Jebel Barkal means sacred mountain in Arabic. The fact that this large natural feature, which lies around 200 miles north of Khartoum, has been recognised for thousands of years is testimony to its power. Priests who accompanied the Kemite King Thutmose (I) Aakheperkare and his army, who entered Kush in 1504-03 BCE, identified the feature as “Pure Mountain” and “Thrones of the Two Lands”. These titles were a reference to the god Amun; the priests believed that this was the place where he lived.
The ancient people were very responsive to their natural landscape. A temple, which was cut out of the mountain’s rock, offers a clue as to what prompted the priests to come to their conclusions. The ancient people saw the profile of a uraeus or cobra when they viewed the rock (above) and this was depicted on a relief representation inside temple B 300 (below). Here the cobra wears a sun-disk on its head.
To the right of the depiction of the mountain King Taharqo who also ruled Kemet (690-664 BCE) makes an offering to the gods Amun and Mut. The divine pair are represented in front of the the sacred mountain. You can just about make out the crown of Amun on the photograph above. The reliefs are badly damaged. Taharqo, who was also accompanied by his consort, can be seen below.
A sacred complex
The earliest sacred archaeological remains at the site date to the reign of the Kemite King Thutmose Menkheperre (usually referred to as Thutmose III) who ruled Kemet from 1479-1425 BCE. This king laid the foundations for the temple to Amun, which was later completed by Ramesses Usermaatre-setpenre, better known to us as Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE). The early temple, which was constructed out of mud brick has been replaced by a succession of later buildings. The majority of those standing today date to the reigns of the Kushite rulers who formed Kemet’s Dynasty 25 (around 746-664 BCE).
Temples were positioned in front of the sacred mountain. Today, only scant remains can be found. The photo below shows the dromos (processional walkway) flagged on either side with statues of the god Amun in the form of a ram. The sandstone bricks on either side once formed part of the pylon (gateway).
Home of Amun
The reason that the Kemites were so interested in this site was because they believed that it was the dwelling place of Amun, a god who originated in Kush but who had one of the most powerful priesthoods in Kemet, and indeed one of the largest temple complexes at the site now known as Karnak (below).
Both complexes had temples and shrines dedicated to other deities. At Jebel Barkal these included Hathor (below) and the Cobra goddess.
Continuity of a sacred space
When the Pure Mountain became known as the Sacred Mountain with the advent of Islam, the space retained its religious importance. Since the nineteenth century CE there has been a the tomb of a Sheikh and a Muslim cemetery at the site.
However, perhaps most importantly for the purposes of this blog, the site is evidence of the cultural connections between Kemet and Kush. Politically the two cultures were divided in ancient times. However, it is clear that the priests who accompanied Thutmose I recognised the site as one of the most important to their cult: the dwelling place of Amun.
The natural landscape also consistently played an important role in Kemite and Kushite religious practice, and this is common in other traditional African religions.
Earlier this week, I witnessed an extreme reaction that resulted from cognitive dissonance. I was delivering a workshop with a focus on the presence of people of African descent in the UK. We looked at evidence from the Roman period, Tudor England, and then referenced African, Black British and Caribbean political activists from the Industrial Revolution through to the twentieth century. We then went on to consider academic studies that showed how the media have distorted and demonised British people who are racialised as Black in contemporary Britain. And how Black British people are treated differently and less favourably in the Criminal Justice System. These contemporary issues came as no surprise to anyone of African descent in the audience. The workshop offered academic evidence that corroborated these experiences and the social psychology prejudice and racism.
A member of the audience left the workshop part way through. When I asked why, she said that it was “all lies”, that I was “anti-White” and that the workshop was subjective because it did not give examples of “Africans treating White people differently”. As she spoke, she was visibly upset and indeed described herself as such. Had she stayed until the end of the workshop, she would have realised, but probably denied, that she was suffering from cognitive dissonance.
The role of history in the formation of social identity
We each have two different types of self: 1. social identity, which relates to the groups we belong to; 2. personal identity, which not surprisingly is defined by our personal traits and relationships.
In a recent comment Nicole asked:
Why are we hated as a people? Is it fear?
