James S. Snyder: «la exposición trata de arrojar luz sobre la interacción entre Egipto y Canaán»

El Museo de Israel presentó hace pocos días la exposición Faraón en Canaán: la historia no contada, que trata de profundizar en la presencia egipcia en Israel. La muestra, que podrá visitarse hasta el 25 de octubre, reúne piezas muy interesantes procedentes de diferentes yacimientos arqueológicos de Tierra Santa, así como de importantes museos de todo el mundo.  Ha sido comisariada por Daphna Ben-Tor, conservadora de arqueología egipcia del museo y por Eran Arie, comisario de la Edad del Hierro y el Período persa. Mediterráneo Antiguo ha querido acercarse a esta original muestra de la mano del director del museo, James S. Snyder, quien atendió amablemente nuestra llamada.

Question – Please, could you talk us about the exhibition’s purpose?

Answer – The aim of the exhibition Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story is to shed light on the interaction between Egypt and Canaan and the impact of this interaction on both cultures. The focus is on the second millennium BCE, a period that saw two crucial developments: The first was a gradual infiltration and settlement of Canaanites in the eastern part of the Egyptian delta and the subsequent rise of a dynasty of Canaanite origin ruling northern Egypt (the Hyksos). The second involved a period of Egyptian rule over Canaan, accompanied by the establishment of an Egyptian military and administrative presence in the land. The exhibition includes a large variety of Egyptian and Egyptian-inspired objects from Canaanite sites reflecting Egyptian-Canaanite cultural interaction during these periods. It also comprises of a relatively small number of objects from Egypt itself mostly from collections of museums in Israel and abroad.

Relieve que representa a unos canaanitas derrotados en una batalla. Tebas. 1400 a.C. Foto: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY

Question – Pharaohs ruled Canaan for three or four centuries. Which are the main archaeological sites we found from this period?

Answer – Many archaeological sites are dated to the Late Bronze Age in Canaan. This is the time of the Egyptian rule over Canaan, from around 1500 to 1130 BCE. We can separate those sites into two main groups:

Canaanite sites, which include both large and prosperous city states, but also small cities and rural villages. There were around 20 big Canaanite city states in the land of Israel, the most famous of which were Hazor, Akko, Megiddo, Shechem, Jerusalem, Gezer, Lachish, and Ashkelon. Each city controlled a relatively limited domain, and its ruler was, personally, a direct vassal of the Egyptian king.

The Egyptian strongholds from where the Egyptian controlled their occupied territories in Canaan. The three biggest strongholds in Canaan were Gaza, Jaffa, and Beth Shean. The latter is the most excavated site out of these three, and hence the best to provide information. Other small Egyptian sites also existed; especially around Gazza, which was the most important place to the Egyptian due to its location

Estela que muestra adoradores de una divinidad cananea. Deir el-Medina. Siglo XIII a.C. Foto: Photo ©  Turin Museo Egizio .

Question – The Bible Unearthed, written by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, talks about the differences between the Bible text and the archaeological remains. Can we see some of these evidences in the exhibition?

Answer – It is not only Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman who pointed out the challenging relations between The Bible and the archaeological evidence. It is for almost 200 years that scholars around the world who deals with Biblical studies, Biblical archaeology, and the history of Ancient Israel are studying these subjects. Most of our exhibition does not deal directly with the Biblical narrative. Even though, many objects and issues in the show can be related to the Biblical stories of the Israelites in Egypt. More importantly, we produced a special film for the exhibition about the story of the Exodus. It deals with the fact that until today no archaeological proof for that story was found, though we can identify historical nuclei which reveal that The Bible is well familiar with Egypt and its culture. These issues reflect the problematic and challenging nature of the available archaeological and textual evidence, which does not offer definite answers to the questions that have concerned scholars for decades and will most probably continue to concern them in the future. By the way, Prof. Israel Finkelstein is staring in the film…

Question – What about the presence of Canaanites in Egypt. Are there archaeological evidences?

Answer – Indeed there are archaeological evidences for the presence of Canaanite in Egypt during this period. The exhibition actually starts with the story of the Hyksos: Archaeological evidence and historical sources, some of them from a later period, attest that around 1700 BCE, a dynasty of Semitic-Canaanite origin, known as the Hyksos, was established in the eastern Nile Delta. Egypt was much weakened at the time, and the land was divided among different dynasties. Egyptian sources record this era of subjugation to foreign rulers as an unprecedented low point for the country, marked by military defeats and humiliation. It is important to note that even in the time of the Egyptian domination in Canaan (1500-1130 BCE), Canaanite individuals are known in Egypt. An Egyptian stele – a loan from the Metropolitan Museun of Art – is on display in the exhibition. It is a burial stele of a Canaanite couple that lived in Egypt and reached a high position in the Egyptian administration.

Amuleto canaanita con la cabeza de una diosa desnuda. Tell al-Ajjul. Siglo XV a.C. Foto: Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner

Question – Could you highlight some pieces of the exhibition?

