In June we visited the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition at the British Museum. The premise of the exhibition was to display the art and showcase the culture of the indigenous peoples of mainland Australia & the Torres Straits Islands from their own perspective. Whilst the later sections of the exhibition inevitably looked at the impact of the arrival of the British the exhibition didn't begin there as if it was the British discovery of the continent that mattered. Instead it started with the art & traditions that had existed for millennia before that.

The opening section of the exhibition had two purposes - it was trying to convey a sense of the scale and diversity of the continent, and it was introducing the key concept of country. It's easy (from the perspective of all the way over here) to think of modern White Australia as a monolithic entity - beaches, barbies, sunshine, ex-pats & their descendents. So down one wall of the first section of the exhibition was a series of exhibits to point out the diversity in terms of environment and culture across the continent. This included a set of videos of different parts of Australia, with Aboriginal people walking through them or living in them. It also included a map of Australia divided up by the languages spoken at the time the first Western explorers came to the continent. The other side of this area had several pieces of art by several different groups of Aboriginal people. These showcased the variety of styles across the continent, and also began to introduce the idea of country.

The Aboriginal idea that we translate as the word "country" isn't the same as the normal meaning of the English word, it's not country like England is a country. The concept isn't about a nation-state or a large scale political division of land, nor is it a sort of land (as in countryside). It includes not only land but also the people, animals, plants and other resources on that piece of land. It also includes the myths and the stories associated with that place. There's a sense of ownership to it - a person or a family has "their country" - but that goes both ways, the people also belong to the land as much as the land belongs to them. A lot (all?) of the artwork in the exhibition was also tightly linked to the country of the artist(s). The art is a visual representation of the mythology and the geography of country. Several of the larger artworks were created by more than one artist - this is because each person paints their own country so as a story or artwork moves across different countries different people are involved. The exact meanings of the symbolism in the art will also only be known to the people whose country it is. Only the senior members of those people will know all the nuances - possibly not even then, as men and women may have different knowledge of their country. Which meant that while some things were explained in the exhibition labels other things were noted as something private to the artists.

I'm not sure I've explained country very well - it feels slippery to me because it's a completely different way of looking at the universe so neither I nor the language I use have the right words for the concepts. I'm also not personally particularly attached to places - less so than J, for instance - so I only grasp the idea on an intellectual level not an emotional one. Starting the exhibition with country as the key idea helped to put the last part of the exhibition - after the arrival of the Westerners - into sharper relief. Taking land from Aboriginal people, displacing communities, taking and using up the resources of the land isn't just about forced removal of property and inadequate compensation. It's also damaging and breaking something fundamental about how people's sense of self is structured.

The next two sections of the exhibition looked at using country (resources, trade) and tending country. Nobody's country has every resource, so trade between countries and even outside the continent was an important part of the economy. And it was an economy of reciprocal gift-giving with expectations and understandings about obligation which wouldn't necessarily (ever?) be spelt out - which lead to miscommunication once the British arrived. In order to make best use of the resources country needs to be tended both ritually and physically (although I suspect that's a division that isn't made). So this section of the exhibition included examples of ritual actions but also discussion of things like setting controlled fires to stimulate new growth of the local plant life. One of the exhibits was a photo of a chap in his ceremonial gear, sat on a chair taking a selfie with his iPad. While I was looking at it, I overheard a somewhat posh sounding older lady remarking to her companion "I suppose that's one time when it would be permissible to take a selfie!" which made me laugh (not out loud tho).

At the centre point of the exhibition, marking the transition from the Aboriginal Australia to the Colonial Australia was a memorial pole. These pieces of art were once funerary pieces for individuals the artist & his or her community wanted to remember, but in more modern times they've changed to be less associated with a particular person. This one had two figures at the top, one on each side of the pole. Both figures were planting a staff which ran down the whole of the pole through the rest of the design. One of these figures is an important ancestor of the artist, and his staff represents the law of the indigenous people enforced on the land. The other figure represents Captain Cook planting the British flag and enforcing the law of Britain on the land. The artist hasn't said which figure is which. It was a striking and thought provoking piece (once the symbolism was explained).

And so then the exhibition moved on to the era of British and White Australian rule over the continent. This was divided into two sections - first "encounters in country" which looked at the early settlement days, and then the exhibition finished with a look at post-independence Australia. The early settlement section had as one of its main themes how the indigenous people have been written out of the narrative of this period. Like the reports of explorers discovering new bits of the continent as if they'd gone out and walked alone through the wilderness. When actually they'd been taken by guides, along pre-existing trade routes to communities who they had negotiated to visit. And of course the claiming of the continent for Britain by Cook as it was "owned by nobody" when in actual fact every piece of land was somebody's country. One of the most striking pieces of art in this section was a modern painting done in an old-fashioned Western style - the ship on the ocean with its sails aflutter, the beach and the heroic figure in 18th Century uniform clearly having just landed on virgin territory. And yet this is not Cook the intrepid Westerner, this is an Aboriginal man.

The last part of the exhibition was pretty grim viewing - it documented the ways in which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have been treated as less than human since independence. Starting with the constitution of the new country which outright states that when you do a census you don't count indigenous people. Until shockingly recently Indigenous people weren't citizens - they were "wards of the state" who were much more restricted in what they were permitted to do, as if they were children. There was art in this section relating to the forced removal of people from their country, of the massacres of Aboriginal people and of the Lost Generation who were systematically removed from their families and adopted by White families to break the cultural ties of these children. Again the exhibition took care to remind us that Australia is not one monolithic place and there were many experiences of colonialism by different communities - in some cases these things were long enough ago that they are history; in others it has happened within living memory. Just before the end of the exhibition the timeline moved on to contemporary times, and highlighted both the ways that things are getting better and the debate within Aboriginal communities nowadays about their art in our museums. As the art and the artifacts are so closely linked to country some people feel that they shouldn't be taken away and put in a museum somewhere else. But others feel that so long as there is respect for the meaning of the piece and so long as there is an attempt to educate the people who come to see it (not just "oh look at this exotic thing from foreign parts") then it's OK. I didn't, however, really get the impression of enthusiasm for the idea from any of the stated positions ... which made for a rather uncomfortable sensation having just walked through this exhibition.

