25 April 2010

Eti, the Eritrean Queen of Punt?

Arriving at the goodly way into God's Land, journeying in peace to the land of Punt.

The Egyptians who sailed off to the land of Punt (Pwenet) are seen on the walls of Queen Hatshepsut's stupendous temple of Deir el-Bahri, a complex of terraces, ramps, colonnades and rock-cut chapels unique in the history of Egyptian architecture. Hatshepsut would have known the temple as Djeser-Djeseru, or "Sublime of the Sublimes". It really is sublime -- and not just for architectural reasons: texts chiselled on the walls tell us about this journey to this far-away God's Land, and row after row of painted reliefs picture the adventure all the way from its beginning to its triumphant conclusion.

The only thing that it doesn't tell us is where in the world is Punt.

Or, for that matter what is wrong with Eti, Queen of Punt (seen above; hobbling, we must imagine, behind her fashionably thin husband, King Perehu). Many different explanations have been offered for her strange appearance, ranging from suffering from an unknown disease (she's been given her own special 'Queen of Punt syndrome') to being simply overweight. None seems quite to fit the bill.

Scholars have argued for generations, too, about where Punt should be located.

Lots of texts mention Punt, but none gives detailed instructions for the voyage.

You could reach Punt by land or by sea or, more likely, a combination of both (see map). Occasional envoys from Punt are pictured in tomb paintings, but their images cannot be related to any known geographic region. Hatshepsut's reliefs give many clues: we see the Puntite village on the waterside, fish in the water (Red Sea varieties), trees on the shore (ebony, palms, and myrrh), animals (monkeys, donkeys, short-horned cattle, rhinoceros and giraffe). We see remarkably realistic looking people. In fact, no other representation from pharaonic times pictures a country outside Egypt so completely with its inhabitants and landscape. Punt is the only land whose geographic reality is expressed so clearly but -- paradoxically -- Punt exists as if in a void and its exact whereabouts remain unknown.

So, where is it: Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan?

As of today, we now know (or think we do).

But, first, some background on an extraordinary voyage.

It all began when Hatshepsut (Year 9 of her reign) received an oracle from the god Amun-Re, her putative father, who had made her pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Instructions were heard from the Great Throne. an oracle from the god himself.

"Explore the route to Punt, open the road to the Myrrh-terraces, and lead an expedition on water and on land to bring exotic goods from the God's land to this god who created [your] beauty."
The Egyptians were not good sea sailors. Navigating the dangerous waters of the Red Sea to the very edge of the known world must have seemed to them as daunting as a mission to the Moon to us. Myrrh made it worthwhile. It was not just a sweet-smelling perfume (though it was that too: Hatshepsut rubbed it on her legs to impart a divine fragrance*), but an incense that was essential to the proper worship of gods and for the after-life.

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) was burned in vast quantities during the daily temple rituals, and used in embalming the bodies of pharaohs and for the mummification of lesser folk, too. As early as the Fifth Dynasty, a single expedition had brought back to Egypt no less than 80,000 measures of myrrh. Demand, however, was apparently insatiable.

Therefore, besides having orders to import the desired incense from Punt, the expedition also -- and this was Hatshepsut's innovation -- was to collect complete trees and bring them back to Egypt as well. These would then be cultivated in the temples of Amun at Thebes. At Deir el-Bahri itself, on the right and left sides of the ramp leading to the middle terrace, stumps of trees were found around artificial water basins, possibly the remnants of the myrrh-trees that were brought from Punt.

A Voyage to the Southern End of the Earth

So off they went, commanded by a high official, the state treasurer named Nehesj. He sailed with five ships, each manned by some 150 sailors and soldiers, and they probably spent a month at sea before they sighted the shores of Punt.

That made it possible for Hatshepsut to boast: My southern boundary is as far as the lands of Punt.

