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The Sudanese Pyramids: Wonders of Ancient Africa

by May 28, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We are all familiar with the pyramids of ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, but few people are aware of the pyramids built by the remarkable African people in what is now North Sudan. The Nubian pyramids are a very important part of the heritage of Africa and provide a remarkable insight into the history of the continent. 
The History of Nubia
Pyramids at Meroe
The Nubians were an ancient people and were well-known to the Egyptians, who at times dominated them politically. They lived in a region that lies today mostly in Northern Sudan. Nubia was heavily influenced by Egypt but developed a distinctive culture. The first great Nubian kingdom was the Kerma kingdom. Later, the Kushite Nubian kingdom dominated Egypt. Expulsed by the Assyrians, the Nubians fell back beyond the First Cataract of the Nile and established a kingdom at Meroe (c 550 BC-500 AD). 
This period marked something of a Golden Age for the Africans. It seems that the Nubian kingdom came briefly under the control of the Persians and the Ptolemies but for the most part, Nubia was able to maintain its independence and culture. Their religion, however, was almost identical to that of the ancient Egyptians. 
In the first century AD, under Queen Kandake the Nubians fought the Romans to a standstill. During the third century AD, Nubia was Christianized by Egyptian monks and merchants. At about the same time, the Kingdom of Meroe was invaded by  invasion from Aksum (Ethiopia) and split into three smaller kingdoms. In the seventh century, the Christian kingdoms successfully resisted the Arabs and enjoyed great prosperity and peace. Nubia was finally conquered by Mamluk Egypt in the 14th century AD. 
The Nubian Pyramids
Statues of Nubian rulers from the late 25th Dynasty–early Napatan period, 7th century BC, source: Kerma Museum
The pyramids were mostly built between 300 BC and 300 AD. There are an estimated two hundred pyramids in Northern Sudan, if not more—far more numerous than in Egypt. They were built by Nubian kings who, like the Pharaohs, were seen as divine. The kings and queens of Nubia were buried in these structures. They were interred with vast amounts of gold and other precious metals and most likely mummified. Sadly, these royal tombs were all looted long ago. 
The Pyramids of the African kingdom are markedly different from their northern neighbors; they are much narrower and have an incline of about 70 degrees, a much steeper angle than those at Giza. The Nubian pyramids are composed of tiers of laid stones blocks, that are roughly six to 10 feet in size. 
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the structures in Nubia is that they include what has been interpreted as an offering temple. These temples are decorated with iconography that is uniquely Kushite. Here, monarchs were buried for centuries. The vast majority of the pyramids are located at three sites, the most important of which is the former royal seat of Meroe, where there are 50 tombs. Another important site is Nuri. Curiously, archaeologists have found rocks that ring when struck and believe they may have been used in rituals. 
The Importance of the Nubian Pyramids
Nuri: Pyramids of Kushite rulers
These structures stand testament to the wealth and power of ancient Nubia. As the burial place of the dead monarchs, they were central to the Nubian religion. Priests often performed sacrifices and rituals honoring the deceased monarch in the offering temples at the base of the pyramids. It is believed this was done in the hopes that the dead king or queen would intercede with the gods on behalf of their former subjects. 
The Nubian pyramids required immense resources and labor and as such, they likely contributed to the development of the state. While these structures were undoubtedly influenced by Egypt, they were equally an expression of national identity. The Nubians appear to have revived the building of pyramids centuries after the Egyptians abandoned their construction. Why this was the case no one knows. It is possible that as ancient Egypt came under Macedonian and later Roman rule, the Nubians saw themselves as the heirs of ancient Egyptian civilization and this led to the revival in pyramid-building. 
The Decline of the Nubians Pyramids
Illustration of the pyramids at Meroe, credit: Charlie Swerdlow, source: Behance
The last Nubian pyramids date to the third century AD. After this, they abruptly cease, which may be related to the decline in the power of the Meroite kings and queens. The region was also becoming increasingly Christianized. As monarchs adopted Christianity, many customs and practices—including the interring of monarchs in tombs—were left behind. 
After the conquest of Nubia by the Egyptian Mamluks and later the Ottomans, the region became Islamic and the tombs buried under the sands of Sudan. They were discovered by European explorers in the 19th century and excavated by archaeologists, who study them for insights into the Nubian society and civilization. 
Conclusion
The pyramids of Nubia are among the wonders of the ancient world. They were a product of a unique and very successful civilization deeply influenced by ancient Egypt but also distinctively its own. The pyramids played a crucial role in the development of Nubia and were a crucial part of their religion. Today, they are becoming increasingly popular with tourists and more tombs may even be unearthed in the future. However, the pyramids are at risk of flooding and neglect, raising concerns for the future of these ancient wonders. 
References:
Lacovara, P., 2018. Pyramids and Obelisks Beyond Egypt. Aegyptiaca. Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt, (2), pp.124-137.
Emberling, G., 2011. Nubia: ancient kingdoms of Africa. Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University.

