Art – Egypt And Western Asia

CIVILIZATION is not in speed of train or plane. Nor in sputtering wire nor wireless sputter. But in essentials, fundamentals. My dilettante New Yorker, that mummy you appraise may have been more civilized than you.

Surely you are familiar with a popular picture of Napoleon before the Sphinx. The emperor stands in deep thought. The granite monster of the desert maintains a poker face, as if to say, “I dare you solve my mystery.”

What is the riddle of the Sphinx? There is none. It is a monument set up in honor of a king. No, not merely for the king—but for the god he became upon his death. For mind you, all kings were by death transformed into gods. And only a god could be deserving of this monument of one million seven hundred thousand tons of solid rock. But I am a bit ahead of my story. I want first to give you a glimpse of the background of this Sphinx; and of the pyramids and the great temples through which Egypt expressed herself.

Because of its favorable climate and the physical properties of the Nile, Diodorus called Egypt the birth-place of the human race. This may or may not be true. Certain it is that in remote antiquity the Egyptians had a mature civilization and a well-developed art.

The earliest known inhabitants of the Nile valley went about nude, tattooed and painted, like many Neolithic Europeans. Among the rocks and caves of Upper Egypt are prehistoric engravings and paintings of great interest. Very early Egyptian pottery is of superior workmanship and adornment. In its decoration we see the life of the primitive inhabitants, animal and bird life, vegetation of the islands and marshes adjacent to the Nile.

Primitive Egyptian homes were huts of beaten clay with one opening, a door. Homes of the wealthy were fairly large, requiring one or two pillars for the support of beams. Crude pottery, flint knives and scrapers, flat stones for grinding corn, a few chests and mats of woven straw—these made up the household furnishings.

At first the Egyptians were separate independent tribes. Foreign conquest brought the use of metals, civil organization and early civilization. The tribes were merged into two kingdoms, those of Upper and Lower Egypt. They in turn were united under Menes, first of the Pharaohs.

Tombs assume great importance from the earliest dynasties. At first the remains of the dead were cremated. Burning enabled the deceased to pass directly into the future world. Later came burial. This was accompanied by the making of many likenesses in sculpture or painting, so that when the bones of the departed crumbled to dust his effigy would remain. The “double” was frequently placed in a separate chamber of the tomb.

The pyramids were royal tombs. But why their size? A king dead became a living god. Nothing was too good or too big for a god. The most famous pyramids were three built by Pharaohs known to the Greeks as Cheops, Chefren and Mencheres. Both for their size and as achievements in engineering these first national monuments of Egypt, dedicated to deified Pharaohs, are still among the marvels of the earth.

Let us now return to the colossal Sphinx. Long the object of speculation, that huge stone lion with human head, facing the east, was thought to have been dedicated to the rising sun. Now we know it to be a religious monument, glorifying an early ruler known as the Lion King. During the Roman period a temple was erected at its breast, completely covered since by the desert’s drifting sands.

From the custom of preserving “doubles” we have much fine Egyptian sculpture. Statues are not merely likenesses; they possess grace, personality. Perhaps the most striking example is a monument of King Mencheres and his wife, discovered in 1910 and now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The monarch standing in a priestly attitude and his doting consort leaning to-wards him make a group worthy of any sculptor of today. It has beauty of line, harmony, modeling and superb character study.

At the Cairo Museum are statues made about five thousand years ago which are striking in realism. We see marble portraits of priests, officials and scribes—one of the latter is crouched, taking notes with stylus and wax tablets.

In Egyptian tombs you may find bas-reliefs and painted scenes covering all fields of human activity. These were intended to help the departed in his future life. You see him among his herds, with his slaves, hunting or fishing. From these portrayals we learn that the ancient Egyptians were a powerful, robust and intelligent lot. Well-built, healthy women are grinding corn, kneading bread or washing the family linen.

When the capital was moved from Memphis to Thebes, tombs gradually gave way in importance to. temples. King worship now became secondary. The king, son of God, was replaced by the great god Ammon-Re. In his honor were constructed at Thebes what in some respects are the greatest buildings ever undertaken by man.

