians, so there were eminently practical reasons to hunt them – not just feathers for fans (or other purposes) as seen on this fan handle either. Ostriches are, of course, made of meat and also a single ostrich egg could apparently feed eight people! And after eating the egg the shell could be used to make beads or other decorative pieces. For most of Egyptian history they are probably all wild, as they only appear in art in hunting scenes or as tribute. But they had been domesticated by the Ptolemaic Period.

As well as being useful for practical purposes, ostrich feathers had symbolic resonance. The symbol of maat was a single ostrich feather and this was also the headdress that the god Shu wore (the hieroglyph shaped like a feather was part of spelling his name). And the atef crown that Osiris wears is the white crown of Upper Egypt flanked by ostrich plumes. A very kingly collection of associations for these feathers that Tutankhamun was so proudly bringing home for his fan.

The activity of hunting has two very distinct connotations in modern Western culture – on the one hand there is hunting for food, this is the image conjured up by the term “hunter-gatherers”. By the Pharaonic period this wasn’t a particularly important aspect of Egyptian life and it doesn’t seem to me that this is what Tutankhamun was engaged in! And on the other hand it is “the sport of kings” (one of the uses of that term anyway), this is perhaps the first interpretation to spring to the mind of a modern Brit like me – an image of posh people wearing fancy clothes riding to hunt an animal for fun (probably a fox, with dogs). And this seems much more the sort of activity we are thinking about here – particularly once you add hunting lodges into your mental picture (like a building on the Giza plateau which may be where Tutankhamun stayed when he was hunting near Memphis). Now it’s very much an image of the young aristocrat at play.

Yet as is my theme today – there’s more to this and the other depictions of hunting on Tutankhamun’s burial goods than that. It may be practical (to at least some extent) and a literal depiction of the king at his leisure, but it’s also symbolic – Egyptian art is very rarely, if at all, a straightforward depiction of something from the real world. The first of these symbolic layers is that showing the king engaging in a pursuit like hunting shows him to be a physically strong and capable man – important attributes for a king. And there is a second more fundamental layer of symbolism. These hunting scenes are often mirrored with scenes of warfare – not in the case of this ostrich hunt fan, but for instance on the hunting box (Carter Object 21) one side of the box has the king on his horse trampling wild beasts and on the opposite side the king is on his horse trampling Nubians. And in both warfare and hunting scenes the quarry or enemies are there as avatars of chaos – this is not just a physically strong king being shown at war and at play, this is the king upholding maat and playing his essential part in keeping the universe the way it ought to be.

Moving on now to think about the object itself, the word “fan” has quite probably got all the wrong connotations for you – certainly it does for me. It conjures up simpering 18th Century CE ladies fluttering little hand held fans and hiding behind them or sending messages with how they held them. Whereas this fan is of a quite different type and when Carter found it he had a quite different image conjured up by the object. In the Catholic Church (until Vatican II) and the Orthodox Church even now there are large fans called “flabella” (singular “flabellum”) which are carried in procession behind the Pope or other senior priest of the church in question, or held beside the altar during the Eucharist. These are of a similar type to this fan I’m talking about in this article, and seem to’ve been used in a similar way.

This is not just extrapolation from a similar style – the fans are seen in Egyptian art throughout Ancient Egyptian history (from at least the time of the Scorpion Macehead in the Predynastic Period) being used in just this fashion. Given the climate of Egypt they had a practical use – for shading the king and for generating a cooling breeze, so that he was never troubled by the heat of the sun. and carrying a fan for the king wasn’t necessarily a low status job – the title “Fan Bearer on the Right Side of the King” (tjay-khu her imenty-nisut) was a high status one held by important members of the Egyptian court. Perhaps a bit like “Groom of the Stool” in medieval and early modern England – a rather menial job, but one that gives you unparalleled access to the king, so a prestigious title.

Of course as with hunting scenes the fan seen depicted on the front side of this fan handle is not just literal but is also there for more than one symbolic reason. It is being carried by an ankh hieroglyph and so it symbolises the breath of life being wafted over the king as he hunts the ostriches. Fans were also linked to the idea of “blowing forth” the waters of the Nile in the inundation, so are linked to fertility and fecundity. The fan’s role in providing shade was also symbolic – a fan might represent one of the parts of a person, the shadow, which I find suggestive given where this fan was found, within the shrines surrounding Tutankhamun’s body. And also the concepts of shade and of protection are linked in the Egyptian mind (and both are connotations of the Egyptian word for shadow, shwt) so depicting the king in the shade of a fan means that the king is under protection. So in that one symbol (and indeed in this one object) are bound up notions of protecting the king and giving him life and fertility, as well as symbolising an integral part of his person.

Hopefully this has been a convincing demonstration that the items in Tutankhamun’s tomb are not just pretty faces – bling and toys for the wealthiest man of his time. They were also deeply symbolic for the people of the time, and help us to understand the culture he lived in. And I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface! This object is also a demonstration of how one should, I think, always approach Egyptian culture looking for the “and” – what else could this mean or be?

Resources used:

Carter, Howard. 1972. The Tomb of Tutankamen. Book Club Associates.
Dodson, Aidan. 2010. “The Monarchy.” In The Egyptian World, edited by Toby Wilkinson. Routledge.
Friedman, Renée. 2011. “Hierakonpolis.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Hawass, Zahi. 2018. Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, the Centennial Celebration. IMG Exhibitions.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2005. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. National Geographic Books.
Hawass, Zahi A. 2007. King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb. Thames & Hudson.
Hoffman, Michael A. 1991. Egypt Before the Pharaohs: The Prehistoric Foundations of Egyptian Civilization. O’Mara.
Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow.
Patch, Diana Craig. 2011. “From Land to Landscape.” In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press.
Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. Thames and Hudson.
Romer, John. 2013. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. Penguin.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. 2007. British Museum.
“Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation.”
Wilkinson, Richard H. 1994. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. Thames and Hudson.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2001. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge.

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Taweret and Friends

My bonus article for July is available on Patreon for my subscribers at all tiers and is about the hippo goddess Taweret: Taweret and Friends.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

Two Legs Good, Four Legs Bad

Hippopotami lived in the Nile at least until the time of the New Kingdom. At some point after that they vanish, but by then they are an integral part of Egyptian culture. They are integrated into the writing system – hieroglyph E25 in Gardiner’s list looks like a hippo, and has the sound “deb”. They feature in the tales of later Egyptians about their predecessors too – the Egyptian historian Manetho (who lived around the 3rd Century BCE) wrote that Narmer (the first king of a unified Egypt) was “carried off by a hippo and perished”! Of course this is almost certainly fiction – Joann Fletcher, in whose book I found this quote, says it might be true but I’m reminded far too much of the purported death of Romulus the founder of Rome. He’s supposed to’ve been swept up by a whirlwind and perished, body never to be found. So this feels like a death story that gets attached to semi-mythical kings to make them seem more mysterious.

