Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Have we got Ancient Egypt's mummies all wrong? - BBC Culture

Have we got Ancient Egypt's mummies all wrong?

(Image credit: Manchester Museum)

People have long wanted to look inside mummies' casings at the 'real' people beneath. But a new show is ditching the scans and honouring the dead as it sees fit, writes Holly Williams.

Mummies, like werewolves, vampires and witches, are the stuff of legend in the popular imagination. The idea of bodies from an ancient civilisation, mysteriously preserved for thousands of years, discovered in glittering tombs, has always held an allure: from the Victorians holding mummy "unwrapping" parties through to "Tutmania" in the 1920s following the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, to a wealth of movies from Hammer Horror flicks to Indiana Jones. 

Given all this, it's no wonder that myths and misconceptions about them abound. But a British exhibition aims to shed new light on this ancient practice – and maybe even shift our perspective.

Curator Campbell Price says that the main                          intention of mummies was not to preserve the                          dead, but transform them into gods (Credit:                          Manchester Museum)

Curator Campbell Price says that the main intention of mummies was not to preserve the dead, but transform them into gods (Credit: Manchester Museum)

Manchester Museum in the north of England reopened last month after a £15m redevelopment project – and their free opening exhibition, Golden Mummies of Egypt, showcases their incredible Egyptology collection. It includes eight mummies dating from the Graeco-Roman period (300BC to 300AD), brought to Britain by archaeologist Flinders Petrie, following his 1888–90 and 1911 excavations of a huge necropolis at Hawara, in the Faiyum region south of Cairo.

The show has arrived home in Manchester after touring North America and China while the museum was shut for refurbishment. And now Campbell Price, the curator, is on something of a mission: to change how we think and talk about mummies.

Flipping the mummy narrative

For starters, and rather unusually these days, they are not including any X-rays or CT scans of the human remains below the wrappings; there is no bio-medical speculation on how old these people were when they passed away or how they died. Scans of the mummies were included while the show was on tour – but have now been removed (which involved reworking information displays at some cost), to reflect Manchester Museum's new thinking about how to present such sensitive artefacts. "We're stepping back from this desire to unwrap," says Price, adding that they hope to "flip the narrative" by refocusing the attention "from the inside – what we expect we have the right to see – on to the outside – what the Ancient Egyptians expected people to see."

Rather than including arguably voyeuristic speculation over human remains, Golden Mummies focuses more on the astonishing casings that the Egyptians crafted for their dead to spend eternity in. 

And this is the main myth that Price hopes to bust: mummies were not actually about preserving the dead – they were about transforming the dead into gods. The ostentatiously decorated coffins and casings don't reflect the person inside, but use divine, idealised imagery to help the spirit to live on in greater glory. By using iconography associated with funerary gods – the male god Osiris and the female god Hathor – it's as if the embalmers were offering reassurance that, yes, this person is ready for the afterlife.

I have been in hospitals where mummies have gone into the CT scanner and there are Egyptologists, biomedical Egyptologists, and clinicians, and no one can agree what CT scans show – Campbell Price

"There are texts that say 'the dead person is going to become a god' – that is what the mummification process is about," insists Price. "When we find mummies that are judged by modern people 'well-preserved', that may be a symptom, rather than an intention." 

Some evidence for this can be found in the fact that the late-period mummies, like the ones in Manchester's show, often won't even have had their organs removed. The fact that ensuring the entire physical body was neatly preserved clearly wasn't always the aim arguably suggests that it may in fact never have been the sole or main intention – but rather just one aspect of a wider ritual around death.

"A myth has developed in Egyptology itself, that in Ancient Egypt there's lots of experimentation [in embalming], they get it right for a few generations, and then 'forget' how to do it," Price says, sounding deeply unconvinced. "And it just declines, till you get to the Graeco-Roman period, where they so don't care about the inside that they're not removing the internal organs, they're just sloshing on resin, and they make it look pretty on the outside."

He considers this a condescending and colonial interpretation, thinking it is more likely that the long-term physical preservation of the body was always simply less significant than the performed, ritual act of preparing the body for the afterlife – essentially, giving the dead a fabulous send-off.

Looking around the exhibition, at the gilded masks and jewellery, the intricately painted hieroglyphs, patterns and scenes, it's impossible not to be struck by how vivid the mummies still are. Although now displayed horizontally, it is thought these later period mummies were likely stood upright to be publicly displayed and admired for years, possibly even generations, following their death – as a kind of "divine statue". With low lighting catching all that gold, the atmosphere in the exhibition does indeed feel reverential.

Several                          of the exhibition's mummies fit the classic                          image that most people have – with their gold                          and blue, heavy-eyed 'death masks' (Credit:                          Julia Thorne)

Several of the exhibition's mummies fit the classic image that most people have – with their gold and blue, heavy-eyed 'death masks' (Credit: Julia Thorne)

And it is this external deification that the show centres – rather than scanning coffins to see if the people inside were well-preserved, or if they had gammy knees or died of cancer. 

