Tag Archives: hieroglyphs

Equal Opportunity Slaughter

Male pharoah at Merowe, Sudan, slaying his prisoners.

While the record is certainly not blank with regard to a history of powerful and influential women — Catherine the Great, Joan of Arc, Catherine de Medici, Eleanor Roosevelt, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth, Rosa Parks, Cleopatra — nowhere does a graphical depiction of absolute equality between the sexes exist with such profudity as that which still stands at the Temple Complex of Merowe in Northern Sudan.

Here, on the left hand wall of a massive, 20-ft high bas relief, a male pharoah raises his sceptre to smite the knot of enemy heads he grasps by the hair.  In traditional Egyptian iconography, the pharoah stands three or four times the size of those he is about to kill, a statement of his superiority and a nice artistic touch to allow the masses in their domination to be better portrayed, often literally, under foot.  The pharoah’s dog waits, teeth bared, between his legs to feast on the carcasses of the slain.

Female pharaoh, partaking in the slaughter with apparent gusto.

This bas relief itself really doesn’t depart too widely from many of the other Egyptian retellings of war conquest.  What sets it apart is the matching right-hand panel of this same wall.  Here, the queen partakes in a very equal-opportunity sort of slaughter, with an equal number of enemy prisoners gathered by their locks in her hand while her other arm — this time with sword rather than with sceptre — hovers menacingly above them.

The best part of all of this, the part that stands in such stark contrast (an almost ‘Not Quite Right‘ sort of contrast) when compared to the lithe images of other female Egyptian rulers like Nefertiti, is this woman’s stylized yet very full, very womanly figure.  It is nice to see power displayed in such a way:  equal, unsparing, and devoid of the expectation that a woman in power rules through guile or charm rather than through the sort of brute physicality this long-gone pair of pharoahs demonstrated.

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Un-American Graffiti

In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti.  While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.

Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced.  What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization?  What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must stop and surreptitiously carve his bit of history into history?  Have none of those who have immortalized themselves considered how they whittle down the artifacts until, someday, nothing will remain?

I became fascinated, in the same way a motorist is fascinated by a car wreck on the roadside, with the scribblings on Sudan’s monuments.  Looking more closely, what I started to notice is that some of the graffiti itself has aged to the point where it is a new archeological record of its own:  French, Polish, British, Arabic names (and dates!) stretching back through several hundred years.  Looking even deeper, I realized that a good portion of the original hierogylphics were, themselves, graffiti.  Pharoahs had erased previous pharoahs’ names, carving their own glyphs over older glyphs.  So, perhaps graffiti is more of a continuation of a time-honored tradition than a new and destructive pestilence.

Yet, one can’t help but think that Mr. Letorzec’s knife, working over a fresher surface back in 1820, was Not Quite Right.

Graffiti over hieroglyphs, Merowe, Sudan.