The reality of the hippopotamus is that it was dangerous and destructive – in particular male hippos were regarded this way and thus associated with the god Seth. In fact the two most dangerous animals that the Egyptians faced in their environment were the crocodile and the hippopotamus, due to their size and strength. Both these animals could move (and attack) both in water and on land, so nowhere was safe from them. In the case of the hippopotamus they also trampled and ate the Egyptian’s crops (and some authors like Richard Wilkinson think that they were feared more for this than any aggression towards humans).

The Egyptians didn’t just let this dangerous beast roam about and destroy their food – there’s evidence for the hunting of hippos dating back to Prehistoric times. Early farmers who lived by the banks of the Faiyum around 5000-4000 BCE butchered hippos for food – a single hippo has as much meat as 5 cows or 50 sheep, so there’s quite a lot of good eating there, you could have a spectacular feast or feed a community for a while after a single hunt. Hippo bones also show up as a structural material in the north of the country at Merimda in the Delta, where hippo shin bones were used as door sills around 4800 BCE, as well as other bones being used as pillars to hold up house roofs. Hippo teeth were also used to make ivory objects from at least Predynastic times. (Technically the word “ivory” only refers to the material of elephant tusks, but in practice its use is broader and includes dentine from other large mammals such as the hippo.) It’s hard to tell which ivory objects were made from elephant tusks and which from hippo teeth, but the shape of the finished object can give some indications. For instance the shape of wands and clappers reflects the shape of the lower canines of hippopotami, whereas circular boxes are the shape of the hollow ends of elephant tusks.

As you’d expect for a creature that was so visible in the Ancient Egyptian landscape hippopotami are a common feature in art. Hippos feature on pots from at least the Predynastic Period onward often as herds or being hunted. Even in the earliest examples known of hippo hunting scenes one of the hippos will usually be shown being harpooned – Diana Craig Patch suggests that this may be intended as protective: invoking success in decorative art in order to ensure success in life. This art is not confined to pottery, even in the Predynastic Period – there is a painted cloth which was found in a grave at Gebelein that has a fragmentary hippo hunting scene on it. And there are figurines found from the Predynastic Period as well as later in the Early Dynastic Period where figurines are found in temple deposits including the well known Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. There are also two known examples of larger limestone statues of hippos dating to the Early Dynastic Period, which may’ve been cult statues placed in shrines to be propitiated with offerings to ward off danger from hippopotami in daily life.

So far I’ve mostly talked about practical attitudes towards hippos until that last paragraph, but much of this art and much of Ancient Egyptian thinking about hippopotami would’ve had religious significance. Even tho in the modern world we think of religion as a separate domain to the rest of life we shouldn’t forget that in other cultures religion and the everyday are deeply intertwined. But I do want to first say that we need to be rather cautious about back-porting any meanings from a period where we have written texts to earlier art. Cultures in the past are no more a monolith than our own, and over time the meanings and symbolism of art motifs will inevitably change. Nonetheless even with that caveat we can see that there might be themes that begin during Predynastic times and last into later Egyptian times.

One of the themes that runs through Egyptian art involving hippos is that of control – for instance a bowl with a motif of hippos swimming in a circle can be seen as keeping the hippos under control and not allowing them to escape the bowl (or by extension their own natural place in the world). And the common scene in Old Kingdom nobles tombs of a hippo hunt is not just (or perhaps not at all) showing what might’ve happened in life, instead it’s about keeping control in the afterlife. Even the rather jolly-looking (to our eyes) blue faience figures of hippos from the Middle Kingdom like the one in my photo might be a manifestation of this theme. Richard Wilkinson suggests that the floral decorative motifs on these pieces are a magical method of keeping the hippo in its proper environment (other authors disagree, which I’ll come back to later).

Standing Faience Hippopotamus

And in Pharaonic Egypt hippo hunting scenes in a royal context had another extra layer of symbolism – not just general themes of imposing order on the chaos of a hippo but also the defeat of Seth by Horus and thus an important part of the religious iconography of kingship. There are hints that this may have its roots in a much earlier time – like a piece of Naqada I-II period art where the hippo hunter wears a bull’s tail. Now in Pharaonic Egypt a bull’s tail was only worn by the king, so one could interpret this as a king killing a hippo and thus an early precursor of the Horus defeating Seth symbolism … but there’s not enough evidence to be at all sure of that, we don’t even know the bull’s tail is an indication that this man is a king let alone the religious underpinnings of the image.

Indeed there’s still no evidence of a link between Seth and the hippo in the 1st Dynasty, even though there are pieces of evidence of royal hippo hunts having some greater significance than the purely practical. But later, the god and the animal are definitely linked. In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, which as a full story survives in a single copy from the 20th Dynasty (although the motifs and episodes from the story show up much earlier as well as later albeit not in a single coherent story), there are two episodes where Seth becomes a hippo – in both he is harpooned, once by Isis who lets him free when he pleads for his life (much to Horus’s disgust) and once by Horus, in an act which brings the contendings to their final conclusion with Horus gaining (at last!) his rightful throne & inheritance. This second episode is also illustrated on the walls of Edfu temple – a Ptolemaic structure – and there was a festival celebrated at this temple that re-enacted the killing (not, I think, with a real hippo – it’s a donkey that’s sacrificed).

So hippos in ancient Egypt were mad, bad and dangerous to know? Not exactly – as so often in Egyptian culture there were two sides to the idea of the hippo. Male hippos might be associated with Seth, but female hippos had a more benign symbolism and were associated with the goddess Taweret (amongst others). Taweret was a household deity who was a protector of women in childbirth. She was a composite creature – she has the body of a female hippo, with the breasts and full belly of a pregnant human, the legs & arms of a lion and the tail of a crocodile (or sometimes a whole crocodile sitting on her back). She stands on her hind legs, and often has one of her forepaws resting on a sa sign (which means protection) or an ankh (for life). She may also carry a knife, or fire, to fight off evil and those who mean the mother-to-be harm. Female hippos had this association with motherhood as they were thought of as being especially protective of their young. Just to be clear – this beneficial and more benign aspect to female hippos wasn’t because they were thought of as any less destructive than male hippos, it’s just that the destructive power was seen as being turned on those who meant one harm. Which is an interesting contrast to modern Western notions of motherhood which emphasise the nurturing rather more than the protective aspects … and the contrast between our culture’s patron saint of childbirth Saint Margaret (who escapes the belly of a dragon because of a miracle she doesn’t really play a part in) and the rather more proactive Taweret is quite striking!

