Haremhab as a Scribe, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Tutankhamun or Aya, ca. 1328–1316 B.C. Granodiorite, Probably from Memphis. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. V. Everit Macy, 1923 (23.10.1) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
NEW YORK, NY.- One of the most fascinating pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Haremhab (reigned ca. 1316–1302 B. C.) was a strong leader in a time of political and religious transition. As commander-in-chief of Tutankhamun's army, he oversaw important military campaigns at the border with Nubia and in the Levant; later, as the last king of Dynasty 18, Haremhab instituted laws that secured the rights of civilians and curbed abuses perpetrated by powerful groups, including the army. A statue that was created before he became king shows the general as a scribe and thus an administrator and wise man. This statue—the most famous three-dimensional image of Haremhab—is the focus of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Haremhab, The General Who Became King, opening November 16. The display will feature some 70 additional objects in various media—wall reliefs, works on papyrus, statuettes, and garment fragments—from the holdings of the Metropolitan, with the addition of a pivotal loan from the Louvre and another from a New York private collection. Haremhab, The General Who Became King is the inaugural presentation in a series of exhibitions that will spotlight masterpieces from the Museum's collection of Egyptian art.
The Metropolitan Museum's magnificent life-size statue of Haremhab as a scribe is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Thematic groupings of related objects—whether historical antecedents or parallel works—will explain the particular relevance of this depiction, and will place the statue within the context of history, art history, and the ancient Egyptian religious belief system. The exhibition also will incorporate recent research into Haremhab's reign, including a now generally accepted length of only fourteen years—versus the previously assumed 28. (The New Kingdom chronology used in this exhibition follows a consequently modified system that has been proposed recently but is still under consideration.)
Commissioned when he was still a general and administrator, Haremhab's statue shows him in the scribal pose, seated on the ground with his legs crossed. Across his knees is a papyrus scroll on which is written a hymn to Thoth, the god of scribes. In his right hand (now missing) he probably held a reed, the pen of ancient Egyptians. A shell of ink lies on his left knee. Over his left shoulder is a strap, with a miniature scribe's kit at each end. A figure of the god Amun is incised on his forearm, possibly representing a tattoo. Although his face is youthful, the folds on his belly suggest the torso of an older—and therefore wiser—man. His posture is relaxed, and he gazes down as if reading the papyrus on his lap. He is attired in an ornately pleated tunic, and a broad shawl is wrapped around his hips. A prayer to Ptah, the god of creation, is inscribed on the statue's base. By choosing to be depicted in this way, Haremhab—the leader of the pharaoh's army—declares himself to be both literate and pious.
Egyptian scribe representations first appeared in the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium B. C.), more than one thousand years before the time of Haremhab. During the New Kingdom, scribes often were shown in the company of Thoth, the god of wisdom, who appeared in the form of a baboon. The tradition of showing great officials as scribes—thereby equating them with men of wisdom—lasted through the whole Pharaonic and pre-Christian era.
Also on view in the exhibition will be other scribe statues of various periods of Egyptian history, a collection of scribal materials and instruments of writing, and a stela whose text pertains to literacy in ancient Egypt. A delightful statue from the Louvre juxtaposes the scribe Nebmerutef with the Thoth baboon. This and other representations of the god Thoth, in which he is shown as a baboon or an ibis, explore the association of the god with the scribe as administrator and regulator. A group of selected representations from other cultures and historical periods will enrich the public's perception of the ancient Egyptian representation of the scribe. Ancient garments like the one worn by Haremhab in his statue will be displayed near representations of such garments.
Weapons and a model chariot illustrate the wars that dominated the period. A stela will show a procession in which priests carry the shrine of Amun. Inscriptions indicate that a movement of the god's processional shrine was interpreted as an oracle that made Haremhab king. An important royal head from a New York private collection will represent the style adopted during his actual reign, and facsimile paintings will represent the royal tomb of Haremhab in the Valley of the Kings. Finally, an image and translation of Haremhab's decree from Karnak will document the king's political achievements.
Haremhab, who may well have imagined his goals might be furthered through the creation of this magnificent statue, lived at a crucial moment. At the end of Dynasty 18, Egypt experienced religious and political unrest. Haremhab would have been a youth when Akhenaten (reigned ca. 1349–1332 B.C.) overturned ancient Egypt's polytheistic religion in favor of worshipping a single god, excised the names of the old gods from monuments, and moved the center of government to a new city (today known as Amarna) that was built specifically for this purpose. Together with the radical shift in governmental ideology, the country's social structure must have disintegrated, allowing important posts to go to persons who did not stem from the establishment. Haremhab may have been one such person. After Akhenaten's death, the institutions he had founded were destroyed, the old religious practices were reinstated, and the new city eventually was abandoned. Akhenaten's probable son by a secondary wife, Tutankhamun (reigned ca. 1328–1319 B.C.) was only about nine years old when he assumed the throne. The young ruler relied on Haremhab to deal with unrest at Egypt's southern and northeastern frontiers. Haremhab—who was born into a non-royal family—may or may not have enhanced and strengthened his own position through marriage to the sister of Nefertiti, the chief wife of Akhenaten (but not Tutankhamun's mother). In any case, he was the one to succeed Aya—another Amarna official who ruled as king briefly after Tutankhamun—as pharaoh. Upon becoming pharaoh, Haremhab completed the restoration of the traditional religion and stabilized the well-being of the country by curtailing the abuses by various powerful groups of its citizens. It was also during his reign that official action began against the monuments at Amarna. A prolific builder, he started, for instance, construction of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak; he also usurped buildings originally erected and decorated by his two post-Amarna predecessors Tutankhamun and Aya.
During Haremhab's lifetime, as general and pharaoh, Egypt's struggles with the Hittites of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) started and his military—and probably his diplomatic—encounters set the tone for ancient Egypt's foreign relations for a century to come, benefitting both great pharaohs Seti I and Ramesses II.
Schoolboy’s writing board, inscribed with model letter in hieratic script, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12, ca. 1981–1802 B.C. Wood, gesso, ink. From Thebes or Akhmim. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1928 (28.9.4) Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York