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Exhibition examines the myths and realities of the Egyptian kings' power through extraordinary ancient objects
Head of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, about 1479–1425 BC. New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Tuthmosis III. Karnak, Thebes, Egypt. Green siltstone; 46 x 19 x 32 cm. British Museum, EA 986. © Trustees of the British Museum, London.

CLEVELAND, OH.- Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt brings 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history to life through some of the finest objects from the British Museum’s vast holdings and several of Cleveland’s own masterworks. The first Egyptian art exhibition organized at the Cleveland Museum of Art since 1996, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt looks past the myth to reveal the carefully designed personas of the Egyptian kings and explore the realities of daily life for the ancient royals. Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt, a centennial special exhibition, is on view in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall from March 13 through June 12, 2016.

Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt includes more than 150 objects, from monumental sculpture to exquisite jewelry. While many objects on view were created to project a regal, all-powerful image of the pharaoh, the story that emerges is also one of a country at times divided by civil war, conquered by foreign powers or ruled by competing kings. These ancient rulers were not always male, or even Egyptian, but they shared the challenges of ruling one of the greatest civilizations the world has seen.

“In ancient Egypt the image of the pharaoh was first and foremost an official one, linked to the politicoreligious nature of Egyptian kingship,” said Aude Semat, guest curator of the exhibition and lecturer in Egyptology at the École du Louvre. “However, the reality of power was somewhat more complicated. Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt presents an opportunity to glimpse the back stories behind the exercise of power.”

The exhibition is divided into ten thematic sections. The introductory gallery, with its single monumental sculpture, gives a sense of the grandiose scale of Egyptian temples. The Hathor capital, from about 874– 850 BC, once sat atop a column in a temple devoted to the goddess Bastet, one of the many gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt. The combined Egypt, Land of the Pharaohs and Born of the Gods gallery establishes exactly who the pharaoh was: ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt, the unification of which was central to Egyptian kingship. Pharaoh was the incarnation of the divine Horus, and worshiping the gods was one of his main obligations. This gallery shows pharaohs making offerings and depictions of gods and goddesses from tombs and temples.

The Symbols of Power gallery presents objects of the pharaoh’s power – the crook and flail, the uraeus (a spitting, rearing cobra) and images of royal crowns – as well as representations of the king wearing or wielding them. Every pharaoh was expected to build new temples and embellish existing ones. In Temples: The Kings and the Gods, lintels, reliefs and figures from temples, including a sphinx, reveal the importance of pleasing the gods. The gallery dedicated to Festivals and Memory demonstrates how important it was to remember previous rulers, or erase them from memory. Images of two deified kings from an earlier dynasty can be seen inside the Coffin Case of Bakenmut. The objects in the gallery Royal Life: Palace and Family include tiles, relief fragments, figurines, scarabs and jewelry, attesting to the lavish decoration of the palace and the royal family’s costuming.

Running Egypt: Officials and Government includes statues of government officials, including the vizier (Egypt’s highest official, a powerful figure who oversaw most of the country’s internal affairs), as well as priests and scribes. A rare papyrus from the Old Kingdom records administrative and economic procedures, including priests’ duties and calendars, sources of temple income, an equipment inventory and more.

From the Nubians and Libyans to the Greeks and Romans, ancient Egypt was periodically under foreign rule. Foreigners on the Throne presents two heads of Alexander the Great as well as evidence that foreign rulers often declared themselves pharaoh and followed Egyptian customs. The surprising rise of army general Horemheb to become pharaoh is a highlight of the War and Diplomacy gallery. Also on view are a stela depicting Pharaoh Sanakht of Dynasty 3 as he prepares to smite an enemy, and a section from the Great Harris Papyrus that commemorates several of Ramses III’s successful military campaigns.

The final gallery, An Eternal Life: Death of the Pharaoh, includes tomb fragments, a sarcophagus lid, magical objects and shabtis, which are small human figurines placed inside tombs to work on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife. Highlights include examples from the tombs of Pharaohs Amenhotep II, Seti I, Ramses III and Ramses VI in the Valley of the Kings.

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