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Treasures of Ancient Egypt

3,500 year old royal seal of the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III. Photo: Elie Posner, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

This winter, an Israeli hiking in the Galilee stumbled upon a small oval stone decorated with unusual carvings in the shape and size of a fat beetle. Suspecting it might be ancient, he turned it over to the Israel Antiquities Authority. Dr. Daphna Ben Dor, curator of Egyptology at the Israel Museum, identified the find as a 3500 year-old royal seal of the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III.

What was an Egyptian scarab doing on a hill in the Galilee? It is a little known historical fact that starting in 1500 BC, Egypt ruled Canaan for 350 years. It was this Pharaoh Thutmose, dubbed "the Egyptian Napoleon" by Ben Dor, who was the first conqueror of the region, most famously commemorated for the battle of Megiddo. The Egyptian occupation predates historical records of Jews in Canaan, and was never mentioned in biblical textual sources; hence the story remained largely unknown. 

Canaanite scarab bearing a generic figure of a Canaanite ruler, Tell el-`Ajjul, 17th -16th century BCE, steatite. Photo: Elie Posner, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

In fact, Israel is literally littered with Egyptian specimens that have survived in situ, where the Egyptian rulers brought them over from the home country or commissioned them locally three and a half millennia ago.

This treasure trove of Egyptian art is Pharaoh in Canaan currently showcased at the Israel Museum in a tantalizing show with the enticing name: The Untold Story, jointly curated by Drs. Ben Dor and Eran Arie. 

Statue of the Nile God at the Capitolo by Francois Perrier, 1590-1650

The exhibit features over 600 objects found locally, including dozens of main displays – busts, coffins, burial jars, victory slabs, jewelry, seals, games, pottery, statues, plaques and tombstones. The dominant Egyptian culture cross-fertilized with the local Canaanite culture, resulting in overlapping deities and artistic styles. Most significantly, the exhibit presents the theory that exposure to Egyptian hieroglyphics influenced Canaanites to modify hieroglyphics' complicated cumbersome system and to develop the first written alphabet. The merging of esthetic and ritual practice from ancient cultures connects the growth of world civilization to the land of Israel. 

The Finding of Moses, undated, oil on canvas, by Nicola Grassi, Italian, 1682-1750

The Egyptian goddess Hathor of the singular face and cow ears was the patron goddess of all foreign lands. Not by chance, then, does Hathor figure prominently in Egyptian art in its conquered territory. An exquisite mirror bearing her likeness was lent to the exhibit by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Louvre loaned a stunning statue of the emperor Akhenaten. A tombstone came from the Archeological Museum of Turin. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna sent a majestic granite head of the conqueror Thutmose, who seems to be staring out through time into the eyes of the modern visitor. The remaining objects are drawn from the rich collection of the Israel and Rockefeller Museums, and a few from the collection of the Bible Lands Museum next door. 

Falcon-shaped vessel, Ashkelon, 17th-16th century BCE, pottery Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority Photo: Elie Posner, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Jewelry, Canaan, 14th-13th Century BCE, Gold Photo: David Harris, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Egyptian rule over Canaan encompassed the reigns of some of its most famous pharaohs. Besides Thutmose and Akhenaten, Canaan was under the rule of Seti, Rameses III and Tutankhamun. All are commemorated in the show.

From Beit Shean comes a monument praising the victory of Seti in subduing local rebellions, as well as a seated statue of Rameses carved from local basalt stone. A gold ring bearing the name of Tutankhamun was uncovered among the jewelry treasures excavated from Tell el-Ajjul in the Gaza Strip.

This small blockbuster of an exhibit will fascinate both lovers of Egyptian art and devotees of local archeology. 

Fragment of Sphinx, Hazor, 26th century BCE (but probably arrived at the site during 14th-13th century BCE), Gneiss Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority. Photo: Elie Posner, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Ancient Egypt is also featured in a concurrent satellite exhibit under the auspices of the Fine Arts department and curated by Shlomit Steinberg. The Allure of the Sphinx, Ancient Egypt in European Art takes intercultural portrayal a step further. This fine coherent show gathers numerous paintings and lithographs in which European artists render the biblical and ancient heroes fashioned in the Egypt of their imagination. Until the 19th century, European artists were unfamiliar with Egypt except through ancient texts. For them, three things symbolized this exotic land: the pyramids, the obelisk, and the Sphinx. These icons reappear in painting after painting, regardless of the theme. They continue to peek out from the background of most canvasses even after European travelers "discovered" Egypt following its first exposure to the European culture by Napoleon.

Dressed in the garb of medieval Holland or Renaissance France, Abraham banishes Hagar, Joseph is seduced by Potiphar's wife, Miriam gazes at baby Moses floating down the Nile, and Cleopatra puts the asp to her breast. All populate canvases of a mythical and magical land of Egypt conceived and painted in the faraway European continent.

Outgoing museum director, James Snyder, calls crosscurrents the subtext to be explored this season by all the departments of the Israel Museum. Through the example of Egypt in archeology and art, both exhibits express the interconnectedness and overlap of human cultures.

■Pharaoh in Canaan and Allure of the Sphinx are on view at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, until Tuesday October 25, 2016. 



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