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Art Helps Tell Egypt's Long Story

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By Glenda Winders

When my husband and I decided to visit Egypt he was interested in the country's history and I couldn't wait to see the art. As it turned out, the two are inextricably linked -- the history gave rise to the art and the art would help us to understand the country's rich past.

Once there we visited temples whose walls and columns were covered with hieroglyphics, museums filled with statuary, and tombs alive with color because their paintings had so long been underground and out of the light. At the first temple I was overwhelmed by carvings that covered every inch, but I soon learned that every mark had a meaning and that once I knew a few principles they were within my power to decipher.

A hieroglyph (meaning "sacred carving") is a character in ancient Egyptian writing that depicts a thing or action, expresses a sound and clarifies the characters around it. These are often collected into a cartouche -- an oval with a straight line at a right angle at one end -- to tell who is being honored by the edifice and indicate that they were royal.

Scenes in these places represent everyday life events and humanize the people, who were all seen as equals, despite the figures in crowns and carved more deeply being royal. People with disabilities were not discriminated against in real life or in art. In fact, such infirmities were considered gifts from the gods. We learned this at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where my favorite sculpture, titled simply "Man and Woman," depicts a happy couple who seem totally unaffected by the man's condition.

On tomb and temple walls we saw pictures of everything from a simple meal to battles to preparing a dead body for the next life. If a woman is kneeling among other women she is giving birth. If anyone else is kneeling he or she is a servant. If he's wearing the mask of a jackal he is a priest. If a man's beard is straight he was alive when his statue was created; curved ones appear in the tombs.

 

Sobek, always represented as a crocodile, was the god of the Nile who brought fertility. The sun god Ra is a falcon. The right eye of Ra symbolizes protection and good health, while the left eye of Horus offers many of the same properties. A figure's vandalized nose means his or her enemies have sought to deny the person breath and thus an afterlife. This is especially noticeable at Hatshepsut's temple in Luxor, where the angry stepson who succeeded her destroyed most of her effigies.

Objects also have specific meanings. Scarabs and baboons are symbolic of the sunrise. The ankh is emblematic of everlasting life.

Much of the color on temples has faded, but inside the burial chambers in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens it is pristine and almost indescribable in its beauty. Beyond looking pretty, however, the colors also have meaning.

Early Egyptian artists relied on mixing pigments from minerals and plants with ground stones, egg yolk and water to produce the colors in their palettes. The word for "color" could mean either character or appearance, and how these shades were used was symbolic and well-regulated. Green stood for growth and regeneration, and women's skin was white or pale yellow while men's was a shade of brown. Black represented the fertile land along the Nile, and white had several meanings: purity, cleanliness and simplicity. It was used for priests' sandals as well as for tools and sacred animals. Red stood for the desert, since that's where the pigment was gathered, as well as chaos and blood. Blue represented the heavens. In several tombs we visited the ceilings were bright blue and spangled with gold stars since silver was the more precious metal in those days.

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