A Window’s View into Egyptian Society
By Maria Murad
This window featured in the Penn Museum was once cemented in the walls of the Palace of Merenptah. The palace, along with the window, was built during Merenptah’s reign from 1213 to 1204 BCE in the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom. In order to understand the significance of the images and function of the window, it is important to consider the context in which the window was created.
Merenptah was the thirteenth son of Ramses II and assumed power after his father and elder brothers died. During his father’s reign, he had already earned high positions in the military. In Ramses II’s fortieth year of rule, Merenptah was made general of his father’s army. However, it is believed that as Ramses II aged, he was less capable of leading Egypt, and Merenptah had to take over some of his father’s political responsibilities. After Merenptah took power, he defeated Nubian rebels, gained control of the Palestinian empire, and suppressed a Libyan invasion in his fifth year of rule. The next four years of Merenptah’s reign were peaceful; this allowed him to take on large building projects including a tomb and funerary temple at Thebes and his palace in Memphis. He chose Memphis as the site for his palace and moved the Egyptian capital back there from his father’s capital of Piramesse. There he built his palace next to the temple of Ptah, the god who created Memphis by conceiving of creation in his mind (Sia) and through speaking (Hu) as he first uttered the names of things.
The excavation of the palace began with the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Coxe Expedition of 1915 where an archeological group had already secured a site in Memphis for study. This site happened to be Merenptah’s capital city. The leader of the expedition, Clarence Fisher, excavated the location for the following five years and took all the new findings including doorways, lintels, columns, and windows back to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum with permission from the Egyptian government. Almost seventy years later, in 1983, the Merenptah Palace Project commenced at the university and the artifacts found by Fisher and his team were finally pulled out of storage for analysis.
They found that the Palace of Merenptah was constructed with mudbrick and limestone, measured 180 by 100 feet, and contained 20 rooms (O’Connor 167). The larger structures of the palace were the throneroom and a place dubbed “the South Portal.” Many of the excavated pieces within were found in good condition because soon after Merenptah’s reign, according to Fisher, fire struck the palace and caused the flat, wooden roof to burn down (Iskander 165). Its ashes covered and sealed various artifacts and structures of the palace underneath. During excavation, Fisher described how he found many stone structures buried in a “bed of charcoal, ashes and mud-bricks,” and every year the bed of particles grew during the inundation season of the Nile river, akhet, every June through September. This unique state of preservation makes the Palace of Merenptah a key referent for New Kingdom royal architecture. It is also the reason most of the artifacts, like the window, in the Penn Museum were found in situ in the mudbrick structure of the temple and retained so many of their carved details.
Initially, Fisher thought the window was a “window of appearance,” a window through which a king would make an appearance and interact with his royal court or subjects. O’Conner had three objections to this hypothesis. First, a “window of appearance” is typically featured on the ground level of a palace, but this window was placed high in the walls. If the window were at the ground level it would be easier for the king to interact with his audience. Second, if this was a “window of appearance” it would face outwards to a royal court room from the throne room. This one looked over an inner court room and faced the throne room. Thirdly, all known “windows of appearance” face North, but this one faced South. As such, Fisher encountered a number of false hypotheses and confusion when researching the curious structure of the palace and window of Merenptah.
The window from the Palace of Merenptah was constructed from one piece of limestone, as were all the other windows featured in the palace. It measures 129.54 cm long, 81.28 cm wide, and 15.24 cm thick (Museum Website). The top half features a symmetrical design and religious symbolism: on the outer edges, two sphinxes face each other. Sphinxes, which have the bodies of lions and the heads of men, allude to the marriage of a lion’s strength with the king’s intelligence. They were often used as symbols of protection for the king. This was used on the window to protect the king from whatever evil forces (agents of isfet) existed outside of the palace.
Below and in between the sphinxes is a row of hawk heads, commonly associated with the sun god Re. Re plays an important role in the various cosmogonies that arose in different Egyptian cities. The image of Re in the window can connect him, as the sun god, to the function of the window: letting in light in a very literal sense. It can also refer to the role of Re in the various creation myths that show him as a symbol of power, similar to the sphinxes.
The power symbols on the window reinforce the power of the king himself and also emphasize the purpose of the temple, to showcase the power and wealth of the king. In his monograph on the Palace of Merenptah, David O’Connor discusses how a king’spalace is remarkable as a structure because it is a dramatic “three-dimensional statement about their [the Egyptians] complex view of the cosmos” (168). He describes how the dual identity of the pharaoh is a result of his role as an intermediary between the gods and mortals. Therefore, the palace of the king embodies the “place of creation, the sacred world of the gods, the orderly world of Egypt, and the subjugated world of the foreigners” (170).
O’Connor also writes that the layout of the palace suggests it was created for ceremonial use (171). It has a utilitarian role to house various rituals, images, and objects necessary for a king like the Sed-festival or the Heb-Sed which allows the king to publicly rejuvenate his power after his thirtieth year ruling over Egypt. In order to demonstrate this, the king runs a course around territorial markers that symbolize Upper and Lower Egypt. As he runs he is showcasing the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt i.e. sema-tawy, establishing his role as the defeater of isfet (chaos), and cultivator of maat (peace, harmony, and balance).