Coming ashore, the natives greeted Nehesj warmly. The Chief of Punt -- Perehu -- with his wife, Eti, right behind him (top left) steps forward to greet the Egyptian envoy. They express their amazement at the visit:

Why have you come into this land, which the people of Egypt do not know? Did you come down the ways of heaven, or did you sail upon the sea and upon the waters of God's land? Or have you trodden the path of the sun?

Nehesj stands opposite, on the other side of a pile of gifts intended for the Chief of Punt. He must have been a real 'bean-counter' (as Treasurer of Egypt) for the pile is a rather motley collection of merchandise: strings of beads, an axe, a dagger, some bracelets, and a wooden chest. He hopes to exchange this miserable stuff for the fabulous goods of Punt -- not only their own produce of myrrh, ebony and short-horned cattle, but also products from other African lands, including gold, ivory and animal skins.

Unsurprisingly, Nehesj has a well-armed escort behind him: confronted with such poor gifts, the natives might have turned nasty. But they didn't. They reached an agreement and Nehesj, Eti and Perehu went off to share a splendid banquet.

Nehesj seems to have made the best deal ever, prior to the Dutch buying Manhattan island from the Indians for $24 worth of tat.

Then the work began, surely many weeks of work. Egyptians must even have ventured into the interior since palm trees (lowest left) do not grow on the sea shore. Then, the great prize:

"...loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of God's-Land, heaps of myrrh resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold ..., with cinnamon wood, khesyt wood, with two kinds of incense, eye-cosmetics, with apes, monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning."

You see in the middle of the ship (circled in red; click on photo to enlarge) one of the apes, a baboon to be exact. And therein lies the breaking news.

The Baboon

Sailing, arriving in peace, journeying to Thebes.

Three baboons were on board this ship, one of them -- as is clear in this close-up (left) -- squatting in their characteristic upright position. Very many baboons must have gone off into exile in Egypt in this way. When the Egyptians observed baboons barking at the rising sun, they imagined that the apes were worshipping the sun just as people did. That's why the baboon became an aspect of the sun god, Amun-Re, and whole colonies of these animals were kept in his temples.

When they died (and they didn't live long in the Egyptian climate**), they were mummified.

Now, thanks to mummified baboons (like this sad, partly unwrapped ape [left]) -- and some really smart, cutting edge science -- the search for Punt appears to be coming to an end.

At the 61st annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt (23-25 April 2010), a team from the University of California Santa Cruz, led by Professor Nathaniel Dominy, presented the results of their analysing the hairs of three mummified baboons from Thebes and the Valley of the Kings, and comparing them with living specimens from Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The team took hair samples from baboon mummies in the British Museum and examined them by using oxygen isotope analysis. Oxygen isotopes act as a 'signal' that can let scientists know where the hairs came from.

It works like this: depending on the environment where an animal lived, the ratio of various isotopes of oxygen will be different. “Oxygen tends to vary as a function of rainfall and the water composition of plants and seed,” explained Prof. Dominy. One baboon from Thebes appears to have spent some time living in Egypt as an exotic pet. All that time, it consumed the local diet so its oxygen isotope value changed. That change means that researchers could not tell where it originally came from. But two baboons apparently died fairly soon after arrival in Egypt and retained the isotope values of their homeland.

So the winner for the place of Punt is....

When the researchers compared the oxygen isotope values in the ancient baboons to those found in their modern day brethren, they discovered that “all of our specimens in Eritrea and a certain number of our specimens from Ethiopia – that are basically due west from Eritrea – those are good matches,” said Dominy.

“We think Punt is a sort of circumscribed region that includes eastern Ethiopia and all of Eritrea.”

Somalia, Yemen and Mozambique do not match.

But where in Eritrea?

Eritrea is a big place. Can they narrow it down further?

The team has a working hypothesis which they hope will locate exactly where the Treasurer Nehesj docked his ships in God's Land.

“If you have a map in front of you and you can zoom in on Eritrea there’s a major harbour there,” said Dominy. It's located near the modern port of Massawa.