As a sort of palette cleanser the exhibition finished with a short but charming video of a man who is one of the last master basket weavers of particular type of basket we'd seen earlier in the exhibition. We also went to a short talk that evening by one of the curators, Lissant Bolton, who gave us a sense of the artists who'd made some of the contemporary art we'd seen in the exhibition. One thing she said that stuck with me was that it was notable that when she was visiting Australia during the set up phase of the exhibition she would bring objects and they would reciprocate by taking her to country associated with them. A sort of micro-scale view of the difference in the two cultures.

The top billed trip out of the whole of our Egypt holiday's itinerary was the visit to Nefertari's tomb in the Valley of the Queens. As with Seti I's tomb in the Valley of the Kings (post) this tomb is not generally open to the public. Although clearly they do open it often enough to make it worth their while designing and printing tickets for it! I don't think I've mentioned the tickets for sites in Egypt in my blog posts yet - they're generally rather well done and souvenirs in their own right, and the Nefertari tomb one was no exception.

Originally we weren't visiting any of the other tombs in the Valley, but at the last minute Medhat changed some things around on the itinerary so that we could. Which was cool, because I'd not had the chance to see them before. As with the Valley of the Kings we had a ticket that let us into any three open tombs - but that didn't actually give us any choices, there were only three open ones so that was what we visited. Another similarity with the Kings' Valley was that photography was strictly forbidden - so no photos of the tombs. So I've picked out some Nefertari related ones from my Turin Egyptian Museum photos to illustrate this post.

The Tomb of Nefertari (QV66)

Model of Nefertari's Tomb

Model of Nefertari's Tomb

Nefertari was the Great Royal Wife (i.e. senior wife) of Ramesses II, and her tomb was discovered in 1904 by Schiaparelli (of the Turin Egyptian Museum). It had been robbed in antiquity, and so there weren't many artifacts there for Schiaparelli to excavate. The decoration, however, was still in pretty good nick and is stunningly beautiful. The tomb used to be open to the general public, but the humidity caused by people breathing was found to be damaging the plaster that the decoration is painted onto. To stop this deterioration of the tomb it is kept in a protective atmosphere which must be replaced by pumping air in before the doors are opened. Visitor numbers are restricted with only a few small groups of tourists per year are allowed in for 10 minutes at a time.

It's hard to know quite how to describe the tomb. Photos I'd seen in books beforehand really don't do justice to the reality of the place and certainly the wee model we'd seen in the Turin Egyptian Museum (above) didn't! The colours are still very vibrant and although it's damaged in places the effect when you're actually there is that it's exactly as it was when the painters finished work. One thing I particularly looked at in the decoration was all the differences in the various representations of Nefertari. She's got different outfits on, and different earrings and other jewellery. Another bit that caught my eye was that the staircases not only had snakes with wings, but also a pair of rather fine Anubises sitting on shrines.

Nefertari's Shabtis

Nefertari's Shabtis

On the last evening of our holiday Dylan gave us a talk about Nefertari and her tomb to complement this visit. I didn't take notes at the time, so can't go into much detail but I do remember the gist of it (hopefully accurately enough!). He started by talking about the Valley of the Queens in general, and the discoveries of the tombs there including Nefertari's tomb. The second half of his talk was about what's known about Nefertari the woman - in brief, not a lot but some inferences can be drawn from the evidence we do have. She's often presented as the love of Ramesses II's life, with people citing the temple at Abu Simbel and the tomb as evidence for true love. Dylan thinks it's more likely to've been a political match, and that her connections were an important part of what made her a favourite. The other senior wife is not as favoured, but there is some degree of positioning her as Nefertari's equal. For instance in the reliefs where you see the long line of Ramesses II's sons processing somewhere they alternate sons of each mother, one Nefertari's son, one the other senior wife and so on. It seems implausible that the two women's pregnancies were that well co-ordinated, instead it's likely to be intended to convey their respective status. As I said, most of the tomb contents had been looted before Schiaperelli discovered Nefertari's tomb, but some pieces were overlooked. Some of these (like the blue button in the picture below) have Ay's name on them - the Pharaoh who succeeded Tutankhamun. Dylan talked about how there are similarities in the names of Ay, Tuya, Yuya, Nefertiti, Nefertari and others. His theory is that Nefertari is a part of a family that's been very important in the military for generations, and has provided many consorts to Pharaohs (and even the occasional Pharaoh). And that her political importance is to do with linking Ramesses II and the still relatively new 19th Dynasty (at the time of his marriage) to this family.

Faience Pommel with Cartouche of Ay

Faience Pommel with Cartouche of Ay

Other Tombs in the Valley of the Queens (QV44, QV52, QV55)

After visiting Nefertari's tomb we moved on to look at the other three tombs that were open in the Valley. Doing them in this order meant that we didn't appreciate these other three as much as we might've if we hadn't just seen the best tomb! The three are all linked to Ramesses III - two sons and a wife. The princes were both named after sons of Ramesses II which makes it a bit confusing - the elder one was Khaemwaset (buried in QV44) and his younger half-brother was Amunherkhepshef (QV55). The queen was Tyti, and her tomb (QV52) is a neighbour of Khaemwaset's tomb - perhaps suggesting she was his mother.

