Friday, March 20, 2009

Nebamun: A happy ending with a pinch of Salt

Al Ahram Weekly (Jenny Jobbins)

UPDATE: Jenny Jobbins correctly pointed out that I copied the word "Salt" as "salt". I have corrected it above. Apologies to all.

I thought that we had seen the end of reviews of the Nebamun gallery at the British Museum, which opened some weeks ago. But here's a good feature by Jenny Jobbins, which puts the paintings into both their Pharaonic and more modern historical contexts.

Thousands of miles and thousands of years apart, a son pays homage to his dead father. In a bright new limestone tomb-chapel on the west bank of the Nile at Thebes, the son of the Scribe and Grain Accountant Nebamun offers his father a bouquet of flowers. In the British Museum in the heart of London, a wealthy Egyptian-born financier builds a memorial to his late father, Michel Cohen.

The two events are linked by a series of wall paintings that have been likened to the genius of the Sistine Chapel, but the story of how the paintings came to be in the museum is worthy of an adventure of Indiana Jones.

We begin with Nebamun -- whose name means "My Lord is Amun" -- described as "a Scribe and Grain Accountant of Amun in the Gallery of Divine Offerings". We do not know exactly who he was, but he probably died at some point in the later 18th Dynasty during the reign of Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV (1400 to 1390 BC) or Pharaoh Amenhotep III (1390 to 1353 BC). Nebamun and his wife, Hatshepsut, had two sons and a daughter; the elder son, Netjermes, a priest, seems to have taken over his father's office on the latter's death.

Nebamun prepared for himself a tomb-chapel of shining white local limestone on the opposite side of the river from Karnak Temple. He had the walls painted with vivid images of life, death and the afterlife as seen and understood in the world he knew. The scenes of domesticated animals and wildlife, of dancing girls, of Nebamun counting tributes, and even of his pet cat catching birds in the reeds, are among the finest and most realistic ever found in Egypt.

After Nebamun's burial the tomb below the chapel was sealed, although it may have been opened to permit other family burials. The chapel was left open so that Nebamun's friends and relatives could pay visits and admire the splendid art, just as worshippers in Rome enjoyed the wonderful visions created by Michaelangelo.

Amenhotep III's reign was followed by a period of instability caused when his heir, who called himself Akhenaten, overthrew the priests of Amun and created a new religion and a new seat of rule -- albeit temporary -- at Amarna. This chaos continued until the end of the 18th Dynasty, and Nebamun's tomb was among those attacked by iconoclasts.

Inevitably, as time went by anything of value was removed, and Nebamun and his tomb-chapel were forgotten. As the centuries passed the tomb and its fabulous paintings appear to have escaped further disturbance. In the early 19th century, however, in places a long way from Egypt, interest in the ancient world and its antiquities was growing.

See the above page for the full story.

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