Some groups we choose to belong to, for example political or social groups. However, when it comes to racialised groups, society determines where we are placed solely on the grounds of our appearance. ‘Race’ is a social construct and its advocates implemented a racial and social hierarchy to control and oppress entire groups of people. In doing so, members of the European societies who proposed the concept of ‘race’ elevated themselves and their own group.
Presenting history from a Eurocentric perspective is one means of distorting and maintaining hierarchal group identities. I have interviewed many people who state quite clearly that they feel history does not impact on who they are; but history is no different to any other influence on group identities, such the media.
I’ll give an example. When I tell people that I research and teach ‘Black’ history they will often assume that I specialise in the history of the enslavement of African peoples (see image above). When I correct them and state that this is only a small part of African history and it is not the area that I specialise in, they often look confused and surprised. It’s not that they necessarily want this to be the only history, but it is the only one they are familiar with. This in turn has the potential not only to impact on people of the African Diaspora, who struggle to access a more balanced history of their cultures, but it will influence how people who are of non-African descent view them and also see their group identity.
In the case of Kemet, not only does introducing this as an African culture challenge the narrow definitions that some people have when it comes to African history, but it removes Egypt from European historical cultural achievement. By changing the historical identity of one ‘group’ it impacts on the other.
I have researched the impact of racism, with particular reference to people of African, Black British and Caribbean descent in the UK, for the past 10 years. For many people whose ethnic background forms the majority in the UK, it is shocking to accept that our society does not treat people equally. In some cases, like the example I started this post with, they do not wish to accept the results of academic research, or to hear individual experiences of injustice and unfair treatment solely on the grounds of a racialised identity. As a result of this, and because they belong to the majority group (again through no choice of their own), some people react defensively when they are presented with examples of inequality. This is an example of what social psychologists define as ‘new racism’.
Then there are those people, fortunately in a minority, who are openly racist and have a pejorative view of people from other racialised and cultural groups. Their responses to the idea to Egypt (Kemet) as an African culture are more subjective, extreme and dismissive.
Finally, institutional racism plays a key role. The definition given by Sir William Macpherson in his report: The inquiry into the matters arising from the death of Stephen Lawrence (1999)is, in my opinion, the best to date. He defined institutional racism as:
The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.
If museums, educational providers, and the media fail to promote even the possibility that Ancient Egypt was African, they are failing to provide an appropriate and professional view of African heritage and cultures. The reticence of some key institutions to promote African cultures from an African perspective creates a distorted view of the past. This, potentially, supports a majority group hierarchy; risks promoting bias and dissonance; and enables racists to justify their distorted view of the world.
I asked my friend Dr Runoko Rashidi for some inspiration for a blog post and he very kindly sent me a copy of a photograph of the Royal Wife and Mother Ahmose Nefertari. She was the wife of the first ruler of Dynasty 18- King Ahmose Nebpehtire, who ruled from 1550 to 1525 BCE. She was also the mother of Amenhotep (I) Djeserkare, who ruled from 1525 to 1504 BCE. It was in the latter capacity as the King’s Mother that she was made a goddess. The relief is of interest of course because her skin is painted black rather than the usual brown.
The word Kemet literally means the Black land. The hieroglyphs above spell out the word and are accompanied by what we call a determinative (the circle and cross to the lower right of the word). In this case the determinative represents roads crossing and so a land.
In Kemet, black was associated with the night, with the Afterlife, and also with resurrection and rebirth. Black was also associated with fertility, we believe because it was the colour of the fertile soil that was deposited after the annual flooding of the River Nile.
Since the building of the Aswan dams the river no longer floods. However, even today it is possible to see how the river impacts on the terrain around it and how different this is compared to the surrounding desert escarpment. The annual inundation of the Nile was closely associated with the King of Kemet, and there were strict rules about when the ruler could and could not travel on the river.
