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Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom (exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)


When we visited New York last year we timed our visit to coincide with the opening of an exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was putting on: Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom was regarded by later Ancient Egyptians as their “classical” age – for instance one of the teaching texts from the New Kingdom is about this era. It was probably composed in the 18th Dynasty, but it tells of a vision that Senwosret I has of his father Amenemhat I after Amenemhat’s death. In that vision Amenemhat I talks about the proper ways to be a king. We often almost overlook the Middle Kingdom nowdays, as being “just” that bit between the Giza Pyramids and the time of the Valley of the Kings. Certainly I don’t think I’ve been to another large exhibition concentrating on this era.

They let us take photos inside the exhibition, so I have a small set up on flickr here, or click on any photo to go to it on flickr.

The exhibition opened with a room that looked at the history of the early Middle Kingdom, and at the broad sweep of the development of artistic styles over this period. After the end of the Old Kingdom centralised government had broken down in Egypt and although there were Pharaohs in name they didn’t rule the whole country in practice. The reunification of Egypt took place during the 11th Dynasty, in the reign of Montuhotep II. Before reunification Montuhotep II’s power base was in Thebes, and he ruled the southern part of the country. The art style associated with Montuhotep II is initially a local Theban style, but once he’s conquered the northern part of the country there is a change to incorporate Old Kingdom styles and themes into the art. The key features of art from his reign are crisp outlines, thick lips and muscular limbs (I think the first trip I took to Egypt our tour guide referred to a statue of Montuhotep II as “Old Elephant Legs” – he wasn’t a fan of this style!). In the 12th Dynasty Amenemhat I moved the capital north to modern day Lisht, which is about 20 miles south of Memphis. This is when the Pharaohs restarted building Pyramids for the tombs. The art from his reign was generally in low relief, and had much more delicate moulding.

Statue of Senwosret III as a Sphinx

The next room of the exhibition covered the later Middle Kingdom, with a particular emphasis on statuary of the Pharaoh. The Ancient Egyptians were fond of seeing the world as made up of dualities, and their theories of kingship were no exception to this. The Pharaoh had a dual nature, and was both divine and human. During the Middle Kingdom the representation of the Pharaoh in this dual manner reached a peak. Many more statues of the Pharaoh were made as compared to earlier periods (which can be seen as a manifestation of the power of the Pharaoh). In these statues the Pharaoh was represented both as a divinity and as a worshipper. During the 12th Dynasty there was a change in representation of the Pharaoh from youthful features to more mature and careworn features (a visual reflection of a change in their ideas about kingship) – for instance statues of Senwosret III display this new style. The last great Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom was Senwosret III’s son Amenemhat III (who ruled as a co-regent with his father for 20 years). After this the 13th Dynasty was composed of several Pharaohs with short reigns, and often not related to their predecessor. And the art changes again, gone are the individualised representations of mature Pharaohs and back are youthful features this time coupled with a more stylised image which doesn’t seem to be of an individual.

Model of the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret III, Dashur

Having established the chronology, and the broad changes in the art, the next room of the exhibition looked at how we know about this period. Or rather, specifically how the Met Museum comes to have so many Middle Kingdom artifacts. The Museum has been involved in many excavations in Egypt, of note in this context are their work at Middle Kingdom pyramid complexes at both Lisht and Dashur. In this room there was a video showing some of the excavations, and a large (modern) model of the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dashur which I spent some time looking at. A couple of bits of information from the labelling struck me in particular – firstly that evidence from graffiti shows that the complex remained standing until the late New Kingdom. And secondly that despite having this pyramid complex built and a sarcophagus put in it Senwosret III wasn’t buried here, he was buried in Abydos. Which seems like an awful lot of effort to go to “just” for the symbolism (I assume), but that does seem a constant of Egyptian culture.

The next couple of rooms looked at the representations and roles of the elite other than the Pharaoh – starting with the royal women. It’s noticeable that these women are all defined by their relationship to the Pharaoh – they are all titled things like “King’s Wife” or “King’s Daughter”. Egypt sometimes gets held up as being a “more egalitarian” society by ancient standards, and it was compared to the later Athenian Greeks for instance, but that’s a pretty low bar by modern standards. The women acted as the glue that bound the elite to the king (particularly in the 13th Dynasty) as the Pharaoh’s wives frequently came from the elite families. They also had a religious role – the mythology of kingship held that the king is the son of his actual mother and a god, so she was an important part of this narrative (if a rather passive one). Royal women were also linked with Hathor, who brings up Horus in various of the myths (and the Pharaoh is an embodiment of Horus). Of the jewellery in this section I was particularly struck by the similarity in styles/motifs between this stuff and some jewellery we’d seen earlier on our visits to the Met belonging to minor wives of Tutmosis III who lived some five centuries after these Middle Kingdom women.