Both sons appear to've died young, and the decoration features Ramesses III introducing the boy to the various gods rather than the tomb occupant meeting them on his own as one would normally expect. In Khaemwaset's tomb I was mostly looking at the various demons with their knives. In Amunherkhepshef's tomb I was a bit distracted from the artwork by the bonus mummified fetus in a case in one of the rooms! This mummy wasn't found in the tomb, and as far as I know has nothing to with Ramesses III's family - it's just displayed here for lack of a better idea of what to do with it. Tyti's tomb decoration is in a poorer state than the other two tombs. However there were still some interesting things to look at - like a rather fine set of the four sons of Horus in one of the side chambers.

The name Isambard Kingdom Brunel conjures up thoughts of the Great Western Railway, and other successful engineering projects that are still well regarded today. But on the the In Our Time episode about him Julia Elton (former President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology), Ben Marsden (University of Aberdeen) and Crosbie Smith (University of Kent) explained that this is not all there was to Brunel, and he wasn't always as successful as his modern reputation suggests. His reputation during his lifetime was mixed - he was an innovator, but also prone to over-reach.

They started the programme by briefly discussing Isambard Kingdom Brunel's father, Marc Isambard Brunel, who was born in France before the French Revolution. He fled to the US as a refugee during the Revolution, and subsequently moved to England. He married Sophia Kingdom, an English woman who he'd met in France during the Revolution. He was a highly successful engineer, and he educated his son to follow in his footsteps.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in England, and his early education was biased towards science, maths & engineering and came from his father. He was then sent to school to get a proper gentleman's education to complement this (Greek, Latin and so on). Afterwards he spent some time abroad before returning to England to work as an engineer with his father. The big project that they were working on was a tunnel under the Thames river. This didn't go as well as was initially hoped, although it was ultimately successful. The ground under the river is not very good for tunnelling through - instead of the clay they hoped for it was gravel. This meant that the progress of tunnelling operations was slow and also dangerous.

Brunel chafed at working in his father's shadow and was very keen to make a name for himself independently. While he was in Bristol convalescing from an accident during work on the Thames Tunnel he got involved in a project to build a bridge there. This was funded by money left in someone's will which had been invested until the interest earnt meant that it was enough to cover the project, and then there was a competition for the design of the bridge. Brunel put his own design in, and won - although the bridge that was built was a slight redesign of his idea, because a Grand Old Man of engineering (whose name I forget :/) said that Brunel's design wouldn't work. I'm not quite clear if this expert was right or not - bucking the conventional wisdom was to be a noticeable Brunel trait, and often he was right. His approach to engineering was a scientific one - to work from first principles, to experiment and to keep meticulous records. This could be a double edged sword, "the way things have always been done" is not necessarily wrong. This project also highlighted another of Brunel's key traits - his showmanship. Despite the project running out of money before the bridge was finished, the grand opening still went ahead as Brunel planned.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the Great Western Railway is what I particularly remember Brunel for, and this was his next big project. Unsurprisingly, his winning bid flung out all the precedents for railway design and started over from scratch - much to Stephenson's disgust. Brunel was aiming for the luxury end of the railway market and so ended up with a design incompatible with other parts of the evolving rail network - his track was a wider guage and his trains were larger than those in the rest of the country. Brunel was initially in charge not only of the engineering of the railway but also of the locomotives, and once again he started over from first principles. Sadly this was not a success, and an inquiry set up to investigate his failures ended by taking control of locomotive design away from him.

Having had overall success in his foray into railway engineering Brunel moved into ship building. This was a natural extension of the Great Western Railway - the idea being you'd travel from London to Bristol by GWR train and thence to the USA by a GWS ship. This project started out as a very nice example of the good in Brunel's approach to engineering. Here conventional wisdom said that if you built a bigger steam ship it would sink, for what are in retrospect silly reasons. Brunel's start from scratch approach meant that he challenged that assumption and discovered that big ships will float. This meant that Brunel's ships could carry more fuel, and so weren't cutting it quite so fine when crossing the Atlantic on a single tank of fuel.

But then he gets carried away and keeps increasing the size of the ships - not all of these larger ones were successful. Although I'm not sure if this was all down to bad design, or if bad luck also played a part - because once he had some bad luck then his mixed reputation would lead to people assuming it was obviously his fault. When his designs and business ventures worked, they worked pretty well, but as soon as something stopped working public confidence in his abilities dropped. And even when things did work there were always niggles and things that might've been better designed differently - like the railway that wasn't compatible with the other networks. His reputation during his lifetime and immediately after his death was decidedly mixed.

One of the experts on the programme, Julia Elton, summed up Brunel's modern reputation as fitting into a narrative we like - the lone heroic figure taking on the establishment and succeeding when they said he'd fail. She thinks that Stephenson was a much better engineer - but Brunel was a better showman. Brunel also kept diaries throughout his life - one set of personal ones, one set of engineering "lab books" - which meant that when his descendants wanted to promote his memory they had ample material to work with.

Back in April J and I visited the Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum which finished in early July. It's the only one of their exhibitions where I've been as ambivalent about it on the way out as I was on the way in - which says rather more about me than the exhibition, I think. The subject of the exhibition was Ancient Greek sculpture and the incredible impact it has had on the modern Western definition of beauty. And I'm afraid that when it comes to Greek sculpture I'm somewhat of a heretic - I find all those gleaming white idealised bodies rather ... bland. Even as I grant that it has indeed had a major impact on the art of more modern times (modern here meaning in the last five or six hundred years) and a worthwhile subject for an exhibition.

(You might be asking why on earth I went to see it! But there's been exhibitions at the British Museum in the past where I've not been enthused in advance but have been by the end, so it was worth a try. And as we're Members we have free entry so it's easy to pop into an exhibition just because it's there.)

