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The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak

Although not the most famous pharaoh in modern times (that would probably be his son Tutankhamen aka: King Tut) Akhenaten remains one of the most enigmatic. He arose to the throne as Amenhotep IV then changed his name, introduced monotheism as the state religion, built a new capital city far from the intrigues of the former capital, and thereby upended the traditional political dynamic of the empire. He also influenced art so much that his reign is sometimes called the Amarna Period (referring to his new capital). The topic of this book is a study of certain sculptural renditions ofthe pharaoh.

Ancient Egyptian art, and particularly pharaonic portraiture,was highly idealized; after all the pharaoh was a living god so, similar to high school yearbook photos, blemishes and irregularities were smoothed over. In sculpture, pharaohs were typically depicted with symmetrical and proportional features, especially facial features. Not so for Akhenaten; he is shown with a long face, an almost equine nose, large and sometimes asymmetrical ears, almond-shaped yet slit-like eyes, and high cheekbones. Oh and almost impossibly full luscious lips. Sometimes even his false pharaonic beard is depicted askew. This treatment was not limited to facial features; his body was often depicted withwide "child bearing" hips, soft suggestions of breasts, and even the slightly swollen belly of a woman in early pregnancy. Clearly this was not idealized representation; the question is whether this was realistic or stylized.

Because of the way Akhenaten shook up Egyptian culture, after his death he was derogated. (He is referred to as the heretic king or sometimes simply as "the enemy".) Partly due to the nature of ancient Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife (and the nature of their politics) unpopular pharaohs were routinely erased from history. Their names were removed from (or never placed on) the roll of kings, their images were chipped off of walls, their temples were torn down, and relevantly their statuary was toppled and vandalized. So this book… this research study… is at its heart a deep academic analysis of busted-up statues.

Full disclosure: I did not read this book in its entirety. I do find the study of ancient civilizations very interesting, and ancient Egypt is often fascinating. While not a student (much less an expert) of Egyptology or archeology, I wrote the above paragraphs off the top of my head; and could probably go on for hundreds of more words about Akhenaten and thousands of more words about similar topics. Yet this book managed to surpass my threshold of interest. This is not to say that there is necessarily anything wrong with it, just that the level of granularity… the depth of detail… is likely more than any casual reader would enjoy. I found the discussions of cultural context… and yes, the pictures… to be far more compelling than the minutia of the histories of excavation and the precise locations of statuary fragments in the matrix. It was simply too much for me; I finished before the book did.

If you study such topics then you might find this to be light reading… otherwise don't put it on your summer reading list unless your goal is to fall asleep on the beach.

Next review: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)


1 Comments On This Entry

BTW... try saying out loud "The Akhenaten Colossi of Karnak" with a Boston accent.
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