Sunday, June 20, 2010

Six Icons for Repatriation?

Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has made it his mission to repatriate as many ancient Egyptian artifacts as possible. He has already achieved remarkable results. His stated ambition is to recover six major icons of ancient Egypt that currently reside in foreign museums. They are, in no particular order; the Rosetta Stone in The British Museum; the bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Neues Museum, the Zodiac from Dendara Temple in the Louvre Museum; the bust of the vizier Ankhaf in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the statue of Hemiunu in Hildesheim near Hannover; the image of Rameses II in Turin. In a short series of articles we will describe each item and, where possible, determine its provenance.

The Dendara Zodiac

Dendara Temple is a Ptolemaic Temple built on the site of several previous ancient Egyptian Temples dedicated to the goddess Hathor. It was built over a period of several decades around 100 BC to 50 BC. The temple is located about 60 kms north of Luxor on the western bank of the Nile River opposite the provincial town of Qena.

The sculptured bas relief of the star map was found carved into a sandstone slab mounted in the ceiling of the portico of the Osiris chapel at Dendara Temple. The circular star map shows the position of the stars and includes various animal shapes conforming to the constellations. A calculation based on the position of the stars on the map combined with the age of the temple building, indicate that the zodiac shows the night sky in about 50BC, possibly in the reign of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Ptolemaic Dynasty. Cleopatra’s image is carved into the rear wall of the temple.

In 1802, during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, the zodiac was sketched by Vivant Denon (who was later appointed the first director of the Louvre). Examination of Denon’s sketch aroused controversy concerning the date of the zodiac. Various “experts” presented opinions of its age ranging from tens of thousands of years to a few hundred years and there was additional disagreement as to whether the carving was a true star map or an astrological chart.

The sandstone slab was removed from the ceiling of the chapel by master mason Jean Baptiste Leloraine using masonry drills, chisels, saws, jacks and, according to one report, even explosives. The zodiac of Dendera was transported to France in 1821 apparently with the permission of the Egyptian ruler of the time Mohamed Ali Pasha. The sandstone slab was installed in the National Library of Louis XVIII in 1824. In 1964 the zodiac was moved from the Bibliothèque Nationale to the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

In modern days, visitors to Egypt who view the plaster replica of the zodiac bolted to the ceiling of the chapel in Dendara and those who study the original sculpture in the Louvre Museum, look in vain for an image of the present day astrological chart. The ancient Egyptians did not use the positions of the stars to produce astrological readings, although they did believe that certain constellations could have a negative effect on events. Regrettably for modern astrologers who cast horoscopes based on the stars, the zodiac does not represent an early form of the zodiac they currently use. The Dendara zodiac is fundamentally a star map. It shows the actual position of the stars in 50BC; a true night skyscape used when celebrating the mysteries of the resurrection of Osiris, the lord of the underworld.

The artwork of the bas relief is of a very high standard. As previously mentioned, the original slab was sandstone, a more difficult medium for fine sculpture than limestone which forms the basis for the beautiful bas relief sculptures in the temple at Abydos and in other sites.

The night sky is represented by a disc, held up by four female figures assisted by falcon-headed beings. The thirty-six divisions around the circumference each represent 10 days totalling the 360 days of the Egyptian year. The additional five days making up the full year were always considered to be the days “outside the year” won by the sky goddess Nut. The constellations within the circle include the signs of the zodiac, most of which are seen as they are today. Aries, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn are readily recognized, whereas other forms are more Egyptian: Aquarius is shown as Hapy, the god of the Nile flood, pouring water from two vessels and the Great Bear is shown as a bull's foreleg.

Two eclipses are represented exactly where and when they occurred. The solar eclipse of 7 March 51 BC is depicted as the goddess Isis holding a baboon (the lunar god Thoth) by its tail, signifying her attempt to stop the moon from hiding the sun. The lunar eclipse of 25 September 52 BC is represented by a udjat-eye. The five planets (in addition to Earth) that were known at the time are associated with certain signs of the zodiac. Venus, the morning star is behind Aquarius; Jupiter is near Cancer; Mars the red planet is directly above Capricorn; Mercury and Saturn are shown in this particular configuration that occurs only about once every thousand years. It has been dated between 15 June and 15 August 50 BC.

It is clear that a date in mid 50BC had particular significance, but what that significance may have been has been lost over time. One credible suggestion is that it may have been the date of the completion of the construction of Dendara Temple and that the sculptured zodiac commemorates that date in the same way an official opening plaque might do today.

The Dendara zodiac was removed and transported to France in an act that would be described as gross vandalism and theft if it occurred today. The wanton removal of this historic work of art resonates with the similar act performed on the Elgin Marbles. The permission granted by Mohamed Ali Pasha to the French was at best flimsy and certainly did not take into account the preservation of Egypt’s heritage. The zodiac might be considered to be more representative of Greek astrology than Egyptian, but the Macedonian pharaohs of the Ptolemaic Dynasty are an integral part of ancient Egyptian history.

Egypt’s claim on the Dendara Zodiac

It would seem that Egypt might have a realistic expectation of having the zodiac returned to them, particularly if French archaeologists are denied access to Egyptian digs unless the zodiac is repatriated, a strategy that might be employed.

The French may claim that by exhibiting the zodiac in the Louvre Museum in Paris, many more visitors have the opportunity to see this ancient artefact that would be the case if it were returned to its original place in Dendara. This is probably true. There is a replica of the zodiac in the ceiling of the Osiris chapel in Dendara temple, but many visitors to Egypt do not even visit Dendara temple and of those who do, only a fraction are taken by their guides to see the zodiac.

What would the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt do with the slab of sandstone? Perhaps it should not be reinstalled in Dendara temple, but rather set up for viewing in an Egyptian Museum, but how would that be better and more accessible than the Louvre Museum in Paris?

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