*** ancient civilizations -- Egypt arts

Ancient Egypt: The Arts

Egyptian art
Figure 1.--Egypt is one of the few ancient societies for which we have a wealth of visual art, in large measure becuse of the importabce of tomb paintings. This painting comes from the tomb of Paheri in El Kab, the ancient town of Nekhen. Paheri was a nomarch (governor prince) and scribe. He was chief of the priests of the god of his city. In the picture Wadjmose is sitting on his lap. Wadjmose was a son of Pharaoh Thutmose I (18th dynasty). Probably Paheri was the prince's preceptor. Wadjmose is represented in a realistic way, as probably he spent most of his childhood. He does not wear clothes. It goes without question that this was the case for common children, but it is interesting that it was also the case for the princly class as for them kt was not an economic issue. And his head is shaved with only a lock of hair. Note that the faces have been destroyed. This was an action meant go destroy them in the after life.

The fine arts were well developed in ancient Egypt. Egypt thus made a huge contribution to art history. In part this was the result of the richness of ancient Egypt which could afford the devote the resources needed to create great art. Egypt was not the earliest of the great rivel valley civilizations, but followed closely the development of agriculture and civilization in Mesopotamia. It was the longest living of all the the Mediterranean cultures by milenia and until the classical era by far the richest. Geography provided stability. Egypt was secure from foreign invaders because of its baren desert borders. And the sustaining waters of the Nile provide boutiful harvests that made for domestic tranquility. Egyptian culture and art developed in this stable environment over milenia. The visual arts were dominated by a unique hieratic style of painting and stone carving. Because much of the painting was to decorate tombs, a great deal of it has survived. We are most familiar with the visuals arts and arhitecture because so much of it has survived. Egypt also had a rich tradition of dance and music, but only visual depictions have for the most part survived. Scholars differe as to ghe existence of drama. The arts had two functions in ancient Egypt and they were not dissimilar to he role of art in other eras. First, art was to glorify the many and this included the reining Pharaoh. Here are was used to ease the human passage of the pharoah into the after-life. And the nobels and other well-to-do wanted to also make the passage. Second, art was used to assert, propagandize and preserve the cultural values of the day. The general stability of Egyptian society led inevitably to highly conservative forms with rigid rules which ovr time put little value on creativity and concentrated on order and form. Egyptia art played a major role in the development of art in clasical Greece and Rome.

Visual Arts

Egypt produce a dizzing variety of art often to a very high standard. There is statuary, (stone, bronze, and wood), carvings, reliefs, coffin lids, jewelry, glass, and paintings (on tomb walls, papyrus, and wood), and other works. Egypt has produced some of the larges and smallest works of art ever created. The large statuatory art is well known to the general public, some of the smaller pieces are less well known. For a time European scholars were much more interested in Greek art, especially sculpture. Over time interest in Egyptian art has increased and we increasingly understand that Greek sculpture and other art forms trace its origins to Egypt. To the modern eye Egyptian paintings and sculpture seems static and austere compared to Greek sculpture. This appears to be in part due to a stylistic convention in Egypt's remarkably stable cultural tradition. The classic conventions of Egyptian art were established in the Old Kingdom. Many archeological finds show that artists had the understanding and technical ability to produce more realistic depictions. The pharaoh who was seen as an all-poweful god by his subjects and thus was central focus of Egyptian art. Egyptian art was in fact utilitarian. Many artists in Egypt were essentilly government employees assigned largely to depict the power and greatness of pharoah. This is one reason that "smitting scnes" showing pharoah defeating Egypt's enemies are so common. In addiition, many scultures and other art works designed to evoke spells or serving as charms. [Stewart, p. 78, 80.]


Music had prehistoric origins in Egypt. Actual evidence becomes available on after the beginiing of the dynastic or pharaonic) period (about 3100 BC). Music was important in Egyptian life at various levels. The status of musicians varied and they reached varied status in Egyptian society. Music had aole at various levels in Egyptian society from the higest to the lowest levels: palaces, temples, homes, workshops, farms, battlefields, and tombs. Music was an integral part of Egyptian religious practice as pursued in the temples. There were gods that the Egyptians specifically associated with music, especially Hathor and Bes. Both these gods were also associated with dance, fertility, and childbirth). Egyptians made music with both choirs and instuments. Both male and female voices were employed in Egyptian music. We note depictions of choirs, but not of boy choirs. We note a wide range of musical intruments, including percussion, wind, stringed. Actual examples of these instruments have been found as part of funrry goods. There re also depictions in tomb paintings. Egyptian percussion instruments included hand-held drums, rattles, castanets, bells, and the sistrum. The later was a type of rattle which was important in temple ceremonies. Hand clapping was a kind of percussion instrument to add to rhythmic accompaniment. There were also several kinds of winf instruments included flutes (double and single, with reeds and without) and trumpets. And there were also different stringged indtumens. They included harps, lyres, and lutes. They were played by plucked rather than bowed. Archeologists have found instruments inscribed with the name of the owner and decorated with representations of the goddess (Hathor) or god (Bes). Most of music made in Egypt was made by professional musicians.