Black and Divine
The relief above was found in a tomb at the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina. This was where the men who created and decorated the royal tombs in the so-called Valley of the Kings and Queens lived, and were also buried. These were highly skilled craftsmen and artists and when the elite in their own society died they were given elaborately decorated tombs. The tomb where the relief was found is now known as TT359 (TT being a shorter reference for Theban Tomb). It belonged to a man who held the position of Chief of Works named Inherkhau. He lived long after Ahmose Nefertari had ruled and commissioned two tombs; the second is now referred to as TT299. The tombs and the painting of Ahmose Nefertari were produced over 350 years after the Royal Wife and Mother’s death. Indicating that her role of goddess continued long after it was awarded.
If we look in detail at the painting we can immediately see that this is a representation of a goddess. If you look carefully at the cap which she wears you can see a wing stretching over the hair; and at the front, over the forehead, is the head of a vulture. Only goddesses wear this vulture cap. Royal women are depicted with a cobra on their brow, which is called a uraeus and effectively protects, as well as identifies the subject as royalty. The style of dress that she wears is typical of those found in Dynasty 20, when the scene was painted, rather than the period when Ahmose Nefertari actually lived. Her hair is braided and held in position by what appear to be gold thread or beads at the ends. This is, of course, common in many African societies and amongst the African Diaspora. The bulk and proportions of the hair that is represented here also suggests that its type is African.
But what about the colour of her skin?
Here, I am going to suggest that the colour is symbolic rather than simply a realistic representation of Ahmose’s skin colour. In the same way that on Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom statuary and statuettes women are often depicted with very pale and white skin. This does NOT reflect their true complexions. In fact this suggestion by Eurocentrics makes no sense at all, particularly when we consider that the consorts or male equivalents have the more typical dark brown skin colours, which is no doubt closer to that of the population at the time. I suggest this because by the New Kingdom both men and women are depicted with the same range of complexions.
By suggesting that white = racialised White then this means that women were of non-African descent but the men were! Of course this is completely ludicrous. I would imagine that Ahmose Nefertari’s skin colour was similar to that of her son’s, who is depicted with brown skin, and who also clearly has African type hair.
There are other posthumous representations of Ahmose Nefertari that show her with black skin. There is also a statue that now has a dark blue appearance, due to the original black pigment having been damaged by light. Using this powerful and potent colour to represent a goddess makes reference to her fertility and rebirth, which is why she was a popular goddess in tombs that were made substantially later than her lifetime.
I find that when people start to explore ‘Egypt’ in its African context (Kemet) they focus on the more obvious references to people of African descent. The paintings of Ahmose Nefertari are a case in point. However, as their knowledge expands, they find that ALL aspects of this complex ancient culture are African and it makes no sense to try and remove it from other traditional African cultures. The complexions that depict mortals, as opposed to gods or the deceased, show them with a range of brown-coloured skins (below), as you find amongst people of indigenous African descent people today. It is these depictions that are probably a truer representation of the people of Kemet and also Kush. But let’s not forget what an advanced and complex society Kemet was, nor how this is demonstrated by their development and use of symbolism.
I would like to thank Dr Runoko Rashidi for inspiring this post. The views expressed are my own.
This image has to be one of the most iconic to have survived from Ancient Kemet. Nefertiti was the Great Royal Wife of Akhenaten. The Ancient Kemites didn’t actually have a word for ‘queen’, instead royal women took titles that described their position in the royal house. Both principal members of this royal family changed their names. Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352-1334 BCE changed his name from Amenhotep in the fifth year of his reign. Nefertiti, which means the Beautiful One is Here adopted the name Nefernefruaten, which translates as: Perfect One of Aten’s Perfection. The Aten being the divine sun disk, which was worshipped through the royal couple. It can been seen on the relief below, with rays that terminate in hands cascading down on the royal family.
Presenting Nefernefruaten Nefertiti
In her initial portraits Nefertiti adopted the same features as her husband, but can be distinguished from him by wearing two cobras on her brow (a double uranus) as opposed to one. This portrait type is best illustrated by the colossal statues from Karnak (see below). However, in time a new portrait type emerged.
