New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
A shiny gold ochtodrachm in the exhibition, “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: From Alexander the Great to Cleopatra” (through January 4, 2015), shows Ptolemaios, one of Alexander’s fellow from Macedon and one of the young king’s six bodyguards and generals.
But the image on the solid gold coin isn’t that of a mere general. It is the image of Ptolemaios as the divine Ptolemy l Soter (savior), Pharaoh of Egypt, with his queen Berenice, founders of the Ptolemaic Kingdom.
Appointed satrap of Egypt when Alexander died in 323 BC, Ptolemaios followed the example of Alexander’s representation as pharaoh at Karnak and Luxor and identified himself as a pharaoh in 305, founding a historic line of Hellenistic pharaohs, the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt from 305 BC until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC, marked by the death of Cleopatra VII, the last and most famous of the line.
Interestingly, Berenice (who came from Macedon) the first Ptolemaic queen, was the first living Greek woman whose image was struck on a coin. The coin, which is shown in the show’s first section, titled “The Way They Looked: Dynastic Portraiture On Ptolemaic Coin”s, has a double portrait of the divine founders’ son Ptolemy II, and his late wife–and sister–Arsinoe II on the flip side. The coin served to legitimize the Hellenistic house’s divine succession to the royal throne (the Ptolemies adopted the Egyptian practice of sibling marriage to keep it in the family).
The contemporary resonance of this use of cultural expression for political ends runs through this exhibition which containing 150 artifacts of royal portraiture, religious and funerary objects, and writings on papyrus is satisfyingly comparable to entering an ancient tomb.
So many of these show cultural hybrid, revealing the complex interplay between cultures in ancient Egypt during Greek rule, and as the catalogue says best: “the diversity of cultures that co-existed in Egypt, and the ways in which the Ptolemaic rulers cannily manipulated longstanding traditions of cultural and religious expression—as well as their own family ties—in order to maintain power and inspire loyalty among the conquered population.”
The Ptolemies were following Alexander’s lead in honoring the Egyptian gods, and most of all, perhaps taking his lead in the use of words and images to shape public perception of his rise to power.
in an Egyptian stance,
Wishing to project themselves to the people as ”charismatic leaders with god-like powers of protection”, the Ptolemies often presented images of their queens as goddesses, the love goddess Aphrodite, a popular figure in Alexandria, and the fertility goddesses, Demeter and Isis as shown in the section of the exhibition titled “Portraits of the Queens as Ptolemaic Self-Fashioning”. A turquoise faience statuette for a home or shrine that is an adaptation of a famous painting by Apelles of Aphrodite Anadyomene gracefully parts her long hair her hair as she rises from the sea. A fragment of a jug used for sacrificial libations shows a light blue-green Hellenized Isis, her expression serene, unlike the wide open-eyed mesmerized gaze of a figure in Egyptian stance with a Caryatid hairstyle and the love-knot of Isis prominent between her breasts.
Highlights of the exhibition are a large marble Head of a Ptolemaic Queen and a marble Head of Arsinoe III, both in the Classical style. A finely carved Relief Plaque of either a queen or Isis in profile wears a bird headdress and an enigmatic Mona Lisa-type smile.
The face of a blue statuette of Isis wearing a pharaonic headdress and cradling her breast also draws attention with a a similarly enigmatic Mona Lisa-type smile in the section of the exhibition titled The Triad of Osiris, Isis, and Harpocrates in Ptolemaic Egypt. The office of Pharaoh was essentially a religious function, connecting the person of the king to the Egyptian gods and that the Ptolemies tied themselves to the religious and cultural traditions that they found in place. A Ptolemaic relief at Edfu depicts Horus of Behdet presenting an ankh (an Egyptian symbol of life) to the pharaoh, while another relief depicts Ptolemy VI making an offering to Osiris and Isis at Philae.
The show’s catalogue writes that there were pharaohs in Egypt’s past that married their kin, such as cousins, but the Ptolemies often married their sisters, even though the practice wasn’t Macedonian or Greek. Ptolemy II was the first to do so, marrying his own sister Arsinoe. Perhaps the Ptolemies identified with the dynastic gods Serapis/Osiris and Isis; according to myth, Osiris and Isis were brother and sister. In Ptolemaic artifacts there are depictions of that holy family of Oiris, Isis, and their child, Horus as the child Harpocrates. as well as statuettes of Harpocrates alone.
in a separate room in the exhibition a series of papyrus manuscripts with gorgeously executed script, have an effect of immediacy, as if not much time had passed since Ananiah and his wife, Tamel, made a marriage contract in Aramaic, and Zenon of Caunos wrote property deeds in Greek for those whose estates he managed.
When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: From Alexander the Great to Cleopatra is the eleventh exhibition project of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University (ISAW). Established in 2006, the ISAW is an independent center for scholarly research and graduate education that engages the public, as well as the large scholarly community with an ongoing program of exhibitions, lectures, and publications that reflect its mission to cultivate comparative and connective investigations of the ancient world.