The exhibition opened with a bit of scene setting. Part of this was a map of the extent of the Greek world in Alexander the Great's time (after he did his conquering bit) - despite knowing he conquered vast swathes of the known world I'm always a bit taken aback at how big that is on a map. The other piece of information that particularly struck me was that what's known about Greek sculpture mostly comes from Roman copies of Greek originals. And one of the pieces in this room was Lely's Venus (normally on display near the Assyrian Galleries in the BM), which is one of these Roman copies. The other sculptures in this introductory room illustrated the range of styles of sculpture - using three pieces by three different artists who were all training & active in the 5th Century BC. The variation came in whether they were interested in things like mathematically perfect proportions of bodies, or representing the fluidity of movement.

The first half of the next room was the stand out highlight of the exhibition for me. They had half a dozen replicas of sculptures painted as we think they would've been at the time. And given my "complaint" about this art form is that it strikes me as bland, well this was anything but. Perhaps a little garish, but so much more interesting. One of the pieces was a large (plaster replica of a) bronze of Athena - it's easy to remind oneself that the dull green of bronze was once a shiny gold, but it's quite another thing to see it. I also liked an Athene wearing her snake-trimmed cloak, in a vivid green with the snake heads picked out in colours. And did you know the Persians wore brightly coloured onesies? Me neither!

The next room looked at what made Greek art different from other contemporary (or just older) cultures art styles. One section was a compare and contrast with Egyptian and Cypriot sculpture - three statues in a row each of a young man striding forward, one from each culture. The Greek one was noticeably more natural in appearance, with the Egyptian and Cypriot ones looking very stiff and stilted in comparison. The Greek one was also naked, which came up again in more detail in the other compare & contrast - this time between Assyrian reliefs and Greek reliefs. Again the subject matter was similar, both reliefs were battle scenes - and again the Greek example had more fluidity and motion. The use and meaning of nudity was markedly different between the two cultures. In the Assyrian example it was the defeated prisoners who were naked - a sign of their low statues, shame & humiliation. In the Greek example the heroes are naked to show off their virility and their virtue.

The third room also had a few other themes, although they made slightly odd bedfellows. One of these was a case talking about women in Classical Greek art - most of what I remember from this is the juxtaposition of male nudity as virtue and women clothed for their virtue. There was also a section about representation of the gods, where the key point was that the gods were people. Impossibly beautiful, divine people, but people nonetheless.

The next room started with a look at representation of the stages of life, and ended with the erotic in art - again a slightly odd juxtaposition. The stages of life looked at were birth, marriage and death and my favourite piece in this section was a stunning representation of a baby. The labels here talked about how representation of childhood and children as they really were was a departure from previous art styles. The section on marriage was mostly concerned with how marriage was thought of for women - analogised with abduction (which I was previously aware was a trope) and with death. Having side by side pieces where women are moving from girlhood to wifehood as if they'd died next to gravestones for young warriors slain in battle was quite striking.

In the penultimate room we moved forward in time past the golden age of idealised beauty (or blandness, depending on taste) to sculptures that had more differentiation. Faces in particular began to look like real people - although quite probably not the person they're were supposed to be. The room ended with a pair of pieces representing knucklebone players, with very different flavours. One of these was two girls playing a peaceful friendly game as a last hurrah before marriage and womanly respectability. And the other was the remains of piece where two boys had come to blows over a disagreement about the game. Only one of the boys was still intact, all that remained of the other was the arm that the first boy was biting - which made the piece very striking in a way the artist wouldnt've expected.

That room also had a case looking at the representations of (North?) Africans in Greek sculpture - sometimes as caricature, but sometimes in a more nuanced and human fashion. The piece that caught my eye here was a centrepiece for a table of an acrobat and a crocodile. This part of the room neatly segued into the start of the last room, which looked at the way that Greek art changed as it met the other cultures that Alexander the Great brought into the Hellenistic world - in particular India.

The exhibition finished with two large reclining male nudes which had a particular impact on the Renaissance. The thematic statement for the exhibition, if you will. These pieces when discovered changed the way artists represented bodies in Western art. Think of the way that Medieval art has these stiff clothes horses that don't really look like they'd move like people, and then think of the art of Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci and you'll see what a difference this renewed interest in the idealised beauty of Greek sculpture had.

As I said at the beginning, this exhibition wasn't really my cup of tea. Which doesn't mean it was bad, far from it - just I'm a bit of an uncultured barbarian ;) What I came away from it thinking was that I would like to see more of the painted replicas - knowing they were painted and seeing what they looked like are two very different things.

Mortuary Temple of Seti I
Mortuary Temple of Seti I

Seti I's Mortuary Temple (called The Domain of Amen in the West of Thebes by the Egyptians) was the second of the 19th and 20th Dynasty mortuary temples that we visited - and seeing all three so close together (one a day) brought home the similarities in design that I otherwise wouldn't've noticed.

My photos from this site are up on flickr, click here for the full set or on any picture (except the temple plan) for that photo's page on flickr.

Plan of Mortuary Temple of Seti I
Partial Plan of Mortuary Temple of Seti I (from Wikimedia, uploaded by Zanaq).

The plan above was the best (public domain) plan I could find for the temple - but it's only a partial plan. North is to the top right corner of the image. To the south east (bottom of the image) the plan is truncated at the Second Pylon, the remains of the First Pylon are a few tens of metres in front of that. The plan also doesn't show the storerooms to the north east of the temple, nor the enclosure wall around the whole thing.

First PylonLarge Masonry Blocks in Courtyard
First Pylon (left), Upside Down Block in Courtyard (right)

We came into the temple from the eastern corner, rather than through the remains of the First Pylon - this was because the village around the temple is so close that there are houses up against the pylon. There's also not very much left of it and what there is is pretty damaged. After a look at that we walked across the courtyard towards the Second Pylon past large stone blocks that have been excavated but not restored to their original places (which is probably not even possible without building rather a lot of support). It always amuses me when they've been sat upside down - it wouldn't be trivial to turn these pieces over and you can just imagine the supervisor of the job standing there and thinking "well, it's done now, going to have to leave it like that".