The hippo may also be a more general fertility and regenerative symbol. This is the more common interpretation of the blue faience hippos like the one in my illustration – rather than a control motif. In this interpretation the vegetative decoration is about verdant new life and so in a funerary context (which it’s assumed these are from) it would be a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. There’s also a hippo-headed bed, which was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which may fall into this category of symbolising rebirth. Much earlier from the Predynastic Period there are some small hippo figurines which may be amulets – they have a small knob where they might be strung on a thong to wear on one’s person. If they are amulets then that implies a positive interpretation. And these figurines all have distended pregnant looking bellies (unlike other hippo representations of the time), which implies an association with fertility (perhaps even a proto-Taweret, but that’s a stretch).

Hippos therefore played a variety of roles in the symbolism and thinking of ancient Egyptians and you might think this would get confusing when interpreting any given instance. However in “Reading Egyptian Art” Richard Wilkinson suggests an easy way to tell them apart: in the majority of cases a hippo standing like a human is positive, one standing on all fours like a hippo is malevolent (most of the exceptions to this are in my last paragraph). Or, to re-work Orwell’s phrase: Two legs good, four legs bad!

Resources used:

Fletcher, Joann. The Story of Egypt. Hodder, 2016.
Patch, Diana Craig. ‘Early Dynastic Art’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
———. ‘From Land to Landscape’. In Dawn of Egyptian Art, edited by Diana Craig Patch. New York : New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
Romer, John. From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid. A History of Ancient Egypt 1. London: Penguin, 2013.
———. From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom. A History of Ancient Egypt 2. Penguin, 2016.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Rev. and Expanded ed. London: British Museum, 2008.
The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2007.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Myths & Legends of Ancient Egypt. London, England: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2010.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. 1. paperback ed. 1994. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
———. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Wilkinson, Toby A. H. Early Dynastic Egypt. London: Routledge, 2001.

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The Judgement of the Dead

My bonus article for June is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Khery-Hebet tier and is about the Ancient Egyptian idea of the Judgement of the Dead.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

The Harem Conspiracy

My bonus article for May is available on Patreon for subscribers at the Hem-Netjer & Khery-Hebet tiers and is about the end of Ramesses III: The Harem Conspiracy.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of my patrons for their support, it’s greatly appreciated!

Medinet Habu

It’s easy to visit Medinet Habu and think of it as just the one temple, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III, standing in proud almost-isolation with only a brief mention of the palace next door and something something harem conspiracy. A bit like a great medieval cathedral, self-contained and singular. But that’s really not true of Medinet Habu (nor necessarily of cathedrals, but that’s a story for someone else’s blog entirely!).

The temple the name Medinet Habu conjures up in the mind isn’t even the earliest remaining temple on the site – that is what is now referred to as the Small Temple, which was founded by Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. And beneath that are the remains of a Middle Kingdom structure. This temple was built to house the primeval mound the creator god Amun-Re Kamutef rose from and returned to to be rejuvenated – referred to as “The Mound of Djeme” or “The Genuine Mound of the West”. Every 10 days a festival procession came to the temple bringing the image of Amun from Luxor Temple to be rejuvenated at the mound, before returning to Luxor. This didn’t stop when Ramesses III built his much bigger temple just next door some 300 years later. It is a measure of its continuing relevance that the Small Temple was still the occasional recipient of royal building works well into the Roman Period. The last structure here is an unfinished court & portico begun by Antoninus Pius in the 2nd Century CE.

It is fair, however, to say that the mortuary temple of Ramesses III dominates the site. For a long time I thought mortuary temples were just sites where the king was worshipped after he died, a bit like the medieval practice of saying masses for the deceased in a chantry chapel. But, as seems to be the theme today, there’s more to them than that somewhat misleading name. The Egyptians called them Temples of Millions of Years and they were not solely concerned with the king (deceased or otherwise) nor were they solely religious in nature. I mustn’t downplay the mortuary function too much, though. The practice of making offerings to the deceased king goes back to at least Early Dynastic times if not before, with kings of the 1st & 2nd Dynasties constructing large enclosures within which their funerary cult was practised. Over time the forms and rituals evolved with changing beliefs, but the basic idea of ensuring a smooth (and permanent) transition into the afterlife for the king by means of a funerary cult remained the same. The decoration scheme of some of the innermost chambers of Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years reflects this. In one set of chambers he is shown partaking in the Osirian afterlife – ploughing and harvesting in the Field of Reeds. In chambers on the other side of the same hall he is shown travelling with Ra in his sacred boat. Both sets of scenes are intended to guarantee the successful rebirth of the king.

Medinet Habu

Other festivals not directly connected with Ramesses III’s afterlife were also celebrated at this temple, during the king’s life and beyond. There’s a calendar of these festivals on the outside of the south wall of the temple which gives details of the necessary offerings, and some of the major ones are shown on the walls of the second courtyard. There are daily offerings to be made, as well as much bigger annual festivals. One of these was the Beautiful Festival of the Valley, where the sacred boats of Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu came across the Nile from Karnak Temple. Originally they visited the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri, and then as each new Temple of Millions of Years was built it was added onto the processional route so the festival got longer with each Pharaoh’s reign. There was also a one day annual festival of Min and a several day festival of Sokar, both of which are shown on the walls of the second court of the temple.

The king visited the temple to take part in these ceremonies (the major ones, that is), and so he needed suitable accommodation. To the south side of the temple are the remains of a palace. Or rather remains of two palaces – the original buildings were pulled down and rebuilt during Ramesses III’s reign. The palace was attached to the south of the temple, with access into the first court as well as a window of appearances overlooking this court. From the window Ramesses III could view and participate in festivals, and be seen by his courtiers and priests – it makes me think of the Royal Box in the Royal Albert Hall (and other theatres). As well as providing access to the religious ceremonies the palace was also the seat of royal ceremony. There’s a throne room with a raised dais, where presumably Ramesses III would sit in state. And as almost every book and tour guide is keen to point out, the throne room also has an en-suite loo accessed via a door in one corner.

