Interview: Dominic Perry, History of Egypt podcast 

Temple of Rameses II
Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) 90M Views via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

 

I feel thoroughly spoilt. Dominic Perry of the History of Egypt podcast has allowed me to interview him. Dominic took on the herculean task of presenting the history of Ancient Egypt, reign by reign beginning with the Old Kingdom. I love his podcast. Wonderous but never onerous he delves into religion, mythology, politics, daily life, literature. . .  Literature! I particularly enjoy his readings of translations of ancient texts (Hatshepsut – very dramatic). He includes archaeological updates from the field and gives his take on it all. And then there are accompanying visuals on his website! For my recent series of posts where I have attempted to recreate a cloth Nemes crown, I have leant heavily on his podcasts to get a handle on who the ancient Egyptians were and how they would approach things. Here he answers my questions on Egypt, digs, rituals, theatre, Oedipus and Akhenaten. Enjoy.

 

  1. What first fascinated you about Ancient Egypt?

I got into it as a child, and at first I have to admit it was mostly the gold and the treasure. Over time I became more and more fascinated by the idea of the pharaohs – what they represented, how they lived, what they wore etc. Then finally I became absorbed in finding the little details of their lives – particularly the economic aspect; how people lived and organised themselves, what they had to do to make sure their community functioned properly. It’s been an evolving series of interests!

  1. Do you ever get nervous going on Egyptian digs?

Sure! I’m not a natural traveller – I like home and my creature comforts. But it’s important to overcome that internal desire, in order to do something special. It’s a rare opportunity to get paid to dig up a long-dead civilization, so I just sort of “suck it up” and get stuck in to the work. In terms of safety there’s never been a problem – Egypt and Sudan are a lot safer and friendlier than people realise.

  1. What has been the most surprising thing that you’ve seen come out of the ground?

When I was excavating a Roman-era wall that had been built over an old Egyptian temple we unexpectedly found a pharaonic-era statue that had been used as part of the masonry. This whole torso of an ancient pharaoh suddenly showed up among the bricks. That was definitely a surreal moment.

  1. The Festival of Drunkenness seems like a showy event. Do you think that ancient Egyptian rituals ever crossed over the boundary of ritual into theatre?

Yes. Egyptian festivals and rituals seem to have had pseudo-theatrical “re-enactments” of legendary events. Osiris’ death became a big one; the battle between Horus and Seth; the rampage of Hathor and her slaughter of mankind. These were important stories in the heritage of the ancients, and they were constantly reviving and renewing them to keep the memory alive. I often think of Japanese Noh-theatre as an analogy – legendary figures and supernatural beings interacting with the human world, and making a grand show of it. The Egyptians may have done something similar, but in a more religiously formal context. Over time that probably developed into something we would recognise as a theatre-esque “performance piece.”

  1. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex was a King of Thebes (Greece) who killed his father and married his mother. Do you think that this story may have had Egyptian origins?

Anything is possible, especially when Greek writers like Herodotos were fascinated by Egyptian history and culture

Of course you’re thinking of the pharaohs’ habit of marrying sisters or cousins. That certainly happened, but we’re still not certain of the role these sister-wives played – were they symbolic unions (platonic marriages)? Or did they consummate them? Our moral sensitivity would have us lean to the platonic end; but there must have been some incest going on occasionally. It’s a big question, and it can have a big impact on how you view their morality.

  1. It was accepted for Egyptian kings to marry their daughters. Was there ever a case where the succession passed down via an Egyptian Sister/Daughter of the king marrying her son? Do you think that would that be considered taboo?

Not taboo, but it would be unnecessary. The legitimacy of the line appears to have been carried by the females (though there is debate on that). If a King died without heir, but his sister or daughter had a son, that son would be a perfectly acceptable heir. Queen Khenty-kaus I (about 2450 BCE) was the sister of King Menkaure, and when he died without heir she seems to have put her son Shepseskaf on the throne, ruling as a regent on his behalf.

  1. With your current podcasts set in the New Kingdom, I am eagerly awaiting your take on Akhenaten. Was he a perspicacious, pious profit or more of a profiteering, propagandising politician?

Tough question! He was certainly a megalomaniac, but he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly adept politician – he alienated a great many of his subjects, and built an unsustainable legacy that was expunged after his death. As for his faith…I think he was a true believer in his religion – the kicker is determining exactly what his religion represented? Was Akhenaten worshipping a separate, all-powerful god, or was he worshipping a deified form of his father (the incredibly vain and grandiose Amunhotep III)? A lot hinges on how you interpret the god Aten, and what he represents.

