Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Meaning Behind a Nubian Ruler’s Offering to a Falcon God

Taharqa offering to Hemen. The Louvre, Paris.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

For many, the grandeur of ancient Egypt is evoked by its great monuments of architecture and colossal sculptures. Works of more modest dimensions, however, are far more numerous and quite arguably more revealing of the complex culture that produced them.

Such is certainly the case with the small-scale, delicately crafted work shown here. On a silver base, the figure of Taharqa—ruler of the 25th Dynasty of Egypt—kneels before the giant figure of the falcon god Hemen.

This stunning work is both aesthetically and technically unique. The most straightforward part of its manufacture is the solid-bronze figure of Taharqa, cast and then incised with linear detail. The image of Hemen, on the other hand, is carved from stone and covered with sheets of thin gold. The figures rest on a wooden base covered with a silver revetment.

Dressed only in the pleated linen kilt worn by Egyptian royalty, Taharqa offers the god two small jars of wine. He wears the double-uraeus headdress representing rule over his native Nubia as well as the whole land of Egypt to the north. An inscription on the back of his belt identifies him by name and extols his divine status: “The perfect god. Taharqa alive for eternity.”

The great bird holds a cobra in its talons, symbolizing the protection of mortals against evil. Easily confused with the better-known sun god Horus, Hemen had his principal sanctuary at Hefat, a religious center along the Nile located not far from Thebes in Upper Egypt. His representation here is the only known example in sculptural form.

The artist has captured an intimate representation of the king in direct communion with the divine. The dark bronze patina of Taharqa’s body contrasts dramatically with the bright aura of the falcon god. The even play of light over the compact form and engraved details of the pharaoh’s figure brings out the corporeality of a god made incarnate, while the bright surface of the falcon reflects the aura of pure divinity. This fundamentally contrasting visual effect perfectly evokes the privileged relationship between the royal house of Egypt and the supernatural realm from which its agency was derived.

The 25th Egyptian Dynasty represents a key period in the history of both ancient Egypt and Nubia. It marked the final resurgence of the great civilization that had flourished along the lower reaches of the Nile for nearly three millennia of recorded history. For Nubia it represented the greatest territorial extent of a region that had shared much of that history, almost functioning as a kind of alter ego of its neighbor to the north.

In the late eighth century B.C., both realms were merged into one great political entity, enabling the new power to dominate trade and culture between the Mediterranean Sea and the interior of the African continent. The process had begun under the reign of Kashta, whose name means “the Kushite.” He is considered for this reason to be the founder of the 25th Dynasty, often also referred to as the Ethiopian or Nubian Dynasty.

Taharqa was perhaps the greatest ruler of the 25th Dynasty and is certainly the best documented. His reign marks the high point of the Nubian domination of Egypt, which lasted for less than a century but left a lasting impact, including the reintegration of ancient Egyptian religion and culture. He re-established the Upper Egyptian city of Thebes as a major religious center, restoring its many great temples and the power of the priests as an intellectual, spiritual and political force within Egypt.

The small scale of the work and the formal gesture of gratitude made by Taharqa to the deity characterize it as a temple offering. Presumably it was placed within a shrine dedicated to Hemen, probably the principal one at Hefat. Quite possibly, Taharqa here offers thanks for divine intervention in alleviating a natural crisis threatening the welfare of the realm.

In 685 B.C., one of the largest inundations of the Nile ever recorded delivered the lands along the river from several years of severe drought. The event occurred fairly early in Taharqa’s reign and was regarded as a miraculous intervention of the gods on behalf of their suffering people. To commemorate it and other events of the sixth year of his reign, Taharqa set up a stele, or incised tablet, at the holy site of Kawa along the Nile and commissioned others to be placed in various regions of the kingdom. The text evokes the defining relationship between the king and the chief Egyptian god Amun-Re, but it seems that Taharqa also took pains to offer more specific thanks for the involvement of lesser deities.

In addition to his veneration as a protector against evil, Hemen was also associated with the annual flooding of the Nile. It seems likely that this votive piece was dedicated to the falcon god in thanks for such a particularly bountiful bestowal of life-giving water.

By the time Taharqa took the throne, in about 690 B.C., all of Egypt lay under the control of Nubia, now rightly considered an empire. Nubian kings ruled from Memphis in Lower Egypt, hundreds of miles north of the traditional capital city of Napata. Taharqa’s momentous quarter-century rule took place against the constant military threat of the great Near Eastern power of Assyria. After twice repulsing its incursions, in 667 B.C. he was compelled to retreat to more secure positions within Nubian territory. He died circa 664 B.C. and was buried in a pyramid almost 50 meters high. A revised version of the Great Pyramids of Giza, this majestic monument exemplifies the creative response of Nubian culture to the ages-old civilization of Egypt.

The 25th Dynasty ended with the expulsion of the Nubians from Egypt by Assyria. Afterward, Nubia remained a significant regional power, centered on the prosperous city of Meroe further up the Nile. For over a thousand years this civilization dominated the upper stretches of the river. Contact with Egypt continued, but with time it seems that trade was oriented to just a few outlets along the Red Sea. In late antiquity Nubia abandoned its ancient gods, somewhat reluctantly, to adopt Christianity.

The reputation of Taharqa, however, not only survived the passage of time but, indeed, flourished. The accomplishments of the great ruler retained a permanent hold on the collective consciousness of later ages. The name of Taharqa eventually became a byword for “universal conqueror.” During the Middle Ages, his exploits were even likened to those of Alexander the Great. Ancient Greek historians claim that he extended his empire as far as the Pillars of Hercules—that is, to the Atlantic Ocean. Writing in 1553, the early-modern historian Florián de Ocampo more specifically records the invasion of Spain by one Tarraco, a general of the Ethiopian army and future king of Egypt.

With the recovery of the actual artifacts of Taharqa’s reign, a more realistic impression of his ethos has come into focus. In the image of Taharqa offering thanks to Hemen, we see not the all-conquering hero but the savior of his people from disaster at home. His glory undiminished, his humanity more intact, Taharqa here seems more truly restored to the gaze of posterity.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.


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