A Metaphor For The Permanence Of Egypt.
It could almost be said that history began with Egypt: what is important is the continuity of the Egyptian lifestyle for a period approaching three thousand years. There was the occasional hiccup, like the arrival of the Hittites and the outrageous Akhenaten. They were just hiccups, drops in the swimmingpool of Egypt’s continuity. Egypt’s way of life would continue as though it would never stop.
For those living at the time, it would be quite reasonable for them to assume that it could not end. For us, what is striking is the sheer volume of time that the Egyptian royal dynasties spanned. Yes, a Pharaoh would die, more important were the gods who oversaw the various aspects of daily life, and they were eternal.
A person living in the Middle Kingdom could look back on a thousand years of consistent history. Spanning some four hundred generations and more, all living in contented harmony. In the Middle Kingdom it was possible to expect another four hundred generations to come after without much by way of change. And that is pretty well how it turned out.
Any changes there were, were to our eyes mind numbingly slow. In those days one might expect a modest change over the course of a hundred years – or more. Today we see truly epochal changes flowering right before our eyes. What is certain is that an ancient Egyptian could not stomach living in our age, and it would be impossible for us to live comfortably then. The pace of life would be so slow that our minds would be forced into overdrive to compensate. Well, that’s what drugs are there for.
The focus of this post is the static nature of Egyptian art. Art, as you know, is an expression of how the artist lived their life, and in ancient Egypt, it was static. This is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject of the most important element of any art, the human:
Egyptian art is famous for its distinctive figure convention, used for the main figures in both relief and painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown as seen from the side, but the torso seen as from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure, using 18 “fists” to go from the ground to the hair-line on the forehead.
In today’s world, this would show a serious – if not pathological – incapacity on the part of the artist. Unchangingness is in today’s world an illness, where a mind that ought be active has become sclerotic and its patterns of thinking rigid. It doesn’t mean we must chase change for its own sake; the challenge of our times is for each of us to find a balance between change and continuity.
For the Egyptian, continuity was their life and the rigid and codified depiction of humans is but one expression of this. They didn’t need any more than that. Humanity at the time didn’t have the capacity to deal with life on their own, they needed a community which was guided from above. And yes, we have this today in some parts of the world, but these are not places that are looking forward. Furthermore, these states use military force where conversation is far more effective.
What is important to note is that whilst the images are static, they would evoke all manner of reactions in the ancient Egyptian who looked at it. One cannot speak of images forming in the mind of an ancient Egyptian; nor can we speak of thought. These are very modern phenomena. Nevertheless something lived in the Egyptian that was evoked by the static, formulaic depiction.
The picture was there to evoke the same feelings in all who beheld it. Ancient Egypt was a time that had so little change meant that the stories of the lives of leading personalities would be common knowledge. Thus this static picture of them would evoke all this knowledge and would come alive within the viewer. I must add that if this happened today, it would be regressive and antisocial; today’s humanity have very different capacities from the Ancient Egyptian. The narrow minded academic can ascribe the things they see in the deeds of Ancient Egyptians to the kind of thinking that these academics possess themselves. But that only shows the limitations of academic thinking and is of no help if you want to appreciate the realities of the Ancient Egyptian culture.
Two Rivers, Two Contrasting Cultures.
The Nile, as we know from our history books, was the timekeeper for the Egyptian nation. Each year the flood brought fertility to the land, leaving black sediment across the country. Egypt of the time was a narrow belt of fertility edged to each side by the sandy wastelands. Thus black to the Egyptian was good: red was bad, this was the colour of the sand. This was in clear contrast to the peoples of Mesopotamia, where the rivers would meander and each year. One year, the river overran their farm, the next, it would be two days’ walk to find it.
Thus the Babylonians were prepared to accept change, the Egyptians to accept stability. What’s more, stability is what they had and they could endure it. In our modern times, we need to balance both of these tendencies if we are to do something positive with our lives.