Bracelet of Princess Sithathoryunet

The level of power & the roles of the Pharaoh’s officials varied across the time period of the Middle Kingdom. At first the country was still fairly decentralised, much as it had been in the First Intermediate Period. Control was brought more & more into the hands of a centralised government over the 12th Dynasty. Then in the 13th Dynasty the Pharaohs were weak and the elite effectively ran the country. This section of the exhibition had quite a few statues & stelae from the Pharaoh’s non-royal subjects – including relatively low ranking officials. The Middle Kingdom was a time when even lower ranking officials and the non-elite were more likely to be able to commission relatively good quality statues.

In the iconography of Egyptian art how the country interacts with foreigners is clear: they are defeated, and then the Pharaoh smites them. Of course the truth is more nuanced and complicated than that. Some conquest (and colonisation) does take place – Nubia is conquered in Senwosret I’s time, for instance. But there’s also a lot of evidence of co-existence with other peoples. The Egyptians traded with Greece & with the Levant, and foreigners lived within Egyptian borders. One of the pieces in this section was a stela with the Tale of Sinhue carved on it, which is one of the great pieces of Egyptian literature and is set at the time of Senwosret I’s accession. The protagonist flees into self-imposed exile outside of Egypt for much of the story, making it particularly relevant for another look at how the ancient Egyptians regarded the outside world. (Of course, the thing I photographed was the battle axe, because battle axe!)

Battle-axe and Stela

The next section of the exhibition was about life in the Middle Kingdom – illustrated using objects from burials, including some tomb models. Of course the Egyptians put them in their tombs to provide themselves with food and other necessities for their eternal afterlife. But from a modern persons’ perspective they’re useful to tell us what the life of an Egyptian was really like, and how they organised the various production systems – like slaughterhouses, granaries and so on. Burials might also include animal figurines – some to provide food, some for symbolic reasons and some to provide pets in the afterlife. They noted in the labelling that cats weren’t yet fully domesticated at this point, although were definitely on the road towards it. Family and community were clearly important to the Middle Kingdom Egyptians – given the way that figurines & stelae generally depict not just the primary tomb owner but also their spouse and children.

Having used tomb goods to look at what they tell us about life the next section was about death – and I was particularly struck by the coffin with a mummy in that they had. For all that I knew already that they laid the dead on their sides during the Middle Kingdom period it was still striking to see it. Death for the Egyptians was a journey between two worlds and although ideas changed during the Middle Kingdom they stayed within that framework of the deceased going to somewhere else. During the early Middle Kingdom the emphasis was on offerings and providing an eternal supply of food. Later on in the Middle Kingdom the emphasis shifts to the rebirth of the dead (and this is when the Coffin Texts start to appear). This period is also when the first shabtis are made, and when the heart scarabs become important. Royal symbols start to appear in the tombs of non-royal individuals, as part of linking the deceased with Osiris.

Model Sailboat

By the Middle Kingdom the Egyptians had come to believe that the god Osiris was buried in one of the tombs at Abydos – we now know that the tomb they picked was the tomb of Djer who was the 3rd Pharaoh of the 1st Dynasty. Abydos therefore became an important cult site during this period, and many people made pilgrimages there. They often left stelae as offerings, or statues, so that they would be a permanent spectator or part of the processions there. This pilgrimage was also represented in the tomb with model boats so that they could continue to undertake it in the afterlife.

The next to last part of the exhibition was about temples. It’s always important to remember that temples in the ancient Egyptian religion didn’t have the same function as a Christian church – very much not a place where the public worshipped. Instead temples were secluded places where the god resided, and where the king could go and perform the appropriate & necessary rituals. The king was always the “true actor” in temple rituals, even though in practice the priests stand in for him. In some ways it was a mutual appreciation society: the king worshipped the god and in return the god blessed the king. In the Middle Kingdom temples were commissioned by the Pharaoh, for instance the White Chapel of Senwosret I at Karnak, in earlier periods it was less centralised and more down to the local communities. Right near the end of this section was one of my favourite bits of statuary from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, on loan to the exhibition – a head of the god Sobek! Nice to see a “friendly” face from home amongst the treasures the Met Museum owns 🙂

Head of a Statue of the God Sobek Shedeti

The exhibition finished by considering what happened to the Middle Kingdom monuments and statuary in later years. The statues might be buried once they were superfluous – they were sacred objects so you couldn’t destroy them. But there’s only space for so many statues of Pharaohs in any given space so after a while you need to move the old ones out to make space for the new Pharaoh. And temples and statues alike might be usurped by a later Pharaoh (particularly Ramesses II) chiselling off the original name and writing his own name in its place. This wasn’t just a case of thrift – it was also because the Egyptians looked back to the Middle Kingdom (and the 12th Dynasty in particular) with pride. Claiming its monuments as your own, would link you with this cultural high point.

I’m glad we got a chance to see this exhibition – as I said at the beginning of this post I don’t think I’ve seen another exhibition that focusses on the Middle Kingdom. And of course many of these objects were from the Met Museum’s own collections so we wouldn’t’ve had the chance to see them elsewhere anyway.