Tuesday, September 27, 2011

22. Sphinx of Taharqo (Sudan, about 680 BC)

Cultural Synthesis.
This intriguing object illustrates a melding of two cultures, Egyptian and ancient Sudanese (I believe the name of the area was Kush); it commemorates a brief period, during the 3000 years that Egyptian civilization dominated the area, in which the Kushites ruled the Nile from northern Sudan. This statue uses a familiar Egyptian image, the sphinx; but if you look carefully at its face (the lips, for example) you’ll see that ethnically the face is that of a black person from Sudan. (The Egyptians were Mediterranean/Semitic people, probably mostly with olive-colored skin.) The sphinx here represents the black Sudanese pharaoh, Taharqo. Since pharaohs had been shown on sphinxes for thousands of years, it was clever of the rulers to appropriate the familiar mythic imagery but use it to tell their own story, something akin to Christians telling the ancient Celts that you celebrate the solstice, in late December, and worship evergreen trees, because that’s the birth of our Lord Jesus, with the promise of eternal life in the dead of winter. We'll see this pattern of cultural appropriation and/or synthesis many times in this history; in fact, it's at the heart of what the British Museum is.

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