There are still many questions remaining with regard to how long Nefertiti ruled for and whether she was replaced by her daughter as the principal Royal Wife. As a consequence, where statues were uninscribed it can be difficult to say with any certainty which royal female they represent. This problem is compounded by new artistic developments in the production of stone sculptures, whereby artists began to produce composite pieces; carved out of different pieces of stone rather than a single block. The identification of the statue below is questionable. It is clearly from the so-called Amarna period and it could represent Nefertiti. Or it may represent one of the other royal daughters.
You will notice the elongated head, which was characteristic of the early royal representations during this period. A natural comparison with the practice of head binding amongst for example the Mangbetu people is often made. However, I would urge caution because we cannot show a direct continuum from one culture to the other. What we can deduce is that this feature was an important enough to include in the early representations of this Kemite royal family.
The famous portrait of Nefertiti depicts a more mature woman, wearing an unusual crown that became synonymous with her and which is found on other representations of the royal wife. It was found in the workshop of an artist named Thutmose at the royal city of Akhetaten. This city was the capital of Kemet during the reign of Akhenaten, but was later abandoned by King Tutankhamen.
The sculpture is 48 cm high and is made from limestone covered in layers of plaster and was then painted. The sculpture was, however, unfinished. A striking feature of the piece is that only one inlay for the eye is present. No adhesive has been found in the second socket, suggesting that this is how the sculpture was left by the artist Thutmose. It has been suggested, therefore, that it was in fact a sculptor’s model rather than a representation that would be used as a finished piece.
We don’t have sculptors’ models for all periods of Kemet’s history; although this is possibly due to lack of survival of artist workshops. The two periods where we have examples of such models are during the reign of Akhenaten, and then much later during the reigns of the early Ptolemaic rulers in the third century BCE.
Another unfinished piece representing Nefertiti that was also found in Thutmose’s workshop shows the artist’s guidelines on the surface (below). The features on this particular piece are a cross between the Cambridge statue (above) and the famous bust.
Such sculptures enable us to understand the complexities of defining and disseminating the royal image. They explain how, in such an expansive country, the King and his consort were able to control how they were represented. And they are also testimony to the skills of the artists of Kemet. As an archaeologist, I generally refrain from viewing material culture as ‘art’. However, there can be no doubt that not only is the famous portrait of Nefertiti part of an important artistic process, and the product of a master artist of the time, but it is also an artistic masterpiece that rivals anything that has since been produced.
When you ask many people to describe something from Kemet they will often reference a tall thin structure, but not remember its name. What they are referring to is what the Greek’s called an obelisk (obelisks), but its original Kemite name was tekhenu. The earliest surviving tekhenu dates to what we now call the Middle Kingdom, and bears the names of the king Sensusret Kheperkare (Senusret I, as we call him). Senusret ruled from around 1956-1911 BCE, and commissioned two tekhenu to celebrate his 30 year jubilee, or Heb Sed festival. Only one survives and it stands today in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. However, the form dates back much earlier to the Old Kingdom (around 2686-2181 BCE).
The largest tekhenu to survive can be found at the temple now known as Karnak. These gigantic monuments date to the reigns of Thutmose (I) Aakheperenre who ruled from 1504-1492 BCE and Hatshepsut Maatkare, the female pharaoh who ruled from around 1479-1458 BCE. Those that remain at the site are a fraction of the original number.
Not all tekhenu were as large as the examples at Karnak. The people of ancient Kemet actually distinguished between small and large with the appropriate adjective. Larger tekhenu were placed at the entrances to temples, often in front of the pylon (gateway). Smaller scale examples were also found at the entrance to tomb chapels, and the smallest were in the form of amulets (charms). But what did they mean?
A tekhenu is related to the benben, which was the sacred mound that the people if Kemet believed rose from the primeval waters from which creation arose. The benben stone was referenced at the top of a pyramid and the tekhenu was effectively an elevated version. In essence a tekhenu lifted this sacred stone to the sun and was closely associated with the sun god Ra. It is likely that the summits of both pyramids and tekhenu were covered with precious metals.
