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Exhibit peers at ancient Egyptian family life
In this story:
A change of worship
Realistic or stylistic?
Love of nature
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CHICAGO (AP) -- A potbellied king lifts his little daughter to kiss her while the child's mother cares for two other little ones. The sun's rays shine protectively on the family.
A princess nibbles a roasted duck. A queen standing on a boat deck raises her hand to smite an enemy.
Women, clad in sheath dresses and wearing floral headpieces, make music with lyres, lute and double oboe. Two men chat in the shade as others toil nearby.
All are unusually intimate scenes of everyday life depicted in carvings uncovered in the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten, now known as Amarna.
This fleeting city, wedged between two deserts in the valley of the Nile, was once home to up to 50,000 people under the rule of a charismatic and revolutionary pharaoh who changed his name, the nation's artistic style and even a religious tradition already thousands of years old.
Now, the art of this brief period -- from 1353-1336 B.C. -- and the years surrounding it are the subjects of an exhibition The Art Institute of Chicago calls "the largest reassembly of objects from this prolific time in Egypt's history since the city was abandoned 3,500 years ago."
Titled "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen," the exhibit is making its final stop in the United States. After wrapping up in Chicago on September 24, the show, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, travels to the Rijksmuseum Leiden in the Netherlands, where it will be shown from November 23 through February 18, 2001.
A change of worship
The 10-room exhibition features more than 250 works, including monumental and small-scale sculptures, reliefs, ceramics and household items from collections around the world. Included are two colossal statues from the Cairo Museum that have never before left Egypt.
Visitors to the exhibit are first greeted by a sculpted head of King Amenhotep IV, who changed his name to Akhenaten after he and his wife Nefertiti gave up Egypt's polytheistic beliefs to worship a single god: Aten, the sun disk. Akhenaten's name means "one who is effective for Aten," while his city's original name means "Horizon of Aten."
This colossal sculpture typifies the artistic changes Akhenaten effected. Instead of the idealistic depictions of generic-faced, perfect-bodied royalty in the past, this one shows Akhenaten with a long, v-shaped face. His eyes are like narrow almonds with lids projecting sharply outward; his lips are pronounced and full.
Other sculptures and reliefs show the rebel king with a protruding chin, long, slender arms and legs, rounded hips and breasts and an overhanging belly. Like his powerful wife, he is shown in informal scenes -- not the stiff, untelling poses of his ancestors.
The scene in which Akhenaten kisses his daughter, for example, is something you would have never seen a royal family do, says Ian Wardropper, an Art Institute curator who organized the exhibition in Chicago. "They would have been absolutely aloof," he says.
Realistic or stylistic?
Curator Rita Freed of the Boston museum says the stone relief shows the intimacy in the king's family.
"And the children act like children. Nowhere else in Egyptian art do children act like children. They just look like miniature adults," Freed says in an audio tour of the exhibition. "And look at the way the monarchs sit. They actually look comfortable."
But whether Amarnan art was more realistic or just stylistic is an unsettled issue.
Wardropper leans toward style. If that's the case, depictions of Akhenaten may not give much of a clue to the rebel king's actual appearance.
"Here's someone who changes an entire religion for the first time" in thousands of years, says Wardropper. So, it's not surprising he would change art, too.
Yet, the detailed, sometimes brilliantly colored art of the era does give some details about the king.
Love of nature
Akhenaten adored nature, a subject reflected in one relief after another, from his own depiction as a sphinx to three cobra heads in relief to a sandstone block that shows a running hyena.
His queen was powerful in her own right and may have shared the throne with Akhenaten until and possibly after his death. When she raises her hand to kill an enemy, Aten's rays shine benevolently on her, indicating the role royal women enjoyed at the time.
But Akhenaten loved more than one woman. There was also his "greatly beloved" Kiya, a lesser queen who some historians believe was the mother of the "Boy King" Tutankhamen, the last of the Amarna kings.
In one relief fragment, Kiya is shown undergoing a purification ritual, although the relief was later altered to resemble one of Akhenaten's daughters. Kiya also may have been the owner of one of the exhibition's more unusual items, a lovely canopic jar, which was made of Egyptian alabaster and held the organs of a royal person.
Tutankhamen, already married to one of Akhenaten's daughters, was not even 10 years old when he became king. Possibly under pressure, he soon led the Amarna people back to Thebes and reinstated the traditional god, Amen, along with the entire old pantheon of gods.
But for Akhenaten, there was just the god Aten. And he would express not only his adoration of that god but also his own artistic talent in poetry.
In this excerpt from "The Great Hymn to Aten," Akhenaten writes:
"You are the one God,/shining forth from your possible incarnations/ as Aten, the Living Sun,/ Revealed like a king in glory, risen in light,/ now distant, now bending nearby./ You create the numberless things of this world/ from yourself, who are One alone--/ cities, towns, fields, the roadway, the River;/ And each eye looks back and beholds you/ to learn from the day's light perfection."
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
New treasures of ancient Egypt found
January 9, 1999
Travel Guide: Egypt
Art Institute of Chicago
The Cairo Museum
Encyclopedia of the Orient: Akhenaten
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