Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Mysteries of Sudan's Meroe, an empire on the Nile - Exhibition at The Louvre Paris March 26 - Sept 6, 2010

Les pyramides de la necropole royale nord de Meroe
© M. Baud
Les pyramides de la necropole royale nord de Meroe

Meroe, an empire on the Nile
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Exhibition from 26 March to 06 September 2010
During this first exhibition of Meroe, the capital of a powerful empire located on the shores of the Nile, two hundred works illustrate the grandeur of this ancient civilization that combines African influences, Egyptian and Greco-Roman

Located in Sudan, two hundred kilometers north of Khartoum today, the city of Meroe, the capital of the kingdom, is known for its pyramids for kings and queens who have dominated the region between 270 BC and 350 AD

Consisting mainly of loans from museums in Khartoum - the famous gilded bronze statue of a king archer, British Museum, World Museum and the Museum of Liverpool Garstang, museums in Munich, Berlin and Leiden, the exhibition brings together about two hundred works that evoke the originality and power of the empire of Meroe.

The main topics are everyday life, crafts, social systems, the kings and their symbols of power, the role of queens, known as the candaces, cults exist alongside the Egyptian Amun and the Greek Dionysos , the afterlife as conceived by the people of Meroe.

Another section is devoted to the rediscovery of the ruins of the pyramids of Meroe in 1821 by Frederick Cailliaud, as well as archaeological excavations since 2007 Mouweis, site of the Empire heart, by the Department of Antiquities. A selection of objects found during the last three years reflects the action on the ground by the Louvre.

The exhibition has the main sponsorship of Deloitte's sponsorship partner of Ipsen and sponsorship from Lafarge.

In media partnership with Le Parisien, Connaissance des Arts, France 5 and France Info.

Commissioner (s): Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë, Michel Baud and Aminata Sackho-Autissier, Department of Egyptian Antiquities, Musée du Louvre

Statue d'un roi archer

© Jürgen Liepe
Statue d'un roi archer conservee au Musee national du Soudan Khartoum, provenant de tabo sur I'lle d'Argo
The Mysteries of Meroe
The New York Times News Service
PARIS — Agatha Christie could have invented the story. Imagine another Egypt, with a marked black African component. This is Meroe, in present-day Sudan. In art, ancient Egyptian deities appear alongside others, unknown elsewhere. The Meroitic cursive script has been deciphered, revealing that it transcribes an African language. It is related to others spoken today, like Taman in parts of Darfur and Chad, Nyima in the Sudanese Nuba mounts, or Nubian in upper Egypt and Sudan. For the moment though, it is only beginning to be partially understood. Go see the latest on “Méroé, un empire sur le Nil” at the Louvre until Sept. 6.

In the last three years, archaeological discoveries have given a new face to an enigmatic culture that already intrigued Western explorers 250 years ago. In 1772, the Scotsman James Bruce caught sight of broken obelisks and barely discernible traces of pyramids as he traveled back from the source of the Blue Nile. These, he reckoned, had to be the remains of Meroe, known to Ancient Greek historians.

It was the Frenchman Frédéric Caillaud who, on the morning of April 25, 1822, first saw “a host of pyramids.” He accurately drew and described these in his book “A Trip to Meroe on the White River,” published in 1826. The consequences were disastrous. Antique hunters rushed to loot the site.

In 1834, Giuseppe Ferlini destroyed several pyramids. As he blew up one of these, the Italian dealer laid hands on a fantastic treasure that turned out to have belonged to Kandake (Queen) Amanishakheto. The priceless historical documentation that a proper archaeological investigation would have yielded was pulverized by the explosion and the objects were sold to museums in Munich in 1839, and Berlin in 1844.

Eventually, archaeologists stepped in. The Prussian Karl Richard Lepsius, who conducted a three-year-long campaign, produced an exemplary study of the standing monuments.

In the 20th century, a mission funded by Harvard University and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts worked out the chronological succession of the Kushite rulers of Meroe. Bronzes and ivories came to light, as well as gold jewels inlaid with mother-of-pearl and semi-precious stones that had been overlooked by looters in damaged tombs, and others preserved in funerary caches that had escaped destruction.

More important, the American expedition led by George Reisner opened up a new chapter of cultural history. No one had expected Greek and Roman objects to be found deep in black Africa. The northern necropolis of Meroe yielded a wine vessel in the form of an Amazon figure riding a rearing horse and holding a pouring vessel of the type called rhyton. This is a fifth-century B.C. piece, signed by Sotades, a potter from Athens. Stylistically reminiscent of the Parthenon marble riders, the artefact, fit for kings, was found in a royal tomb. A Roman silver wine cup of the first century A.D. from Italy turned up in the landfill of another pyramid.

