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Thursday, 4 November 2010

Art and propaganda -Hatshepsut's mortuary temple

There have been many times in the history of humankind where art has been used as a means for the creation and manipulation of political structures, with modern art historians citing most often the examples of Nazi Germany and Communist Russia as major examples of such practices. Political propaganda in the art of antiquity is less often discussed, although it was indeed part of most ancient civilizations. From the Assyrian Empire and the Egyptian civilization in the Near East to Rome and Byzantium in later antiquity, art served the purposes of the ruling elites that had the power and the resources to order and patronize exquisite artworks.
It is interesting to note that some of the most impressive objects that can be admired and studied today in museums all over the world were a product of elite, often royal, propaganda. 
Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el Bahri was part of the mortuary complex that every pharaoh created –although in different forms- from the early Dynastic period. Hatshepsut herself has been a very controversial figure in Egyptian history. She was a ruler of the 18th dynasty and in the 20th century alone she has been described by scholars as an ancient equivalent of Queen Victoria, a wicked step mother from the pages of a fairytale, a woman lusting for power and a dynamic ruler among many other things. What is certain is that she was a unique case in the history of Ancient Egypt. The daughter and wife of kings – Tuthmosis I and Tuthmosis II respectively, she managed to become a king herself, something highly unusual and least expected for an Egyptian woman (Hawass 2000: 5). When her husband died, leaving as his heir his young son from a minor wife, Hatshepsut became a regent (Tyldesley 1996: 1). This co-regency however did not last long and some years later –most probably less than seven- she became the sole ruler of Egypt (Hawass 2000: 33). What is unique with Hatshepsut is not that she ruled as a pharaoh (other women before and after her became sole rulers of Egypt), but the fact that she her long reign (she ruled for 22 years) is generally regarded as successful and her rule was a period characterized by peace and stability (Tyldesley 1994: 221 & 229). Her gender however and the way she assumed power by usurping the place from the rightful heir, Tuthmosis III could prove to be major obstacles in her reign. Thus, she embarked on a visual propaganda to legitimize her claim in front of her people and her gods, a propaganda unusual mainly because of its quantity and not of its context (Simpson 1982: 68).
Even the location of her impressive mortuary temple was a political statement. Situated in a place connected to the 11th dynasty king, Mentuhotep II, who was already by that time believed to have reunited Egypt and re-established order after the chaotic first intermediate period, sent obvious political messages (Roth 2005a: 147).  Each of the decorated walls of Djeser Djeseru –the “holy of the holies”, as the temple is often called- was a clear message to anyone who would like to challenge her legitimacy, an attempt create and publicize her own version of her divine origine and thus her legitimate claim to rule Egypt .  

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