The Artemision Bronze: Mysterious Greek Masterpiece

by February 2, 2021

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The Ancient Greeks produced many artistic masterpieces, especially in sculpture. Many have survived down to the modern age. Most of the world’s leading museums have some examples of Hellenic sculpture. The iconic Artemision Bronze is one of the most famous surviving pieces of Greco-Roman art—and it has a fascinating story.

The Discovery of the Artemision Bronze

Cape Artemisium, where the Artemision Bronze was discovered

The bronze was found in the waters of the Cape of Artemision on the island of Euboea, which is in the Aegean and just off the coast of mainland Greece. It was uncovered in a shipwreck and recovered from the sea in 1928. Also found in the general area was another famous bronze called the Jockey of Artemision. However, exploration was halted for many years after a diver died at the site.

It has been established that the figure came from a shipwreck that dates to the 2nd century BC. Scholars have speculated that the artwork was being transported back to Rome. Historic sources say that after the Romans conquered Greece, they sent many masterpieces to Italy. Many academics have attributed the piece to the 5th century BC.

The sculpture is in a style known as the Severe Style, which came out of the breakdown of the Archaic tradition and the emergence of the Classical style. Many believe that it was made by the great sculptor Kalamis (Calamis), thought to be an Athenian who worked principally in Asia Minor. Another possibility is that one of the students of Kalamis made the Bronze. Some scholars have argued that the piece was created by Miron, another famed sculptor, but no one knows for sure. It is not known who commissioned the piece or where was it displayed.

Description of the Artemision Bronze

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bronze work is about 6 feet and 6 inches (2.09 m) high, and the figure is depicted in motion. He appears to be throwing a projectile, his arms outspread to a span of about 6 feet (2 m). It is believed that the piece represents an Olympian god. This is because it is highly realistic but is also idealized, with perfect proportions and a highly muscular frame.

The figure stands with his weight on his right foot and the other is slightly lifted off the ground. The head of the piece is very detailed, and the hair and the beard are very intricate. The eyebrows are missing; it is believed they were made either of gold or silver. His mouth was possibly once covered in copper. The eyes of the sculpture are now empty, and they may have once been filled with precious stones or even jewels.

Close up of the Artemision Bronze. Photo credit: David Waldo

Zeus or Poseidon

The identity of the bronze deity has been a source of debate ever since it was discovered. The pose of the figure suggests that it is throwing a projectile, which was never found. Some believe that the projectile was a thunderbolt. This would indicate that the figure was intended to represent Zeus, the King of the Olympians. In Greek mythology, he is often shown hurling thunderbolts.

Another view is that the figure is throwing a trident and this would indicate that the bronze actually depicts the god of the sea, Poseidon. However, there are several similarities between the representation and iconography of Zeus on pottery and coins. As a result, most experts believe that the Artemision Bronze is a depiction of Zeus.