From Kemet to Rome
Many tekhenu that originated in Kemet were taken from their original locations. And in fact even in ancient times there are examples of kings of Kemet usurping a tekhenu by adding their own inscriptions to those of an earlier ruler. Why? Well because manufacturing a colossal tekhenu was not an easy task. In fact a failed attempt can still be seen at the Aswan quarries. You can see from the photograph above that quarry workers would use rock to pound out the form of the items the chief stone mason would then work upon. Why go through the labour and expense of manufacturing and then transporting such a monument when you could just as easily inscribe one belonging to someone else?
The Roman emperor Augustus clearly saw the value of the earlier tekhenu. He transported the example above, which dates to the reigns of Seti (I) Menmaatre (1290-1279 BCE) and Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre (1279-1213 BCE) from Iunu or Heliopolis in Kemet. The obelisk was initially placed in the circus maximus in Rome, where events such as chariot races were held. Augustus was so enthused by the monuments that he had two small versions placed in front of his own tomb; although this and the transportation of earlier tekhenu was probably for political reasons; he had defeated Cleopatra and gained control of Egypt.
A continuation of a Kemite tradition?
The last example of an inscribed obelisk dates to the reign of the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), who commissioned a monument to honour his dead lover Antinous. Antinous had accompanied the emperor to Egypt for an official visit. Hadrian, a keen devotee of Egyptian cults reportedly hired the services of a Kemite priest to act as a guide during the trip. Part way through the expedition, Antinous drowned in the Nile; Hadrian was inconsolable and in honour of his lover built a city that he named Antinoopolis (The city of Antinous) and initiated a cult to the dead youth.
As part of that cult the obelisk was commissioned and brought to Rome. Unlike many of the Roman period obelisks that have nonsense hieroglyphs inscribed on the sides, the obelisk of Antinous must have been carved by a Kemite artist under the supervision of a Kemite priest. It shows that in spite of over 500 years when colossal tekhenu were not produced, the skills and religious traditions had not been lost in Kemet.
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.
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.
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
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.
Like many traditional African religions, women played a key role in the Kemite pantheon. Perhaps the best known is Isis, the mother of Horus and wife and sister of Osiris, who can be identified by the throne hieroglyph on her head, which spells out her name Iset or Aset (see below).
The role that gods played was often flexible and varied, depending on region for example. In the case of Isis, the goddess’ roles expanded to such an extent that in the Roman period she was given a second name to define which characteristic was being worshipped, for example Isis Pelagia was associated with seafaring by association with the lighthouse at Alexandria. Even in traditional temples in Egypt, the goddess’ crown was adapted during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BCE); she wore a sun disk and cow’s horns (see below).
The last Cleopatra took the title ‘New Isis’, presenting herself as a living embodiment of the goddess from the middle of her reign, and appearing in the image of the goddess at a temple in Rome (below). Goddesses, and divine royal women, often wore a vulture headdress. You can see this on the relief above and on the statue below.
Many people have heard of Isis. However, there are a number of less well known deities. One of these is Anukhet (above). Anukhet was the daughter of Khnum and Satet, who were gods from the region we now call Nubia. Khnum, who was from the New Kingdom presented as a ram-headed god, was seen to be the guardian of the source of the River Nile at Elephantine. He was also powerful creator god; the potter’s wheel that represented him is a reference to the idea that he created children from the clay of the river. It was this aspect of Khnum that was celebrated at his cult centre in Esna. Satet, her mother, appeared in the form of a human and was identified as the giver of water, which she presented to the deceased as purification. Her cult centre was Elephantine, in modern Aswan.
Anukhet, therefore, was the offspring of two powerful parents. Like her mother she appeared in the form of a human, but can be distinguished from other goddesses by the headdress she wore, which was made of feathers. Although human in form, she was associated with the gazelle. A reminder that many of the animals of Kemet, that are no longer found there, are those that we associated with other African countries further south.
Anukhet was primarily associated with the River Nile, and the annual festival that celebrated her powers involved worshippers dedicating precious items by placing them in the river. The cult centres for Anukhet were on the Islands of Seheil and Elephantine, which are in the modern city of Aswan (below).
On the Island of Seheil, the goddess appears on a number of rock cut inscriptions, left by Kemite officials from the New Kingdom who were travelling further south (below) and who made offerings for protection. She also appears on temples further south, including a number in Kush.