If I can give a (spoiler!) glimpse at my take on Akhenaten I would describe him as a visionary, but a visionary unable to compromise enough to make his dream a reality. I think his religious beliefs became more extreme the more he felt he was being challenged. Akhenaten was not necessarily fit to be a king; he was either unprepared or unsuited to the role, which required a lot more compromise than we might expect. He was a remarkable man, but not always for the right reasons.

Thanks for having me!

Find the History of Egypt Podcast on iTunes, your favourite podcast platform, and at http://egyptianhistorypodcast.com/

Tutankhamen: Damnatio Memoriae

egyptian damnatio memoriae

Excised: Damnatio Memoriae – Neither Osirus nor Thoth could protect the forgotten one

Damnatio Memoriae, the erasing of one’s name, reputation, memory, for earthly eternity. In the case of Ancient Egypt, erasing one’s name was akin to black magic. You see, the Ancient Egyptians practised performative magic. By braking the ankles of a stone depiction of a person they crippled him in his afterlife. By erasing the cartouche, the written name of the king, the now-dead king also ceased to exist in the afterlife. The King had to have done something controversial, horrific, blasphemous for this to have been resorted to. At least that is how my 21st Century CE brain works. I can think of 20th Century despots that are worthy of this sort of treatment rather than the infamy they are accorded on their pedestals, celebrated for their excellence in despicability.

What could the boy king, Tutankhamen have done to have deserved this treatment? He, his immediate predecessors, Smenkhare and Neferneferuaten, and his father/uncle(1) Akhenaten were all purposefully forgotten from an Ancient Egyptian list of kings composed 100 years or so after their deaths. Even Akhenaten’s beloved primary wife, Nefertiti didn’t escape this abomination of her memory. Why?

Nefertiti and her daughter

Nefertiti and her daughter

 

Akhenaten was a heretic king who flouted the central cosmic order and balance of Egyptian society, maat, by throwing out the traditional anthropomorphic gods and enforcing the worship of an unknownable solar power, the Aten. Damnatio memoriae in his case was the monster that ate him when his heart was measured against his duty to maat and was found wanting. But Tutankhamun restored the old gods, restored maat, restored the cosmic order. Surely he didn’t deserve to be written out of history.

Akhenaten and his daughter offering to the Aten

Akhenaten and his daughter offering to the Aten – Not only his face but possibly his cartouche has been excised.

 

When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb lots of questions arose. Was it Tutankhamen’s tomb?  Why was it unfinished? Was it originally meant for a mere nobleman and was swapped? Was the Chariot Tomb (KV58) originally intended for Tutankhamen but was unfinished due to his early death? (2) What was the pink sediment that draped the tomb’s walls? Was Tutankhamen a cripple? What caused his death? Was he murdered? What was his relationship to his successor Ay like? Was Ay his grandfather? Was he the son of Akhenaten? Who was his mother? If he was Akhenaten’s son, why didn’t he succeed Smenkhare as king? Why did his general, Horemheb begin the campaign of Damnatio Memoriae against his family after he succeeded Ay as king? Why was his widow, Ankhesenamen so threated by the Egyptian court that she wrote to the traditional enemy, the Hittite king, to send her a son to marry, who would then rule Egypt? Why was control of Egypt passed from an upper Egyptian family to a Lower one after Horemheb’s death? And. .. what happened to his crown?

 

Earlier this year my son was set the task of making an iMovie about the life of Tutankhamen. A reluctant learner, nothing I said could inspire him to begin. Tutankhamen was just your age when he reigned. He renounced his parent’s religion about the time you did. He changed his name too. You look so much like him …what if we dressed you up as Tut to narrate your movie? Well, the last one worked. I found myself making a Nemes Crown. By looking at Tutankhamen’s death mask closely some possible answers to the questions above arose. One possibility haunts me.

Could Tutankhamen’s crown be hiding in plain sight?

End Notes

(1) Eric Wells of the wonderful, thought provoking podcast Eric’s Guide to Ancient Egypt, makes a convincing argument for Akhenaten the uncle.

(2)KV58 is discussed by Joyce Tydesley’s Tutankhamen’s Curse: The Developing history of an Egyptian King, Profile Books, London, 2013, a wonderful, informative read

 

Photo Credits

Excised – Damnatio Memoriae

Photo credit: Allison Mickel via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Nefertiti and her Daughter

Photo credit: IslesPunkFan via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Akhenaten and his daughter offering to the Aten

Photo credit: IslesPunkFan via Foter.com / CC BY-NC