The Artemision Bronze, detail

Conclusion

The discovery of the Artemision Bronze in the waters of Euboea was remarkable. It encouraged the exploration of other shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and indirectly contributed to the development of marine archaeology. The masterpiece also allowed scholars to better understand the evolution of Greek art. If you want to see the Bronze in person, it is on permanent display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece, where it is one of the most popular exhibits.

References:

Moon, Warren G (1983). Ancient Greek Art and Iconography. Madison: Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

 

The Colossus of Rhodes… Coming back to life?

by May 1, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was a feat of ingenuity and engineering and served as a Rhodian symbol of victory.

The Colossus of Rhodes was erected in 280 BCE but was toppled by an earthquake in 226 BCE. The monumental statue remained fallen until 654 CE, before it was ultimately victim to destruction, fragmentation, and looting… and now, there is a chance it may be resurrected once more.

The Colossus of Rhodes: A Victory Statue

Located off the modern day coast of southwestern Turkey in the Dodecanese islands, Rhodes has been a major commercial hub throughout its history. The Hellenistic Period on Rhodes, when the Colossus of Rhodes was built, witnessed a flourishing of its economy and maritime interactions. Philosophy, science, literature, and art all found homes in Rhodes.

Then, in 305 BCE Antigonus I Monophthalmus dedicated to attack. In a power struggle over who should get to rule Rhodes after Alexander’s death, Antigonus sent his son Demetrius to capture Rhodes and secure it against the opposing Ptolemy and Seleucus factions. The capital of Rhodes was fortunately protected by a wall and required Demetrius to construct two separate siege towers to overcome it. Ultimately, both sieges were unsuccessful and a fleet from Egypt arrived to help defend Rhodes from Demetrius.

The conflict ended with a peace treaty and the people of Rhodes viewed it as a personal victory.

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes

To commemorate their successful stronghold against Demetrius, Rhodes decided to erect a statue in honor of their patron god, Helios. According to Pliny, the Colossus took 12 years to build and was started in 292 BCE. Sculptor Charles of Lyndus was the artist behind the statue, but legend holds that he didn’t live to see its completion.

Construction of the Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes was said to be 105 feet tall, made of Bronze paneling, and internally supported by columns and iron. Construction of such a statue was of course a feat in itself and several theories have been presented as to how such a work was completed. Scaffolding and earthen ramps have been used to complete the Colossus, but it is pure speculation.

Some scholars, both ancient and modern, postulate that the statue was cast in situ. They suggest that an earthen mound was built up around it as the workers went in order to reach the height of the Colossus as it is described by Philo of Byzantium.

Painting of the Statue in Rhodes

An oil painting representing the ancient city of Rhodes by Frantisek Kupka (1906 CE).

Additionally, the positioning of the statue itself is unclear. We like to imagine that the Colossus straddled the harbor entrance, acting as a guard and port of welcome to visitors, inciting both respect and a bit of fear. However, this is not certain.

The Fall of The Colossus of Rhodes

As impressive as the statue was sure to have been, it only stood for around 54 years. In 226 BCE an earthquake rocked the region and the statue toppled to the ground. Strabo saw the fallen statue in his travels and wrote that, “he broke down by the falling from the knees,” and noted the Rhodian people did not restore it because an oracle instructed them not to do so. The colossus remained in this downtrodden position for nearly 800 years, when, according to Theophanes the Confessor, the statue was melted down and sold for its metal parts to merchants.

Statue

Potential construction for a replica

The Resurrection of the Colossus of Rhodes?

In the last few decades there has been a debate on whether or not to rebuild the Colossus of Rhodes. The project’s proposal states that the rebuilding of the Colossus would, “draw the attention of all humanity to our island [Rhodes], not purely motivated by a feeling of irredentism, but by creating a memorable cultural contribution of Rhodes.” The 2015 collective of architects, archaeologists, and civil engineers proposed to reconstruct a statue that would not only be much larger than the original, but would serve as a cultural center and lighthouse.

While we don’t know if this will happen or not, it would definitely be an astonishing feat… and a fantastic opportunity to see one of the seven wonders of world come to life again.

