Egyptian Book of the Dead on display at Brooklyn Museum

Egyptian Book of the Dead
After three years of careful study and restoration, an important version of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead has gone on display in the Brooklyn Museum.

The Book of the Dead was a collection of prayers, spells, and rituals to help the dead in the afterlife. The book has its roots in prehistoric times. As the civilization in Egypt developed, the prayers and spells became more elaborate. Eventually they were gathered together in chapters to create what we call the Book of the Dead. Individual chapters or sets of chapters were written on tombs, mummy cases, and rolls of papyrus. Many burials have portions of the book, one of the largest being the Papyrus of Ani, which you can view online.

The Brooklyn Museum example was for the tomb of Sobekmose, a gold worker. It’s an early and long version, probably dating to the reign of Thutmose III or Amunhotep II (c. 1479–1400 BC). It’s 25 feet long, written on both sides, and contains nearly half of the known Book of the Dead chapters.

Portions of this book have long been on display at the museum. This is the first time the entire book is on display.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Egypt’s newest public wonder: the temple of the crocodile god

Egypt, SobekLast week a new ancient site opened to the public in Egypt–a temple of the crocodile god Sobek.

Medinet Madi is located in Egypt’s Faiyum region, a fertile area around a lake at the end of a branch of the Nile called Bahr Yusuf (“The River of Joseph”).

The temple features a long avenue lined with sphinxes and lions, plus an incubation room for hatching the eggs of sacred crocodiles. You’d think these crocs would live the good life, splashing around the swamps and gnawing on a sacrificial victim or two. Instead they were mummified and sold to pilgrims. Check out the gallery for a couple of photos of crocodile mummies.

Sobek was one of the most important gods of ancient Egypt. He’s generally pictured with the body of a man and the head of a crocodile. He’s said to have created the Earth when he laid eggs in the primordial waters, and the Nile is supposed to be his sweat. He’s the god of the Nile, the Faiyum, and of course crocodiles.

In ancient times the Nile and the lush wetlands of the Faiyum were full of crocodiles. The people prayed to Sobek to appease them. Because he was a fierce god, he was one of the patrons of the ancient Egyptian army.

Sobek’s temple at Medinet Madi was built by the pharaohs Amenemhat III (c.1859-1813 BC) and Amenemhat IV (c.1814-1805 BC) during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and expanded during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC) after Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great.

The temple is also dedicated to the cobra-headed goddess Renenutet, who in some traditions was Sobek’s wife. Despite her appearance, she was a much kinder deity than Sobek, a sort of mother goddess who nursed babies and gave them their magical True Name. Farmers liked her because cobras ate the rats that would eat their crops.

%Gallery-123603%The new tourist site was funded by Italy, which coughed up €3.5 million ($5 million) to clear off the sand and restore the temple. Italian archaeologists have been working in the area for decades and in addition to the Sobek temple they’ve found a Roman military camp and ten early Coptic Christian churches dating from the 5th-7th century AD.

Medinet Madi isn’t the only crocodile temple. Not far away stands Crocodilopolis, where Egyptians honored the sacred crocodile Petsuchos by sticking gold and gemstones into its hide. There are several other Sobek temples along the Nile, the most impressive being Kom Ombo far to the south near Aswan.

Kom Ombo is one of Egypt’s most fascinating temples. It’s rather new as Egyptian temples go–being founded in the second century BC by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Carvings of Sobek and other deities adorn the walls and columns. There are also some scenes from daily life. On the inner face of the outer corridor keep an eye out for a carving showing a frightening array of old surgeon’s tools. Also check out the small shrine to Hathor in the temple compound where piles of sacred crocodiles from the nearby necropolis are kept.

[Photo courtesy Hedwig Storch]

Germany and Egypt fight over bust of Nefertiti: will Zahi Hawass’s crusade ever end?

Egypt, egyptYou win some, you lose some.

Zahi Hawass is a man who is used to getting his way. The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has been fighting to repatriate stolen Egyptian artifacts for years, and more often than not he wins.

This time, though, he’s suffered a setback. He’s trying to get the Neues Museum in Berlin to return the famous bust of Nefertiti. He claims it was stolen by a German archaeologist a century ago who covered it with clay to hide its true value. Museum officials told the BBC it was legally exported and that it’s too delicate to move anyway.

The bust is the centerpiece of the Neues Museum’s amazing display of Egyptian artifacts, one of the best collections in the world. Nefertiti was the wife of the mysterious pharaoh Akhenaten, who put the Sun god Aten above all others in the Egyptian pantheon. Vengeful priests erased his name from monuments after his death in 1338 BC.

This won’t be the last battle in the war for Nefertiti. Dr. Hawass’s predecessors have been trying to get the bust back since 1930. What really needs to be done is for museums, governments, and archaeologists to get together and come up with a binding agreement on how to deal with these issues. Perhaps a neutral International Antiquities Court could be set up via the UN? At the moment Dr. Hawass has little power to force Germany or any other country to return artifacts, other than threats (which worked with the Louvre) or constant badgering. With a proper system in place, Dr. Hawass could get a good night’s sleep.