"I want to get away from that biomedical interpretation, and focus on the becoming-a-god bit," says Price. "I'm not saying all those scientific inquiries are 'bad' and shouldn't be done. I'm just saying, it's a chance to look at the material in a different way."

This is partly about respect; Manchester Museum's new director Esme Ward's stated mission for the institution is "to build understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world", with their core values being "inclusion, imagination and care". And when talking about showing care, in the case of this particular exhibition, it felt important for the team behind it to acknowledge that we were never meant to see under the mummies' wrappings.

Some in the sector even suggest that mummies shouldn't be on display at all; in 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford removed a mummy, alongside other human remains such as shrunken heads, from its displays. The decision was made following audience research that showed visitors often understood the Museum's displays of human remains as "a testament to other cultures being 'savage', 'primitive"' or 'gruesome'… [reinforcing] racist stereotypes". The Museum said that the decision to remove human remains was an attempt to "show our respect for the communities around the world with whom we work".

"It's fairly clear that the Ancient Egyptians involved in making works like this didn't want them to be unwrapped," confirms Price. But it's not just sensitivity to this that has informed Manchester Museum's decision-making: he also isn't terribly convinced by the science available to us. "I have been in hospitals where mummies have gone into the CT scanner and there are Egyptologists, biomedical Egyptologists and clinicians, and no one can agree what CT scans show," he laughs. After all, CT scans were designed for living bodies, not dried-out corpses. "You can say 'this is evidence of a health condition', and someone else will say 'no it's an effect of mummification'. Something may appear like a calcified whatnot or a fossilised ding-dong – but actually you've got to own up to the public and say 'we do not know'." 

The legacy of Western archaeologists unwrapping mummies (often destroying them in the process) also has the tang of colonial entitlement to it – from Victorians making macabre entertainment out of 'unrollings' through to the fact that some institutions continued to unwrap in the name of research right up until the 1980s. Since then, digital unwrapping has taken over – and of course, does not damage the mummies. And CT scans can offer astounding detail: from revealing amulets buried with the body right down to how hardened an artery was.

The argument for 'unwrapping'

Speaking out against 'unwrapping' is somewhat controversial: there will be many who think pursuit of knowledge trumps all other considerations, or that after thousands of years, it is overly reverential to worry about the feelings of the dead. "Some biomedical [Egyptologists] maybe have had their noses put out of joint; more hard scientists may be disappointed [by our exhibition]," acknowledges Price. And Manchester Museum is also placing itself in opposition to other notable institutions, such as the British Museum, whose Exploring Ancient Lives exhibition is literally about using scans to humanise the individuals inside their mummies.

First seen at the museum itself in 2014, that exhibition has since been on a whopping international tour; it heads to Japan and Spain this year. No one from the British Museum was willing to discuss it for this piece, although in an article for BBC Culture in 2014, original curator John H Taylor said their intention was "to get back to the idea that these were once real, living people".

Faiyum portraits were flat painted images                          attached to the casings of mummies in the later                          Roman period (Credit: Manchester Museum)

Faiyum portraits were flat painted images attached to the casings of mummies in the later Roman period (Credit: Manchester Museum)

The show, seen by more than 2m visitors, offers undoubtedly compelling insights and speculation into the sex, age, health and even diet of six mummified people. "It is only through the study of the individuals' carefully preserved remains that we are able to further our understanding of the people who lived thousands of years ago," the curators, Marie Vandenbeusch and Daniel Antoine, have written.

One thing that their research does reveal is that there's often a gap between what the physical body was like in death, and the outward depiction on coverings, which feature idealised figures. This is most clearly seen in the case of mummified children, who were represented as adults – to allow them to live their best (after)life. For Price, this only supports the idea that mummies were less about celebrating the individual in death, and more about allowing them to transcend human frailty. 

Lifelike mummy portraits – or are they?

While several of Manchester Museum's mummies perfectly fit the classic image we all have – with their gold and blue, heavy-eyed visages – the exhibition also features late-style ones that look very different. These feature remarkably lifelike painted portraits; you'd assume they were from Renaissance Italy, perhaps, not Ancient Egypt. They are astonishing – and likely to jolt many viewers with their surprisingly direct gaze. These are the Faiyum portraits: they were flat, 2D painted images on thin wood, that were attached or bound to the outer casings of some mummies in the Roman period (100-300AD), and also intended for display.

And they reflect another myth-busting fact – Ancient Egypt was not some high, mysterious, isolated culture, but a multicultural country. The mummies of the Graeco-Roman era often feature a "mish-mash of images", says Price. So, the show features a mummy labelled with a Greek name – Artemidorus – but featuring a Faiyum portrait, suggesting he may have been "a Roman elite person". And the casing is decorated with images of Egyptian gods, including Osiris, while stars decorating the shoulder of his casing reference Serapis – "a newly-minted god who seems to have been created to promote Egyptian-Greek cohesion," says Price. Why go for this Egyptian-Greek-Roman mash-up? "I suspect you are hedging your bets when you get to the pearly gates: let's appease all the gods!"