As well as the ceremonial rooms of the palace there was other accommodation provided for the king and/or his household. The whole of the site is surrounded by a double wall, through which there were two gates. One of these was small and at the back (west) of the site – the servants entrance, for minor officials, temple employees, delivery men and the like. At the front (east) of the site there is a much more impressive structure – modelled on a Near Eastern fortress called a migdol. And within this imposing gatehouse are other rooms for the royal household. Often these are referred to as the harem where the king’s women would stay, and the internal decoration is said to represent the king indulging in pastimes with his concubines. But Betsy M. Bryan (writing in “Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed. Kent Weeks) suggests that these might’ve been the more functional accommodation for the king, leisure rooms away from the formality and ceremony of the palace proper. And she then interprets the young women in the reliefs as Ramesses III’s daughters. A reminder that we don’t actually know for sure the purpose of these rooms, and that we are still working our way through the hangover from what 19th Century Europeans thought about “exotic eastern cultures”.

So, a couple of temples, some fortifications and palaces – is that it for Medinet Habu? It’s not even the end of what was built on the site during the time of Ramesses III! As I said there are two enclosure walls around the site – the outermost one is a real fortification, whereas the inner one is more symbolic and intended to protect the temple from the profane outer world. Between these two walls were the houses for the priestly and administrative staff necessary to keep the temple functioning. This is the equivalent of the rather more famous Middle Kingdom town next to the pyramid of Senwosret II at Lahun. And inside the inner enclosure wall around the back and north side of the temple were great storage magazines for grain. These are far far bigger than would be necessary for feeding the residents of the temple and the offerings presented in the temple – if full they would hold 56,972 sacks of grain, which would be enough to feed something on the order of 1,000 families for a whole year. Instead one must remember that grain was wealth in Ancient Egypt, and that people were paid with rations of grain. These magazines were the stored wealth of the king used to fund the wars he showed off about on the temple walls, as well as being a significant part of the local economy.

These administrative functions are probably the reason the site is so well preserved – each Temple of Millions of Years was set up like this, but as each Pharaoh built a new one it replaced his predecessor’s one as the administrative hub. Ramesses III built the last one, and so it continued to be the centre of the local economy. For instance this is where the workers at Deir el Medina get their rations (wages) from not only in the reign of Ramesses III but in those of his successors – and this is why when they go on strike over non-payment of wages it’s Medinet Habu they go to. During the 21st Dynasty they even move into Medinet Habu, safe behind the fortifications in the more unsettled times after the end of the New Kingdom.

And so the site continues to evolve and be built on even after Ramesses III is long gone. The neat rows of houses don’t long out last the New Kingdom, Barry Kemp positions this as a triumph of self-organisation rather than decline, however. The palace gets remodelled for senior priests, and may even have been occupied by the God’s Wife of Amun during the 25th & 26th Dynasties. At this time the role was occupied by a daughter of the king and she exercised his authority in Upper Egypt. Four of these priestess princesses were buried in the forecourt of Medinet Habu, Amenirdis of the 25th Dynasty and three more from the 26th Dynasty.

The town that Ramesses III’s Temple of Millions of Years has evolved into continues to thrive into the Coptic era. There may’ve been a gap in occupation before the Roman Period – although it’s hard to tell if this is a real gap or if the Romans levelled out the site before they built on it and destroyed the traces of the immediately preceding houses. Later the Copts converted part of the mortuary temple in the second court into a church, as the Copts were prone to do. And even into very modern times the site retained some significance in the eyes of the local population – in Kent Weeks’s Illustrated Guide to Luxor he says that until the 1970s local women still came to pray for children or to avoid illness.

Not just a temple for the soul of a dead king, not just a religious centre for the state religion, a place of worship and separation from the world – instead a thriving hub for a widespread community, full of bustling bureaucrats and people living their everyday lives.

Resources used:

“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt” Bill Manley
“The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign” Garry J. Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Illustrated Guide to Luxor: Tombs, Temples and Museums” Kent R. Weeks
“Valley of the Kings: The Tombs and the Funerary Temples of Thebes West” ed Kent R. Weeks
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson

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Some 50 miles south of Luxor are the remains of two of the earliest urban centres from the Early Dynastic period of Egyptian history. On the west bank lies Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis) – perhaps most well known as the site where the Narmer palette was found. And on the east bank lies Nekheb (modern name is el Kab), whose local goddess (Nekhbet) is one of the Two Ladies who represent Upper & Lower Egypt. Before I visited el Kab in 2014 I’d probably heard more about about Nekhen – not just the Narmer palette but I’d also seen the famous ivories and other objects from the Main Deposit in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and been to a talk by Renee Friedmann about her work on the Predynastic settlement and cemeteries there. But Nekheb is also a fascinating (and important) site with evidence of ancient Egyptians from very early indeed through to late antiquity.

In fact el Kab gives its name to one of the cultures of Prehistoric Egypt – the stone tools and camp remains of the Elkabian culture were first found here in the late 1960s. Three layers of camps were found one on top of the other dating between c. 6400 BCE and c. 5980 BCE on the riverbank of the ancient channel of the Nile. As well as the stone tools and waste from making stone tools there were ostrich shell beads, and lots of fish bones. The latter gives us a good idea of why the people were here! The position of the camps relative to the Nile means that they wouldn’t’ve been inhabitable during the inundation, so we can conjure up a vision of a semi-nomadic group of people who each year came to live by the banks of the Nile for a while to eat the abundant fish and (presumably) the plants that grew on the well watered & fertilised soil.

There’s not much obvious continuity between these Elkabian people and the later Predynastic communities either culturally or temporally – a gap of perhaps a thousand years or more. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t any continuity – what gets preserved and what gets later found at any site are only tiny fractions of the material that was once there. But there definitely is evidence of occupation from the late Predynastic, around the time when the Egyptian state was forming, which ranges from extensive cemeteries to domestic remains. And from there on the site is continuously occupied through until late antiquity – after which it ceases to be a town, which is pretty great for archaeologists as it means there aren’t modern people living on top of the archaeology.

Vulture Rock

The town itself was built on the banks of the Nile, and if you visit now you will see it surrounded by the remains of a large mudbrick wall measuring around 550×550 metres (with one of the corners washed away by the shifting path of the Nile). Actually as a tourist you don’t get to go into that bit – you visit the tombs built into the cliff near the town, the temples in the Wadi Hilal and Vulture Rock. This last feature was actually my favourite part of the site when I visited. It’s a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the wadi that from some angles looks a bit like the body of a vulture as the Egyptians would draw it for a hieroglyph. And it is completely covered from top to bottom in inscriptions and graffiti (as are the walls of the wadi nearby) – encompassing nearly the whole of the time of occupation of the site, from prehistoric petroglyphs through to Ptolemaic inscriptions.