Mortuary Temple of Seti IMortuary Temple of Seti I
Walking to the Portico (left), Portico (right)

The path from the Second Pylon to the Portico (the row of pillars halfway up the above plan) is lined with palm trees which makes it look very peaceful. The Portico itself reminded me a bit of the Portico at Seti's temple at Abydos (post) - the columns are a different shape, but there was still something about the style that was reminiscent to me. From the Portico back there is more of the temple still standing, and there's even some colour remaining on some of the reliefs.

Mortuary Temple of Seti IMortuary Temple of Seti I
Decoration on the Temple

The temple was begun by Seti I, and as with so many of his building projects it was finished off by Ramesses II - which gave us another opportunity to compare and contrast the art styles of the two eras. This temple also had three chapels within it dedicated to Ramesses I. This was done by Seti I as an act of filial piety, because Ramesses I had no memorial temple of his own (having not reigned for long enough to build one).

Mortuary Temple of Seti IMortuary Temple of Seti I
View from the Enclosure Wall

Once we'd had a look around the inside of the temple we walked back to the coach via the enclosure wall. The curators of this site have constructed a path running along the top of the wall starting in the middle of the north west wall and running down to the south west corner. Getting to see the temple and it's surrounding building from this was pretty cool, it gave me a better feel for how the storerooms and the temple were laid out - and a chance to take some photos from a different angle.

Mortuary Temple of Seti I
Mortuary Temple of Seti I

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who went to China in the 16th Century with the aim of converting the Chinese to Christianity. He wasn't particularly successful in that goal, but he was influential on European attitudes to China & vice versa. Discussing him and his mission on In Our Time were Mary Laven (University of Cambridge), Craig Clunas (University of Oxford) and Anne Gerritsen (University of Warwick).

Ricci was born in the Papal States and educated by the Jesuits up to university age. He then went to Rome to study to become a lawyer, but soon decided to become Jesuit priest instead. The Jesuits were a fairly new order at the time, part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The central difference between them and the other orders was that they were directly obedient to the Pope. They vowed to travel wherever they were sent, making them more mobile than the monastic orders. Their raison d'être was to convert the world to Catholicism - as part of showing the superiority of their branch of the faith over the Protestant variant.

The Jesuits saw China as a chance to replicate the success of the conversion of South America, with a hope that perhaps they might even replicate the Spanish conquest of South America. Europeans at the time were aware of China, but it wasn't a particularly well known country nor was it understood. Before the Ming Dynasty came to power (in 1368AD) there had started to be some trade and contact between Yuan China and Europe (c.f. Marco Polo, who I'm sure we listened to an In Our Time about but I can't find a post writing about it). However when the Hongzhu Emperor came to power & founded the Ming Dynasty trade with the outside world was forbidden. In practice this didn't stop contact between China and Europe, but it did reduce it significantly.

Ricci's over-arching strategy was a tried and tested one for the Catholic Church, although he took some of it to further extremes that his superiors were happy with. His aim was to integrate himself into Chinese society and to make contact with the elite - the idea was that if you can convert the top (the Emperor in this case) then you will convert the whole country. Another part of the strategy was to make accommodations for the current beliefs of the people when explaining Christianity to them, to make it sound not so far from their pagan religion. The theological rationale for this was God had left "hints" in the pagan faiths so that the Catholics would be able to convert the pagans. And then presumably after converting the country the idea would be to tighten up the theology, but Ricci didn't get anywhere near that far in the process.

When Ricci first entered the country the Buddhist faith seemed like a good point of entry to hook in his audience - so he dressed like a Buddhist monk, and his teaching made analogies to Buddhism. However as he slowly progressed through the country to Beijing he came to realise that Confucianism was more important in Chinese culture, and so began to dress like a Confucian scholar. He learnt Chinese, and invented a romanisation system so that he could write the words down for other Europeans to learn from.

His role as an analogue of a Confucian scholar dovetailed nicely with his purpose as a missionary - he met with Confucian mandarins to discuss philosophy and other learned subjects. One point of entry into scholarly society was his creation of a world map - he tactfully put China in the centre, flanked by Europe and the Americas. This was interesting to the Chinese as they didn't know much about either Europe or the Americas, and let Ricci start talking about the Pope and Christianity too. He also translated books between Latin and Chinese so that knowledge flowed both ways between the cultures.

Ricci was successful in working his way across the country and in meeting the elite of Chinese society. He eventually was able to enter the Forbidden Palace and "meet" the Emperor - this wasn't an actual meeting, the Emperor didn't do such things, but Ricci was able to meet senior officials and courtiers (and eunuchs) several times. From the Emperor's perspective this was part of the normal diplomatic business - a foreigner arriving to pay his respects to the Emperor and tell him how wonderful he was. There was not the chance that Ricci had hoped for to interest the Emperor in Christianity.

Ricci used the accommodations strategy that the Church endorsed, but took it much further than his superiors would've preferred. He wrote a book in Chinese comparing Christianity and Confucianism in order to point out how similar they were. And in this book the life, death and resurrection of Christ were relegated to a sort of footnote - covered in a single paragraph near the end. When the Pope eventually found out about this demotion of such a crucial part of the Christian faith he was not pleased with Ricci.

The biggest stumbling block for the conversion of the Chinese was the Christian insistence on exclusivity - the Chinese culture was very tolerant of multiple religions and generally people would use appropriate rituals from more than one religion during the course of their lives. The Christian idea that you should just worship one God was alien to them. While Ricci did have some small success in converting people (not that many tho) they didn't always give up their other rituals and observances. Long after Ricci's death this was to cause tension between the Pope and the Chinese Emperor. The Pope had discovered that Chinese Catholics were still honouring their ancestors in the Confucian fashion, and forbade this. And the Chinese Emperor unsurprisingly saw this as foreign interference in the governance of China.