For the ancient Greeks and Romans their contemporaries in Egypt were different. This is evidenced through descriptions of people from Kemet and also how both Greek and Roman artists depicted people from Africa. The rhyton above is a case in point. This drinking cup was manufactured in the Italian region of Apulia (below highlighted in red), which was home to colonies of Greek people.
The cup above shows a figure of a man, who by the colour of his skin and hair can be identified as being of indigenous African descent, who is being attacked by an animal. The scales on the back of the beast, its tail and its snout identify it as a crocodile; although it would appear as often seems to have been the case that the artist had never actually seen a crocodile but was perhaps basing the representation on descriptions or other works of art. What is remarkable about this particular crocodile is that it wears anklets. This is perhaps a practice that was referenced in a passage in Herodotus’ Histories:
For some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals, and for others not so, but they treat them on the contrary as enemies: those however who dwell about Thebes and about the lake of Moiris hold them to be most sacred, and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them: but those who dwell about the city of Elephantine even eat them, not holding them to be sacred. They are called not crocodiles but champsai, and the Ionians gave them the name of crocodile, comparing their form to that of the crocodiles (lizards) which appear in their country in the stone walls.
(Herodotus Histories 2:69)
The crocodile became synonymous with Egypt for Greek and later Roman artists and there are both vases and stone sculptures that depict humans who look very similar to the one illustrated here, accompanied by crocodiles. It is also true if we look at text references to Egypt or Egyptians, that Greek writers saw no real difference between those people from Egypt and those from Ethiopia. In fact the Greek word Aethiops, from which Ethiopian derives, means ‘burnt face‘, presumably because the Greeks who encountered African people saw them as different to themselves.
Many readers will be familiar with another quote from Herodotus (Histories 2:104) that makes reference to the appearance of the people of Kemet having dark skin (melanchroes) and curly (often translated as ‘woolly‘ on account of the word ‘oleos’.
A survey of commentaries on the use of these words and their suggested translations reveals some degree of subjectivity on behalf of many authors. In his 1988 commentary on Herodotus Book 2, Alan Lloyd writes the following about the use of the word melanchroes:
There is no linguistic justification for relating this description to negroes [sic.]*. Melanchroes could denote colour from bronzed to black and negroes [sic.]* are not the only physical type to show curly hair
* this is the term that is used in the commentary, it is not one that I condone or would choose to use.
Once again we find ourselves back to the supposition that every person of African descent has (literally) skin that is black in colour, rather than acknowledging that African peoples have, and are today described as, light skinned, dark skinned, and in the case of the Caribbean red skinned (although this means very light). See an earlier post where I discuss how Egyptologists are keen to differentiate between Egyptian/Kemite and Nubian/Kushite people.
The use of a term to describe the hair that includes the word for wool would suggest that the hair of the ancient Egyptian people was textured and different from that of the Greeks. The reference to dark skin also accords with representations such as the vase above.
The artists’ representations for me speak for themselves. I would not classify myself as a philologist but I did study Ancient Greek for my first degree. The fact that the term melanchroes covers a variety of dark skin colours as pointed out by Lloyd, supports that argument that the people of ancient Kemet were indigenous African people, and that they represented the variance that we find amongst African peoples today.
There are a number of traditional Nubian villages in and around Aswan, on both the islands and the banks of the River Nile (see above). These settlements and communities have been one of the few cultural sites in Egypt that have openly recognised the region’s connection to indigenous African cultures. In order to preserve the peace and tranquility of these long-standing communities, the Elders and the then Director of the Nubia Museum in Aswan decided to designate a site as the official heritage village for tourists.
Celebrating Nubian culture
The traditional houses are decorated in bright colours and with items that are relevant to traditional Nubian culture. On one example that was built by the Rabe family (above), even the water pots are painted to match the exterior of the houses.