The walls that are visible around the town are from the Late Period, but inside there are some remains of a much much earlier wall. This one probably dates to the Early Dynastic Period and is circular. Inside there are some domestic remains from the late Predynastic Period and a little Early Dynastic stuff. However, rather frustratingly for finding out about the early settlement it seems that at some point in the late Early Dynastic Period or the early Old Kingdom this part of the site was levelled off and swept clear of remains in order to build a temple. In general there’s not much securely datable evidence of the Early Dynastic Period occupation of the site – some remains of stone buildings including a block found (and now lost) with Khasekhemwy’s name on it, and some high status graves. It was clearly an important place, however, as the local goddesses of backwater villages don’t tend to end up the representative of a whole region! But nonetheless it was still overshadowed by Nekhen across the river during this period. However by the end of the Second Intermediate Period Nekheb had risen sufficiently in prominence to take over from Nekhen as capital of the Nome (administrative district), and it was to keep this position through the New Kingdom. Subsequently it becomes less important again – but is clearly still a thriving town throughout the Ptolemaic Period.

Outside the town and cut into the hillside are the tombs of the town’s inhabitants. Even if you’re only thinking of the high-status people with their tombs cut into the rock of the cliff there were still a lot of these over the millennia, and at a talk I went to by Luigi Prada he described the rock as being like a “block of Gruyère” because so much has been cut into it. The most interesting tombs for a modern scholar are a clutch of late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom tombs (which include the ones that you get into as a tourist). Egyptian officials often include an autobiographical text in the decoration of their tomb – the edited highlights of their life, focusing on everything they did that was great and good. And some of these officials detail their service in (and command of) the armies involved in the reunification of Egypt that started the New Kingdom period – and it’s these inscriptions that give us most of our information about that period. One of the inscriptions also provides evidence of a previously unknown incursion by a Kushite force – and explains the presence of Second Intermediate Period Egyptian artifacts at the Kushite site of Kerma (in modern Sudan) as the loot carried off by this expedition.

As you move away from the town and necropolis in a north-easterly direction up the Wadi Hilal you come to two temples (as well as Vulture Rock which I already talked about). The first of these is called the Hemispeos, because it is half cut into the rock. It was begun by Ramesses II, but later extensively re-worked by the Ptolemies – and later still turned into a Coptic hermitage, at which point they destroyed the decoration up to about 2m so that there wasn’t pagan imagery at eye-height in a Christian place. The other temple is quite far into the wadi, and is actually a barque shrine. When deities were taken on procession they were carried by priests in model boats (called barques), and on processional routes there were often small temples where the barque (and the deity within) rested before moving on to the next place. This example was initially begun by Amenhotep III (or his father Thutmose IV), and was dedicated to Amun-Ra, Nekhbet and Horus of Nekhen – and would’ve been where Nekhbet rested when she visited this part of her domain. Later in Graeco-Roman times the religious focus had shifted a bit – this was now a place where a form of the goddess Hathor rested while on a procession commemorating a winter solstice myth. In this myth Hathor fled south to Nubia after an argument with Re (and as his Eye she took the light of the sun with her), and then Thoth was sent to persuade her to return (and so to bring the sun back to Egypt). And you can see how the temple decoration was updated by the people of the time – adding ibises and baboons as red ink graffiti.

It’s the sense of the whole sweep of history and the way you can see (even as an amateur) how there was both continuity and evolution of culture across the millennia that makes el Kab so fascinating to visit. Vulture Rock was the place to leave one’s mark, even if the rationale behind it must’ve been different for the first person to carve as compared to the carvers of the Ptolemaic Period inscriptions with all that weight of history around them. The temples weren’t static (or rebuilt as a single event by kingly decree), they evolved in meaning and were altered in less formal ways to suit. Even the tombs underwent some evolution: parts would always have been open to visitors so that they could leave offerings for the deceased, and these have graffiti from centuries after the initial burial, sometimes reinterpreting this ancient tomb as a shrine to a minor deity. This happened everywhere, of course, I just found that I could feel it at el Kab.

Resources used:

“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram
“Egypt Before the Pharaohs” Michael A. Hoffman
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“Travellers and Pilgrims Under the Last Pharaohs: Recent Investigations by the Oxford Expedition to Elkab” Luigi Prada (talk given at the October 2019 meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and written up on my other blog)
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson
“Tombs and Temples of El Kab: Current Fieldwork and Research”; Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day 2 June 2018

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A Well Connected Man?

The Amarna Period and its immediate aftermath is a tantalising period of Egyptian history – it feels like we’ve got so much information that we must know what really happened, and yet we really don’t. On the one hand there is quite a lot of documentation for the upheaval of these years and the players who took part in the drama. We know that Akhenaten succeeded his father Amenthotep III on the throne of Egypt towards the end of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, and that he and his queen Nefertiti had 6 daughters. We know he changed the state religion of Egypt during his reign and moved the capital city of the country to a new virgin site in Middle Egypt (modern Amarna, hence the name of the period of history). After his death it gets very murky for a bit, but then we know Tutankhamun takes the throne as a child and his regime moves back to Thebes and begins restoration of the cult of Amun. Following him we have Ay, and then Horemheb, who complete the restoration of the old ways and set the stage for the 19th Dynasty including Ramesses II.

On the other hand there are still so many gaps in what we know for sure that you can construct several wildly different narratives that are all interpretations of the same pieces of evidence but are mutually incompatible. Take the Pharaoh Ay as an example. You can tell a story of a scheming courtier who possibly even murders his young king and usurps the throne from the rightful heir. Or you can tell a story of a loyal servant bound by blood to the young king who takes the throne in the aftermath of his unexpected death to avert a succession crisis. And really, we just don’t know.

