Relief of a temple with the Pharaoh Ptolemy XII (father of Cleopatra VII) shown worshipping the god Thot

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A wall relief on a single rectangular block. Given the size of the figures, the hieroglyphics and the deep bas-relief, one can conclude that the relief was for a temple or sanctuary of considerable size. The technique used allows the images to be seen in the greatest detail when there is a lot of natural light, leading to the deduction that the work was situated on the outer walls of the building.

The iconography shows a male figure who, with his attributes of crown and uraeus, can be identified as a pharaoh. He is facing an Egyptian deity who has the head of an ibis: the god Thot. The pharaoh is extending both arms, holding two conical vases topped with five spheres, iconic representations of incense. These elements depict an offering being made to the god. Following the Egyptian canons, Thot is depicted with a human body and animal head, and is wearing the usekh (meaning “wide”) collar over his chest and shoulders. His tripartite wig is topped with a large atef crown, typical of the iconography of some of the gods. It is a more elaborate and complex version of the white crown of Upper Egypt. Ostrich feathers decorate each side of this crown, to which later, in the New Kingdom, a sun disk and sometimes some uraei were added, all of which were balanced on two horizontal ram horns. The circular disk above the crown gives it a solar value. A “was” sceptre, an emblem of power carried by gods, can be seen between the two figures. The lower section of the relief is missing. The figures, however, would have been standing with their feet in the typical position depicted with one foot in front of the other to indicate movement.

The scene is framed by two vertical lines, one on each side, and above by the hieroglyph “pt” (the sky), represented by a horizontal rectangle with the two lower corners tapering into points. These elements were used by the Ancient Egyptians from the time of the New Kingdom in representations on the walls of religious temples and sanctuaries to frame and distribute the different scenes and texts that covered all the walls, both interior and exterior.

There are two royal cartouches and two columns of hieroglyphs in the upper area between the two figures. A cartouche is the stylised representation of a loop of rope which encircled the name of a pharaoh, protecting him for eternity. It also helped to avert misinterpretation as it demarcated where the name began and ended. The name of birth (Sa-Ra name) and name of coronation (Nezut-Bity name) of the pharaoh Ptolemy XII can be found in the two cartouches: “Ptolemy, eternal, beloved of Isis and Ptah” and “Heir of Soter, The Chosen of Ptah, who keeps the justice of Ra, Living Image of Amun”, respectively. The two columns of text identify the god as well as some following magic formulas. The left column begins with “Words said by Thot (Djehuty), Given Life, who Presides over the Temples (houses), Director of the dominions of the Temple of the great God, he who presides, Ra. To the left of the cartouches there is another element characteristic of the Egyptian iconography – the sun disk associated with the god Ra. Two cobras or uraei, stylised symbols of the pharaoh, descend from this disk.

The importance of the work lies both in its size and in the reason for which it was made: it does not come from a private tomb (like most of the reliefs which are today conserved in collections and museums) but from a chapel for worship within a temple made in honour of Ptolemy XII, father of the emblematic Cleopatra VII.

Ptolemy XI

Ptolemy XII Neo Dionysos lived between 112 and 51 BCE. He was known as Auletes (the Flutist) and also as Nothos (the bastard) and was a pharaoh of Egypt during the Ptolemaic Period. According to which chronology is followed, his reign would be between 80 – 58 BCE and 55 – 51 BCE.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty descended from a long dynasty of Macedonian sovereigns who had ruled over the Egyptians from the time of the death of Alexander the Great and were known as Ptolemaic Lagidae. It would seem that Ptolemy XII was a bad governor and king who did not take proper care of his people. He was therefore not respected and his nickname, “Auletes”, came about because it was said he spent more time on music than ruling. He was, in effect, a great lover of festivals and banquets, during which he used to play the flute and get drunk. He showed little concern over the difficulties that were laying waste to the country and his reaction was usually one of intensely corrupt practices. Moreover, he lived in fear that the Romans would depose him. The latter used this fear, reminding his periodically that a supposed will of his predecessor, Ptolemy XI, existed, which handed over the ruling of Egypt to Rome.

He was the son of Ptolemy IX Soter II and a mother of unknown identity. The fact that he was illegitimate led him during his reign to seek strong support from Rome (the hegemonic power of the moment) to counterbalance his insufficient royal legality. He married Cleopatra V Tryphaenaena, who was, perhaps, his sister. In 76 BCE a coronation ceremony was held with Egyptian rites. Even though it took place in Alexandria and not in Memphis as was traditional, the presence of the High Priest of that city shows that it had the support of the powerful Egyptian clergy, who in exchange, received important donations from the king.