Answer – We can highlight these masterpieces:

The Great Stele of Seti I

Today we commemorate military victories by erecting memorials – and it was no different in ancient times. This monumental stone, erected in Beth Shean by Pharaoh Seti I, was designed to immortalize an Egyptian victory over Canaanite forces some 3,300 years ago. The monument was carved out of local basalt stone by Egyptian artists working in Canaan.

Cut into the main part of the stele are twenty-two lines of hieroglyphic script, read from right to left. The inscription begins with a date: Year One of the king’s reign, the third month of the summer, the tenth day. The following thirteen lines are devoted to the Pharaoh’s titles, and words of praise for his courage and glorious achievements.

The last part of the inscription describes the Egyptian victory in the area of Beth Shean.

Did the Pharaoh himself take part in the military campaign that restored Egyptian control over Beth Shean? The answer to this question is controversial. But, as was usual with Egyptian military victories, the Pharaoh made sure he would be given credit for the success of his troops and their commanders.

Cabecero de sarcófago antropomorfo. Tell Shadud. Siglo XIII a.C. Foto: Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner

The Statue of Ramses III

The statue of Ramses III was discovered at Beth Shean, which was an Egyptian stronghold at the time. His names are inscribed at the shoulders of the statue. The Egyptian empire had weakened during the reign of Ramses III, but Egypt was still able to maintain its rule over Canaan.

The statue was carved out of local basalt stone, clear evidence that it was made in Canaan. But the artistic style tells us that the sculptor was Egyptian. Having said that, the statue has some peculiar stylistic features: crudely carved facial features, the design of the wig, and especially the gap between the legs. These departures from traditional rules of Egyptian sculpture, suggest that the statue was a provincial work, created far from the Egyptian cultural centers.

This is the only life-size statue of an Egyptian pharaoh ever found in Israel.

Column capitals

Two impressive column bases were found in the central hall of the Egyptian governor’s palace at Beth Shean. The columns placed on these bases were carved of cedar tree trunks and have not survived, but the two capitals displayed in the show belonged to these columns. Capitals of this type, in the form of a splaying papyrus flower, were very popular in Egypt. They were probably decorated in bold colors, which unfortunately did not survived. Unlike the wooden Beth Shean columns, Egyptian columns were usually made of stone.

These two capitals were found together in excavations at Tel Beth Shean 90 years ago, during the period of the British Mandate in our region. The capitals were separated at the time. One was removed to the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, where it was put in storage and never displayed. Its twin was left on the tell, and deteriorated badly with time. The capitals were reunited for this exhibition.

Thanks to the cooperation of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority, the capitals were given the professional treatment they needed in the Israel Museum laboratories, and are now on public view for the first time.

Capitel papiriforme. Beth Shean. Siglos XIII-XII a.C.. Foto: Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Elie Posner

A Sphinx from Hazor

The sphinx is a mythical creature, a hybrid of a lion’s body and a human head, meant to represent the Egyptian Pharaoh. Only the front paws of our sphinx have survived. But with a stroke of good fortune, the name of the Pharaoh Menkaure is carved between the paws.

The size of the fragment allows us to calculate the dimensions of the full original sculpture. It would have been about 170 cm long, and weighed an estimated half a ton. It was a monumental sculpture, made in a royal workshop in Egypt.

The sphinx was already more than a millennium old when it was given as a valuable official gift to the ruler of Hazor or was presented to a local temple. We don’t know why this particular sculpture was chosen; but given its enormous weight, we can assume it was sent by sea from Egypt to one of the Mediterranean ports – either Akko or Tyre – and then brought overland to Hazor. Huge effort took to transport the sphinx such a long way. This surly indicate of the importance of the city in the eyes of the Egyptians.

Esfinge de Thutmose III. 1480-1425 a.C. Foto: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image Source: Art Resource, NY

An Egyptian stele from Turin, Italy

The wonderful state of preservation of the stele allows us to appreciate the bold colors with which it was painted. It is a private Egyptian stele showing veneration of a divine triad. Surprisingly, two out of the three are Canaanite not Egyptian gods.

The stele is divided into two sections. In the lower section, the scribe Ramose and his wife are seen kneeling in a gesture of veneration toward the three deities depicted in the upper section. The central deity is the Canaanite goddess Qdeshet, standing naked on the back of a lion. Her figure carries a connotation of eroticism and fertility. On the right is the Canaanite warrior-god, Reshef, who was associated also with healing and fertility. On the left is the Egyptian god, Min-Amun-Ra, whose role as god of fertility and male potency is clearly reflected in his iconography. The inscriptions on the stele identify all five figures.

Egyptian worship of Canaanite gods is the most conspicuous expression of the cultural impact of the Egyptian rule in Asia, especially during the Ramesside Period.

Question – When will the exhibition be closed? Could we enjoy it out of Israel?

Answer – The exhibition will be closed on October 25th 2016. It is still unknown whether it will be on display outside of Israel.


Mario Agudo Villanueva