Ricci remained in China until he died, and was honoured after death by the Emperor granting permission for his burial in Beijing (rather than in the designated foreigners' graveyard). Whilst he wasn't the only member of the Catholic mission to China he was the person who had the most influence. His grave has been a tourist attraction in Beijing from the time of his burial through to the present day.

This post is about the first chapter from the new non-fiction book I'm working my way through. It's a complete change of pace from the previous one - the only thing in common is that it's a history book, but it's about a different time, a different place and it's a very different sort of book. The Middle East: The Cradle of Civilisation Revealed is a big glossy book from the publisher Thames & Hudson, part of their series about Ancient Civilisations - I've previously read the one about China in this series (first post about that book). The format is a series of one or two double page spreads each about a particular subject. It's written by 14 authors, but they're not credited on individual sections - Stephen Bourke is the "Chief Consultant" and so I'm listing him as the author. The book covers the history of the Middle East from before the evolution of anatomically modern homo sapiens through to the Islamic conquest in the mid-7th Century AD.

Introducing the Middle East

The book opens talking about what they mean by the "Middle East". It's a term that's relatively recently coined (at the start of the 20th Century) and is already falling into disfavour for its Eurocentrism. It is also a very nebulous term, and their definition boils down to "that bit there between Asia and Africa, you'll know it when you see it". The core modern countries are Bahrain, Egypt (not covered in this book), Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Another reason that the term Middle East is not entirely favoured is that it elides the diversity of the peoples who live in the region. Modern ideas about race and ethnicity don't map well onto ancient ones - both are equally complex, just not the same. So scholars categorise the ancient peoples by the languages they spoke or the polities (city or state etc) they belonged to. There are several groups that were prominent during the period this book covers, and the authors devote a double page spread to a brief overview of who was where when. Which also gives an overview of the history that will be discussed in more detail in the book, so I think it's worth me writing more about it than just a brief summary.

Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq) was a region of two parts - north and south. The earliest* group to live there were the Sumerian speakers in the south. They were conquered by an Akkadian speaking group in the late third millennium BC. Some time after this the people living in the north came to be known as Assyrians (after their city of Assur) and the people in the south as Babylonians (after Babylon). Akkadian and Sumerian are used throughout the succeeding couple of millennia, eventually being supplanted by Aramaic.

*When they say "earliest" here, I think we're talking about historically and not considering the prehistoric cultures of the region, but I'm not quite clear on that.

Through the Bronze Age the peoples who lived in the southern Levant were called Canaanites by the Egyptians (tho they probably didn't call themselves that, and wouldn't've thought of themselves as a cohesive group). They spoke a Semitic language (the same family as Akkadian belongs to) and lived in large city states throughout what is now Israel. Around 1200BC much of their civilisation vanished, and their city states were destroyed. Their culture survived in part via the Phoenicians (who were also ancestors of the Carthaginians). In the area where the Canaanites had lived several small kingdoms now formed - the Philistines, Israelites, Moabites, Ammonites and Edomites.

The longest lasting culture in Anatolia was the Hittites, who spoke an Indo-European language and were most powerful in the Late Bronze Age. Between them and northern Mesopotamia were the Hurrians. In the Late Bronze Age these people had a kingdom that stretched across modern day southeast Turkey, north Syria and north Iraq, which was called Mitanni.

Ancient Iran has been inhabited as long as Mesopotamia, but less is known about the earliest people there as their script (Proto-Elamite) hasn't been deciphered. The first culture whose name we know were the Elamites, who lasted from 2700BC through till 559BC - the book isn't entirely clear (maybe it isn't known) whether these are the same people as wrote proto-Elamite or not. In the first millenium BC the Medes were also living in northwest Iran, and were an important power in that region. Iran was unified in the Achaemenid period (559-331BC) which lasted until Alexander the Great conquered the region. When the Classical Greeks refer to "Persians" they are generally talking about the Achaemenids. Post-Alexander Iran was first controlled by his successors in the Seleucid Dynasty and then by the Parthians. They ruled until 224AD when they were overthrown by the Sasanians.

The next section of this chapter feels a tad out of place - it considers the economic & agricultural activity of the region but mostly from a modern perspective which seems outside the scope of the book. It does point out that most of the agricultural production even now is of indigenous species which were first domesticated in the region (and subsequently exported as crops & technology). Other resources discussed are the timber industry in ancient Lebanon (now not thriving due to over-exploitation in the past), and modern oil reserves.

Water is such an important and contested resource that it gets its own double page spread. Because much of the region is arid or semi-arid control of water and management of water is critical to a civilisation's survival. Particularly in Mesopotamia where the amount of rainfall is insufficient for any agricultural activity, irrigation is essential. The major rivers in the region are the river Jordan, and the two rivers between which Mesopotamia lies (the Euphrates & the Tigris). The latter two both start in Turkey and are a source of modern tensions as damming projects in Turkey and Syria have knock-on effects in Iraq. The rivers were & are vital for food production, and the seas of the region, as is generally the case in the ancient world, were the main transport links between this and other places.

This chapter finishes with a brief overview of archaeological work in the region with some basic grounding in what archaeology actually entails. And makes for rather sad reading in the wake of IS destroying and looting so much that they've come in contact with - which we'll now never fully understand.

Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon

The Colossi of Memnon are, for me, the most underwhelming site we visited in Egypt. The only bits you get a proper look at on the site are the two statues in a rather sad state, but admittedly huge. The first time we visited there in 2009 the rest of the site didn't impinge on my consciousness at all, and this time it was only visible in tantalising glimpses of other reconstructed colossal statues.

My photos from this site are on flickr here.