Standing on a hillside slope at Abydos is the temple-tomb of Queen Hatasu. It has a series of terraces connected with monumental stairways. Great colonnades serve as porticos to chapels hewn in the rock. Elegance, simplicity and fine proportion mark the columns. Sculptured reliefs on the parapets illustrate the Queen’s many victories in battle. The Queen herself is shown fighting at the side of her father Ammon. Splendidly depicted are the adventures of her fleet.

A short distance away you come upon the Temple of Rameses the Second, its reliefs showing the great conqueror leading his armies in battle. Across the river are the temples of Karnak and Luxor. They were built by a long line of Pharaohs down to the time of the Greek Ptolemys and the Roman emperors. The building of even a portion of these colossal structures must have required no small part of the wealth and power of the great conquerors of Asia. As long as Thebes remained the seat of government these sanctuaries were centers of religious and political activity. They still stand, while mighty Thebes, “the city of a hundred gates,” has entirely disappeared.

The great Temple of Karnak occupies an area twelve hundred feet long by three hundred and sixty feet in width, enclosed by a high wall. Approached through an avenue of sphinxes, its entrance is between two massive, sloping towers, with great obelisks on either side. This brings you into a large court, three hundred and thirty-eight feet long by two hundred and seventy-five feet wide, with a double colonnade on three sides. You next enter hypostyle hall, which is three hundred and twenty by one hundred and sixty feet—try to visualize these measurements? — with one hundred and thirty-four massive columns in sixteen rows supporting an enormous roof of stone slabs.

Can you picture the effect of these columns in close formation, each eleven feet nine inches in diameter and sixty-nine feet high? And the effect is just what it was intended to be—impressive to the point of being oppressive. It was meant to keep the Egyptian people in their place through fear of hidden power. It did.

Smaller columns, nine feet in diameter and forty-two feet high, form the side avenues. This makes possible an ingenious lighting arrangement. As you look down these avenues, your eye travels from the smaller columns, which seem endless as they vanish in darkness, to the awe-inspiring weight of the huge columns in the center.

Next you come to a smaller colonnaded hall. Many and mysterious passageways are here for the temple services. Finally you reach the great sanctuary. On walls and columns are hieroglyphic inscriptions in color telling great tales of the royal builders. Every bit of available space is covered with carving, painting and sculpture. You are thrilled with the admirable drawing of human and animal forms.

On your way out you are again attracted by the obelisks. Standing in pairs at all entrances they are completely covered with hieroglyphics. These single shafts of red granite reach a height of a hundred and nine feet, on a base nine feet square. They taper to six feet at the top and are tipped with metal. Some of them weigh as much as four hundred and fifty tons apiece. Can you imagine what it entailed to quarry such shafts and transport them over great distances, then set them in place without steam power? It must have meant much to these Egyptians to have them here!

Egyptian sculpture in the round is often characterized by exaggerated size. Like all primitive peoples the Egyptians represent greatness by gigantic stature. They had not learned as did the Greeks later, to give form to the moral superiority of the gods by means of noble features and superhuman majesty. Yet Egypt had sculptors of extraordinary ability. The Temple of Karnak is filled with statues of its patron kings, lifelike and excellent in character portrayal. Animal forms required by the prevailing religion are likewise admirable.

Paintings in tombs display a wide range of domestic life. There are pictures of singers, dancers, children, weddings, funerals, national festivals, civic life and court ceremonies. The Book of the Dead, a large papyrus roll buried with mummies containing instructions for the journey to the other world, is illustrated with miniature paintings of the funeral and the various ordeals that the soul must go through before it may enter the life beyond.

Egypt long exacted tribute from her neighbors Syria, Palestine and the rest—until Assyria rose in power. First taking away Egypt’s Asiatic provinces, that nation crossed the Isthmus of Suez and captured Thebes. Nubia, out of reach of the Asiatic conquerors, was harassed by nearby, tribes and the negro people of the Sudan. This city was also lost to Egypt from the time of the sixth to the tenth dynasties, but was reconquered by the Pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom. Here, to avoid the hazards of barbarian attack, are temples hewed out of the native rock.