Imagine you go to the chapel, and there are 20 mummified people there, you want your mummified relative to attract the attention and prayers of passers-by – so maybe you use that painted technique – Christopher Price

When Flinders Petrie first found the mummies at Hawara he was dismissive of this incongruous multicultural style. But Victorian England soon went mad for the portrait mummies, in particular. Artists such as Holman Hunt and Laurence Alma-Tadema were influenced by an exhibition of them in 1888, and it's thought they even inspired Oscar Wilde to write The Picture Of Dorian Grey: his famous novel featuring a beautiful young man who, after his portrait is painted, never ages. 

Of course, it's even more tempting to wonder about the real person beneath a Faiyum portrait – one can't help but assume they're a literal depiction of the deceased. But Price isn't having that either: he thinks these are also idealised depictions – the image of how the person might like to look for all eternity. It's true that the faces of the Faiyum portraits tend to be young, healthy, handsome – perhaps flatteringly so. "I think they are, at best, an idealised approximation of what the person looked like," says Price. "People would debate this I'm sure, but I think that they look like gods: images of divine-like beings."

Mummified children were represented as                          adults, which Price believes supports the idea                          that the mummies were intended to transcend                          their human origins (Credit: Julia Thorne)

Mummified children were represented as adults, which Price believes supports the idea that the mummies were intended to transcend their human origins (Credit: Julia Thorne)

He points to a Faiyum portrait in their collection that shows a man with laurel leaves in his hair and a line of gold leaf between his lips. The hairstyles in the portraits seem to follow changing fashions set by the Roman Emperor and Empress – also considered divine figures. Maybe it's fashion; maybe it's a bid for eternal life.

Why does the style mutate so wildly, then, in the Graeco-Roman era – when both golden mummies and portrait mummies would have potentially been on display, side-by-side, at the same time? "I wonder if it's to get people's attention; in crude terms, clickbait," says Price. "Imagine you go to the chapel and there are 20 mummified people there, you want your mummified relative to attract the attention and prayers of passers-by – so maybe you use that painted technique, with its glint in the eyes…"

One thing, however, is surely true: the Ancient Egyptians probably weren't banking on us still paying attention to their mummified relatives, thousands of years later. But their mission to make them look remarkable – whether that's via a gold and lapis mask or a sharp-eyed portrait eyeballing you down the millennia – certainly continues to work. Whether we find ourselves more interested in their god-like images, or drawn to what we might discover about the bodies beneath, mummies continue to hold an incredible, glittering fascination.

Golden Mummies of Egypt is now booking at Manchester Museum. Holly Williams's novel What Time is Love? is out in paperback.

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Monday, March 20, 2023

In Photos: Egypt’s first complete Zodiac uncovered in Luxor's Temple of Esna - Ancient Egypt - Antiquities - Ahram Online

In Photos: Egypt's first complete Zodiac uncovered in Luxor's Temple of Esna

Nevine El-Aref , Sunday 19 Mar 2023

Egypt's first complete Zodiac was uncovered on the ceiling of the Temple of Esna in Luxor governorate during restoration work carried out by an Egyptian-German expedition.

Esna Temple
Part of the colourful astronomical representation of the twelve zodiacal signs uncovered in Esna temple in Luxor. (Photos courtesy of Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

Visitors to the temple will be able to admire the uncovered Zodiac on the ceiling of the temple's Hypostyle Hall after years of being hidden by thick layers of soot, dirt and other matter.

After five years of cleaning and restoration work, the joint Egyptian-German mission uncovered a bright and colourful astronomical representation of the ancient Egyptian night sky.

The relief contains all the twelve Zodiac signs, the outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, as well as depictions of the so-called seven arrows and constellations used by the ancient Egyptians in time measurement.

Dr Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, said the colourful reliefs also depicted deities, animals, names of divine figures and composite beings, including a ram-headed serpent and a crocodile-headed bird.

"It is the first time to see these inscriptions and reliefs in Esna Temple," said Dr Hisham El-Leithy, Undersecretary of State for Documentation in the Ministry of Antiquities of Egypt and director of the restoration project's Egyptian side.

He added that these findings were not recorded by the temple's previous publication by late French Egyptologist Serge Sauneron, who documented the temple's reliefs in 1963 and 1975.

Christian Leitz, director of the project from the University of Tübingen, said that the Zodiac itself was part of Babylonian astronomy that was likely introduced by the Greeks who ruled Egypt during the last three centuries BC.

The Zodiac became very popular as it was used to decorate private tombs, sarcophagi, and was an important element of astrological texts and horoscopes on demotic ostraca.

 Zodiacs are, however, rare in ancient Egyptian temples.

Apart from the Temple of Esna, there are only two other Zodiacs from Dendera: one in the pronaos and the other in one of the roof chapels which has since been relocated to the Louvre in Paris.