Massawa is the so-called 'pearl of the Red Sea'. The town is located on two islands --absolutely perfect for a trading post, combining as it does, safety and accessibility. It should be clear by now that Punt was an early African trade emporium, not only trading its own products but other products of Africa, and probably Arabian frankincense as well. So an island location fits very well.

And the baboons agree.

The researchers say, "We have a specimen from that same harbour and that specimen is a very good match to the mummy.”

Welcome home, Queen Eti!

And I hope, one day, your fatness will be seen in this light, with you as a steatopygous princess of your people -- pictured through the prism of an astounded Egyptian artist.

*One of Hatshepsut's perfume flask on my blog post Hatshepsut Smells as Sweet.

** Though baboons were considered to be worshippers of the sun-god, and must have been given considerable care, investigations into the animal necropolises have revealed that their life expectancy in Egypt was very limited. Of the 200 or so specimens that have been examined, hardly any lived into their sixth through tenth years. Unfavourable living conditions resulted in undernourishment and the lack of freedom of movement and sunlight led to rickets, degenerative bone diseases and probably tuberculosis.

My thanks to Owen Jarus at Heritage Key's 'The Ancient World in London', 23 April 2010 (with a photograph of one of the British Museum baboons; under copyright) for the first report on the scientific breakthrough described above.

Other main sources include D. Meeks, 'Locating Punt' in (D. O'Connor and S. Quirke), Mysterious Lands, 2003, 53-80; R.S. Bianchi, Daily Life of the Nubians (Greenwood Press), 2004; and special mention for a paper by my friend, J. Phillips, 'Punt and Aksum: Egypt and the Horn of Africa', Journal of African History, 1997, 423-57; more useful material available on-line at the website of Dr K.H. Leser; the website of tripod.com (with excellent plans and photographs of Deir el-Bahri); and the website of Exploring Africa: Timeline, Index and Other Issues .

Update: 9 May 2010

Readers who enjoy (as I do) intermingling ancient and contemporary visions in art may like to contemplate this image (left) kindly sent to me by Zenobia-blog reader, Hetty Boomkamp of The Netherlands.

From her collection: 'Double Pharaoh Portrait, Hatshepsut and the Queen of Punt' , a lithograph (1985) by my favourite Dutch artist, Gerti Bierenbroodspot.

I publish it with especial pleasure as today is Bierenbroodspot's birthday.


Top left: Queen Eti of Punt, King Perehu of Punt (AboveTopSecret).

Map: AboveTopSecret.

Middle left: Men carrying myrrh trees with roots in pots (AboveTopSecret).

Centre: Egyptian ship being loaded with produce of Punt (maat-ka-ra.de).

Left: Close-up drawing of above (ExploringAfricaBlogspot).

Inset: Baboons worshipping the sun god with Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (R.Hiller, The Baboons and Monkeys of Ancient Egypt).

Lower left: Mummified baboon in Cairo's Egyptian Museum (Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 537).

Lowest left: A scene from Punt with ape climbing palm tree, short-horned cattle, head of giraffe (ExploringAfricaBlogspot).

10 April 2010

An Uppity Dutch Master (Part III)

(Uppity Dutch Master Part I, Part II)

Post-Marital Stress Disorder

While still a single woman in her early twenties, Judith Leyster became a master in the artists' guild of Haarlem, set up her own shop and took pupils (the only woman painter in Holland to do so). Although she had this remarkable career as a professional painter, it has always been believed that she stopped painting when, in 1636 at the age of 27, she married fellow artist, Jan Miense Molenaer.

After her marriage, she took on the responsibility of running her husband's studio, wheeling and dealing in real estate, and bringing up five children (only two of whom survived their parents).

If this picture is true, she had been an independent painter for a mere seven years.

