The royal cobra in Kemet

The meaning of the royal cobra

More commonly known by its Hellenic name of uraeus, the iaret or rearing cobra is synonymous with the goddess of Lower Egypt- Wadjet. The symbol was adopted by the Kemite kings and from the Middle Kingdom the rulers always wore this image on their brows. The iaret served two purposes: first, it referenced the King’s rule over the northern part of Kemet; second, it protected the royal representations and so the king.

The cobra and vulture on the brow of the king

On some royal representations from the New Kingdom, the cobra appears with the vulture, representing the goddess Nekhbet, who was the southern counterpart of Wadjet, together the goddesses were referred to as the Two Ladies (Nebet Tawy), which became the title for the Nebty name of rulers. Only one group of rulers wore the double cobra: those of Dynasty 25, who ruled Kemet and Kush simultaneously. It is thought that the dual iaret representing the two regions and that this is why it is only found on male rulers dating to this period.

Granite sphinx with the head of King Taharqa from Temple ‘T’ at Kawa. British Museum (EA1770)

Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Queen Ahmose-Nefertari, circa 1560 BCE. Egyptian Museum, Berlin.
Painted relief showing Ahmose Nefertari, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo courtesy of Dr Runoko Rashidi

Royal women generally wear a single cobra on their brows; however, when elevated to a goddess, they were awarded the vulture for protection and to recognise their status. This can be seen on the wall painting above where Ahmose Nefertari wears both a vulture and a cobra, representing her royal and divine status.

King’s Wife and King’s Mother Iset

The first royal female to wear two cobras was Iset, who was the wife of Thutmose (II) Aakheperkare (1492-1479 BCE) and mother of Thutmose (III) Menkheperre (179-1425 BCE). On the statue above the Iset takes the title Mother of the King, and it is possible that the dual cobras were intended to distinguish her in this role as opposed to royal wife; unfortunately not enough statues survive to know whether she consistently wore the dual version of the royal motif.

Fragment of a statue of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra

Royal Wife of Amenhotep Nebmaatra (1388-1351 BCE)- Tiye- wore two cobras and a vulture on her representations. As you can see from the statue above, the cobra and vulture wear their appropriate geographical crowns thus representing the unification of the Two Lands of Kemet. The central figure of a vulture appears because the royal wife wears a full vulture headdress- if you look carefully on the statues above and below you can just seen the feathers of the vulture’s wings sitting on top of her hair.

Detail of a statuette of Tiye. Louvre, Paris.

Even the smallest of representations of this queen bore the same iconography, as illustrated by the small faience figure above. It is possible that Tiye adopted this iconography after the Thirty Year rule of her husband was celebrated- the Heb Sed festival. We know that she initially wore a single iaret and that the famous wooded statue of the royal wife (below) was adapted at some point and the single cobra replaced by two.

Representation of royal wife Tiye

Possibly following on from Tiye, Nefertiti who was wife of Akhenaten Neferkheperure-waenre (1351-1334 BCE) in the early part of their reign also adopted the dual cobras, but not the vulture. And on the famous relief (below) the royal wife is shown with 3 cobras around her crown; and one of the royal children plays with one as if it were alive. This changed in the later years when the single cobra was used for her representations.


Royal Women of Dynasty 18

Nefertari, Principal Wife of Rameses Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) in Dynasty 19 continued the tradition of wearing the double cobra, as seen on the colossal statue below and most of her other sculptures. During this period the double form seems to have been used to distinguish her as the Principal Wife.

Representation of the royal wife Nefertari at Abu Simbel

Royal Women of Dynasty 25

Relief from the Chapel of Amenirdis, Medinat Habu

As noted the Kings of Dynasty 25 wore two cobras on all of their representations, and were the first royal men to do so. The royal women during this period who were associated with the motif also had the elevated role of being the wife of the God Amun/Imen. On the tomb chapel of Amenirdis she and her successor Shepenwepet both wear the crown of the god (above). As goddesses on the relief the two women are shown with the divine vulture and headdress. However, on statuary they were shown with two cobras and a vulture. It seems likely during this later period that the double cobra and vulture were associated with title and role of God’s Wife of Amun/Imen.

Statue of Amenirdis

Meaning of multiple representations of the iaret

For the male rulers of Dynasty 25 the dual iaret seems to be associated with the two kingdoms of Kemet and Kush, and this is certainly the conclusion that most Egyptologists draw, not least of all because it appears on sculptures in both kingdoms.

Statues representing the Kushite kings, Kerma Museum Sudan

The dual iaret seems to have been reserved for royal women who fulfilled a particular role and is actually not at all commonly found. It can be associated with the roles of God’s Wife, Principal Wife of the King, and King’s Mother. Later in the Ptolemaic Period a triple form appeared. What this tradition shows is the careful consideration that went into representing members of the royal family and that this practice was ever-evolving, through until the last resident rulers, their wives and mothers.