Inside, traditional Nubian basketry decorates the walls, accompanied by symbols of foliage, fish and representations of the River Nile. Such symbols have been used as decorative and protective motifs in this regions for thousands of years. In ancient Kemet fish were often depicted in tomb scenes where the deceased hunted for food. Depictions of plants associated with river Nile often appear on Kemite temples as offerings (below) or as a reference to the annual inundation (flood) and the fertility of the Black Land.
The Kemite god Sobek was represented as a crocodile (see above). In his interview Dr Abdel Meguid talked about working at the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo and the importance of this experience in him becoming an archaeologist and museum professional.
Many traditional Nubian homes are decorated with crocodiles (see above) and in the case of the Rabe family home, there was even a live crocodile in a cage in the main room! Although this is largely done for the benefit of tourism, the representation of this animal is nonetheless a tradition that goes back thousands of years. When Herodotus, the Greek historian, visited Kemet he talked about being confused that the Egyptians, as he called them, on the one hand worshipped crocodiles but on the other they ate them.
Basketry is also a traditional craft in this region and indeed in many other parts of Africa. Nubian baskets are made from locally sourced materials, such as reeds from the river Nile and are effectively no different to examples that are 3000 years old. Baskets are used to cover food, serve food and also store food. On the photograph below you see traditional spiced Nubian coffee being made on an open fire. A flat basket was used to grind the coffee and cardamon pods before placing them into a small container with water to boil.
Museums and communities working together
In 2011 I interviewed the then Director of the Nubia Museum, Dr Ossama Abdel Meguid. He shared his own experiences, as a person of Nubian heritage, of interacting with the Kemite past. Dr Abdel Meguid has worked tirelessly to preserve Nubian heritage and to connect it to the past. I have certainly learned an enormous amount from him, both in terms of understanding Nubian culture and how we should present indigenous cultures in museums. In the interview he talks about the importance of consulting with Nubian communities directly about how they wanted their heritage to be presented. He also explains how the Nubian people have lived in this region for the past 10,000 years and how Kemite culture came from the south. He also talks about the negative impact of the Aswan Dams on Nubian culture and heritage. In fact it was a conversation with Dr Abdel Meguid that inspired an earlier post.
I asked Dr Abdel Meguid why the tradition of decorating Nubian houses (above) appeared to be dying out, and he explained that since being moved after the building of the Dams, many people feel disconnected from their heritage and their past. This observation makes projects such as the Nubian Heritage Village even more relevant. Such initiatives help to preserve the past, and present, for the future.
I have always hesitated to take part in documentaries, because although they set out to be factual, producers often have a set agenda and story that they wish to explore. This agenda quickly becomes apparent in the types of questions that are asked of specialists, and no matter how hard you try to avoid acquiescing, it is the filmmakers who have the ultimate control in the way that they edit.
In 2008 I was asked, in light of writing a book on Cleopatra, to take part in a documentary on the subject of the queen. The producers wanted to reconstruct how Cleopatra might have looked and asked if this would be possible. I said that it was, by looking at statues of the queen. However, from the offset I said that I would only take part if the producer was prepared not to perpetuate the myth that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor in the eponymous film.
A brief background to Cleopatra
Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks, who first arrived in Egypt with the army of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. Following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE Ptolemy, one of his generals, took control of Kemet. By the time Cleopatra first came to power in 51 BCE her family had lived in Egypt for two hundred and seventy-two years. In terms of Cleopatra’s immediate ancestry we do not know the identity of Cleopatra’s grandmother, who was a concubine rather than official wife, nor are we certain who her mother was. It is therefore possible that the concubine(s) were either of Macedonian Greek descent but equally possible that they were indigenous Kemites, along with the majority of the population at that time. We know from documentary research that an increasing number of the population of Ptolemaic Egypt had mixed Greek-Kemite ancestry. This can be documented through people’s names.
Following a process (of sorts)
With this in mind, I began to work remotely with a company that specialised in computer-generated images. I sent them photographs of a statue of Cleopatra that was found in Rome at a sanctuary of Isis (below left). In case people are wondering, the nose was damaged when the statue was used as ballast in a later building on the site of the original sanctuary. In spite of the statue’s later fate, aside from some surface damage to the nose, all of the features (including the original shape of the nose) were present. I naively thought that this would be a simple task.