Besides Dendera, visitors to Egypt can now see these Zodiacs in their different forms and colours at Esna's temple

The restoration project on the Temple of Esna began in 2018 and was funded by the American Research Centre in Cairo.

Work was disrupted due to the coronavirus outbreak but resumed in September 2020.

The neglect suffered by the temple for centuries damaged the reliefs and inscriptions until restoration of the site began in 2018.

El-Leithy said that the mission conducted several conservation and documentation campaigns.

The Temple of Esna dates back to the Roman period.

Construction began under the reign of Emperor Claudius while its decorations were finished during the time of Emperor Decius, between 249-251 AD.

The temple is dedicated to the ram-headed god Khnum and his divine consorts.

During the 19th and 20th centuries the temple suffered from urban encroachment as houses were built around it and was even used for cotton storage during the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha.


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Sunday, March 19, 2023

Gods, tombs and Nazis: the Third Reich’s bad relationship with Egyptology | Culture | EL PAÍS English Edition

Gods, tombs and Nazis: the Third Reich's bad relationship with Egyptology

Anti-Semitism and the Hitler regime's obsession with the past of the Aryan peoples put the brakes on the study of the ancient Pharaonic civilization in Germany, despite what is shown in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'

Nazi                villains digging in Egypt in a scene from 'Raiders of the                Lost Ark'.
Nazi villains digging in Egypt in a scene from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'.
Jacinto Antón

When one thinks of Nazis and Egyptology, the first thing that comes to mind for many of us is the burnt palm of the hand of the fictitious Gestapo agent Toht on which is engraved the medallion of Ra, the key to the location of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first installment of the adventures of Indiana Jones.

The sadistic Sturmbannführer Arnold Toht (the surname is an Egyptian wink, recalling the name of the scribe god Thot, although he, devoted to wisdom and justice, would never align himself with the swastika), is, with his leather outfit even in the desert and his air of Himmler interpreted by Monty Python, one of the most successful villains of the Indy series. He is part of a team of Nazis embarked on a search in Egypt for the precious (and lethal) relic, a group that also includes two other officers, Oberst (Colonel) Herman Dietrich and his right-hand man Major Gobler. In the film, Dietrich and Gobler are, in 1936, militarily in charge of the excavations in the ancient "lost" pharaonic city of Tanis, east of the Nile Delta, to find the biblical artifact, which Hitler wants to appropriate, informed of its destructive capabilities.

The image shown in Spielberg's film of German troops dressed as the Afrika Korps, Schmeisser machine guns and rifles in hand, guarding the work of hundreds of Egyptian workers is a stupendous Egyptological nonsense. The archaeologist who co-directs the excavation for the Nazis is a Frenchman, Indy's archenemy René Emile Belloq, in the service of Hitler. It is true that Tanis was excavated at that time and that it was done by a Frenchman, but not an unscrupulous mercenary like Belloq, but a selfless and courageous savant, Pierre Montet (1885-1966), who had won the Croix de Guerre in the First World War. In 1939 Montet discovered not the Lost Ark but the tombs of the kings of the XXI and XXII dynasties, one of the great milestones of Egyptology, comparable to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

Despite the Indiana Jones movie and despite the fact that Hitler's idea of an excavation was undoubtedly to be done in uniform and trying to seize something (not unlike invading Poland), the Nazis had very little interest in Ancient Egypt and Egyptology. In fact, the main interest they manifested in Egypt in general was trying to get Rommel's Panzers up the Nile and seize the Suez Canal. And that was only because they saw the opportunity to destabilize the British Empire in an area that Hitler actually considered the Italians' natural space, with a "debilitating" climate for the master race. He summed it up by saying: "For us the Egyptian sphinx has no particular interest" (Hitler's Table Talk, Enigma Books, 2000).

The history of German Egyptology in the Nazi era was marked by the regime's contempt for the southern and African and by the anti-Semitism that led to the marginalization and expulsion of Jewish Egyptologists from universities. Before Hitler came to power, Germany was considered an important place for Egyptological studies, and in fact, celebrities such as James Henry Breasted, who got his degree at the University of Berlin (and, by the way, was one of the inspirations for the character of Indiana Jones), studied in the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs financed the German Archaeological Institute (with a branch in Cairo), from which important research was carried out. In the field of Egyptology, Jason Thompson recalls in Wonderful things, a history of egyptology (AUC Press, 2018), personalities such as the linguist and epigrapher Kurt Sethe; Adolf Erman, who collaborated in unveiling the grammar of Egyptian writing; Ludwig Borchardt, who discovered and brought to Germany the famous bust of Nefertiti, or Heinrich Schäfer, with his work that opened new perspectives to understand Egyptian art.

