Few English words can trace their lineage to ancient Egyptian, but "pharaoh" is one of them: it derives, via ancient Greek, from the phrase per-aa , meaning "the Great Estate". Calling the king of Egypt "pharaoh" is a bit like referring to the prime minister as "10 Downing Street". In antiquity this was apt, since the king, his residence and his state were indistinguishable from each other, and in modern times, pharaoh and Egypt remain irrevocably linked.
The Pharaohs accompanies an exhibition of the same name currently at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (until May 25), which brings together 5 works of art from museums and private collections in Europe, Egypt and North America. As weighty as a pyramid, this well-illustrated volume looks not only at individual kings but at the idea of kingship itself, which was central to Egyptian history, religion and culture.
Ancient Egyptian civilisation survived for some 3,000 years with a single political and ideological system, at the head of which stood an all-powerful, god-like king. Each pharaoh was the earthly embodiment of the sun god Ra, the "father" of the king according to royal myths and epithets. Kings were also associated with Horus, the falcon god who had fought for and won his rightful place on the throne of Egypt after the murder of his father Osiris, god of the dead. The Egyptian king's unique position between the human and divine worlds placed on him the responsibility for maintaining cosmic order in the universe, a concept known as maat. To ensure that Egypt was secure and that night turned to day, and back again, the king needed to please the gods.
With such an important charge placed on one person, the king's body and activities were imbued with symbolism. Elaborate crowns, clothing and amulets both protected him and indicated his elevated state. The king was radiant, perfumed and perfect.
Pharaohs commanded incredible wealth, with which they built tombs for themselves and temples for the gods. These complexes were filled with statues and reliefs depicting kings in the timeless scenes preferred by Egyptian art - making offerings to the gods, crushing the enemies of Egypt, striding forward, or simply sitting enthroned. In life, kings were surrounded by the most luxurious products and craftsmanship of the time in palaces that also housed the royal family and the government administration. In death, kings were mummified and buried in secure locations, with treasures such as the solid gold mask and coffin from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Pharaohs such as Tutankhamun or Ramesses II (the Great) or Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, stand out in Egyptian history either for their accomplishments or for the survival of their monuments and burials. The office of kingship surpassed the importance of individual kings, however.
Thus the historical and cultural continuity of ancient Egypt remained unbroken even during a disruptive reign such as that of the religious heretic Akhenaten, or during the reigns of women such as Hatshepsut, which contravened the masculine ideology of kingship. Foreigners such as the Ku****es, the Ptolemies or even the Roman emperors were also accepted as kings of Egypt so long as they presented themselves in the role of an effective, god-fearing pharaoh.
Fifteen essays in The Pharaohs examine "the nature and function of the king of Egypt" from all these angles and more. Written by leading scholars, these essays consider subjects such as the administration and army, religious ritual, the royal family and the art and architecture patronised by kings. The last five essays concern the subterranean tombs in the Valley of the Kings where pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550-1075BC) were buried.
The tombs were eventually robbed - perhaps by later governments in need of the precious metals within - but Egyptian priests carefully reburied the royal mummies in two secret caches discovered in the late-19th century. Now housed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, the mummies include kings Thutmose III and Ramesses II, and the curator in charge has contributed an article describing and illustrating the mortal remains of the pharaohs.
Although the exhibition is driven by the theme of kingship, its focus is slanted towards the New Kingdom, when Egypt's empire was at its greatest.
An overlong survey of Egyptian history from prehistory to the death of Cleopatra opens the catalogue, spread over a further six essays. Like the thematic essays, the historical section is quite detailed.
Throughout the book, articles by different authors are repetitive, and the dense text draws attention to rather lacklustre writing, translating and editing. The strength of the volume is its colour photography of works of art and Egyptian sites. Unfortunately, a number of photographs are printed in reverse, and the small images that accompany catalogue entries in the back of the book are not cross-referenced to the larger photographs reproduced in the main text. Many impressive objects appear in the exhibition and its catalogue, such as a copper bust of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhat III and colossal statues of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo has lent several items, including the stunning gold mask of Psusennes I (c. 1000BC) from his burial at the Delta city of Tanis. Artworks from other museums are also on hand to show the importance of the pharaohs and their images in Egyptian art.
The contrast between these evocative objects and a worthy but wordy text raises the question of what makes a good catalogue for a blockbuster exhibition. The scholarly essays published in The Pharaohs are too general for academic use yet not general enough for a wider audience. The works of art are tangential illustrations, rather than the flashpoints of the story that the curators and writers clearly wanted to tell. Isn't the point of an exhibition catalogue the same as the goal of the exhibition itself, namely to let the physical remains and artistic creations of the past illuminate their world, and ours? The God of Exodus might have hardened pharaoh's heart, but pharaoh's art endured, splendid enough to suit a god on earth.
Christina Riggs is junior research fellow in Egyptology, Queen's College, Oxford.
Editor - Christiane Ziegler
ISBN - 0 500 05119 4
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £55.00
Pages - 512