Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt
Rarely do I pass on Egyptian exhibits. I have no plans of missing it today. I’m not at home; so, I journey to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation along a different path than usual. Heading South or what I think is South on what I think is Spring St., I glance to my left. I catch a glimpse of a shell of a church. Interested, I round the block. The Pulitzer can wait.
I park. Step out of the car, cross the road and examine this one-time church up close. No roof. No windows. No doors. All that remains are the block walls, now covered in ivy, and a sign that reads, “National Memorial Church of God in Christ.” I wonder what happened here. Did it crumble in decay? Did it burn down? Was it burned down? The walls have been braced with steel beams. Someone or someones care deeply about these ruins.
Peering in, I see it has been tagged with graffiti. Someone else’s effort to claim it as their own. Leave their legacy.
Master, why did you tolerate his insults? You should have challenged him to a fight?
I must google this church when I get back home, because now, I must do what I set out to do.
Get to the Pulitzer. I walk around the corner and across the street. Enter. Claim my brochure and head down the hall.
I see four artifacts. No descriptions on any of them. I realize I might want to read my brochure. I find a seat. I’ll paraphrase.
“The exhibit features forty statues and reliefs…from the 25th century BCE to the first century CE…The ancient Egyptian religion taught that statues and reliefs in human form could be activated through rituals to host the spirit of a deity or a deceased person…a means for spiritual forces to act in this world. This quality…established [the objects] as targets by those who viewed their power as a threat.”
Power? They held power? Interesting. I’m having a flashback to a Gomer Pyle episode. Seriously, now? Why am I thinking about Gomer Pyle. Really? Yes. Really. I’m bringing up Gomer Pyle: USMC Episode #15 in a big way. Let me explain. In this episode, Gomer has difficulty leading his platoon until he is given his grandpa’s lucky charm. Unbeknownst to Gomer, during the middle of his drill, the charm falls to the ground. He, however, continues to lead his platoon flawlessly. In the end, Gomer learns the charm only held power because he believed it did. The true power was in his own mind.
Back to the brochure…Power. Hmmm. The things that make you go hmmm. As I said, interesting. “This exhibition examines specific moments when clashes between competing leaders, religions, and ideologies resulted in iconoclasm-the intentional damage to, and the destruction of sacred and political images.”
Statue #1 Hatshepsut
A former female Egyptian ruler. Her forehead is damaged. It once held an image of a snake that was intended to protect this monarch from her enemies. She has been decapitated and her nose has been destroyed. The ancient Egyptians believed that burning incense under the nose of these statues awakened the spirit inside. Destroying the nose of the statue would prevent the spirit from breathing, and thus, awakening.
This statue was apparently destroyed by Hatshepsut’s successor. In order to keep her spirit from returning and regaining power, her successor attacked the symbol of protection and then, suffocated the statue. He was Egyptian and therefore, he, too, would have believed in the mystical powers of these statues.
Statue #12 Isis
A statue of the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Per the brochure, “Christians who sought to abolish all polytheistic religions destroyed many ritual objects.” Correct. Christians didn’t, nor do they now, believe in multiple gods. Quoting the brochure again…the statue’s head and feet have been removed…”signs of an attempt by Christians to render the statue powerless.”
“Christians widely attacked ancient Egyptian statues and reliefs, motivated by a deep fear of the old gods.” Hmmm. Interesting. I’m reminded of Isaiah 45:18-21. The things that make you go hmmm. I don’t know what these early Christians were thinking.
However, if I were in a battle with another, my first goal would be to destroy the other's source of power. If their power was an arsenal of weapons, a cobra on the forehead or rabbit’s foot, that’s what I’d go after. I’d cut the head off the snake. I might fear heavy artillery but never a talisman. The charm holds no power to the non-believer. Then I, too, would leave it as a reminder to the believer that their power is gone. But that’s just me. Maybe I’m a girl who grew up watching too much Gomer Pyle and reading too much Sun Tzu. Now, that’s something that’s really going to make you go hmmm.
If someone brings you a gift and you don’t take it, to whom does it belong? The one who offered it, of course.
Statue #37 Fragmented Triad of Memkaura, Hathor and Nome god
“The statue was found in an area of Memkaura’s temple accessible during the Islamic Period when it may have been reduced to a rectangular shape by Muslim Egyptians.”
After Muslims conquered Egypt in the 7th Century, long after the Christian invasion, the remains of the statues and reliefs were then treated as raw materials. They were repurposed as building blocks. The reuse of these statues is not considered iconoclasm because the intention had nothing to do with destroying their power. As stated, the statues and thereby their power, real or in the minds of the Egyptians, had already been destroyed. There was no need to re-destroy it.
I end my tour, and at the conclusion of my brochure, I come to a section entitled, What are the origins of ancient Egyptian culture? Wanting to know more, I continue to read. Egyptians were a thriving African people who created a distinct civilization. I’d say. They amassed a huge wealth, built those massive pyramids, and survived over four thousand years. “Within the relatively inclusive ancient society, being Egyptian meant practicing the culture’s religion, speaking its language, and submitting to the king.” So, if you adopted their culture, you were considered Egyptian. “Yet, at the same time, people from civilizations that existed outside geographical bounds of Egypt…were considered foreigners.” Hmmm. That makes it sound like everyone lived happily side by side. Did they? How did they gain their wealth? And just how did they build those pyramids? Things that make you go hmmm.
As I drive away, I circle back by the National Memorial Church of God in Christ. Its remains are simply beautiful. Perhaps even more beautiful. Especially the way the light shines through the circular glassless window. I recall it’s tagging. The beat goes on, my friends. The beat goes on.
It’s the same with envy and insults: if you refuse to accept them, they belong to the one who offered them.
The things that make you go hmmm.