The arrival of the Nazis, which affected this area of studies as it did all areas of life in Germany, meant that historians sympathetic to their ideas, such as Helmunt Berve, professor of ancient history at the University of Leipzig, came to question the very existence of Egyptology as an area of study and encouraged concentrating on that of "peoples similar to us in terms of race and mentality". Other scholars proposed to align Egyptology with the new requirements of Nazi science. Walther Wolf was one of those who took advantage of the new winds to prosper and gave lectures in the uniform of the SA, so that you did not know if he was going to talk to you about the Third Intermediate Period or sing Tomorrow belongs to me.

Nazi              Arnold Toth from 'Raiders of the Lost Arc'.
Nazi Arnold Toth from 'Raiders of the Lost Arc'.

Among the Egyptologists who lost their posts (to which must be added those who fell during the war) were Herman Ranke, who had excavated with Borchardt and Herman Junker and had taught in Heidelberg, and Hans Wolfgang Müller, both because they had non-Aryan wives. Paul Ernst Kahle was expelled in Bonn for hiring a Polish Jew as an assistant. Hedwig Jenny Fechheimer-Simon, a pioneer in the study of Egyptian art and its influence on modern sculpture and a member of the acquisitions committee of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, was banned from the museum as a Hebrew and, after trying to escape from Germany, committed suicide with her sister in 1942.

The aforementioned Erman, the great star of German Egyptology at the time, was stripped of his academic positions and honors for having a Jewish grandfather. Another great scholar, Georg Steindorff, founder and director of the Egyptological Institute of Leipzig, escaped in 1939 to the USA with his belongings (which fortunately included his specialized library). Borchardt, as a Jew, watched the rise of the Nazis with horror, but he lived outside Germany during those years (he died in 1938 in Paris); his brother Georg Hermann, a writer, was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. As for the great Herman Junker, he knew how to read his times and even supported the thesis that the pyramids had actually been built by ancestors of the Germans.

I cannot resist pointing out the relationship of the Nazis with The Mummy, the wonderful original film of 1932. Its director Karl Freund, a Bohemian German who had lived in Berlin since the age of 11, spent the first part of his career in Germany (he was a cameraman with Murnau, Lang and Lubitsch). As a Jew he was lucky enough to go to work in the USA in 1929 but his ex-wife, Susette Liepmannssohn, and his daughter, Gerda, stayed behind. The young woman (see the terrific 90th anniversary book of The Mummy, Notorious, 2023) became involved in anti-Nazi activities and the father went to rescue her in 1937 and managed to take her with him. Susettte, on the other hand, stayed behind and was deported to Ravensbrück, where she died in 1942. The protagonist of The Mummy, the unforgettable Zita Johan, Romanian of German roots (from the Swabians of the Banat), was from a young age obsessed with the American occultist and clairvoyant Edgar Cayce books - who claimed that under the claws of the Sphinx of Gizah there is an "archive of secrets" that holds esoteric knowledge -, which undoubtedly helped the actress create her role of the reincarnated Anck-es-en-Amon, the object of Im-Ho-Tep's (Boris Karloff) love.

Zita              Johan in 'The Mummy'.
Zita Johan in 'The Mummy'.

Hitler, as it has been said, had little interest in the history of Ancient Egypt and was not much given to the supernatural stories of mysteries and mummies that are popularly associated with the Pharaonic civilization. The Nazis more inclined to that were Himmler and Rudolph Hess (who in addition had been born in Alexandria and who in the party they called "the yogi of Egypt", for the yoga). Interested both, Himmler and Hess, in esotericism, occultism and parapsychology, it is easy to imagine the latter dressed as a Jewish priest like Belloq but with his eyebrows protruding from the Mitznefet in the final scene of the opening of the Ark, and the former melting as Gestapo Toht for looking for what he should not. In any case, Himmler was interested in other no less nonsensical things like the Grail, the spear of Longinus or the hammer of Thor but these were not set in Egypt.

Archaeologically, the Nazis preferred to look to the North (Karelia, Swedish Bohuslan, Hedeby) and to the supposed ancient lands of origin of the Aryans that obsessed them, such as Tibet, where Himmler sent the famous expedition led by Ernst Schäfer. The Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) of the SS and the Amt Rosenberg practiced archaeology à la Nazi, that is to say with ideological and propagandistic purposes and that in general were pure nonsense. Ancient Egypt was a field that did not appeal to the Nazis. Some ideas of that civilization, such as the power of the pharaoh, the military preeminence or the centrality of the State could interest them, but in general the ancient Egyptians were definitely a non-Aryan people and with beliefs, although prior to the detested Judeo-Christianity, too muddled for the National Socialist mentality.

For example, pro-Nazi Egyptologists such as Wolf and Herman Kees, denigrated Akhnaton for possessing traits contrary to the idea of the master race. Akhnaton, however, as Dominic Montserrat explains in the fascinating Akhenatón, historia, fantasía y el Antiguo Egipto (Dilemma 2022), also suffered an attempt of appropriation by some anti-Semitic and neo-pagan sectors that even tried to see an Aryan component in him, stimulated by the Westernized image of the pharaoh built by Egyptologists fascinated with the character such as James Henry Breasted and Arthur Weigall. They liked the purity ingredient of his sun worship and the relationship he established as the spiritual leader of his people.

