April 7th, 2010

never there

The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes

Last week's episode of The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes was a two hour programme, so we watched it as an extra TV night last night. Theoretically we'd've had the chance to start earlier as J had the day off and I could do dinner for earlier than on a karate night ... but in practice that failed to work out as I misjudged how long the curry would take to cook ;)

In the programme she was looking at the architectural achievements of the ancient Egyptians, in particular the great pyramid at Giza (built by Khufu) and the temples built by Rameses II. Her intro set it up as looking at two individual Pharaohs, to show that the ancient Egyptian culture wasn't one monolithic entity, it had changed over the 3000 years it had existed. So we looked at Khufu from the Old Kingdom era and from a time of peace and prosperity, and how he was really a god on earth to his people - so he could mobilise this incredible workforce to build his pyramid. From a population of about 1.5 million he had 25,000 men working on the building project, not as forced labour but because building this pyramid would secure Khufu's place in the afterlife and thus secure peace and prosperity for the rest of the kingdom. And because you got well fed and paid during the flood season of the Nile when you wouldn't be working on your farm anyway. The evidence from the workers' village they've discovered near the pyramids at Giza suggests that the workers were much better fed than a peasant normally would be - with a ration of beer & bread, and even meat. Lots of cgi of how the pyramid must've looked when it was completed - covered in a smooth and polished limestone casing. Must've been even more impressive and awe-inspiring than it is today.

Moving on to Rameses II a thousand years later she pointed out that the world had changed around the Egyptians - no longer were they the one super-power in the region, with no fear of invasion and an unbroken tradition of Pharaohs. Instead the kingdom had been through several periods of instability, and part had even been ruled by outsiders, the Hyksos. Even though Rameses was removed from that time (the 18th Dynasty had been instrumental in re-unifying the country, Rameses II was the third Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty) he was still concerned with foreign kingdoms - the Egyptians had more of an empire than in Khufu's day and their lands adjoined those of other empires, such as the Hittites. So while he was still Pharaoh and would still gain immortality with the gods and as a god after death, he was in many ways closer to his people. His actions would be scrutinised, even criticised. So the purpose of his architectural works was not only to secure his place in the afterlife (with his tomb, with his temples, as the analogues of Khufu's pyramid) but also to show his people and his enemies that he, Rameses II, was a great Pharaoh. So the walls of the temples are not just decorated with generic "smiting the traditional enemies" pictures, but with scenes from particular battles and "triumphs". Most of which weren't really triumphs, they were not-losses that he could spin as triumphs. And although the temples are for the gods, they are also demonstrations of what a great man Rameses II was - like the great statues at Abu Simbel not of gods, but of himself. And the sun lighting up the gods inside Abu Simbel is not just the gods, but Rameses II as a god. A different model of Pharaoh-hood than the earlier one, but still recognisable "Egyptian".