Walk Like an Egyptian: Early Greek Art

by April 15, 2019

It easily falls into the ‘conspiracy’ category – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun story to tell.

We are all taught that empires rise and fall and that every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt were no exception. The year was 1336 BC and the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, had just died.

Akhenaten was a strange Pharaoh who shook many of the essential foundations of Ancient Egyptian culture. For one thing, Akhenaten was a monotheist. He only believed in Aten, a Ra-like sun God, a fact that drives some scholars to debate whether he is a founding father of judaism.

Nefertiti

His wife, Nefertiti

Akhenaten was also a romantic, conferring unusual, elevated status to his wife, the famed beauty Nefertiti. He also may have had a strange syndrome or disability which he passed on to his children… something that may have resulted in the early death of his son, Tutankhamun or King Tut.

One the strangest things about Akhenaten though, was that he changed the way art was done in those ancient days. He shunned the rigid rules that maintained 3000 years of artistic stability. Depictions became more naturalistic, especially of plants, animals and commoners. They showed a sense of movement and action.

Akhenaten with his children

Akhenaten with his wife and children

The royals too were depicted differently. Instead of showing the Pharaoh as god-like, immobile and eternal, the artists began producing tender images of him. He is drawn playing with his daughters beneath the rays of the Aten, while showing his wife affection. The lines surrounding the king are soft and curved. The hard straight features of the previous pharaohs are banished.

But then Akhenaten, the man who is considered “the first individual in history”, died.

Change at first was gradual, but eventually all the reformations faded away and returned to the previous, traditional way of doing things. The time referred to as the ‘Amarna period’ came to an end.

But what happened to all those artists who had just tasted creative freedom? The return to regulation meant the end of artistic liberalism. Did they stay in Egypt after the reversion to the mean? Or did they, perhaps, make their way up north, across the mediterranean?

Around this time, we start to see, for instance, the emergence of Etruscan hieroglyphics, in the land of the Minoans, a pre-Greek civilization.

Eventually, around 750 BC, we come to ‘Archaic’ Early Greek Art.

This time period is characterized by statues that are free standing, frontal and solid. They wear the strange, so-called archaic smile. One foot is placed forward, the fists are clenched. There are three types of figures, the standing nude youth (kouros), the standing draped girl (kore), and the seated woman. All of the different types of sculptures emphasize and generalize the essential features of the human figure.

Now these Greek statues look a lot like the Ancient Egyptian statues.

A comparison of Early Greek Art to Ancient Egyptian Statues

Ancient Egyptian on the Left, Ancient Greek on the Right

Of course this story of runaway sculptors, bringing an artistic renaissance and revolution to Ancient Greece, has a lot of holes. The time periods, for instance, are vastly contradictory. It is difficult to imagine keeping this new artistic approach alive for 500 years. The Ancient Greek Kouros also look more like the traditional Ancient Egyptian art, rather than the unique Akhenaten style.

So why did Ancient Egyptian-like statues start emerging in Ancient Greece? Could this just be a coincidence?

We, unfortunately, do not know. They are many other potential explanations, such as the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which was founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great. This huge empire, which encompassed approximately 8 million km and spanned three continents, would have brought Egypt and northern Greece, Macedonia, under the same umbrella.

The Achaemenid Persian empire also instituted infrastructures, such as road networks, a postal system, and an official language throughout its territories. It even had a bureaucratic administration which was centralized under the Emperor, as well as a large, professional army and civil services.

Maybe the famous Egyptian memorials made their way on these new found roads to Greece’s fledging shores. It is, after all, in this time period when the first Archaic sculptures start to appear.

Or maybe not. History is not an exact science. Dots that seem important might only stick out with hindsight, and connections between them weakened by improbabilities. All we do know, is that Early Greek art starts getting even more interesting from here on out.