Colossi of Memnon
View between the Colossi to the rest of the site

This was once the vast mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, built mostly of mudbrick and within the area flooded by the annual inundation. Once his cult was abandoned and repair works ended the temple dissolved, and what stone there had been in the walls was taken by later Pharaohs to use in their own building works. Most of the statuary was left behind (although some was usurped by later Pharaohs), mostly toppled over or buried by the time Egyptologists were on the scene - except for the two Colossi. This temple, along with the Temple of Mut at Karnak, is one of the places that all the Sekhmet statues come from - there were once 730 Sekhmets in this temple, one standing and one seated for every day of the year.

Colossi of MemnonColossi of Memnon
Graffiti (and an original inscription) on the Colossi

The two Colossi have been tourist attractions since antiquity. The one on the right used to sing at dawn - it had been cracked in an earthquake in 27BC and after that as the sun warmed the rock it would make an eerie crying noise. Hearing this was thought to bring good luck, so it attracted tourists - many of whom carved their names and messages into the Colossi. It stopped singing in 199AD when Septimus Severus had the statue restored and the cracks filled in.

Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon

Sappho was a 7th Century BC Greek poetess, but I rather suspect the thing she's best known for in modern culture is for being the reason we call lesbians lesbians. However, it was for her poetry that she was renowned in ancient Greece. Discussing a little bit about the woman and a lot about her work on In Our Time were Edith Hall (King's College, London), Margaret Reynolds (Queen Mary, University of London) and Dirk Obbink (University of Oxford).

Saphho lived on Lesbos, which is an island between mainland Greece and Turkey - both in a geographical sense and in a cultural sense. Whilst they were definitely Greek there were eastern influences on both their culture and their language. Their dialect of Greek was not the same as the Greek of Homer and would've sounded a bit exotic to the mainland Greek people of her time. She was a lyrical poet, which means that her words were set to music - accompanied by the lyre or other instruments. The work of a lyrical poet was an important part of ceremonies, and was also important to memorialise events. Obbink said that what survives is a bit like having the words to an opera, but not the music.

To the Greeks Sappho was "The Poetess" in the same was that Homer was "The Poet". A lot of her work was written down and still read long into the classical era. In the Library at Alexandria there was a 9 volume text containing all her poetry. But most of what survived to be rediscovered in the Renaissance did so as fragments in other texts - later translations and quotations in textbooks and commentaries. Much more recently papyrus fragments have been discovered from what were originally whole poems written in her native dialect - I hesitate to say originals as I think these would post-date her time but it would be like discovering fragments of a "Complete Works of Shakespeare" after only knowing his work via quotations from other books in modern English. More of these papyrus fragments occasionally get discovered - Obbink has recently found and translated some previously unknown fragments. These can radically change our understanding of a poem where they overlap with previously known pieces.

The subjects of her poetry were very personal in nature rather than mythical as is the case with Homer. Her poems contain several expressions of her desire for and love of other women, hence her later reputation as a lesbian. Some of the language and metaphors that she uses for desire have become a standard part of the repertoire of imagery - e.g. fire in the veins. The people in her poems are often specific named people, and she names herself in her poetry as well. Despite the first person perspective and specificity of the poetry it's not clear if it was actually autobiographical. In particular it's not clear if she was actually a lesbian, and if she was it's not clear if anyone in her culture at the time cared (although it is clear that they did care later on).

Hall suggested that Sappho's poetry might indicate that in her time and place there were women's symposiums running in parallel to the men's ones. Men's symposiums are well attested through Greek culture. Hall explained them as semi-public gatherings which in effect provided poetic and ritualised training of the next generation in how to be civilised. They were where a young Greek man learnt how to be "a Greek man". There are no records of women's symposiums, and in parts of the classical Greek world (like classical Athens) women's lives were so restricted that they seem implausible as an idea. However Sappho's time and place were different, and women's voices survive so rarely from this era (I'm not sure if Sappho is unique or just almost so) that no evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

In her own time and during later Greek culture Sappho's poetry was very popular. However she began to become less revered during the Roman period. Her dialect of Greek had died out and so understanding her poetry wasn't a question of picking up the text and reading it, it required a commentary or a translation. It became even more obscure in the Christian era when it dropped out of the standard curriculum altogether because the subject matter was too much about worldly, sinful things like desire for a beautiful woman. And because of her obscurity her work was not often copied, and thus no copies survived intact. Fragments of her work were only discovered in the late Renaissance, and early translations downplayed the sauciness of the texts.

Since rediscovery Sappho's work, and Sappho herself, have often been taken up by the women's movements of various eras. Because there is so little known about the woman herself, and even her work, it's relatively easy to shape her into an icon. Whether that is for intellectual liberation as in the 18th Century or the sexual liberation of the 20th Century. One of the experts suggested that it's also because of the position of Greek culture in our own culture as one of the "roots of civilisation". As the vast majority of what survives from Greece is male voices and male culture that can lead to an equation of men with civilisation. So if you're putting forward women as the equal of men against this cultural backdrop it's good to have an example of a feminine Greek culture.

This programme concentrated on the poetry and the legacy of Sappho rather than the woman herself - as there is so very little that's actually known about her. So it was well complemented by the TV programme "Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford", which we watched not long after listening to this. The TV programme was more focussed on Sappho the person - although of necessity it was more about the broader culture of the period than the individual. It also looked at the legends that have grown up around the woman in more modern times.

On Sunday Mohammed Abu el-Yezid, from the Ministry of Antiquties in Egypt, came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the Slaughter Court in Seti I's temple at Abydos. He is the Egyptologist and site manager for the province of Sohag (which includes Abydos) and he researched the Slaughter Court for his MA from Ain Shams University where he is currently studying for his PhD.