Black History Month and Kemet

Black history month and Kemet

As I noted in my last post, October is Black History Month in the UK. I knew that I would be busy travelling around the country giving talks, so I decided to tweet information and images relating to Kemet, rather than writing posts. I thought that I would write a little more about the image that received the most shares and responses.

Thutmose Menkheperura makes an offering to Amun (detail)

On 11 October I tweeted the above image along with the name and date of the king and the simple statement:

The pigment and skin colours are original

The Temple of Amun and Ra-Horakhty at Amada in Nubia

The image comes from a temple at the site of Amada, in southern Egypt/Nubia. The temple was built in the 18th dynasty by King Thutmose Menkheperura, who ruled from around 1479-1425 BCE, and is one of the oldest surviving temples in this region. Further decorative reliefs were added by Thutmose’s successor: Amenhotep Aakheperure; and some restoration was carried out later by kings of the next dynasty. The temple is dedicated to two gods: Amun and Ra-Horakhty.

Amenhotep Aakheperura and The god Ra-Horakhty

In the relief above, the king (right) is shown in a dynamic running pose, in his hands are wine jars. On his head he wears the crown of Lower Egypt/Kemet.

Djehuti, Ra-Horakhty and Amenhotep Aakheperura

On the relief above the king stands in the centre and Djehuti (left) and Ra-Horakhty (right) pouring liquid in the form of the ankh sign over him, demonstrating his right to rule and his status and power as king. There are other ritual scenes on the walls of the temple. Below is a representation of the King in his role as head priest. He is accompanied by other priests who carry the barque that contained the image of the god. Note the animal skin garment that the head priest wears, he stands behind the king.

The King and priests carry the divine barque

This small temple may not be impressive as some of the larger complexes in the southern parts of Kemet, however, the scenes enable us to understand more about the role of the king and his relationship to the gods. The pigment (colour) is incredibly well preserved in parts of the temple and show very clearly that the people represented had dark brown skin. There are scenes, such as the relief showing the later king Rameses Usermaatra-Setepenra, who presents an offering to a figure of Amun. The skin of Amun is painted black, and is used symbolically to represent fertility, and his consort is shown with gold-coloured skin representing her divinity. The king’s skin is dark brown, which we must conclude was close to its actual colour, as it was for other rulers on the temple’s reliefs.


The last indigenous King of Kemet

The last indigenous king of Kemet

Ruled from 360-342 BCE and was named Nakhthorhebyt, but is perhaps better known by his Greek name Nectanebo. He was the third and last ruler of what we now call the 30th Dynasty, and was the second king to be referred to as ‘Nectanebo’ by the Ancient Greeks.

Nakhthorhebyt. Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum SCA 168.

The statue above is part of an exhibition at the British Museum, London entitled Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds, which runs from 19 May to the 27 November 2016, and represents King Nakhthorhebyt. I can say this with confidence on two counts. Firstly, the double loop of the uraeus (cobra) on his brow, has been associated with this particular ruler and is an unusual feature. Secondly, the “portrait” (a word that the curator who wrote the entry in the catalogue uses. Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds. Edited by F. Goddio and A. Masson-Berghoff. 2016: p. 134) can be linked to Nakhthorhebyt. Many of the 30th Dynasty representation are similar to those of the early Ptolemaic period. And even to specialists, are impossible to tell apart (see below).

Sphinx with a royal portrait. Maritime Museum, Alexandria, SCA 282.

The similarities in the early Ptolemaic rulers’ Egyptian-style/Kemite portraits and those of the last indigenous dynasty were probably because of the Persian occupation that occurred in between. The Persian rulers were not resident in Kemet and so funding for large scale royal projects would not have been as forthcoming as under the last Kemite kings or the Macedonian Greeks who ultimately replaced them. Nakhthorhebyt spent much of his reign trying to prevent the Persian invasion.

So, who were the ancient Egyptians?

This is a question that the exhibition fails to answer. On numerous occasions in the exhibition the “native” Egyptians are referred to, and are distinguished from the arrival of Greeks, Macedonians and Romans. However, the only time that Africa is directly referenced is in regard to a group of amulets and moulds that were found at the city of Naukratis, where earlier Greeks settled. Images that are very similar to some of those that I have discussed in previous posts  are described in the catalogue as ‘Black Africans’ and are explained as “catering to Greek ideas of foreign and far-away Egypt” (Sunken cities. Egypt’s lost worlds. Edited by F. Goddio and A. Masson-Berghoff. 2016: p. 54). So, where does that leave the “portrait” of the last indigenous ruler? Was it an accurate representation of the people of Kemet at that time? This was, after all, how the ruler himself chose to be presented. There is no mention or discussion of his racialised identity in the exhibition or catalogue.