Before I get into the personal side of Ay’s life we should start with the politics. In common with other important members of Akhenaten’s court he began construction of a tomb at Amarna and from this we know his titles during Akhenaten’s reign: Fan Bearer on the Right Hand of the King; Overseer of all the Horses of His Person; Real Royal Scribe, His Beloved; God’s Father. The Fan Bearer and Scribe titles indicate that he’s a close associate of the king, while the Horses one is taken to mean that he was the head of the chariotry wing of the Egyptian army. God’s Father is very unusual and there’s a lot of debate about what it actually means – but I’ll come back to that later as it ties in with speculations about Ay’s family relationships. Scenes in this tomb also show him and his wife receiving gifts of gold from the king personally (and then depict Ay going back to his own household to show off about it!). So clearly he was a mover & a shaker in the court of Akhenaten. And he doesn’t fall out of favour through the ensuing changes of leadership and religion – in Toby Wilkinson’s “Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” he subtitled his biography of Ay as “The Great Survivor” which seems apt. While the cult of Aten was riding high, Ay publicly showed his allegiance to it & to Akhenaten; but when the times changed he was there helping with (perhaps even instigating) the return to the old religion and the old capital. In the court of Tutankhamun Ay is one of the powers behind the throne. The other one, Horemheb, gets more titles but in reliefs from Tutankhamun’s time Ay is often shown standing behind the king and on the same scale as him – unusual prominence for a courtier. He may’ve been Vizier – there’s a piece of gold foil from a chariot that gives him this title but the books I read ranged from thinking this meant he was Vizier to thinking that it was an indication of his high status but he didn’t actually do the job of Vizier.

And then Tutankhamun dies. I was a bit disingenuous in my opening to this article – I don’t think anyone seriously believes Tutankhamun was murdered anymore, the “evidence” around which those theories were based has turned out to be misinterpretation of relatively poor quality X-rays of his mummy that were done in the 1960s. However he died, and there are many theories, it seems to’ve been unexpected. His tomb was unfinished, seemingly so much so that wasn’t possible to get it ready in time and so he was interred in a much smaller tomb (probably originally intended for Ay). And Ay becomes the next Pharaoh. It’s not clear how smooth the transition was, and certainly Ay goes out of the way to emphasise his legitimacy in a way he wouldn’t feel the need to do if it wasn’t questioned. It’s possible that Tutankhamun’s widow Ankhesenamun tried to arrange herself a marriage to a Hittite prince so that she didn’t have to marry a commoner – certainly there’s correspondence between a widowed Egyptian queen and the Hittites at this time organising such a marriage on this basis (but the prince is murdered before he reaches the Egyptian court) and many people believe the widowed queen to be Ankhesenamun (rather than, say, Nefertiti). Ay is sometimes cast as instigating the correspondence, sometimes as arranging the ambush & murder of the prince, and sometimes both in a Machiavellian scheme to weaken the Hittites. There is also the question of Horemheb – his titles suggest he was intended to be heir, but then Ay takes the throne. A lot of the speculation around this hinges on how power was transferred from king to king – the new king had to be the one to bury his predecessor, and there was a set time frame that this must happen in. And it’s quite possible that Horemheb was away from the court involved in the ongoing conflict with the Hittites. So sometimes this is seen as Ay scrambling to bury Tutankhamun quickly and make it a done deed before his rival returns to claim his inheritance, sometimes as a planned arrangement where the elderly Ay gets his brief time on the throne before inevitably handing it over to his younger colleague, sometimes as just necessitated by timing. Whatever happened Ay was keen to depict his participation in the proper rites for eternity – he’s shown on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. This is unique – even when there are other examples of scenes of the Opening of the Mouth ceremony they don’t have a named person performing it, they’re more a general depiction of the ritual whereas this is a piece of propaganda.

Replica of a Relief from Tutankhamun’s Tomb showing Ay (far right) Performing the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony for Tutankhamun

Another part of ensuring he looked legitimate might’ve involved marrying Tutankhamun’s widow. The only piece of evidence for this is a ring which has the cartouches of both Ay and Ankhesenamun. As a piece of politics/propaganda it certainly makes sense, but you’d think that in that case she would also be prominent in the rest of Ay’s reign – and be his Great Wife. But instead she vanishes from the historical record after this, and Ay’s wife Tey is the one who is depicted in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings as his Great Wife. Perhaps Ankhesenamun died shortly after? Perhaps it wasn’t a marriage but instead indication of an alliance in some other sense?

Ay’s reign was not to last long. He was almost certainly elderly when he took the throne, based on how long he’d been an important courtier, and so it can’t’ve been a great surprise that he died only three years after Tutankhamun. There’s no speculation of foul play here, all the books seem pretty convinced it was a natural death. Ay had named a man called Nakhtmin (possibly his son) as his heir, but it’s not clear if he had predeceased Ay or if Horemheb just pushed him aside. During Horemheb’s reign he tried to erase all record of the Amarna period, and this includes Ay. His tomb was reopened and the contents removed, and his name removed from monuments and replaced with Horemheb’s.

And this glittering political career is one of the reasons that there is so much speculation around who Ay was related to: he’s a prominent official from the time of Akhenaten onward who eventually becomes Pharaoh and our understanding of Egyptian society is that this must mean that he was Somebody, rather than some lower class man who got an education and rose through the ranks.

Ay’s origins are unknown. He seems to’ve had a connection with the region of Akhmim, judging by later building work and inscriptions there. His name may also provide a clue to his origins – it looks a bit odd amongst other Egyptian names one sees, it’s short and doesn’t look like a phrase in Egyptian. There are other prominent people at this time from Akhmim who have similar looking names (which get even more similar when written in Egyptian) – these include Yuya and Tuya (the parents of Amenhotep III’s queen) and Tiye (that queen). It’s therefore suggested by several people that Ay was a part of this family, and given when he’s attested it would seem to make most sense that he was a son of Yuya & Tuya and thus brother-in-law to Amenhotep III. The problem with all this is that there’s nothing (surviving) that mentions him as a their child – and both Tiye and a brother of hers called Anen are named on objects in their parents’ tomb. Surely Ay would be too, if he was their son?

We do know for sure that Ay had a wife called Tey – she’s named as his wife in the tomb Ay started to build in Amarna and in his eventual resting place in the Valley of the Kings she is named as his Great Wife. So that’s a definite fact, and I think the only one we have for Ay’s family relationships. Possibly she’s a cousin of Ay’s, based once again on the similarity of names. They have no known children, although there is some speculation which I’ll come back to later in the article (as it’s on a higher level of the house of cards that we’re building here).