Not only does the palace have a functional purpose for flashy ceremonies like this, but it also has a cosmological role as the place of residence for the person who has a connection to the gods. Another reason power symbols were engraved into the walls and windows of the palace could be to show the importance of the palace and emphasize it as the central location or hub for the link between humans and gods. In order to match the wondrous world of the gods, a giant, beautiful palace would have to be built to conceive the manifestation of the “cosmos on earth” (O’Connor 168).
Below these carvings is a long row of Djed pillars stretching the width of the window. The Djed pillar symbolizes the backbone of Osiris that was put back together after his defeat with Seth by his wife Isis. In the Myth of Osiris, Osiris is the living king and ismurdered by his jealous brother, Seth. The body was found by Isis and Seth’s wife Nepthys, and was then mummified by the god of mummification, Anubis. When found, Osiris was missing his penis after it was eaten by a fish in the Nile river. Isis then made a prosthetic one and conceived Horus with him. Afterwards, Osiris became the ruler of the Netherworld (the duat), while Horus took over for his father as ruler of the living and avenged his father’s death against Seth. This battle is detailed in The Contendings of Horus and Seth. Due to Osiris’s resilience in this myth, the pillar is used in ancient Egyptian imagery to symbolize the resurrection of Osiris and the stability of the monarchy.
The bottom half of the window consists of two smaller windows made of wood and reed. Both are topped with engraved, rolled up reed blinds on each side. Reed fields (sekhet-aaru) famous as the home of the god Osiris, were plentiful in the Nile delta. This crop, harvested in Lower Egypt(ta-mehu) provided material for many practical items in Egyptian society like papyrus, boats, and of course blinds. In the middle of the blinds is a lotus flower. The lotus flower symbolizes Upper Egypt, (ta-shemu) the sun, and rebirth. Both concepts relate to the images of Re as a hawk and the Djed pillar that are also carved in the window. The window features both papyrus reeds from Lower Egypt and a lotus flower from Upper Egypt, implying the unification of the two lands (sema-tawy). As such, the window suggests that the job of the pharaoh is to be the lord of the two lands. If the king has achieved sema-tawy, maat has triumphed and the king has defeated isfet. If the two lands aren’t unified, isfet has triumphed and the king has not successfully fulfilled his role as the leader of Egypt.
Equally important to analysis of the window is its orientation and location in the Palace of Merenptah. The window was placed very high in the palace and features eight slits in it to let in minimal light. This was done intentionally to protect the king’s sanctuary as much as possible “against contamination from the impure world outside and from supernatural evil” (O’Connor 169). Such “evils”, or agents of isfet, entering were minimized through small window slots set up high in walls. Only “sacred light and air, that energized the universe” was allowed to enter the palace after a purification ritual using flames and incense (O’Connor 169). In the palace, these windows were positioned so that there were four on each side which correspond to the spaces in between the columns in the palace, and possibly two on the rear walls of either side of the throne room.
The function of the window to let in light also refers to the concept of time, in specific neheh and djet time. The former describes cyclical time as in the rising and setting of the sun. In its most basic function, the window lets in light and displays the daily ritual of the sun rising and “energizing the cosmos into renewed life” (O’Connor 170). As it sets, one can look through the window and see a death-like darkness take over the sky. In contrast, the window also symbolizes djet, or a linear, endless flow of time. The window itself contains religious iconography that is eternal and literally set in stone. Not just the window, but the palace itself is meant to be an eternal monument that forever establishes the power and greatness of the king. In the Palace of Merenptah, this is evident through carvings depicting the king giving offerings to Ptah and defeating foreign enemies. Moreover, Merenptah’s cartouches, Double Horus, and Two Ladies names are plastered in between these heroic scenes. These images of triumph and kingship are meant to transcend time and place: the images of power, protection, and sema-tawy always apply to the powerful king of Egypt.
At first glance, this window gives the impression of being a mundane object that does not match the ancient Egyptian world of pyramids, mummies, or ornate hieroglyphs. However, this window proves that even simple objects carried heavy symbolism in ancient Egyptian society. This window contains imagery of sphinxes, Re, Djed pillars, papyrus reeds, and lotus flowers.This imagery works to evoke the role of the king as the agent of maat for Egyptian society who maintains sema-tawy. This is exemplified in other features of Egyptian society like the role and function of the palace itself as the house of the intermediary of the gods and humans.
If there’s anything this window says about ancient Egypt as a whole, it is that Egypt was a deeply symbolic society that gave meaning to all surrounding objects. The curiosity of the ancient Egyptians knew no boundaries as they found meaning and purpose in all facets of their lives. They took nothing for granted and believed everything mattered to a certain extent. This sheer thoughtfulness can really only be appreciated when you take a closer look at objects like the window from the Palace of Merenptah.
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