But having seen the inner workings of far too many museums and academic departments, I don’t hold out much hope for an amicable agreement. Too many people are trying to cling to their little bit of turf.

[Photo courtesy Philip Pikart]

More Roman heritage from Mérida, Spain

Roman, Spain, MéridaIn the Extremaduran city of Mérida, it feels like at any moment you’re going to turn a corner and meet an ancient Roman. Sometimes that almost happens.

This fellow was at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, a world-class museum featuring Roman statues, mosaics, and other artifacts. Built by the famous architect Rafael Moneo Vallés, it looks like an old Roman basilica, with lofty arches, wide corridors, and lots of natural light. This allows each artifact to have plenty of space so it can be viewed from all angles. My five-year-old son loved this place. With the crowds dispersed in such a large area, he didn’t have to keep close to my side all the time. He could wander at will (within my sight, of course) and examine the chariot races on the mosaics all by himself. He also liked the basement, which included a Roman road and several crypts.

While the museum is one of the best I’ve seen, the whole city is actually a museum. Behind a cafe I saw spare chairs stacked under a Roman arch. The local church incorporates parts of a temple to Mars. The main pedestrian bridge across the Rio Guadiana, dating to about 25 BC, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

Last time I talked about the Roman theater and amphitheater at Mérida. These are the two most popular sights in town, but perhaps more impressive is the Casa del Mitreo. This Roman mansion is located near the subterranean temple of Mithras, a mystery religion that was the main competitor with Christianity for the hearts and minds of the Romans in the late Empire. It’s not clear if the house was actually associated with the temple, but a beautiful, complex mosaic on the library floor suggests it was. It shows the divine principles of sky, earth, and sea in a vast interconnected group. These aren’t gods, but ideas, such as Copiae, the riches of the sea; Aestas, the summer; and Chaos. The whole mansion has been excavated and protected under a modern roof, so you can stroll around on a modern walkway and look down the bedrooms, patios, and wall paintings. My wife voted this the best attraction in town. Near the house is a rather spooky Roman graveyard.

%Gallery-112140% On the edge of town you can see one of the best preserved Roman hippodromes in the world. Chariot races were even more popular than gladiator fights or plays. Like the theater this was an institution that the early Christians disapproved of. But like the Mérida theater, it got a major face lift courtesy of the early Christian emperors in the years 337-340 AD. It took some time for the Christians to enforce their strict morality on the Roman populace. Walking along the 440 meter (481 yard) long racetrack you can easily imagine cheering crowds and crashing chariots. Thirty thousand people could be seated here. Nearby are the remains of one of Mérida’s two aqueducts.

Mérida protected the crossing of the Guadiana river, and so even after the Roman Empire crumbled it was an important spot. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, built an imposing city wall and fortress here. Little of that period remains, but the next rulers of Mérida, the Moors, built a sprawling fortress called the Alcazaba next to the bridge. When we visited we had the place pretty much to ourselves. My son got to walk the ramparts and look out over the river, imagining what it would have been like to live in those times. He especially liked exploring the dark tunnels under the main tower, which lead to a cistern that provided the soldiers with water. The upper story of this same tower was once a mosque.

“Fun for the whole family” is a horrible travel writing cliché, but it does apply to Mérida! While the modern town isn’t much to look at, it’s full of ancient surprises. The food and wine are great too. More on that in another post.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors!

Ancient statue of decapitated ballplayer discovered in Mexico

Mexico archaeology archeology decapitatedOne of the most enduring puzzles vexing archaeologists is the Mesoamerican ballgame. Played for 3,000 years by several cultures until the Spanish conquest, it had deep religious significance, although archaeologists are unsure just what that means.

Two teams faced off in a rectangular stone ball court, trying to knock a solid rubber ball using everything except their hands. At the end one team (presumably the losers) were sacrificed to the gods. Why? Nobody is really sure.

Now a new piece has been added to the puzzle. Archaeologists working at the site of the ancient settlement of El Teúl in the Zacatecas region of central Mexico have uncovered the statue of a headless ballplayer. El Teúl was inhabited for 1,800 years, longer than any other major site in the area.

The statue was found in the remains of an ancient ball court. Archaeologists theorize the statue acted as a pedestal on which to put real heads. Give me that old-time religion!

No good photo is available at this time, although you can see a shot of it lying where it was found in this article. The new find looks very different from the famous stele of a decapitated ballplayer shown here from the Anthropology Museum of Xalapa, Mexico.

If you want to try to figure out just what all the ballplaying and beheading was about, you’ll have your chance in 2012 when El Teúl opens to the public. Mexico is filled with ancient sites, and history buffs will soon have another important one to visit.

[Photo courtesy Maurice Marcellin via Wikimedia Commons]