Pharaoh’s superstars – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly

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For people in many parts of the world today, a superstar is someone who has reached a position of leadership, perhaps the first, in their profession – although of course not all professions produce superstars, since only some, mainly sports and entertainment, are known for them.

Everyone knows the superstar singers, actors and athletes who owe their fame to their desire to perform in front of large audiences. This sets them apart from even the most successful doctors, dentists or lawyers, all of whom are likely to lack the kind of stardust that attaches to some of today’s singers and football players.

But superstars can also be superstars for no apparent reason. American artist Andy Warhol, something of a superstar himself, once said that one day everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. His lyrics captured something about the contemporary superstar – sincerely sought after, sometimes only momentarily appreciated, and perhaps devalued by the fact that there are now more superstars than ever.

Fame as a particular type of fame was the subject of this summer’s main exhibition at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MUCEM) in the French port city of Marseille. But instead of looking at contemporary stardom, the exhibition, titled “Pharaoh Superstars”, looked at how it worked in the ancient world and in particular in ancient Egypt.

He eschewed the more usual Greek or Roman superstars such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar and presented a list of pharaonic superstars that included Ramses II, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Cleopatra instead. Not superstars in the modern sense, all had attributes that fit the old conception of fame.

Ramses II was probably ancient Egypt’s most successful military leader, victorious over the Hittites and Libyans and extending Egyptian power into the Levant and what is now Palestine, Lebanon and Syria. He was also its greatest builder, projecting the image of an all-powerful ruler in the giant statues of the Abu Simbel temple in Aswan that once marked Egypt’s southern border.

He spread this image across the country so that even those who had never and would never see Ramses himself could not fail to recognize his public image and the power it conveyed. He built himself huge temples and erected monuments to ensure that his achievements were constantly in the eyes of his successors.

Amenhotep III was also a great builder, with hundreds of his statues having been discovered by modern Egyptologists. While he did not experience the same military successes as the more famous Ramesses II, his reign was marked by major diplomatic successes in his relations with neighboring Assyria and Babylon. He is the pharaoh commemorated in the ruined statues of the so-called Colossi of Memnon which still stand guard on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor today.

The case of Cleopatra was different in that as a woman she could hardly enjoy the kind of male fame that resulted from winning battles or erecting statues, even though some of her diplomatic victories were almost so impressive. Instead, she relied on other modes of publicity to ensure she would be remembered, almost approaching modern celebrity methods. Her appearances were carefully staged, as if they were made for the ancient equivalent of cameras, and she knew how to get people talking, almost as if she had mastered the art of always succeeding in making headlines. .

The result was that while Cleopatra might not have much in the long run, even managing to lose her country, she certainly caused a stir while she did it. She must be somewhere near the top of the list of famous pharaohs, although like the rest of the Ptolemaic Egyptian elite of the time, she was almost certainly overwhelmingly Greek.

She probably reached the pinnacle of her fame after her death, even centuries later, when the story of her relationship with the Roman general Mark Antony attracted authors as different as William Shakespeare and Ahmed Shawqi in their search for ancient Egyptian subjects. .

FAME IS THE SPUR: The MUCEM exhibition begins by reminding visitors of these famous ancient Egyptian pharaohs, while emphasizing that those most famous to us were perhaps not the most famous to the ancient Egyptians themselves- same.

As co-curator Frédéric Mougenot writes in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, the title “Pharaoh”, having a similar meaning to the title “shahanshah” used by the ancient Persian kings or the title “Caesar” used by Roman emperors, was used by all ancient Egyptian kings from the earliest dynasties.

“It is the transcription, via Greek, of the ancient Egyptian expression per-aa, meaning the ‘great house’ and designating first the royal palace and then by extension its main inhabitant, a bit like the way we speak today from the Elysée.” referring to the French president, he said.

It therefore denotes the institution of monarchy more than the individual monarch, emphasizing that “it was the god Horus who placed the affairs of Egypt in the hands of his human representative…with over 340 kings bearing the title of Pharaoh over the 3,000 year history of ancient Egypt.