Did he have other wives and children by them? One chain of thought involves the man who was named as Ay’s heir: Nakhtmin. There is a statue of him that has a broken inscription where one of his titles is given as “King’s Son of…”, the broken bit could be filled in with “Kush” which would make him Viceroy of Kush but there are already known Viceroys of Kush covering the period in question so that seems implausible. And so it’s generally reconstructed as “King’s Son of His Body”, i.e. the literal son of the king. But which king? Nakhtmin gives shabtis to the burial of Tutankhamun, and these name him but do not use the King’s Son of His Body title – given its high status he would do if he had it. So that implies he didn’t get the title until Ay became King – hence he must be a son of Ay’s. Another inscription names Nakhtmin’s mother as a woman called Iuy. Given Nakhtmin is an adult in Tutankhamun’s reign Iuy must therefore be an earlier wife of Ay’s, who presumably dies before Tey marries Ay.

Another chain of thought revolves around Ay’s title of God’s Father. This is an unusual title which has meant at least three things over the millennia of Egyptian civilisation. In the Old Kingdom it seems to mean father-in-law of the king, but in the Middle Kingdom it’s given to non-royal fathers of kings (for instance the first Montuhotep who was never a king but his son Intef I was). By the 19th Dynasty neither of these interpretations seems possible as Merenptah (son and eventual successor to Ramesses II) holds this title during his father’s reign, so there must surely be a third meaning. In the 18th Dynasty there are few people who hold this title – Yuya and Ay are the most prominent. And Yuya was the father-in-law of Amenhotep III, so it’s possible that the title had returned to this meaning from the Old Kingdom. So from here we can speculate that Ay was also father-in-law of a king, with Akhenaten the obvious king, making Nefertiti Ay’s daughter. And that would certainly make him Somebody! And linked by blood to the royal line twice over if you believe Tutankhamun to be the child of Nefertiti and Akhenaten (which Aidan Dodson does), and if you believe Ay to be the brother of Tiye. So a justification for being next in line to the throne after Tutankhamun (even if all his linkages are on the female side of the family). There’s some other possible evidence to back up a relationship of this sort with Tutankhamun – an inscription where Ay (as Pharaoh) refers to Tutankhamun as his son. Now this could be rhetoric: the king is always supposed to be son of his predecessor even when he’s not, and inverting the relationship would seem to make sense in this case because the elderly Ay would be unbelievable even metaphorically as a teenager’s son. Or it could be read as referring to a grandfather/grandson relationship between the two.

There is other indirect evidence to link Ay to Nefertiti. Ay’s wife Tey has titles that tell us that she was Nefertiti’s nurse and brought her up. Notably she doesn’t have titles that indicate she was Nefertiti’s mother, and if we compare with Tuya (mother of Tiye) then that is significant. So from here you can go one of two ways – you can posit that Tey was Nefertiti’s wet-nurse or tutor (or both) and thus Ay would’ve been a significant figure in Nefertiti’s early life but not a relation. Or you can take this in combination with the speculation around the God’s Father title and suggest that Nefertiti was Ay’s daughter by an earlier marriage and Tey was her step-mother. Which would make Nakhtmin and Nefertiti brother & sister.

While there is no evidence corroborating a link between Nefertiti and Nakhtmin there is a known sibling of Nefertiti – a woman with the title “Sister of the King’s Great Wife”. She’s younger than Nefertiti, and thus Aidan Dodson suggests that she’s the daughter of Ay and Tey but I think there’s no evidence other than the presumed date of her birth. Her name is either Mutnodjmet or Mutbenret – the difference between the two when written in hieroglyphs is a single sign and it’s not clear which form was originally written. If she was Mutnodjmet then that was potentially very significant – Horemheb marries a woman with that name and if he was the son-in-law of Ay and the uncle (by marriage) of Tutankhamun that would go some way to explaining why he was a possible successor to Ay. We’re quite far up the house of cards here though, and that’s a very shaky assertion.

That’s quite a narrative we’ve constructed for Ay and his family relationships: he’s the brother-in-law of Amenhotep III who has a first marriage to a woman called Iuy which results in two children, Nakhtmin and Nefertiti. Iuy vanishes from the scene (quite likely dying in childbirth) and Ay marries a cousin of his called Tey who brings up the future queen of Egypt. They have a child, Mutnodjmet, who also goes on to be a queen after her marriage to her father’s successor, Horemheb. Very well connected, certainly Somebody, and it neatly explains his prominence in the various courts of the time. But very very very little actual concrete evidence for any of it – a house of cards that might only need a breath of new evidence to knock it over.

So what do I think? Well, first I think I’ve only read secondary literature mostly aimed at a general audience, and what I’ve read is biased towards Dodson-authored or Dodson-influenced works so I’m not sure I have enough of the opposing viewpoints in this summary. Also my educational/academic background is in protein biochemistry, and this is the sort of thing we’d rather dismissively have referred to as “telling Just So stories” – building up a convincing narrative without enough evidence to support it. Rather an unfair thought when Egyptology is a different field, you can’t exactly go out and repeat the experiment another half a dozen times to make sure it comes out the same every time, you have to work with what you have. Which is two long-winded ways of saying I don’t think I know enough to have a valid opinion. I did enjoy the logic puzzle-esque nature of the (re)construction of the family relationships, and it certainly seems plausible that Ay was a well connected member of the elite given that’s how their society worked. But it’s all rather neat & tidy (particularly once you get to tying Horemheb into the network) and I’m suspicious of neat & tidy.

Resources used:

“The Rage of Horemheb: Hurried End of Akhenaten, Aye and Atenism – Part I” Anand Balaji
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“Amarna Sunrise” Aidan Dodson
“Amarna Sunset” Aidan Dodson
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson
“The Unknown Tutankhamun” Marianne Eaton-Krauss
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Commoner King Kheperkheperure: Divine Father Aye” Daniel C. Forbes in KMT Vol 30, No. 2, Summer 2019
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

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The queens of the late 17th and early 18th Dynasty appear through the mists of time to’ve been formidable women, involved in the running of the kingdom that their husbands were re-unifying. They were also much longer lived than their male counterparts and so provided the continuity necessary to keep the family in power. Ahmose-Nefertari’s 70 or so years meant that she saw the reigns of at least 5 different kings, and was an active participant in at least two of them.

She was born in the early 16th Century BCE around 1570 BCE, possibly in the brief reign of her grandfather Senakhtenre Ahmose. He was a king of the 17th Dynasty (in the Second Intermediate Period) and really only ruled in Thebes. His son, Seqenenre Tao, began the process of reunifying Egypt which was taken up after his death by his son (or brother) Kamose, his wife Ahhotep and finally the job was finished in the reign of his son Ahmose I who is considered the first king of the 18th Dynasty. Ahmose-Nefertari was married to Ahmose I and she outlived not just him but their son Amenhotep I – she didn’t die until early in the reign of her son-in-law Thutmose I in around 1505 BCE.