In the last three years, dozens of objects beggaring belief have shown that the Meroitic Kingdom was in contact with most northern and eastern Mediterranean lands. Wine was imported in amphoras of the common pottery type found along the shores of the French Riviera. A precious glass flask with a marvered pattern, alternately turquoise and black, that is typical of the finest Syrian production were recovered at Sedeinga.

The greater surprise is the culture of Meroe itself, derived from Ancient Egypt and yet profoundly different.

Art here says more than the incompletely decrypted texts in the syllabic script adapted from the Egyptian demotic (i.e. popular) alphabet.

A tall beaker in blue glass painted with polychrome scenes deals with a very Egyptian theme. Offerings are brought to the god Osiris and an inscription in golden capitals urges in Greek — the language imposed on Egypt after Alexander’s conquest in the fourth century B.C. — “Drink and may you live [long].” The cartoon-like humor makes one wonder whether this might be of Meroitic rather than Egyptian make. Either way, it points to a distinctive Meroitic love of a comical touch in serious subjects.

A sense of fun is conveyed by countless Meroitic objets d’art. The small head of a ruler in turquoise frit found on the urban site of Meroe is unlikely to have been molded by the potter with a flattering intention. The puffed-out cheeks, the thick lips and globular eyes make it a perfect three-dimensional cartoon.

This ironical strain was cultivated from early times on. A turquoise frit mask, which may have once been part of an amphora, depicts a woman (rather than a man as suggested in the exhibition book) with a laugh on her closed lips. It is reminiscent of fifth-century B.C. Cypriot sculpture, with which it may be contemporary.

Derision crept into the most solemn scenes carved in sandstone on the Egyptian model. Queen Amanishakheto, receiving the breath of life on a stele from Naga dating from the late first century B.C. or early first century A.D., seems to be amused. The goddess, too, gives the impression of enjoying the fun of it all, whether or not this was the artist’s intended message. Greater drollery is conveyed by the apish look of the ram-headed god Amon excavated at Djabal Barkal. The body, carved out of granite, has the hieratic posture of early Egyptian art but the animal head has a human expression of repressed hilarity. The intention to belie the austerity demanded by the cannon seems clear.

If any doubts remain about the comical effects sought in much of Meroitic art, painted pottery should dispel them. A beaker from the urban site of Meroe is decorated with a frieze of raised cobras, their tails rhythmically wiggling and their dilated eyes appearing to express concern about the precarious balance of the solar disks perched on their heads. The scene would not look out of place in the French satirical weekly “Le Canard Enchaîné.”

Meroitic humor went together with somber Expressionism. The monumental statue of the god Sebiomeker discovered in the Temple of Isis at Meroe has the hieratic posture of Egyptian gods, but everything else is alien to Egypt. The ill-formed rigid limbs and the wide-eyed expression of distress give it a curious modernity.

A strange development in Meroitic art around the second or third century A.D. led to a kind of Cubist Expressionism. The head of a man excavated at Argin is its ultimate masterpiece. The angular geometricism and the extreme simplification parallels a similar trend in the art of Ancient Yemen around that time. The exhibition book, edited by Michael Baud, does not mention the fact, which may reflect contacts between Meroe and the Arabian peninsula.

Many components undoubtedly went into the brew of Meroitic culture. The exhibition book deals with Meroe as if it had been one nation modeling itself on Egypt, with some black African input. The human reality may have been much more complex.

The African contribution is evident in pots such as the stunning black earthenware jar with bulls stylized to near abstraction. Black African ethnic types are represented in a variety of styles, ranging from sophisticated figuration in bas reliefs of the late first or early second century A.D. to artefacts that reproduce Hellenistic models handled in the simplified somber Expressionist manner of the third to fourth century A.D. Such is a scented oil flask from el-Kadata on loan from Boston.

But we know nothing about society in Meroe. The people who molded around the first or second century A.D. the prehistoric looking figures from Muweis and the western metropolis at Meroe; the bronze makers who cast during the same period the small bust of a queen with black African features found in the Temple of Amon at el-Hassa; and the sculptor who carved the bas-relief of Isis in Egyptian style for King Amanitenmomide may have belonged to very different human groups.

The day a bilingual text sufficiently long to give at last a key to the Meroitic language turns up surprises are to be expected. The latest discoveries displayed at the Louvre suggest that it might not be too far off.

Méroé, un empire sur le Nil. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Through Sept. 6.

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1 comment:

VIQAR KHAN said...

beautiful and informative