 

 

 

“Walk Like an Egyptian: Early Greek Art” was written by Anya Leonard

High Classical Greek Art: Political Patrons

by April 8, 2019

Few things impact a budding art scene like an empirical power showing off. The ruling class often invest heavily in propaganda and self grandeur, paid into the hands of the artistically gifted. They might even commission a few temples, as thanks to the gods for their new found positions. The artists, as long as they celebrate approved figures, are rewarded with extravagant commissions. Their patrons, in return, shower their favorite sculptors and painters with prestige and honor.

Bust of PericlesPericles, the Athenian Statesman, and Alexander the Great, the king of Macedon, were no exception. In fact, the Golden Age of Athenian art – the high Classical greek art period – is broadly defined by these exceptional gentlemen, book holders for fabricated historical boundaries.

Apparently it all started in 479 B.C. when Athens beat the Persians and founded a confederacy of allies to ensure the freedom of the Greek cities in the Aegean islands. Participants supplied either ships or funds in order to secure protection. This so-called “Delian League”, however, didn’t last long.

Athens wanted an empire, and that’s exactly what it got. First it moved the treasury closer to home – to the imperial city of Athens itself. Then the city-state put forth the Coinage Degree, which imposed Athenian silver coinage, weights and measures on all of the allies. Any left overs from the mint went straight to Athens, and any other use was punished by death.

Now the ordinary Greek members of the Delian league were, in fact, Athenian subjects.

This is where the man who was “surrounded by glory” comes into play. Pericles, who lived from ca. 461–429 B.C., was one of the masterminds behind Athens assuming full control over the league and a famous proponent for Athenian democracy. He then orchestrated one of the greatest human embezzlements of all time. He used the league’s treasury to build some of the most amazing artistic creations of the ancient world. He launched Greek Art into the “High Classical Greek Art”.

Pericles transformed the Acropolis (including the Parthenon) into a lasting monument of Athens’ political and cultural power. He worked tirelessly, with the likes of the Greek sculptor Phidias, to promote Athens as the artistic center of the Ancient World.

The red figured vase on the right allows for more detail

The red figured vase on the right allows for more detail

This catalyst propelled Athens further, innovating art on every level, from theatrical works to sculpture to vases. In regards to the last item, a major development occurred in this time period. The red-figure technique superseded the previously traditional black-figure technique. This change may not, at first, seem monumental, but it allowed a greater ability to portray the human body, clothed or naked, at rest or in motion.

Meanwhile, the solid, archaic figures of early Greek sculpture transitioned into more naturalistic statues, revealing movement, grace and the female form. The nude Aphrodite of Knidos, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, was one of the first to break the convention of hiding female figures behind heavily draped attire. In addition to realistic bodies, statues began to depict real people. Democracy trickled down from politics to art.

Aphrodite of Knidos - example of High Classical Greek Art

Aphrodite of Knidos – example of High Classical Greek Art

Among these changing stylistic innovations, developed the art of studying art. For the first time, artistic schools were established, such as the school at Sicyon in the Peloponnese. There students learned the cumulative knowledge of art, the foundation of art history.

It would seem as if the creative boom of the Golden Age would never end. The artistic funds of Athens, however, eventually dwindled along with Athens’ defeat in the second Peloponnesian war.

Fortunately for art, another champion came forward, along with grand commissions and an immense bank account. Alexander the Great, known for his ruthless wars and expanding empire, became a patron of the arts as never before seen… loot from plundered lands will do that. Man is seldom shy of spending other people’s money and Alexander was no different.

It is here that the artificial boundaries of history are vaguely drawn. Alexander the Great, founding great cultural cities around his empire, brought together artistic ideals which had previously never been in contact. Styles and techniques drastically changed throughout the empire’s reach. Was this the peak of Classical art or the beginning of a new age of Art? No one knows precisely when the one period ends nor when the next begins…  What follows though, is the final stage of Ancient Greek art… the Hellenistic Period.

 

 

“High Classical Greek Art: Political Patrons” was written by Anya Leonard

Hellenistic Greek Art

by April 1, 2019

It is easy to have an ‘ideal’ when it is unchallenged. “This king is best”. How readily this bold statement rolls off the tongue, when there is no other king of which to speak. Likewise the phrase, “This God (or Gods) is right” offers no resistance if one’s own knowledge of divinities is severely limited. Similarly, “This is the perfection of beauty” can hold only sway in a small or isolated society.

