Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Art and Architecture

A gigantic effigy, one of four 67-foot-high statues of Ramses II, looks out over the River Nile at Abu Simbel. The figures at the bottom represent a few members of the immediate royal family.

With spectacular suddenness, an architecture sprang up that was suitable for kings and gods. Within a century after the first pharaoh of the Old Kingdom mounted his throne, Egyptian builders had graduated from sun-baked bricks to highly sophisticated construction in stone, and their artisans were among the earliest to master this difficult technique. The same omnipotent authority that drafted mass labour for irrigation was able to recruit unlimited sinew to quarry and dress enormous blocks, and to transport them to sites beside the Nile. Within a brief span of 200 years or so, Egypt's builders had so mastered the new material that they had finished the pyramids at Gizeh, wonders of the ancient world and the mightiest royal sepulchres of all time. In succeeding centuries, Egyptian architects flanked the river from the Delta, near the Mediterranean, to lower Nubia, about 800 miles south, with stone monuments that rank with the most impressive of any age.

Art kept pace with architecture. From prehistoric days, craftsmen of the Nile had displayed a sense of beauty and symmetry that touched even the most utilitarian objects—flint knives, stone or pottery household vessels, pins and combs of bone or shell. With the advent of the pharaohs, this aesthetic quality flowered into a mature art, distinctively Egyptian in concept and character. For the next 3,000 years, Egypt produced a graceful and spirited art (that served, among other things, to inspire the great Greek sculptors and artists who followed them centuries later).

Sculptors carved colossal images of impassive gods or rulers in stone, and also fashioned life-sized portraits in stone, wood and copper. Painters added vivid pigments to the works of the sculptors —and also covered temple walls with stately official and religious scenes, and decorated palaces and tombs with animated frescoes. The important buildings of the ancient Egyptians were brilliant with colour.

Travellers from abroad who reached the Valley of the Nile long after its civilization had passed its zenith saw the Egyptians as mysterious, unfathomable. Later ages, drawing conclusions from silent tombs and gigantic monuments, speculated that they must have been a gloomy, oppressed people, preoccupied by thoughts of death and forever hauling huge blocks under the cutting whip of the overseer.

It was, we know now, a totally false picture. Far from being morbid or downtrodden, the Egyptians were sociable and light-hearted, and among the most industrious of ancient peoples. Enamoured of life on earth, they envisaged death merely as its happy continuance.

And life, on the whole, was good in Egypt under the pharaohs. On occasion it was upset by war, political unrest or famine, but in normal times its course flowed serenely. The lot of the peasantry, though hard, was not without its compensations. An Egyptian peasant certainly knew more security and had fewer worries than his counterpart in lands periodically laid waste by conquerors. It is true that his day was spent toiling in another man's fields. But the soil he served provided him and his family with sustenance, though it was usually frugal, and the river was liberal with its fish. During the months when the Nile flood made the fields untillable, he might have been drafted for labour in the quarries or on one of the pharaoh's projects. On the other hand, flood-time was festival time, when all work paused long enough for him to join in celebrating great religious feasts.

From his humble mud-brick home beside the Nile, the peasant might look across the river, busy with its traffic of boats and barges, to where workmen swarmed about some half-completed edifice. Most of the workers—the masons, carpenters and minor artisans—lived as simply and frugally as the peasants did. The sculptors, painters, cabinet makers and other specialists who would add a temple's finishing touches knew a higher standard of living, in prosperous times at least. Their dwellings, like those of the middle-class government bureaucracy, might rise to two storeys and embrace a small garden.

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