In 65 BCE the legitimacy of the pharaoh was questioned in the Roman Senate. He then had to seek the support of consuls and generals and bribe certain authorities, including Julius Caesar, in exchange for which the latter managed to have the pharaoh’s legitimacy legally recognised. Despite this, Rome did not include Cyprus in this agreement, and they annexed it in 58 BCE to the indifference of the pharaoh. The island was governed by his brother, who, on finding that the pharaoh did nothing to defend him, committed suicide. The loss of Cyprus caused an irate popular uprising in Egypt against Auletes, who travelled to Rome in search of aid to put it down. His wife Cleopatra and the eldest daughter of both, Berenice IV, were left as regents. After the death of the queen, the people of Alexandria proclaimed Bernice as the sole monarch and sent representatives to Rome to defend her legitimacy before the Senate. Auletes, who was living in the home of Pompey, tried to win the support of the senators by means of substantial bribes, which meant that he had to raise taxes in Egypt and even go into debt to Roman moneylenders. He also organized the assassination of the delegates from Alexandria. Auletes managed to secure the support of Aulus Gabinius, proconsul in Syria and deputy of Pompey, and got his throne in Egypt back with the aid otoa Roman army. The cavalry of this army was led by a twenty-four-year-old officer called Mark Antony, who, in the course of time, would become the sovereign of Egypt along with another of the daughters of Auletes, Cleopatra VII. When the pharaoh returned victorious to Alexandria, he ordered the death of his daughter, Berenice. The size of his debt was such that he had to name his main Roman creditor, a banker called Rabirius, as Minister of Finance. The latter intended to make sure that he at least got back the mount he had lent out, but the following year he had to flee the country due to a popular revolt. Shortly before his death (in 51 BCE) Auletes named his children as coregents (the famous Cleopatra VII, then eighteen years of age, and his son Ptolemy XIII, then just ten years old. He also named them heirs of the kingdom under the custody of Rome. Of course, according to the laws of the Lagidae, to be able to govern jointly, they had first to marry.

God Thot:

When the waters of the Nile rose, the Threskiornis aethiopicus, a bird which has now disappeared from Egypt, migrated in colonies from Ethiopia to the marshlands of the delta. This ibis is distinguishable for its graceful and flexible neck which it keeps extended in flight, for its long, curved beak and for its general white plumage contrasting with the black of its neck, tail and head.

The ibis is able to distinguish between clean and dirty waters, a fact which was proof in the eyes of the Egyptians, of the immense wisdom of this creature. They honoured it to the point of turning it into one of the reincarnations of the god Thoth. This is the Greek name of the god and by which he is popularly known. The Ancient Egyptians called him Djehuty. He was considered to be the god of knowledge and had authority over all other gods. He was also the inventor of writing, patron of scribes, of the arts and sciences. As god of writing, he was the inventor of all words and speech. He is also associated with the baboon and for this reason he is seen in both forms in artistic representations, both in reliefs and in sculptures.

The spectacular black and white plumage of the ibis led some classical authors, such as Plutarch or Aelian, to explain the assimilation by the Egyptians of the bird with the moon, through a parallel with the waxing and waning phases of this heavenly body. To be precise, Thoth was the god who watched over the lunar cycle, the controller and protector of time, and for this reason he was on occasions identified with the moon itself. He was also the inventor of the calendar. He calculated the years, kept the royal annals and recorded the years of the reign of the monarchs on the fruit of the persea, the sacred tree of Heliopolis.

It was the behaviour of this long-legged bird that backed up the theology relating to the god Thoth. Among other features, its mode of walking through the vegetation of the marshes gave rise to cult of the god “Thoth who is on his thicket”. The powerful and sharp beak led him to be associated with the stylus, the emblematic writing tool used by scribes, but also with the struggle against the serpent Apep. In his funerary aspect, the god can be seen in the room of the “weighing of the souls” in the balance (Psychostasia). Here, in front of Osiris, the heart of the deceased person was judged. Thoth was the one charged with the task of noting down Osiris’s verdict. He was also considered to be the architect who knew the design and trajectory of all things, the lord of inventors and knowledge, and was as well related to music as the inventor of the lyre.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- BLEIBERG, E. Soulful Creatures. Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn. 2013.
- CASTEL, E. Gran Diccionario de Mitología Egipcia. Aldebarán. Madrid. 2001.
- GUICHARD, H. et al. Animales y Faraones. El Reino Animal en el Antiguo Egipto. Catálogo de exposición. Obra Social La Caixa. Barcelona. 2015.
- VANOYEKE, Violaine. Los Ptolomeos. Últimos faraones de Egipto: desde Alejandro Magno a Cleopatra. Aldebarán. 2000.
- WILKINSON, R.H. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London. 2003.
- WILKINSON, R.H. Los Templos del Antiguo Egipto. Destino. 2002.

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