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Winged Victory of Samothrace

It is often diversity, then, that invites people to examine their own unquestioned convictions in governance, religion or art. The complementary act of decentralisation, takes these norms and expectations away from one ruling group and puts independent thought and creation into a multitude of hands. There are now many competing ideas and concepts.

It is this diversity that characterizes the era of Hellenistic Greek art, the period of eclecticism.

This multeity was born out of the expansion of Alexander the Great’s empire, though its historical barriers aren’t clearly defined. The King of Macedonia brought extreme and remote regions under one vast umbrella. His kingdom, as well as the influencing Greek culture, stretched from Egypt to as far as India.

Within this thriving, expansive network new centers of “greek” art sprung up, questioning the previous dominance of Athens as the cultural epicenter of the ancient world. Now, cities like Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamum began making a name for themselves in the artistic arena. They took the attic ways, but then added local flare or improved technical abilities. By the 2nd century BC, the rising power of Rome also absorbed much of the Greek tradition, all while supplying their own slant or engineering prowess.

So what did the local artists do to the Athenians’ dominant version of ‘ideal’?

Well, they destroyed it in the most magnificent of ways.

Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo

The tall, proud statues found in high classical art were punched, twisted and tortured. They distorted the beautifully sculpted youths of Athens’ golden age into decrepit or dying individuals. Upstanding gods and men were depicted as inebriated, passed out with their legs spread wanton or clutching a bottle.

The artists picked up the old perfect bodies, wrapped gracefully and modestly in sculptured cloths and threw them into the water till they were drenched. The women became erotic, with shapely figures bravely carved through flimsy fabric. They perfected transparency portrayed in stone.

One only has to think of the “Venus de Milo” and the slinky s-like shape of her torso to grasp this new found sensuality. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace”, now atop a dramatic staircase in the Louvre, is breathtaking and triumphant in her clinging cloth.

The Hellenistic sculptures also broke out of their planes, becoming “in-the-round”, or something to be seen from every angle. True to the diversity from which the art was born, subjects reflected a medley of individuals. There were old men and children, africans, sentimental folks and the so called “grotesques”. Emotions, such as agony, kindness or wisdom, were revealed, etched into their faces.

dying gaulAmong the most famous pieces of this time period is the “Dying Gaul“. It portrays a soldier, crippled over in pain. His expressions show his anguish as well as his contorted body. The realism of this piece, which was commissioned some time between 230 BC and 220 BC by Attalus I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Celtic Galatians in Anatolia, is overwhelming.

Another exemplary specimen is “Laocoon and his two sons.” The statue depicts a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, when a priest tried to warn the Trojans against taking in that wooden horse. The Gods on the Greek side sent a snake to punish the prudent man and his sons, which is what we see in stone. These statues are a conglomeration of twisting nudity and pain. The elderly priest, while in excellent physical shape shows true torment on his face. He is a far cry from the noble Apollonian statues of the Classical period or the Kouros of the Anarchic era. This tormented figure is definitely Hellenistic Greek Art.

Laocoon and his two soon

Laocoon and his two soon

Eventually this style and period came to an end. The historians like to mark this moment with the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. It was when Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus, defeated Marc Antony‘s fleet and, consequently, ended Ptolemaic rule. The Ptolemies were considered the last Hellenistic dynasty to fall to Rome.

It was time for another empire, with its own range of diversity, to take place.

This does not mean, however, that Greek art and its traditions completed disappeared. Indeed, they remained strong during the Roman Imperial period, and especially so during the reigns of the emperors Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.) and Hadrian (r. 117–138 A.D.).

This is a wonderful fact for the modern viewer, as many of the astounding works that exist for us today are not in fact, Greek originals. They are Roman. By improving the materials and support systems, the Latin conquerors helped preserve some of the greatest art of the Ancient Greek world.