Having contemplated the ‘House-of-Millions-of-Years’ (mortuary temple) of Ramses III from a hot-air balloon earlier today, it was time to explore it on foot. As I approached the temple, walking through the migdol (Asian-style fortress-gateway), I finally came face to face with the warrior-king: Ramses III –in the fashion of his predecessors- grabs his enemies by the hair as he raises the other hand to smite them with a club, to the satisfied look of Amon-Ra and Ra-Horakhty. Such is the iconographic program of the first pylon at the Temple of Medinet Habu, but it gets much more interesting at the second pylon.
Having confronted the Nubians to the South and the Libyan to the West, the real threat came from the North and the East: the Bronze Age Vikings of the Eastern Mediterranean, known as the Sea Peoples (a heterogeneous coalition of Aegean populations), swarmed Egypt during the reign of the XIX Dynasty Pharaoh, Ramses III. The clash was so intense that the walls of the second pylon of the Temple of Medinet Habu still echo the carnage. Picasso should have found inspiration here for his cubist style: the captives depicted are shown with the feathered helmets typical of the Sea Peoples, with arms bound over heads and behind their backs in a rather ‘modern’ composition reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, only thousands of years older. The images are exceptional in both their quality and their style, as some of the captives (Peleset and Tjeker) are shown frontally, an anomaly in Ancient Egyptian art.
Elsewhere, the walls of the peristyle halls are covered with horrific reliefs showing intense battles, scattered bodies, mutilated captives and severed hands and genitals; a grim reminder of the fate that awaited the enemies of Egypt. This, obviously, is not why Medinet Habu, the best-persevered mortuary temple on the west bank of Thebes, is also the most impressive. Why then?
The second court’s portico holds the answer: winged cobras and solar discs adorn ceilings and doorframes, while colored columns and pillars present a radical aesthetic shift from the rest of the scenes in the Temple. The colors glow as the continuous interplay between light and shadow lends this portico a sense of serenity rarely seen anywhere else in old Thebes; art for eternity, eternity in the memory of stone.
Following a quick stop to greet the seated statues of the XVIII dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep III (Colossi of Memnon), we proceeded to visit the incredible Theban Tombs of Sennedjem and Ramose at Deir el-Medina. The best was yet to come at Valley of the Kings, but that is another story.