Once again we find the over-simplification of what is, and is not, “Black African”, a term that is, as noted, used in the catalogue. By continuing to make such distinctions, based on modern European ideals, Kemet is once again subtly removed from its African context and disassociated from indigenous African people. It is interesting that European scholars seem only to identify the depictions that the ancient Greeks and Romans produced to represent the people of Africa, as “African”. It is also notable that the ruler’s Greek name rather than his Kemite name is used by the museum. I have written before about the failure of museums to include the African names of Kemite rulers when describing them, and I will admit to having done so myself, on gallery labels often through lack of space. On reflection, however, I feel that these small points all add up and are subtle ways in which Ancient Egypt continues to be removed from its African context.

Is it worth visiting or buying the catalogue?

Colossal statue of a god of the inundation of the Nile. Maritime Museum, Alexandria, SCA 281

In general, the exhibition fails to explore, or explain, the often nuanced impact that Kemet had on ancient European cultures. Many of the identifications of rulers of the Ptolemaic period are, quite simply, incorrect and unexplained. However, the colossal sculptures that are displayed show Kemite sculptors at their best. Not only were they able to create colossal representations of their gods in a tradition that was thousands of years old, but they were able to adapt their skills and styles. Both the exhibition and catalogue acknowledge these achievements, but aren’t quite so forthcoming in presenting these accomplishments as part of an African culture.


A curious statue of a Kemite King

A curious statue

Not only is this statue unusual in its form, but it was first recorded in the 16th century (common era) by the Renaissance architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio at the site of an Ancient Roman temple in Rome, Italy called the Pantheon. This was not, however, where it had originated.

The statue represents a much early king of Kemet: Amenemhat Nimaatre, or Amenemhat III as he is generally called today. Amenemhat was the sixth ruler of what we now refer to as the Twelfth Dynasty and ruled Kemet for around 45 years from 1859-1813 BCE. He is perhaps best known for the pyramids he built in the region of the Fayoum. There is a second statue that shows the King with the same hair and beard. This statue (below) was found at the site of Tanis and is in the form of a double representation that shows Amenemhat as a marsh deity (god). It is inscribed with the title “The offering bearers of Tanis”. References to the marshes can be seen on the tables in front of the King; they are decorated with plants and fish.

A double statue of King Amenemhat III as a marsh god, found at the site of Tanis in Egypt.

I remember seeing this statue in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo when I first went to Egypt, when I was still studying Classics and before I knew anything about Ancient Kemite art. It stood out from all of the other statues in the museum and I recall being struck by how unusual it was.

Fragment of a statue of Amenemhat Nimaatre. Palazzo Altemps, Rome.

Both statues show the king with thick locks of hair cascading down from a shorter twisted style at the front of the head. The sheer volume of hair suggests that the hair type was African, and this is confirmed by the two types of locks that create this incredible hairstyle. The beard is also unusual in its form but complements the head hair.

The facial features on both the Cairo and Rome statues are strong and typical of this period. The broad face, strong cheekbones, and wide nose are reminiscent of the portraits of the previous ruler of the Twelfth Dynasty Senusret Kakaure. Suffice to say that the shorter hair style and the facial features that appear on Amenemhat’s statues are those that are typically now categorised as ‘Nubian’.

From Kemet to Rome

Inside the Pantheon, Rome. Although now a church this building was originally a Roman temple.

As noted, the statue of Amenemhat was first recorded at the Pantheon in Rome (above). In fact, it had originally been placed in the largest Egyptian temple in Rome: The Iseum Campense. There had been a cult to the goddess Isis at the site of the Iseum before the Roman’s took control of Kemet. However, the emperor Tiberius, who ruled from 14-37 CE, destroyed the sanctuary following a scandal involving a man named Decius Mundus. Decius pretended to be the god Anubis and seduced a devotee of the cult of Isis named Paulina. When she discovered the truth Paulina complained to the emperor, who responded by throwing all of the statues from the temple into the River Tiber. The sanctuary continued to have chequered history. It was was rebuilt by the Emperor Calligula (37-41 CE), burnt down during the reign of Titus in 80 CE, and then rebuilt by the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE).

It was probably during the reign of Domitian that the statue was brought over to Italy from Kemet. Domitian was a strong supporter of Egyptian cults, especially Isis. It was typical of such cult centres to have a combination of both ancient statues from Kemet and newly manufactured representations of the emperor as an Egyptian king.