Both music and dance were a potentially lucrative undertaking pursued by both men and women, but based on the imagery found in Egyptian tombs, both were more commonly pursued by women. It was a rare area in hich women could earn money. This could be done in various ways. They could be employed by royalty or priests as wll as nobles with large estates. Or they could work freelance, performing at festivals or at parties by well-to-do hosts. The Egyptians enjoyed music and dance. The two were often interconnected. The Egyptians enjoyed singing, playing musical instruments, and dancing during their leisure time. Humble farmers and workers danced to give thanks for good harvests. The wealthy enjoyed all-female song and dance troupes were as after dinner entertainment. A talented woman could choose dancing as asocially cceotable career. This became the case early in Egyoptian history. The names of such performers are for the most part lost to history. The Old Kingdom female performing duo of Hekenu and Iti were so spectcular that they were commemorated in the tomb of Nikaure, an accountant. While an anomally, it suggests the popularity of dancing in ancient Egypt. And while names are not mentioned, we commonly see dancrs depicted in Egyptian tombs. Dancing impages first appear as part of religious ritual and then in purely secular settings. The Dancer of the Muu was performed at funerals by male dancers wearing tall head-dresses made of reeds. The Sed-festival, the Opet Festival, Processions of the Sacred Barques, and other festivals, all included rituals and celebrations which included dancers. A chant found enscribed on the Temple of Hathor at Dendera reads, "The King comes to dance, he comes to sing. Sovereign lady, see how he dances, Wife of Horus, see how he leaps." We know a great deal about the dances performed. The primary sourcec come from tomb pintings and reliefs. These images show skillful ans attractive dancers running, swaying, jumping, pirouetting, and sinuously bending. Much of what we see in ballet and modern fance. They are often shown with tambourines or with other playing nusical insruments. We see dancers variously costumned. Weighted hair-plaits swing wideky, adding to the motion of their bodies. Some were virtually naked with only belt girdles or other adornments. Others wore dresses, including diaphanous robes. The naked dancers may be an indication of slavery. The lack of clothing also enabled the dabcers to move freely. Of course in Egypt's hot climate, the absence of clothing or scantty clothing was not uncommon. Scholars have studied Egyptian dancing. The depictions suggest considerable skill and grace as well as acrobatic moves. [Strouhal] This would of course required training, perhaps beginning in childhood. Nothing is known, however, about how these dancers were selected and trained. There are no depictions of children being schoolen dance.


The Greeks are commonly see as the creators of drama/theater as an art form. The eark\lies entact plays are indeed Greek. There are indications that the earliest known theatrical performances come fro Egypt, millenia before the Greeks. This of course depends on just how on defines 'theater' as well as the interpretation of Egyptian records. There were no theaters fir the opublic in ancient Egyot. The Egyptian did have pageant-like, religious celebration which had ritualistic performances. These seem for the most part to lack drama, but there are scattered refferences to suggest the existence of dramatic forms which begin to appear (about 2600 BC). The Ramesseum Dramatic Papyrus was written during the Middle Kingdom. [Brown, p. 537] Ikhernofret's stela contains a description of a festival play. [Breasted, pp. 633ff.] This was during the reign iof Senusret III. We do not know to what extent Egyptian forms may have affected Crete and ultimately Greece. With the Helenistic era there is more The inscriotions depicting the Horus festival at the Edfu temple are Ptolemaic, the Greek dynasty. And we have the from the classical era of Greeks and Romans trying to describe what they saw as the strange Egyotian culture. Herodotus refers to attempted to spectacular scenes enacted during festival performances.


The Egyptian were builders on a scale beyond that of any other ancient society except ancient China. The pyramids are the most famous Egyptian monument and the only surviving structure of the seven great wonders of the ancient world. The Egyptian pyramids are suyrely the most imposing toumbs eve built. Ritually, the pyrimids were shaped like the sacred mound where the gods first appeared in the creation story. Of course the pyrimid, with its inhrent stability, was also the largest structure that could be built with the technology developed by the Egyptians. The pyramids were the most massive construction project of the ancient era, rivaled only by the Great Wall in China whichwas built over a much longer time frame. Highly skilled architects and engineers devised the plans and supervised the construction. Thanks to Hollywood epics, it was once thought that the pyramids were built largely by slave labor. It is now believed that the laborers were in fact paid for their labor, although many maybhave been conscripted. Massive limestone blocks had to be moved and the Egyptians did not have wheeled vehicles, draught animals, or iron tools to aid in thge process. Thre months out of the yearswhile the Nile was in flood stage, the state could demand labor of the unemployed peastry. The labor force could be used for work on the irrigational canals, in the quaries , hauling stines, making bricks, and other projects. [Aldred, p. 22.] Many of Egypt's great monuments were built with this national labor force.


Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt--A New Study (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1968), 272p.

Breasted, James Henry. Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago 1906 Part One).

Brown, John Russell. The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Stewart, Doug. "Eternal Egypt," Smithsonian, date missing, pp. 74-84.


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Created: 1:46 PM 7/28/20133
Last updated: 1:46 PM 7/28/2013