But while the ancient Egyptians are more likely to remember Snefru, Amenemhat III and Thutmose III, in addition to Ramesses II and Amenhotep III, viewing them as god-like rulers, today we we are perhaps more likely to remember Tutankhamun, Queen Nefertiti and Akhenaten, characters that the ancient Egyptians did their best to forget or even delete from historical records.

This is partly due to accident and partly due to more deliberate selection processes, according to the exhibit. While it would be difficult to forget the pharaohs Cheops and Chephren of the old dynasty, if only because they were the builders of the great pyramids of Giza and were therefore exceptionally determined not to forget them, the others pharaohs were not so lucky.

Akhenaten, originally Amenhotep IV, was the son of Amenhotep III, one of the famous pharaohs in the exhibit. For reasons that were never quite clear, after ruling conventionally for a few years, he decided to introduce monotheism to Egypt to replace the traditional pantheon, changing his name to Akhenaten.

He and his family later suffered the ancient Egyptian equivalent of blackballing by the country’s priestly caste following the restoration of the traditional gods, with Akhenaten’s achievements deliberately suppressed along with those of his son Tutankhamun and his wife Nefertiti. Akhenaten and his wife may be better known to us today than they were to the ancient Egyptians, as the latter would probably have known little of him due to the suppression of his accomplishments.

Accident as much as design plays a role in remembering who and what, especially since our knowledge of ancient Egypt is inevitably determined by the evidence that has come down to us.

Tutankhamun, for example, perhaps with Ramesses II and Cleopatra, the best known of all ancient Egyptian rulers, was almost immediately forgotten by his countrymen and successors, our modern memory of him being more or less entirely due to the accidental preservation from his grave. , the only one of all those of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs that has survived intact since antiquity.

The second and third parts of the MUCEM exhibition tackle the modern memory of the ancient pharaohs, dwelling on ironies such as the exaggerated memory granted today to Tutankhamun, and the almost total oblivion suffered by the most important Amenhotep III. , while considering phenomena such as motivated or innocent misrepresentation and mythologization.

The ancient Greeks were responsible for some later misconceptions, with the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, one of the first foreign visitors to ancient Egypt who left a record of his visit, confusing what the ancient Egyptian priests had told him. and even confusing Ramesses II. with a Pharaoh he called Sesostris to the confusion of future generations.

There are also the records of neighboring religions, with the Old Testament of the Bible containing the story of the tyrannical Pharaoh who drove Moses out of Egypt after he was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter who found him in a basket in the Nile. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud says in his book Moses and Monotheism that the pharaoh in question was Akhenaten, but he mixes the story with his own theories and this is not accepted by most commentators.

The MUCEM exhibition generally takes an indulgent look at these reporting and transformations, even devoting its final section to how certain ancient Egyptian pharaohs made their way into the modern advertising and entertainment industries, perhaps thus highlighting their superstar.

Cleopatra was used to sell everything from beauty products to soap, for example, and the exhibition was able to discover American advertising campaigns using Ramesses II to sell cigarettes and Akhenaten to sell beer. From modern Egypt, it features advertisements using Cleopatra to sell cigarettes and bathroom fixtures and Nefertiti to sell sewing machines. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs, chief among them superstars like Ramses II and Akhenaten, are often used to sell souvenirs to tourists.

While not an educationally serious exhibit, Pharaohs Superstars has some serious points to make. There is the way the ancient Egyptian pharaohs presented themselves to their subjects, for example, using familiar propaganda methods to do so. The image of the pharaoh and his achievements filled the public space, military achievements followed by political stability guaranteeing fame.

There’s also the way certain pharaohs were picked up by later generations as representing superhuman powers, authoritarian rule, or, in the case of Cleopatra, political seduction.

However, eventually the Pharaohs like other stars had to come down to earth. For every wonderful modern interpretation, there have also been countless other more vernacular attempts at appropriation. Maybe that’s how it should be. Where would a superstar, pharaonic or not, be without their fans?

Pharaons Superstars, MUCEM Museum, Marseille, until October 17.


*A version of this article appeared in the November 24, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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