As for Amenemhat, he was worshipped as a god in his own right in Kemet during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE), possibly even before. In the Late Period there was a renaissance that looked back to the period of the reigns of Senusret and Amenemhat. During this period artists even copied the portraits and styles of statues that were produced in the earlier period. Whether the Romans who took the statue from its original location were aware of this tradition, we will probably never know.

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet

Portraiture, Kingship and Kemet: The case of Senusret Kakaure

It seems a little odd, when the majority of Egyptologists have no direct connection to Africa in regard to their own biological or cultural heritage, that they feel justified in deciding when a representation is or isn’t of a person of African descent.

Granite statue of Senusret Kakaure. Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (E.37.1930)

The ruler illustrated in this post is a case in point. It represents Senusret Khakaure, who is now known as Senusret III. He was a fifth ruler of Dynasty 12, which belongs to a period now referred to as the Middle Kingdom, and ruled Kemet from around 3800 years ago (circa 1872-1853 BCE). His strong jawline, hooded eyelids and prominent cheek bones have led many people to recognise facial features that are typical of some indigenous African people, and people of African descent.

Fragment of a statue of King Senusret Kakaure. Copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (E.GA.3005.1943)

Now it should be the case that you don’t need a qualification to decide whether a statue represents someone of African descent, no? Well, that doesn’t seem to be the academic consensus in the case of Ancient Egyptian sculpture. Since the 1990s it has generally been assumed that images of kings are not true likenesses of the people they represent.

I should state from the off-set that I do not subscribe to this point of view and whilst I am prepared to concede that rulers, from any culture, are typically represented in an idealised way, I really do not understand why a portrait would look nothing remotely like the subject. Particularly when there is such a variety amongst Ancient Egyptian royal sculpture.

I adopted this point of view very early in my career as an Egyptologist.  My doctoral thesis was on Egyptian royal sculpture and I subsequently spent some years continuing to research this particular area. I am confident that I could correctly identify an image of any Ancient Egyptian ruler. I can do so, because each had a very specific ‘portrait’ type.

Statue of Senusret Kakaure. The British Museum, London

There was a good reason for this phenomenon. Life-size stone statues, (such as those above) were often placed at the entrances to temples or palaces with the intention of promoting the King. Inscriptions were not always visible on statues and so the iconography (symbols) and the facial features needed to also play a part in assisting with identifying who the statue represented. How then are the features of Senusret III typically explained?

Realistic, symbolic or psychological portraits?

In 2015 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York held an exhibition entitled: Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom . The key issues relating to Middle Kingdom portraits are contextualised in an essay for the catalogue by Dorothea Arnold entitled: Pharaoh. Power and Performance (Ancient Egypt Transformed. The Middle Kingdom, edited by A. Oppenheim, D. Arnold, D. Arnold, and K. Yamamoto. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 68-72). They are as follows:

  1. Realistic– Egyptologists Cyril Aldred and Jacques Vandier who wrote, in the 1980s, on the subject of portraiture in Kemet dating to the so-called Middle Kingdom concluded that the portrait features on statues from this period were realistic representations of the kings.
  2. Non-realistic– in relation to non-idealised portraits on funerary representations dating to the earlier period of the so-called Old Kingdom, Bernard V. Bothmer concluded that no representations from Kemet should be called ‘portraits’.
  3. More recently, Egyptologists have interpreted features on the sculptures of Senusret as coded messages– for example the prominent eyes representing a vigilant king.
  4. In 1996 Egyptologist Jan Assmann, put forward the idea that these portraits represented the inner character of the kings and were psychological.

More recently, and as Arnold concludes in her essay, specialists in sculpture generally accept that these royal representations draw upon the actual appearance of the king, but within an acceptable framework so that he can be identified as such by people who looked at the statue. Arnold writes the following:

… it is very difficult to imagine that Senwosret III’s eyes in his official image did not reflect his own peculiarly shaped eyes in real life… The faces of Senwosret III… are best understood as recognizable images of these pharaohs with some realistic details formalised in the particular intellectual climate.  (p. 71)

I have included this quote because a number of friends and colleagues who have questioned professional Egyptologists have met with a response that suggests portraits from this period are to be dismissed as non-realistic representations. In other words when asked if Senusret really looked like his statues, they are told that this is not the case. The question often arises because people of African descent recognise the portrait features on these statues as similar to their own. Therefore, to deny that the statues look even remotely like their subject, is to deny their African origin.

There is one key issue that no-one seems to have addressed. Whether these ‘portraits’ are realistic or idealised representations, the overall appearance of these statues (their profiles, facial features, and also where hair is represented) suggests very strongly that they represent indigenous African people. Why would any sculptor show their kings in this way if they were anything other than African?