25 February 2012

Hatshepsut in 'The Terrace of the Great God'

Death and rebirth in an Egyptian holy place

The temples and tombs of Abydos made the town one of the holiest sites in the ancient Egyptian world. At its heart was 'The Terrace of the Great God' and the magnificent temple of Osiris, god of the underworld.*  Somewhere nearby, under its desolate western hills, was also the gateway into the realm of the dead.

What more could a dead pharaoh want? 

Abydos had been a sacred site and burial place since Egypt's earliest history. The kings of the very First Dynasty had their tombs here.  The god Osiris himself (or at least his head) was buried there and this tomb, too, was the centre of pilgrimage.  The surrounding low hills offered luxury real estate for the dead: who wouldn't want to be buried in close proximity to the god who ensured eternal life?  Huge cemetery fields were filled with tombs of generations of ancient Egyptians, from the most humble local residents to high officials of the royal court.

Osiris resurrected

Every year, a festival of Osiris took place in the sacred landscape.  It began with a great procession in which they lamented the god's death at the hands of his perfidious brother, Seth.  Priests carried a statue of the (dead) god along a processional route from his temple to his supposed tomb.  Five days later, a new (living) image of the reborn god was carried to the temple to great fanfare: 
I would be among the crowd following Osiris when he appears in his final form, praising the god and singing in adoration ... and honouring the Great God
These processions were so popular that Egyptians, both royal and private, built chapels lining the route so that they could take part in the event for eternity. 

New Excavations at the 'Terrace of the Great God'

Just to the  west of the massive mudbrick wall that surrounds the still well-preserved Osiris Temple lies what is now called 'the North Abydos Votive Zone' site. This zone constitutes a transition between the cult buildings and settlement.  Beyond both lie the vast cemeteries stretching out toward the royal acropolis of Egypt's first pharaohs (one of whose tombs was imagined to be where Osiris was buried) and the high desert cliffs nearly a kilometre (2/3 mile) away.

Last year, a team of archaeologists led by Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner of the University of Toronto discovered a cache of animal mummies and human remains tightly packed inside the ruins of a 'monumental building'.  The walls of this building are two metres (6') thick and the design suggests a religious purpose, perhaps a small temple.

The dozens of animals mummies (mostly dogs, but two cats, too) had been thrown there at some time in the building's long history. They had probably been sacrificed to the jackal god Wepwawet, whose procession immediately preceded that of Osiris.  Prof. Pouls Wegner explained that people visiting the temple probably offered a sacrificed dog to this god: "I think this is just another form of votive activity really, in addition to putting out a spoken prayer or commemorating prayer on a stele, that one could sacrifice an animal that was associated with him in some way."

Tough on the dogs, but it's worth a couple of hounds in exchange for eternal life.

The "Perfect Goddess"

Dog-sacrifice is all very well, but what really excited my interest on 'The Terrace of the Great God' was the wooden statue of a pharaoh (right) that the team found in an adjoining chamber of the same building:  65 cm (25") high, it was covered with mud and termite droppings. Though badly decayed, the figure is clearly wearing a Nemes striped headcloth, the mark of a pharaoh. "There are very few royal wooden statues left," as  Pouls Wegner noted.

The statue's proportions match up with those of statues dating from the early 18th dynasty (ca. 1550-1330 BCE). Except for one crucial difference: this statue's waist is significantly thinner than what is expected of a 'normal' pharaoh.

This brought up an intriguing question: could this statue be a representation of Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh who ruled Egypt about 3,500 years ago (r. 1479-1458 BCE)? 

No wooden statues of Hatshepsut are known to exist, so Pouls Wegner examined large stone statues of her.  "Even though she was portrayed as a man in her [statues], oftentimes they did give a nod to her female physique by making her waist narrower," she said. "In addition the contours of her cheeks and chin are sometimes depicted as being a little more delicate." 

Compare, for example, the painted limestone statue of Hatshepsut seated on her throne (left).  This life-size image shows the female pharaoh wearing her Nemes cloth and dressed in the ceremonial attire of an Egyptian king.  In spite of the masculine dress, the statue has a distinctly feminine air -- and an especially narrow waist -- unlike most other representations of Hatshepsut as ruler. This, plus the feminine form of her kingly titles, including "The Perfect Goddess",** suggests (at least to me) that this statue was carved early in her sole reign [On the gradual transformation of Hatshepsut from regent to ruling pharaoh, see the post, How 'God's Wife Hatshepsut' became 'The Good Goddess Maatkare'].

Could this new wooden statue also be of her?

Admirably cautious, Pouls Wegner says, "I think it's possible." 

I'll take that as a qualified 'Yes'.

In that case, it might equally be a product of her early days as pharaoh, before she switched to a purely masculine form (and masculine titles).  Given its size and light-weight material, the statue may well have been carried in the Osiris procession, not at the head of the line -- that was the god's place -- but right behind.

I can imagine the excitement when she saw the light again after 3,500 years. Reborn, as promised.

* Temples dedicated to Osiris existed at Abydos from at least the 6th Dynasty.  The existing great temple, remarkably well preserved, was begun during the reign of the 19th Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I (1318-1304 BC) and completed by his son Ramses II (1304-1237 BC).

** Her kingly titles on the sides of the throne are feminized to read "the Perfect Goddess, Lady of the Two Lands (Upper and Lower Egypt)" and "Bodily Daughter of Re (the sun god)."


Top: Relief from Temple of Seti I,19th Dynasty:the deceased Osiris lying on a funerary bed, with Isis shown as a hawk hovering over him, at the moment of the conception of their son Horus. Photo credit Zangaki No. 619 Abydos Interieur du temple, via SCHOLARS, SCOUNDRELS, AND THE SPHINX: A Photographic and Archaeological Adventure Up the Nile, presented courtesy of Frank H. McClung Museum, The University of Tennessee.

Middle above: dogs whose mummy wrappings have fallen off.  Middle below:Royal wooden statue from the monumental building.  Photo credit (both): courtesy North Abydos Votive Zone Project

Bottom: Seated statue of Hatshepsut, Metropolitan Museum of Art 29.3.2.  Photo credit: Rogers Fund, 1929.


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