Mask of a boy named Heraklion, Roman Period 2nd century AD. This painted plaster mask covered the head and chest of the mummy. Heraklion offers a bunch of grapes to a small bird.
Visitors to Egypt tend to want to see the great sites of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. The pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and the splendid temples around Luxor are all well worth a visit, but Egypt’s later periods are of interest as well. I just went on one of my semi-regular trips to Egypt with the specific intent to study the Greco-Roman period. It plays a role in the third book in my Masked Man of Cairo neo-pulp series and there’s no better inspiration than actually seeing the sites and artifacts themselves.
The rather unobtrusive entrance to the tomb. Like most mastabas, its superstructure has disappeared over time.
Put on your pith helmets, Black Gatereaders, because today we’re going into an ancient Egyptian tomb!
This tomb, on the Giza plateau, was built for Idu, an inspector of priests of the pharaohs Khufu and Khafre and overseer of scribes. Idu made sure the rites and rituals in honor of the departed pharaohs were done properly, and that the priests had all the equipment they needed. Idu lived in the VI Dynasty, probably during the reign of Pepi I (2332-2283 BC), a couple of hundred years after the death of these two important pharaohs. The most prominent Egyptian pharaohs had cults that lasted centuries.
The pyramid of Menkaure (2532-2504 BC) and
its three Queens’ Pyramids, looking east
We’ve all seen the pictures. Tucked beside the massive pyramids at Giza are a few little pyramids. They are generally described in one line as the “Queens’ Pyramids” or “satellite pyramids” and not mentioned any further. They seem like such an afterthought to the awe-inspiring pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, not to mention the Sphinx, that they get all but forgotten. But why were these monuments built? And who were they for?
Ivory headrest. This is used as a pillow in many African
cultures if you want to preserve your hairdo. How you’re
supposed to actually get any sleep is beyond me
King Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) was a short-lived 18th dynasty pharaoh who was obscure and little studied by egyptologists until Howard Carter discovered his nearly intact tomb in 1922. Since then his most elaborate burial goods have been photographed countless times, and the whole world is familiar with images of his famous death mask, sarcophagi, and other golden treasures.
But these are only a small fraction of all the finds in the tomb. A total of 5,398 artifacts were retrieved, and on a recent visit to the Egyptian Museum during a writing retreat in Cairo, I had the privilege to see some of the ones not often reproduced in books.
Ancient Egypt is famous for its elaborate religion with a multitude of deities and an obsession with the afterlife. While there have been many exhibitions on ancient Egyptian religion, it’s rare to see one that traces Egypt’s transformation from a land that was mostly pagan to one that was mostly Christian, then mostly Muslim, with a strong tradition of Judaism running through it.
Now a major exhibition at the British Museum, Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs, uses about 200 objects to explore the history of religion in this fascinating country. The first gallery emphasizes that Egypt still has a sizeable Christian community. While that community has been targeted by extremists in recent years, there is also a large amount of cooperation between the two faiths. Photos from the Arab Spring show Christians making a protective ring around Muslims as they pray, and the Muslims returning the favor around churches on Sunday. The Western media tend to skip these stories of tolerance for more ratings-friendly tales of bloodshed, thus giving a skewed picture of the situation. As one of my old newspaper editors said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
London is full of museums. While visitors swarm to the Big Three of the British Museum, the Tate Modern, and the National Gallery, there are dozens more that are worth visiting. One that’s of interest to anyone with a taste for history is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London.
Most international visitors have never heard of this place and head on over to the British Museum to see its stunning collection of mummies and statues. While that experience is hard to beat, I actually prefer the Petrie Museum. The British Museum is a bit of a victim of its own success, and it’s difficult to stand and enjoy the artwork without being trampled by hordes of visitors.
The two museums also have different purposes. The British Museum focuses on Egypt’s Greatest Hits, with lots of gold, fine artwork and, of course, the ever-popular preserved people. The Petrie Museum is a study museum, where Egyptology students come to compare large numbers of objects packed into the cases and see how they changed over time. Cases have drawers underneath that can be pulled out to view more examples. The collection includes some 80,000 items from both Egypt and Nubia, two of Africa’s greatest ancient civilizations.
A remarkable exhibition at the British Museum is revealing the secrets hidden inside mummy wrappings.
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries showcases eight mummies from the Nile valley, Africa’s greatest center of ancient civilization. Seven were found in Egypt and an eighth was uncovered in Sudan. They have all been analyzed with the latest model CT scanner at a London hospital to reveal information about the people without their having to go through damaging analysis.
In a recent post on the ancient and medieval civilizations of Somalia, we looked at the importance of the Horn of Africa in international trade. The Somalis acted as middlemen, supplying the Eastern Mediterranean, India, and China with goods from the African interior. One of the major ancient civilizations in east Africa that was producing exports was the Empire of Axum.
Axum is a little-known civilization. It didn’t leave much in the way of writing and its sites have not been extensively excavated. Even its capital city has been little explored. We do know that it was founded in the fourth century BC and became a major power by about 100 AD. It came to control most of what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea, and then hopped over the Red Sea in the third century to take over parts of what is now Yemen and Saudi Arabia. For a time, it controlled trade through the Red Sea and acted as a link between the Roman Empire and India. Axumite coins have been found as far away as China. Greek writers noted Axum as one of the world’s great civilizations.
When we think of Somalia, we usually think of the endless civil war and the rise of the militant Islamist group Al-Shabab. That’s all that gets in the news, after all. But Somalia has a rich past that’s been all but forgotten thanks to its sad present. Back in 2012, I went in search of it.
I visited Somaliland, an independent state that makes up the northern third of the former Somalia. While it remains unrecognized by any other nation, it has established a viable government with free and fair elections, a growing economy, and the rule of law. Visiting Somaliland gives outsiders a chance to get to know Somali culture and see some of the best prehistoric painted caves in Africa.