An important part of the rituals in an Egyptian temple was the feeding of the god(s) the temple was dedicated to - with meat, as well as other foodstuffs. A temple was a place of purity, common people weren't allowed in at all and only the High Priest or the King were permitted in the innermost sanctuary where the statue of the god lived. The priest had to purify himself before entering, performing the appropriate rituals around opening the doors and so on. And clearly any food taken into the sanctuary for the god must also be pure. The best way to ensure this is to slaughter the animals on site where the meat cannot be contaminated by anything impure - but this would then generate a lot of mess, noise and smells which would also contaminate the purity of the temple. Mohammed Abu el-Yezid's research has looked at how the Slaughter Court in Seti I's temple was designed to minimise this.

Abydos Plan Temple Seti I
Plan of Seti I Temple at Abydos
From kairoinfo4u's flickr

He began by telling us a bit about the overall temple layout - the plan above shows the L-shaped design of the temple. Previously it was thought that this was done accidentally, because when building they discovered the Osireon and had to modify the intended design. However it's now known that the Osireon was also built by Seti I and thus the complex was designed as a cohesive whole. The top right corner (on the plan) of the temple is the most holy area with the 7 shrines for the 7 deities and the complex of Osiris (the primary deity of the temple). The top left area contains the service rooms for the temple - the Butchering Hall and other storage rooms - and is linked to the main temple by the corridor that has the famous King List on the wall.

Butchers' Hall

Scenes of Butchering

The Slaughter Court (labelled Butchering Hall on the plan) has scenes of butchering on the walls (see above) indicating its function, but it could still be a symbolic slaughter court rather than a real one and there are other examples of both scenarios. For instance the 5th Dynasty temple of Raneferef had a functional slaughter court. It could be accessed from both inside and outside the temple, and when it was excavated butcher's equipment and animal remains were found in the room. There was also textual evidence talking about the number of animals slaughtered daily to feed the god. On the other hand Medinet Habu has what is clearly a symbolic slaughter court. Deep inside the temple there is a small room with butchering scenes on the walls. This room is only accessible from inside the temple, and it has no windows and no ventilation. If there had ever been butchery taking place in there then the butcher wouldn't be able to see what he was doing, and the mess would contaminate sacred areas of the temple.

Mohammed Abu el-Yezid looked at models of butchers from Middle Kingdom tombs to get a good idea of what Ancient Egyptian slaughterhouses looked like. He came up with a list of features to use to determine if a slaughter court was functional or symbolic and then examined the room at Abydos to see which possibility was more plausible. A real slaughter court should be away from the main temple axis and downwind of it so any noxious smells are blown away from the sacred areas. It must be accessible from both inside and outside the temple so that animals can be brought in without profaning the temple and meat can be taken to the god without coming into contact with the outside world again. The external entrance must be large enough for oxen to fit through, and once inside there must be enough space to manoeuvre the animals and rooms to keep them in while the work is taking place. Good hygiene practice required sunlight, ventilation, water and drainage. There should also be archaeological evidence of slaughtering and of butchering tools.

The Slaughter Court at Abydos has all of the requirements except archaeological evidence of butchery equipment. Mohammed Abu el-Yezid thinks this lack is because that area of the temple was used as a nunnery by Coptic nuns after Pharaonic times and so they cleaned it up.

Butchers' Hall

Water Jar Storage Area

As you can see on the plan there are two accesses to the Slaughter Court - one via the Kings List corridor to the inner sanctuaries, and one in the eastern wall to the outside world. The prevailing wind in the area blows from the north-eastern side of the temple so the air from the Slaughter Court would be blown out to the desert away from the temple. The Slaughter Court itself (Butcher's Hall on the plan) is open to the sky, so is well ventilated and well lit. There is an area where water jars could be stored. The floor may once have had drainage channels on it, but Mohammed Abu el-Yezid said he hadn't found much evidence of them. This area was used as a storage room from 1930 to 1985 and there was quite a bit of damage done to the floor.

The biggest room to the west of the Slaughter Court is the room where the slaughtered animals were butchered. This room is well designed for this task. The roof is raised compared to the surrounding rooms, and this allowed the architect to put in six windows at the tops of the walls. Three of these are on the southern side and three on the northern. This allows light in and keeps the room ventilated (and again the prevailing wind blows the smell out to the desert. The roof outside overhangs these windows and there are drainage channels to carry away water if it rains. The room is also unusual in having a sandstone floor and first course of building block. Sandstone is much less susceptible to water damage than limestone (which the rest of the temple is built from) and so this room could be washed out daily with no ill effects.

The corridor with the Kings List also has design features intended to keep the profane slaughtering area separate from the sacred temple space. At the Slaughter Court end there is a 5m stretch of corridor that is open to the sky for ventilation. There is also a screen wall at that end that prevents direct line of sight into the Slaughter Court from the corridor. This would stop the the priests accidentally seeing the animals or the butchering, which would pollute them. The screen wall is also interesting because it is the first time this particular design was seen in Egyptian temples (with a three part structure of base, body and corniche) - it becomes the standard design after this.

The Kings List corridor isn't just functional, it also serves more than one ritual purpose. At the temple end of the corridor are scenes showing Seti I purifying meat offerings - which symbolically purify every offering carried past them. The two lists along the walls - Kings on one side and Gods on the other - are there so that they also receive the offerings being taken to the sanctuaries. (Once all the gods and kings, in the lists and in the sanctuaries, had spiritually eaten the meat (or rather the Ka of the meat) the tangible meat that was left was eaten by the priests.)

This was a very interesting talk about a subject I hadn't really thought about before, and I was impressed how much of the practicalities of ancient temple rituals can be discovered when someone starts to research it. When J and I visited Egypt last year our group was lucky enough to be let in to see the Slaughter Court even though it's not yet open to the public - the photos in this blog post are two that I took on that visit. And at the end of his talk Mohammed Abu el-Yezid explained that his research is part of the process of getting this area opened to the public - it needs to be published and restored before this can happen.

Pages

Subscribe to