The initial images that were generated can be seen above alongside the original statue. Although the fullness of the mouth has been maintained, little else of the physical features have survived. The nose has been narrowed, the fullness of the jaw line has also been trimmed, and the eye shape is not true to the original.
The initial attempts looked nothing like the statue. However, eventually we were able to produce features that were closer to the original statue than the first attempt (above). There next challenge was the hair. On the statue that was used as a model for reconstructions Cleopatra is shown with layered locks. The style is a longer version of that worn by Kawit, who was a royal wife of King Montuhotep Nebhetepre, who ruled Kemet from around 2046 to 1995 BCE. Kawit appears on the side of a sarcophagus (coffin) with her hairdresser, who attaches a piece of styled hair to the royal wife’s head (below).
In addition to her hair, the statue (left ) presents the queen with a vulture headdress (the head of the vulture is now missing); this symbol identified her as a goddess. The statue doubtless shows Cleopatra as Isis. All of Cleopatra’s representations in her homeland show her as an Egyptian ruler. It is only on coinage minted overseas and on two sculptures that were manufactured in Italy that she was presented with Greek iconography, showing her as a Classical ruler.
The two Classical sculptures (see one example above) also depict Cleopatra with coarse, curly hair; in both instances it is twisted and pulled back into a small bun. The hairstyle was unusual on Classical sculptures, and if we compare the queen’s hair to her predecessors we see waves but not with the coarseness or to the extent that we find on Cleopatra’s Classical-style representations. In short, the closest parallel that I could find for her hairstyle was either twists or plaits that are both commonly worn by people of African descent with African-type hair. The resulting style that was created by the digital artists was somewhere in between (see below and also feature image).
Responses to the images
Just before the documentary was shown, The Daily Mail (a tabloid newspaper for those reading this blog outside of the UK) ran an article on the reconstruction. The article was entitled ‘Sorry Liz but THIS is the real face of Cleopatra’. The article summarised the documentary and showed a picture of the reconstruction. The wider circulation of the reconstructed images and the opportunity for readers to share their comments on the newspaper’s website, provided a forum for the general public to air their, unsubstantiated, points of view on the racialized identity of Cleopatra.
Some comments were dismissive, others were outraged, and some revealed racist attitudes and ideals embedded within the doctrines of European/White supremacy. From a social psychological perspective, many of these comments enable a clearer understanding of the roots of prejudice and racism more widely. Many reminded me of an encounter that I observed in New York in 2006, and which I wrote about in one of my books on Cleopatra (Cleopatra and Egypt). I was undertaking research at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and heard a man, who it seemed from the conversation was of American nationality and Greek descent talking to his sons. He said to them that in school they would be told that the Egyptians were the forefathers of African-Americans and that this was wrong. He asked his children if the figures on a temple looked like African Americans and they shook their heads in agreement with their father, who then went on to remind them that Cleopatra who was Queen of Egypt was Greek, as indeed were their own ancestors.
The temple to which the man referred dated to the reign of the Emperor Augustus. It was not, therefore, a representative example for the man to use in his lesson. Nevertheless, this conversation and many of the responses to the idea that ancient Egypt was an African civilisation and that Cleopatra may have been herself part African are revealing in the sense that they allow those of us to see exactly why people react so vehemently against the idea.
What’s the problem?
If the idea that Cleopatra was of mixed African/Macedonian Greek ancestry is so bizarre, why do people respond so strongly? Why does she have to remain ‘pure’ as one commentator on the Daily Mail website stated? The answer lies in an earlier post that I wrote about cognitive dissonance, and in many respects the Cleopatra ‘experiment’ reveals this. It is strange that people use Shakespeare and Hollywood to evidence how Cleopatra simply couldn’t have looked like the proposed reconstruction rather than turning to the images of the queen that have survived from her lifetime. It is ironic that some people of European descent wish to maintain ownership of Cleopatra. Octavian, who later became the Emperor Augustus, was not so keen to welcome either her, or her son by Julius Caesar to Rome and it is quite apparent that the Queen was seen to be Egyptian.