The Temple of Abu-Simbel, to mention but one example, was built by Rameses the Second. Facing it, on the rocky slope above the Nile, are two seated granite figures rising over sixty feet in height. On either side of the entrance are two smaller figures of Rameses worship-ping Ammon. The temple proper consists of a series of chambers excavated from the solid rock.

The last capital of the Pharaohs was Saise. There the Egyptians were no longer filled with the lust of con-quest. Their ways were simple, they were more peaceful and content. Earlier magnificence had been accompanied by spectacular expeditions against other nations. Artistic glory was the result of plunder and pillage. Workmen who built pyramids and temples were in the main captive slaves. In fact, art was at its highest when the Egyptian masses were most oppressed by the ruling class. In times of greatest inequality the most outstanding monuments were created. Now Egypt was no longer a conqueror. Her military glory had vanished. There came a revival of art along simpler lines. During the Saite period we find a return to simplicity. Tomb decorations are often copies of those of ancient pyramids. A rigid conventionality is adhered to, and simplicity of form and line. Yet this school of art has its elegance, its fine detail, its charm; and the refinements of a more mature civilization.

Egyptian ceramics and everyday objects had for their principal decorative themes the spiral molding, the scarab, the lotus-blossom and the papyrus flower. The latter symbolized the fertility given the soil by the overflow of the Nile. The scarab, or sacred beetle, is the emblem of resurrection. So highly developed were these designs they were adopted without modification by the artists of Greece and Rome. Indeed, they are largely in use at the present time. Egyptian glass and porcelain were later imitated in Phoenicia and Greece. Egyptian jewels and their superb enamels were the vogue among the great ladies of Rome. These jewels achieved a richness of taste rarely equaled since. An inscription by a king of the twelfth dynasty reads: “No one in the world surpasses myself and my eldest son in metal work in gold and silver, of precious stones and even ebony and ivory.” Whether this kingly boast was justified or not, certainly the work of his people in gold, glass and porcelain was held in the highest esteem throughout antiquity.

Assyria, conqueror of mighty Egypt, began its career as a world power about 1300 B.C. Its art was derived mainly from Babylon, the religious center of the Orient. In Babylonia, the principal buildings were fortified royal palaces, although temples were of some importance. Examples are the palace at Lagash, first built at a very early date and rebuilt about 2500 B.C., and the ancient Temple of Bel or Marduk at Babylon. The latter is known as “Aiburshabu,” which means “may the enemy not wax strong.” It was restored by Nebuchadnezzar, who inscribed it thus: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, son of Nebopolassar: The Streets of Babylon, the procession street of Nabu and Marduk, my gods, which my father paved with asphalt did I cover with bitumen and burned bricks. Oh Nabu and Marduk, my gods: when you joyously pass through these streets, grant me your blessing, health and a long life. May I also obtain immortality.”

Surrounding ruins are rich in inscriptions and sculptures of events and personages of the time. The great king is here with his priests and picturesque courtiers. Also Daniel and his youthful fellow captives. The temple itself is a vast structure forming a square with an open court. At one end of this court is a staged tower of many stories rising to an immense height. At its summit a shrine once had stood with a statue of Marduk cast of solid gold. It is no longer there.

The Babylonians discovered the use of metals without outside influence. They invented writing. They established an enlightened system of religion, law and government. Their art was original, it had a peculiar character of its own. Their sculptors had a thorough knowledge of both human and animal anatomy. Most of the themes used in the arts and crafts of the Orient were originated by the Babylonians. Their technique in metal-work, gem-cutting, furniture-making and weaving was widely copied throughout Asia.

‘What builders were these ancients? Witness the great palace of Khorsabad in Assyria. King Sennacherib, who appears to have been his own architect, thus tells of his work: “I enlarged the platform of the old palace, and reinforced its upper portion with great slabs of hewn stone. Rooms of gold and silver, of crystal, alabaster and ivory built for the dwelling of my God. Cedar, cypress and pine timbers from Sindai and thick bars of bronze did I set in the doorways, and in the dwelling-rooms did I leave openings like lofty windows. Great statues of alabaster wearing crowns with horns did I set on either side of the doorways. Great winged bulls of white stone did I carve in the city of Tastiate beyond the Tigris for the great gates, and great trees did I cut from the neighboring forest to build frames on which to transport them. It was in the month of Iyar, and the floods impeded their transport. Those of the company who brought the winged bulls despaired of success. With much effort and among many difficulties were they brought to my palace.” The king gives details of lighting, hydraulic works for water supply, doors, decorations, painted tiles, marble slabs and lapis lazuli. His inscription concludes: “I, Sennacherib, the King of hosts, King of Assyria, following the counsels of the gods and applying all my skill and will, have brought this work to a successful conclusion.”