The              bust of Nefertiti found by the Germans at Amarna, in a              colorized photo from the time of the discovery.
The bust of Nefertiti found by the Germans at Amarna, in a colorized photo from the time of the discovery.

In fact, Hitler's devotee, Nazi sympathizer, theosophist and spy Savitri Devi (1905-1982, actually French of Greek origins) contemplated him as a prefiguration of the Führer. But Hitler himself would hardly identify himself with a character like the Pharaoh of Amarna, who interested Freud so much and whose interpretation was so significant for the history of psychoanalysis. Not to mention the grotesque aspect of his representations. Adolf Hitler was more of an admiror of Emperor Barbarossa Hohenstaufen and Frederick the Great.

However, the Nazi leader was an unexpected fan of the bust of Nefertiti. When Goering and other Reich leaders argued in favor of returning the sculpture to Egypt to improve relations, Hitler came out swinging, stating flatly that "what the German people have, they keep" (fortunately Indy swiped the Ark from him). He said he had seen the bust many times and always marveled at it, and that one of his dreams was to install Nefertiti in a new Egyptian museum in Berlin with a room under a large vault just for her. It is curious to think that he would like the way it is now.

Hitler was never in Egypt, but Joseph Goebbels was. He made a famous whirlwind trip to the country of the Nile in 1939, five months before the outbreak of World War II. The Propaganda Minister arrived at Cairo airport on April 6 aboard a Focke-Wulf Condor from Rhodes, where he was on vacation. The visit, labeled as private, provoked the enthusiasm of the German colony and made the British quite nervous, not to mention the Jews living in Egypt. Goebbels stayed at the Mena House, offered a reception at the German House in Boulak and a meal at the delegation of his country and, in what concerns us, visited the pyramids of Giza, the necropolis of Saqqara and the Egyptian Museum -apart from visiting, like any tourist, the markets of Khan al-Khalili, where he bought several things for his wife Magda (surely to get forgiven after so many affairs with actresses).

Dibujo              de la época alusivo a la visita de Goebbels a Egipto.
Dibujo de la época alusivo a la visita de Goebbels a Egipto.

During the visit to the Great Pyramid he expressed (according to the press reports of the time) to his guide the aforementioned famous professor Herman Junker, then director of the Deutsches Institut, his deep admiration for the civilization of Ancient Egypt, and he did it again before the golden objects of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the museum of Cairo. He even starred in an exalted moonlit camel ride through the pyramids (something Hitler would have disapproved of, who praised Rommel for not succumbing to the temptation to get on a dromedary and thus avoid the unseemly picturesque photo: the Marshal was always supposed to ride in an armored car). Goebbels, however, did not show the same enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt as he did when he visited Greece in 1936 (Athens, Delphi, and various excavations) and admired the great achievements of the Greeks (at the Acropolis he felt he was at one of "the noblest sites of Nordic art"). In Egypt he even compared negatively the "useless" effort of building the pyramids or the Sphinx with the "socially profitable" construction of the highways of Hitler's Third Reich or the functionality of the New Chancellery designed by Speer.

One last curious detail: one of the characters who confronted Hitler and of whom it is said that he was a real black beast for the Nazi leader was an Egyptologist, the Englishman John Pendlebury, who had been director of the excavations in Amarna and then was appointed vice-consul in Crete as a cover for his work in military intelligence to face the Nazi invasion of the island, during which he was shot by German paratroopers.

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Saturday, March 18, 2023

Using rock images to study cult of the gods in pre-Egyptian society

Using rock images to study cult of the gods in pre-Egyptian society

Cult of the gods in pre-Egyptian society
Rock image—with ruler boat procession, ca. 3200 BC, Wadi al Agebab. Credit: Mohamed Abdel Hay Abu Baker

The desert in southern Egypt is filled with hundreds of petroglyphs and inscriptions dating from the Neolithic to the Arab period. The oldest date from the fifth millennium B.C., and few have been studied. Egyptologists at the University of Bonn and Aswan University now want to systematically record the rock paintings and document them in a database. Among them, a rock painting more than 5,000 years old depicting a boat being pulled by 25 men on a rope stands out in particular.

"This cultural treasure in the northeast of Aswan has been largely undocumented, let alone published," says Egyptologist Prof. Dr. Ludwig Morenz of the University of Bonn. The petroglyphs are found in numerous and often in dried-up river valleys, called "wadis" in Arabic.

At the same time, the petroglyphs, which are sometimes inconspicuous at first glance, are under severe threat, especially from current quarrying activities in the desert. "Especially in recent years, there has already been serious destruction of this cultural asset," says Morenz, who is also a member of the Cluster of Excellence Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS) and the Transdisciplinary Research Area "Present Pasts" at the University of Bonn. "Such losses can hardly be prevented completely, given the vastness of the area, but all the more important is at least good documentation."