During these fairly turbulent times the ruling clan believed firmly in keeping power in the family – Ahmose-Nefertari’s parents were both children of Senakhtenre Ahmose and his Great Wife Tetisheri. Ahmose-Nefertari herself was a full sister of her husband Ahmose I, and it seems likely that their son Amenhotep I was also married to one of his sisters. As well as simplifying the power structure at court this would’ve had theological justifications – it mirrors the relationships between the gods from whom all kings are supposed to be descended. A new pantheon for a rebirth of the Egyptian state.

Ahmose-Nefertari’s brother-husband came to the throne around the age of 10 after the deaths of both his father and brother (or uncle) during the wars against the Hyksos rulers of Lower Egypt. Their mother Ahhotep was regent for him at the beginning of his reign and kept the momentum going in the fight against the Hyksos. This is not a situation like that of Hatshepsut and her stepson – when Ahmose I becomes an adult he rules in his own right – but Ahhotep is still the preeminent woman in the court and it’s not until after her death that Ahmose-Nefertari becomes more visible.

Statuette of Ahmose-Nefertari

Along with the titles that define her by her relationships to the men of her family (King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, King’s Great Wife, King’s Mother) Ahmose-Nefertari holds significant religious and political titles of her own. She is, like her mother before her, Mistress of Upper & Lower Egypt – a mirroring of one of the king’s titles. She also holds multiple titles in the priesthood of the cult of Amun, which gave the royal family some control of and presence in this politically significant cult. The three titles she held were Divine Adoratrice, 2nd Prophet of Amun (deputy high priest, in effect) and God’s Wife of Amun. It’s not clear from what I read whether Ahmose I created this last title for her or whether she inherited it from her mother (who would then have been the first). It is clear that she regarded this as one of her most important titles: she used it more than any of her other titles, including King’s Great Wife. The role of the God’s Wife of Amun was as a female counterpart to the high priest – in rituals she would play the part of the god’s consort. The title was passed down from queen to queen during this period and reinforced the mythology of the 18th Dynasty which depicted each king as the son of Amun (who was supposed to impregnate each queen by impersonating her husband). Later in Egyptian history it acquired a different significance – in the Late Period each God’s Wife of Amun was a virgin daughter of a king instead of his wife.

Ahmose-Nefertari and Ahmose I had at least 5 children – 3 daughters and two sons. The eldest of their sons, Ahmose-ankh, was named crown prince but sadly predeceased his father. This meant that when Ahmose I died in his thirties his heir, Amenhotep I, was young and so Ahmose-Nefertari followed in her mother’s footsteps by being regent for the new king. And she transitions from this to acting in place of his consort for the rest of his reign – it seems his sister/wife died young and even though there may’ve been another wife she was not family or Great Wife.

Amenhotep I died both young (like his father) and childless (unlike his father). Which does rather make one wonder about what recessive genetic traits were coming to light because of these full sibling marriages! One of the books I looked at tried to argue that the fact that Pharaohs married other women who weren’t their sisters as well meant that “the line was not enfeebled”, but given that the heirs were the product of the incestuous relationships that doesn’t really hold water. And even though the Egyptians would have no conception of the dangers of inbreeding the royal family was nonetheless forced to bring in some new blood at this point due to the lack of a male heir. Thutmose I appears to’ve been an outsider, who was then married to a sister of Amenhotep I to provide legitimacy for his reign. Ahmose-Nefertari remained matriarch through this transition too, presumably still providing continuity and stability despite her advancing age.

When Ahmose-Nefertari finally died she is thought to’ve been buried with her son Amenhotep I. They had a joint mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri which has almost entirely vanished now – a few remnants and stamped mudbricks have been found but nothing substantial. It’s unclear where their tomb originally was – there’s a case to be made for a tomb at Dra Abu el-Naga, and a case to be made for KV39 in the Valley of the Kings. Either way their bodies were moved along with many other royal mummies during a period of state-sanctioned tomb robbery – the kings & queens were re-wrapped and re-buried at TT320 at Deir el Bahri where they were found in modern times. An enormous coffin labelled as Ahmose-Nefertari’s was found there – it is 3m in height even without the detachable pair of plumes that are its headdress! Inside were two mummies – one of these still enclosed in a cartonnage outer layer was assumed at first to be the woman herself, but turned out to be Ramesses III. The other has no identifying labels but is assumed to be Ahmose-Nefertari. If so, she was in her 70s when she died and was a fairly small woman by modern standards (being about 5′ 2″ in height). The mummy appears to still have quite a lot of hair – but this is mostly false, braids added by the embalmers so she has a full head of hair in the afterlife. Rather gruesomely when unwrapped in 1885 her body appeared to putrefy before the eyes of the horrified onlookers and she was reburied briefly in the grounds of Cairo Museum! This cured the “putrefaction” which was more likely a consequence of remaining natron paste on the mummy being exposed to damp air than anything happening to the body itself.

Ahmose-Nefertari had another, rather less gruesome, afterlife as well. She was one of the few Egyptian queens who was deified after death, and she was worshipped along with her son Amenhotep I as the patron deity of Western Thebes for several centuries. She and her son are credited with founding the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina and so were particularly favoured deities there – perhaps the most important ones for this community. There is no hard evidence that they did found the village – it certainly seems possible, but the earliest inscribed mudbricks date to Thutmose I’s reign. As a goddess she’s often depicted with a black face – this is almost certainly symbolic rather than literal (particularly if the mummy in her coffin is hers, as that woman shows no sign of Nubian origins). Black is a colour the Egyptians associated with fertility – the colour of the soil left behind after the Nile flood had renewed the land. And Ahmose-Nefertari (as a goddess of the necropolis and those who worked in it) was associated with resurrection.

As so often in ancient history this is more of a skeleton of a biography than a fully fleshed out picture, there must be so much she saw and did that we’ll never know.

Resources used:

“An Ancient Egyptian Case Book: Intriguing Evidence that Undermined Incredible Headlines” Dylan Bickerstaffe
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Dyan Hilton
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper & Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
“The Complete Valley of the Kings” Nicholas Reeves and Richard H. Wilkinson
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape
“The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson
“Lives of the Ancient Egyptians” Toby Wilkinson
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson

If you like my work, please consider supporting me (and get access to exclusive extra articles); click here to learn more.