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Egypt's Crowning Glory

New Kingdom customs rise triumphantly from the dead in "The Quest for Immortality," a dazzling display of treasures from the tombs of the pharaohs

Areigning pharaoh was the closest thing to a divinity on earth; Egyptians referred to living pharaoh as a “young god”—an intermediary between them and their all-powerful deities. For their part, rulers lavished the Theban temples with offerings—of gold, silver, slaves and more—to thank the gods for their own good fortune.

 

The ambitious Queen Hatshepsut, who was particularly extravagant in her offerings, had good reason to be thankful. She was both Thutmose II’s principal wife and, as a daughter of Thutmose I, his half sister. (Incest was common in Egyptian royal families; it simplified lines of succession.) After her husband’s death in 1479 B.C., Hatshepsut elbowed aside her young stepson-nephew, Thutmose III, to become pharaoh in her own right, although during her nearly 15-year reign, she was officially his co-regent. She justified the power play in inscriptions carved in her enormous, multi-terraced mortuary temple near Thebes. The god Amun had not only chosen her to be the next pharaoh, she declared, but had also impregnated her mother, Queen Ahmose, years before to effect her divine birth.

 

Hatshepsut erected obelisks at the temple of Karnak to honor Amun and covered them with precious electrum, a mixture of gold and silver. “I measured it by the gallon like sacks of grain,” she asserted in an inscription on the base. “Not shall he who hears it say, ‘It is a boast,’ what I have said. Rather say, ‘How like her it is. She is devoted to her father!’ ” —meaning the god Amun, not King Thutmose I.

 

By the time his imperious stepmother died, circa 1458 B.C., Thutmose III was in his 20s. He ordered her self-serving inscriptions covered up or hacked away, along with any appearance of her name or image, and he set about building a new series of obelisks detailing his own divine birth. (Among them are the misnamed Cleopatra’s Needle, now in London, and monuments in New York City’s Central Park and Istanbul’s Hippodrome.) Apainted relief (above, right) in the exhibition shows Thutmose and his otherworldly father, Amun, nose to nose like twins. This time, however, it’s the god who’s been all but obliterated—a victim of King Akhenaten, whose short-lived campaign a century later for a new central deity, Aten, led to widespread defacement of Amun’s image.

 

Thutmose III, who stood just 5 feet 2 inches tall to judge from his mummy, mounted at least 14 foreign military campaigns, some of which he led personally, all of which he won. His military exploits were recorded by contemporaries, including a lengthy account carved into rock walls at Karnak. There are tales of his soldiers hiding in baskets delivered to an enemy city, of his ordering a fleet of boats hauled 250 miles overland by oxen for a surprise raid across the Euphrates on the Mittani Empire, and of a victorious elephant hunt afterward. A painted fragment portraying Thutmose’s royal bark shows a hull decorated with two scenes of the king: one as a warrior smiting an Asiatic, the other as a sphinx trampling a Nubian. Pharaohs returning from battle sometimes heaved into port with the bodies of vanquished princes dangling from the bows. By all accounts, Thutmose was more compassionate. He neither enslaved enemy chiefs nor massacred their subjects, preferring to bring foreign princes into line by taking their sons hostage and raising them as loyal Egyptians.

 

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