Great treasure for science

Together with the Aswan Inspectorate of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the University of Bonn's Egyptology Department has already documented isolated inscriptions on rocks. "These rock images are a great treasure for science, which will be systematically developed in the coming years in cooperation between the University of Bonn, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and especially the Aswan Inspectorate," says Mohamed Abdel Hay Abu Baker, who is specifically responsible for researching rock images at the Aswan Inspectorate.

In the course of his doctoral studies at Aswan University in Aswan, Abu Baker will now work together with the University of Bonn to create a comprehensive database with an image archive on the rock images. For this purpose, the University of Excellence Bonn supports the inspector of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities for one year with a scholarship from excellence funds of the federal and state governments. Prof. Morenz is second supervisor of the dissertation.

Testimony from the time before the pharaohs

The project will now systematically record the hundreds of rock art images in southern Egypt. "The first newly discovered sources shed new light on the pre-Pharaonic period of the Fourth Millennium and the importance of the socio-cultural periphery," Morenz says.

Among the images that Abu Baker captured during his explorations in the field, one in particular stood out to the Egyptologist from the University of Bonn. From this period of high cultural dynamism in the Assuan region of the later Fourth Millennium comes a hitherto unique scene that offers insight into religion and cult practice. It is depicted over the bumps and edges of the rock, how a boat is pulled by 25 men with raised arms on a rope.

A ritual is obviously impressively shown here—namely the great procession of an image of the gods, according to Morenz. This is clear from image details, he said, the boat with shrine and standard and, in particular, the cattle horns, which are typical of sacred imagery. "This image gives us insights into the sacred design of an apparently remote landscape, the Wadi al Agebab, which is still largely unknown in research," says the Egyptologist.

The entire later Pharaonic culture is based on these beginnings of the pictorial staging of religion. Morenz: "Here, the high importance of religion and especially the cult of the gods in the still pre-Egyptian society of the second half of the Fourth Millennium is revealed as a culture-creating factor."

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Innovative Display Cases Housing the Treasures of the Grand Egyptian Museum | ArchDaily

The Innovative Display Cases Housing the Treasures of the Grand Egyptian Museum

The Innovative Display            Cases Housing the Treasures of the Grand Egyptian Museum -            Image 1 of 2© Atelier Brückner

Two decades in the making, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Cairo is one of the most anticipated cultural buildings, set to be an architectural marvel and a leading scientific, historical and archeological study center. The vast, billion-dollar mega-project occupies a site of around 500,000 square meters adjacent to the Pyramids UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Giza Plateau. Within its halls, what will soon be the world's largest archeological museum will showcase 3,500 years of ancient Egyptian history, revealed through a collection of more than 100,000 artifacts –many of which will be displayed for the first time.

With its evident magnitude and significance, a project of this scale required grand solutions. At the heart of its design are the state-of-the-art display cases that will house and protect some of the most valuable ancient artifacts, as part of the mission to preserve Egypt's glorious past. These form the very essence of the museum, safeguarding the treasures within and allowing visitors to appreciate the country's rich history and cultural heritage.

Goppion, based in Milan, Italy, has announced its contribution to the GEM as the brand behind the design, manufacture and installation of 122 museum display cases. Housing priceless and extremely fragile textiles, metals, wood, feathers and other organic materials, Goppion's cases meet the most stringent conservation requirements while providing creativity, craftsmanship and technical innovation. Given the scale of this mega-project, the work was divided into two phases.

The Tutankhamun Gallery

The first phase, completed in 2021, required 50 customized conservation-grade display cases for the spectacular Tutankhamun Gallery, which hosts approximately 5,000 artifacts that belonged to the pharaoh. Although Tutankhamun's reign was brief (around 1332 – 1323 BC), his name has achieved fame since the remarkable discovery of his almost wholly intact tomb a century ago, in 1922. The gallery is, in itself, a landmark; it represents the first time the Tutankhamun Collection has been displayed publicly in its entirety.

One of the greatest treasures, found in the inner part of the young king's tomb, is a fan made from ostrich feathers with an ivory handle decorated with gold and lapis lazuli. The feathers were collected by the pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago and are remarkably well preserved, along with the other artifacts from the tomb.

The Innovative            Display Cases Housing the Treasures of the Grand Egyptian            Museum - Image 2 of 2

As a result, objects like the fan –as well as other fragile organic materials located throughout the Museum– required the strictest conservation requirements. Similar was the case of Tutankhamun's five gold chariots, one of ancient Egypt's supreme engineering achievements and one of the star attractions of the gallery. Their dimensions called for a huge showcase of 12m x 5m x 3m in height. Display cases of this scale come with many structural challenges, but Goppion's solutions proved to be effective.

More customized display cases

Phase 2, on the other hand, demanded the production of 72 more customized and modular conservation-grade display cases of various dimensions. Besides performing the engineering, prototyping, production and installation for all display cases, Goppion and the GEM team implemented technical solutions to enhance both the legibility and sustainability of the showcases. A centralized, remote-controlled climate control system was developed, with a diffusion of treated air through significant distances and differentiated Relative Humidity (RH) levels in different cases.