So why are we surprised when this 'leading star' (her pun on the name of Ley-ster) was eclipsed by the fame of her male contemporaries, including that of her own husband? Especially so, or so the story goes, since she had the bad luck to have worked in the same time and place as the highly esteemed Frans Hals (1582-1666). As a satellite to this towering figure, her own work was soon forgotten -- attributed to Hals, or his 'circle' or left to languish as utterly 'Anonymous'.

In any case, we can all agree, she was no victim of the patriarchy. Painting in the Dutch Golden Age was a craft like any other: it's what you did for a living. Even successful male artists, as well known in their time as ours (such as Ferdinand Bol and Meindert Hobbema) abandoned their careers when they made advantageous marriages. If Leyster made the same choice, we should not assume it was because she was a woman. Not a gender choice, it seems, but a savvy business decision.

But hold on a moment.

If, between her retirement in 1636 and the tulip catalogue of 1643 [above left], she had given up her art, how could she possibly have changed her style? For the tulip catalogue pages were painted in watercolour -- as far as we know, a new medium for her -- and used a novel technique of drawing with a silverpoint-instrument on specially prepared parchment.

Well, we can explain that.

Possibly she continued to paint from time to time (the tulips suggest as much) and very likely, using the props and models of her husband's studio, they worked together on some paintings that went out into the world under his signature. Yet her distinct monogram -- her entwined initials JL and and attached shooting star -- does appear on the tulip page [rightc]. And if it can appear there, seven years after her marriage, how sure are we that her monogrammed but undated paintings are inevitably pre-1636.

The renowned historian Simon Schama, for one, points to the many pictures of children, "probably their own [children], that Molenaer and his wife, Judith Leyster, produced between them ...." Take, for example, Leyster's undated double portrait, Two Children with a Kitten and an Eel, [left] -- usually assigned to circa 1635. The little girl, making the 'crazy' gesture at her brother, could be Helena (baptised 1643) with her brother Jacobus (1639) which would date the painting somewhere around 1649.


Let's check the little we do know about her later career.

In 1648, a local historian, Theodore Schrevel, picked up the pun on her name and praised Leyster as a "true leading star of art" (‘de rechte leyster in de kunst’) and the best of the "many exceptional women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time." That doesn't sound like the description of a housewife or art dealer; does it? But rather someone who is known as a painter and is still working under that name.

At some point, however -- certainly by the mid 1650's -- she started to sign her works with her married name. We always had a clue that this was the case, but no one paid much attention since it didn't make sense if she had ceased painting.

This was the clue. In autumn 1659, Leyster and her husband both became seriously ill and, on 6 November, they made their last wills. Three months later, she was dead. Molenaer recovered and lived on for another eight years. After his death (1668), the inventory of paintings still in his estate records seven works by "Mrs Molenaer", "Judith Molenaer", and "wife of the deceased" -- which does rather suggest that she was painting under her married name. One piece is further described as "a flower pot [painting] by Mrs Molenaer" (blompotje van Juffr. Molenaer).

And now we have this very painting! Signed, sealed, and delivered: Ju[...] molenaers 1654.

Enter a Lady Luck

The still life of tulips, lilies, an iris and carnations arranged in an imported Chinese vase [left] has been hanging in a Belgian home since the 1970's. A woman named Mrs Luck (her real name: I couldn't make it up!) found it in an art gallery in Oostend, Belgium, and bought it for about Euro 500 ($ 670, £ 435). This is not a case of ignorance rewarded: she knew exactly what she was buying.

She hung the painting in her best room, above the fireplace -- quite possibly where Leyster's original client would have hung it, too -- and kept her purchase secret for more than 30 years. The painting was, she said, her pearl.

What a pearl.

The dark background, contrasts of light and dark in the bouquet, the flowers partially overlapping with a few blossoms seen from the back, shows the artist's originality, certainly for a painter who was not strictly specialized in this genre. At a time when still lifes were generally painted with the greatest possible precision, Leyster's handling is, on the contrary, rather loose: painting 'loosely' with coarse, recognisable brush strokes was considered a particularly difficult challenge and many art lovers greatly admired such brushwork.