Persia, under King Cyrus, now takes the place of Assyria as the despoiler of neighboring lands. Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt in turn fall before her armed hosts. For the first time Europe is invaded by an Asiatic power, when Darius wrests the control of the seas from Phoenicia and a Persian army crosses a narrow body of water between Europe and the Orient. Thus Persia becomes a factor in the history of art. Her rulers conquer, plunder, enslave—then build great palaces. But all this was the fashion. Egypt had had her fling, then Assyria. Now they both received as they had given.

Persia had a great abundance of forests. Hence wood was more extensively used than elsewhere. Polybius describes one Persian palace as follows: “Although it was constructed entirely of cedar and cypress it was plated everywhere. The rafters on the ceilings, the linings of the walls and the columns of the porticos were covered with metal. Gold and silver gleamed on every hand, even the tiles on the roof were silver-plated.”

One of the largest columned halls ever built comprised part of the royal palace at Persepolis. It was three hundred and seventy-five feet wide by three hundred feet deep, the columns and their capitals being sixty-three feet high. At Susa and throughout Persia were many other palaces built by Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes and their ilk. Designs in these great buildings were largely borrowed from Egypt and the vassal states of western Asia, with modifications suitable to Persian climate. But though its architecture was mostly copied from others, the Persian column was original. It is taller and more slender than the Egyptian. The bell-shaped base and finely-fluted shaft with its elaborate complex of bull or unicorn make a combination highly suited to the elaborate ornamentation of the palace.

Persian sculpture follows that of Assyria and Babylonia. Yet it often excels both of these in line and elegance. Besides making royal figures Persian sculptors delighted in portraying idealized animals.

Glazed tile decoration was brought to a high state by the Persians. Great bands of small glazed tiles on palace walls at Susa depict hosts of warriors with spears, bows and arrows, as well as many animals. The color scheme is a harmony of brown, yellow and greenish blue. This art was kept up almost to modern times.

Persian art spread throughout the smaller Mediterranean colonies of western Asia as well as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Palestine. Lack of space prevents the mention of more than one outstanding example. The great Temple of Solomon, in Jerusalem, was built under the supervision of Phoenician artisans supplied by Hiram, King of Tyre. A long period of agricultural pursuit had caused the Jews to forget all they had learned of building from the Egyptians. When he needed builders, Solomon naturally turned to Hiram, his business partner.

Solomon’s Temple had a great court for most of the ceremonies. An inner stone chapel entirely lined with gold housed the Tablets of the Law. Two great columns of bronze were at its entrance. On either side of this holy of holies were corridors for the priest. All the walls and doors of the temple proper were carved with cherubim, palm trees and flowers, many covered with gold.

In India we find subterranean rock temples dating back as far as those of early Egypt. Yet there is no great art until two or three hundred years before the Christian Era. Many Brahmanic temples are hewn from the rock. These have great halls with tall columns completely covered with sculptured reliefs. When Buddhism swept the land Brahmanic art was definitely checked. After Buddha’s death holy relics connected with his life were gathered up and each enshrined in a separate structure, or tope.

With the tope as a nucleus a great number of monasteries later sprang up. They were of high architectural merit, and their sculpture of much interest. The latter was influenced to a considerable extent by the Greeks. The Buddha was represented in standing position, seated with legs crossed, or lying down, wearing a long mantle similar to those on Greek statues. Always immobile, al-ways with a languid Asiatic expression in his eyes, and always wearing the characteristic garment of the Greek philosophers, Buddha in bronze and marble was spreading Hellenic influence throughout the Far East.

Most impressive are the great Hindu temples; massive in architecture, profusely ornamented, overpowering in richness. Interesting, too, are their courts and fountains, intended for the use and comfort of pilgrims who come from distant places to worship at their shrines.