One of the challenges in Phase 2 was to create a large showcase for a striking mural from the tomb of the founding pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty, Sneferu. The mural is one of the oldest items in the GEM collection, dating back to the Old Kingdom (around 2700 – 2200 BCE). It spans 13 mud-plaster blocks, all unified by a horizontal colored band that runs across the lower part of each relief. Great skill and care were required to ensure the mounted reliefs all lined up seamlessly for display, as well as to guarantee protection for this meticulously restored and very fragile artifact during and after the installation process.

All in all, Goppion display cases were an ideal choice for the museum due to their functional and aesthetic qualities. Among them, LED adjustable lighting, 0.1 airtightness, security concealed locks, magnetic concealed gaskets, glass joints and passive and active climate control (to manage relative humidity, temperature and nitrogen levels). All of this is combined with a wide range of personalized interiors, which may include adding plinths, panels, shelving, back panels, partitions and other versatile design elements.

More exciting developments will unfold soon at the GEM. After all, ancient Egypt continues to reveal its long-lost secrets: more than 40 archeological missions are currently uncovering the treasures that may also, one day, take their place inside the museum. And, once again, their display cases will play a fundamental role, showcasing them in their maximum splendor.

To learn more about the museum display cases, visit Goppion's website or browse our product catalog.

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Meet the sexy Egyptology scholars who dress like Indiana Jones

FYI, I in no way endorse the glorification of the Colonial Era depicted in this New York Post
article. Precisely the opposite, and I'm not surprised that the article appears in the Post.


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Monday, March 13, 2023

Northern Cal. ARCE Lecture April 16: The Hidden Treasures of Elephantine Island

The American Research Center in Egypt, Northern California Chapter, and the Near Eastern Studies Department, University of California, Berkeley, invite you to attend a lecture by
Prof. Dr. Verena Lepper, National Museums, Berlin:

The Hidden Treasures of Elephantine Island

Sunday, April 16, 2023, 3 PM Pacific Daylight Time
Room 20 Social Sciences Building (formerly Barrows Hall)
UC Berkeley

Prof. Dr. Verena Lepper (Image courtesy of the lecturer)

About the Lecture:

Elephantine was a militarily and strategically very important island on the river Nile at the southern border of Egypt. No other settlement in Egypt is so well attested through texts over such a long period of time, 4000 years. Its inhabitants form a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious community that left us vast amounts of written sources detailing their everyday lives from the Old Kingdom to beyond the Arab Conquest. Today, several thousand papyri and other manuscripts from Elephantine are scattered in more than 60 institutions in 24 different countries across Europe and beyond. Their texts are written in ten different languages and scripts, including Hieroglyphs, Hieratic, Demotic, Aramaic, Greek, Coptic and Arabic. 80% of these manuscripts were unpublished or unstudied before.

Thus, access was gained to these texts, making them publicly available in an open access online research database. Links could be identified between papyrus fragments from different collections, and an international 'papyrus puzzle' undertaken, incorporating cutting-edge methods from digital humanities, physics and mathematics (e.g. for the virtual unfolding of papyri). For the first time in the history of papyrology, papyrus packages can now be read virtually, without physically opening them. Using this database with medical, religious, legal, administrative, even literary texts, the everyday life of the local and global (i.e. 'glocal') community of Elephantine can be studied. Elephantine can thus be used as a case study and a model for the past, present and future.

About the Lecturer:

Prof. Dr. Verena Lepper  is the Curator of the Egyptian and Oriental Papyrus Collection of the Egyptian Museum, National Museums Berlin (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) and Honorary Professor at the Humboldt University Berlin. She is in charge of a collection with around 30,000 objects in ten different languages and scripts and has managed several exhibition and research projects in Germany and abroad (Abu Dhabi, Berlin, Bonn, Doha, Harvard) with a team of employees.

She conducts research on topics such as Egyptian and Oriental papyri, literary and cultural history, and the history of science and art. To this end, she has published numerous books and exhibition catalogues with international publishers.

Dr. Lepper studied Egyptology, Semitic Philology, Christian Orient Studies and Hebrew Bible at Bonn, Cologne, Tuebingen, Oxford and Harvard University.  She has received several awards for her scientific and curatorial work, including the highly renowned ERC-Grant from the European Research Council for the project: "Elephantine".

To promote Arab-German academic exchange, she founded the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA) in  2013. She is involved in numerous committees in the field of scientific and cultural policy and diplomacy. Visiting professorships and fellowships have also taken her to Harvard and Princeton University.

Parking is available in UC lots all day on weekends, for a fee. Ticket dispensing machines accept debit or credit cards. Parking is available in lots around the Social Sciences Building, and in lots along Bancroft. A map of the campus is available online at

About ARCE-NC:

For more information, please visit,, or To join the chapter or renew your membership, please go to and select "Berkeley, CA" as your chapter when you sign up.