Since the painting is in excellent condition, with only the varnish turned a little yellow with age, it is probably worth more than a million euro's today. Mrs Luck can be forgiven for keeping her secret: "I was afraid that the painting would not be mine any more if I made the news public." She certainly could never have afforded the insurance premiums!

But when she heard that the Frans Hals Museum in Leyster's home town of Haarlem would celebrate the artist's 400th birthday (1609-2009) with a special exhibition, she decided to come forward. As she said, this felt like the right moment.

Frima Fox Hofrichter, whose monograph on Judith Leyster: A Woman Painter in Holland's Golden Age did so much to bring Leyster out of obscurity, is a happy scholar:
Many art historians have often assumed that Judith Leyster gave up painting upon her marriage. With the discovery of the flower still life and its date of 1654, we now have documentation that she continued her career as a painter. It is likely that Leyster moved to still-lives and botanical studies after her marriage, perhaps to split the market with her husband.
So that's what she was doing eleven years after she married. Who would have predicted a still life painted like this? She was still experimenting -- rather than, like other artists of the time (including her husband), fixing on a simple, identifiable and marketable 'personal manner'. Whether she was painting a portrait or a still life, half-length figures or a group at full length, using fine brushwork with dark colours or broad strokes and bold tones, or changing the vantage point, now looking from above, then from below, she transformed each standard ploy into something boldly alternative. Her work is thus filled with surprises and hard to classify. No wonder scholars cannot agree on which paintings should now be attributed to Leyster. Hofrichter considered 48 works (47 paintings and one etching) authentic. More recently, other scholars suggested only about 20 oil paintings (and the tulip watercolour) can rightfully be assigned to her hand.* With disputes such as this, Hofrichter is surely right to say that "we are still in the preliminary stages of forming an understanding of this fascinating and unjustly neglected painter."

The 'blompotje van Juffr. Molenaer' hangs in Haarlem on temporary loan to the Frans Hals Museum until 9 May 2010. After that, a Lady Luck will decide.

Dutch-speakers can now listen to Mrs Luck on the Netherlands talk show De wereld draait door (below). She hopes that we'll forgive her for hiding her Judith Leyster for so long, "but if you look at the quality of the work," she says, "I think you'll understand why I did it. It was a pearl in my house."

I, for one, forgive you, Madam. I would have done the same.

* In the exhibition catalogue of A Dutch Master and her World, J.A. Welu and P. Biesboer have either "pruned" or "ripped off" -- depending on your viewpoint -- many of Hofrichter's attributions. Unfortunately, they rarely give any reasons for their decisions which makes it impossible for an outsider to form an opinion. A particularly glaring example is their rejection of A Portrait of Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne (Hofrichter catalogue # 46), a painting signed and dated 1652 (no less!), which has vanished without a word. Was there something wrong with the signature; or was the date too late from their standpoint? Hofrichter is not amused.

Quotation from Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987) 553-554. Sources for the three-part post include: reviews of J.A. Welu & P. Biesboer, A Dutch Master and her World, by Xander van Eyk in Simiolus 22, 1993 - 1994, 105-109; and by M. Hollander in The Art Bulletin, 76, 1994, 541-544 . L.B. Gellman, review of F.F. Hofrichter, Judith Leyster. A woman painter in Holland’s Golden Age in Woman's Art Journal 13, 992 , 34-36. W. Liedtke, 'Judith Leyster. Haarlem and Worcester', in The Burlington Magazine, 135, 1993, 856-857. A.Silvers, 'Has Her(oine's) Time Now Come?' The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, 1990, 374-5.


Upper and lower left: from the Frans Hals Museum catalogue accompanying the exhibition,
Judith Leyster: The first woman to become a master painter (photograph of 'Flower still life, 1654' by Margareta Svensson, Amsterdam).

Centre left:
A boy and a girl with a cat and an eel, The National Gallery, London.

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