Not as famous as his New Kingdom successors Ramses II or Tutankhamun, and not responsible for the kind of grand building projects that immortalised his Old Kingdom predecessors Khufu and Khafre, builders of the largest of the Great Pyramids at Giza, the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Sesostris III was nevertheless one of the country’s most important rulers, becoming a kind of symbolic embodiment of ancient Egyptian kingship.
However, until recently it has been difficult to disentangle fact from fiction in inherited accounts of the pharaoh’s accomplishments, with modern historians tending to see the list of achievements attributed to Sesostris III by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, for example, as either invented or a composite of actions taken by many different rulers.
According to Herodotus, writing in the long second book of his Histories dedicated to ancient Egypt, Sesostris, an unusually war-like ruler, sailed down the Arabian Gulf with a fleet of warships, subduing coastal tribes as he did so. Later, he led campaigns in Asia, defeating the Scythians, and even led Egyptian armies into southern Europe, defeating sundry armies in Thrace.
“It is a fact,” Herodotus writes, “that the Colchians are of Egyptian descent,” indicating that Sesostris and his armies reached the far side of the Black Sea. “I noticed this myself before I heard anyone else mention it… and found that the Colchians remembered the Egyptians more distinctly than the Egyptians remembered them.”
But even if Sesostris III did not in fact accomplish everything that has been attributed to him, not least the fantastic stories recounted by the Greek historian, the surviving evidence suggests an unusually powerful figure who was responsible for major achievements both in strengthening the internal administration of ancient Egypt and in securing particularly its southern borders. It is this evidence that has now been brought together in a major new exhibition on the pharaoh at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the French city of Lille, one of the oldest museums in France and an essential port of call for anyone interested in ancient Egypt.
The historical Sesostris III, sometimes written Senusret or Senwosret, was a 12th Dynasty pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom who ruled Egypt from 1872 to 1854 BCE. He is believed to have acted decisively to strengthen the country’s central government, minimising the power of the local nobility and ensuring that the administration reached into all four corners of the country. In the south he conducted military campaigns deep into Nubia, extending Egypt’s borders to the end of the Nile’s second cataract and building a network of forts designed to stop Nubian incursions.
He also cut a canal through the first Nile cataract at Elephantine in order to ease the passage of shipping. He was buried in a vast pyramid complex at Dashur outside Cairo consisting of a 78-metre high main pyramid, a mortuary temple and seven smaller pyramids, though he also built a second funerary complex at Abydos in Upper Egypt. While today’s historians reject Herodotus’s accounts of major conquests in Asia, the fact that such legends gathered around the pharaoh seems to suggest that he was seen as a model ruler in antiquity and one associated with ancient Egyptian national pride and identity.
THE IMAGE OF THE PHARAOH: The exhibition’s first room looks at the surviving images of Sesostris III, perhaps a hundred of which have come down to posterity. These include some impressive statues, once used to project the pharaoh’s power across Egypt and underline the ruler’s role in maintaining order and as an intermediary between the human and divine worlds.
The images of Sesostris III are immediately recognisable because they show the pharaoh in a hitherto unprecedented way, suggesting a new conception of ancient Egyptian kingship beginning in the Middle Kingdom and associated particularly with this ruler. The pharaoh is shown with unusually marked features, his face long and almost emaciated and contrasting in every case with his idealised and youthful physique.
According to the curators of the exhibition, Fleur Morfoisse and Guillemette Andreu-Lanoe, this royal iconography was designed not to project the image of a worn and aged monarch, worn down by the cares of office, but instead of an authoritative and charismatic king, the facial lines indicating maturity and majestic status. Writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, French scholar Pierre Tallet says that the effect of such representations is to give the impression of “a real human being, someone identifiable by the lines on his face as well as what these indicate of his personality despite the 3,800 years that separate him from us.”
“During the reign of Sesostris III,” Tallet writes, “important developments took place in conceptions of ancient Egyptian kingship. This can be seen both in the manufacture of highly original and expressive images of the sovereign, which were designed to carry a precise ideological message, and in the writing of royal hymns that celebrated the king as the leader of the nation and as responsible for the protection and happiness of his people.”
Such images of royal authority were accompanied by a programme of administrative reform that strengthened royal authority across Egypt. In his article, Tallet mentions a text called “Duties of the Vizier” found in many of the tombs of those charged with this function during the reigns of the 18th Dynasty pharaohs and setting out the powers and responsibilities of the country’s central administration. The names of at least three viziers from the reign of Sesostris III are known, Tallet says, and these men were responsible for overseeing the country’s economy, particularly the storage of the harvest, and for carrying out mining expeditions into the surrounding deserts in search of raw materials.
All this suggests a highly organised state and society, and it seems that the Egypt of the Middle Kingdom, a period of long-term economic prosperity and political stability, was notably stratified and hierarchical. According to a particularly interesting essay by Andreu-Lanoe on Egyptian society in the Middle Kingdom, the pharaoh sat at the top of the social pyramid at the bottom of which was the “immense and silent majority of peasant farmers, herders and fishermen who worked in the countryside and produced the country’s agricultural wealth.”
Between the pharaoh and the peasantry lay the administrative and professional middle classes. The existence of such people can be deduced from the large quantity of “private sculpture” that survives from this period, sculpture, in other words, that was originally commissioned by private individuals either to furnish their own tombs, in some cases almost as lavish as those of members of the royal family, or to celebrate their social status.
The Belgian Egyptologist Simon Connor in his catalogue essay says that this private sculpture flourished in the reign of Sesostris III and was designed to “indicate the subject’s relationship to the pharaoh or to borrow the prestige belonging to senior civil servants in the case of individuals from the intermediate social classes.”
Such people included officials like the 12th Dynasty governor of Elephantine Imeny-seneb, a statue of whom is included in the exhibition. But they also included the professional classes, and many statues of scribes began to be produced during the Middle Kingdom. The newly centralised state required an extensive scribal class, and such men, their profession and status associated with particular families, were responsible for drawing up the documents necessary for reliable government.
“The scribes, men who had received a high level of education, began to play a crucial role in the administrative organisation of society,” Andreu-Lanoe comments. “Documents from the period give almost interminable lists of different types of scribes… suggesting an amazing propensity, one might almost say obsession, with writing everything down.”
“There were scribes of the Treasury, of the director of the Treasury, of copies, decrees, archives, temples, and offerings, of the royal household and the manpower bureau, as well as of the ‘large enclosures,’ the land registry, cattle, law courts, judges, magistrates, recruits and military escorts. And for each category of scribe there were also numerous different grades, including directors, instructors, inspectors and assistants.”
Andreu-Lanoe identifies such people as members of an emerging middle class, essential for the proper administration of society. However, it may be that this was also a society in danger of getting tied up in its own bureaucratic red tape and one that made a virtue of following inherited forms rather than seeking innovation. While Sesostris III is always shown with unusually large and projecting ears in his official representations, a sign, the catalogue says, of his willingness “to listen to the people,” in fact he seems to have been a remote and probably terrifying figure who could only be approached through the medium of a probably equally awe-inspiring bureaucratic class.
CONQUEST OF THE SOUTH: The second section of the exhibition examines the foreign policy of Sesostris III, particularly the pharaoh’s campaigns in Nubia and his construction of a set of forts stretching deep into what is today Sudan.
According to Tallet, writing in the exhibition catalogue, the pharaoh seems to have personally led at least four military campaigns into Nubia, establishing Egypt’s southern frontier well beyond the second cataract of the Nile. While part of the intention behind these campaigns may have been defensive, aiming to halt increasingly frequent Nubian raids, they may also have aimed, Tallet says, to enhance Egyptian national pride, indicating “the strong feelings, ‘nationalist’ avant la lettre, of the Egyptian people.”
Most of the forts, the remains of which were still visible until the 1960s, now lie beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, which inundated the area after the building of the Aswan High Dam. However, before this happened at least one of the forts, named Mirgissa, the ancient Iqen, was excavated by a French team from the University of Lille. Finds from this excavation are on display in the present show and include everyday objects, weapons, and grave goods that testify to the projection of ancient Egyptian civilisation deep into the upper reaches of the Nile.
However, it was not only in Nubia that Sesostris III undertook an activist foreign policy. The pharaoh also had to deal with various regional powers, among them those based in Crete and Byblos in what is now Lebanon, and there is evidence to suggest that he personally led a military campaign into what is now Palestine. Yet, Middle Kingdom foreign policy, aiming to secure supplies of raw materials like copper, tin and timber, was far from being bellicose, and there was no question, writes French Egyptologist Genevieve Pierrat-Bonnefois in her catalogue essay, of attempting to achieve political control as was the case in Nubia.
“The Levant was not the target of military campaigns as it was to become during the later New Kingdom when the rise of great empires in the region led to a struggle for control over raw materials and became a fundamental feature of Egyptian foreign policy,” Pierrat-Bonnefois writes.
Instead relations focused on trade more than war, and the evidence suggests thriving commercial relations between, for example, Byblos in Lebanon and Egypt. Wood seems to have been in particularly short supply, and Levantine cedar was imported in large quantities to make up for Egypt’s lack of suitable native timber. Silver, too, was hard to come by, and for this reason silver jewelry such as that on show in the exhibition could be more highly prized than gold.
The Lille exhibition brings together works from 30 different museum collections, among them the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Finds from the University of Lille’s own excavations at Mirgassa in the 1960s are on show for the first time, and the National Museum of Beirut in Lebanon has loaned materials testifying to the expansion of Egyptian influence into the eastern Mediterranean during the reign of Sesostris III.
All this makes it the largest exhibition ever held on Sesostris III, with the catalogue being an important work of reference on the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom as a whole. Final sections of the show consider the long afterlife of the pharaoh in later Egyptian, ancient Greek and European literature and the rediscovery of Middle Kingdom archaeological remains by 19th-century Egyptologists.
While the image of Sesostris presented in later Egyptian literature is far from being a historically accurate one, the stories that were told about him, presumably among them those collected by Herodotus when he visited Egypt in the 5th century BCE, indicate “the attachment the ancient Egyptians felt for their past,” in the words of French Egyptologist Ghislaine Widmer, “and their choice of a Middle Kingdom pharaoh to symbolise the greatest conqueror of all time.”
Classical writers such as Aristotle, the ancient Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman writer Pliny the Elder all recount stories of Sesostris III having attempted to build a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, an exploit for which there seems to be no evidence, with Pliny claiming that Sesostris III also conquered Ethiopia and Arabia. During the Ptolemaic period, Egypt’s Greek-speaking ruling dynasty, installed in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, attempted to muddle the history of Sesostris III with that of Alexander as a way of reinforcing their own prestige.
The most recent use made of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh may be in Hergé’s Cigars of the Pharaoh, one of the Tintin series, in which the Belgian boy detective, working with eccentric Egyptologist Sophocles Sarcophagus, discovers a pharaoh’s tomb filled with dead Egyptologists and boxes of cigars.
Sésostris III, pharaon de légende, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille, until 25 January 2015