10 Best Egyptian Antiquities to See in the Louvre
Le Louvre has one of the major collections of Egyptian antiquities in the world. With the objects in the reserves, in contains no less than 55 000 objects!
You can also consider the iconic pyramid of Le Louvre as a tribute to this civilization: the pyramid is the same shape than the Kheops’ pyramid and about 10 times smaller. A bit isolated from the others collections of Le Louvre, it is worthy to dedicate a special visit to this department spread on several floors.
Contrary to what many people assume, this collection is not the result of any robbery. Napoleon Bonaparte did steal a lot of things when he was in Egypt between 1798 and 1801. But these objects were themselves taken by the British who defeated his army and are now exhibited in the British Museum.
The collection of Le Louvre is linked to the deciphering of the hieroglyphics by a French scholar Jean-François Champollion. It decided the king Charles X to buy some collections and to appoint Champollion at the head of the new department in 1827.
The objects brought later are the results of scientific excavations allowed by the Egyptian government or are coming from diplomatic gifts.
Unlike the others collections of Le Louvre, the department is not centered on art but on the history of the civilization. Remarkably, this culture and society was preserved with only relatively small changes throughout three millenniums, despite foreign invasions and influences.
Let’s discover these antiquities and learn on the way about this fascinating civilization!
1. Mummy of a man
Let’s start by the main attraction of the Egyptian department: the mummy!
This mummy is one of the best preserved in the world. It is from the Ptolemaic period in the third century BC.
After the death of Alexander the Great, his empire was divided between his general who created greek independant kingdoms. Egypt, who had recently passed from the Persian Empire to the Macedonian empire, came under the rule of Ptolemy and his descendants: the last one was the queen Cleopatra.
Even if the Greeks put themselves on top of the Egyptian society and kept many of their Greek customs, most of the old culture was kept in the country, including the rite of mummification.
This mummification was for the priviledged and its quality often depended on the richness of the deceased. It served as an additional guarantee of survival in the afterlife.
The process of mummification is known thanks to the Greek historian Herodotus who described it in the fifth century BC.
First, the decaying parts of the body like the brain and the visceras were removed, mummified and placed in jars. Then the body was filled with aromatics. After this, the body would be covered with natron, that is the carbonate of sodium. Protective amulets were finally put among the wrappings.
2. The sarcophagus box of Ramesses III
Ramesses III, the last great king of the period called the New Empire, ruled between 1186 and his assassination in 1154.
This granite box was originally painted in blue. The mummy inside was also found but is in the Cairo Museum while the top of the box is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in England.
On both sides, the sisters Isis and Nephtys protected the deceased.
A text in hieroglyphics and some illustrations relate the travel of the solar god, Ra, that was central to the Egyptian mythology.
Every night, Ra disappears in the west in his bark. He has to move through the 12 gates of the underworld, a reference to the twelve hours of the night. Others gods and some blessed help him fight his enemies, especially the snake of chaos, Apophis. After his triumph, Ra reappears every morning in the east.
3. The Seated Scribe
This 4 500 years old statue is one of the most fascinating. It is probably due to its captivating eyes, inlaid with white magnesite and rock crystal. The delicacy of the hands is also remarkable.
The scribe is represented sitting cross-legged with a kilt serving as a support. His hand contains a roll of papyrus. He is portrayed at work, which is quite unusual for an Egyptian statue.
This statue is famous but the character who was represented is unknown. The base containing his name and title is missing. It was discovered in 1850 in the site of Saqqara that has been pillaged and damaged. We can only guess from his belly that he was well-fed and probably an important official or civil servant.
The scribes played a key role in Egyptian civilization. They had to go through a lot of training to master the hieroglyphics: these sacred signs were 750 at the beginning but their number increased up to 7 000. One scribe, Imhotep, builder of the necropolis of Saqqara, was even made divine long after his death and worshiped.
4. The Great Sphinx of Tanis
This pink granite sphinx is dated from around 1750 BC. However it bears the marks of several pharaohs and especially the famous Ramesses II (1304-1213) and his son Merenptah (1269-1203).
You can see in his chest a cartouche, that is an oval loop encircling the name of the pharaoh in hieroglyphics. It was common for the rulers to rewrite their name on these symbolic statues. It is not to be understood as a dishonest appropriation since Egyptians believed in a continuity between the pharaohs.
The sphinx, hybrid creature between a man and a lion was a living image of the pharaoh, in a terrifying shape, ready to leap on the enemies of Egypt. That is why you can see some of the royal attributes like the goatee. It was positioned, alone or in group, at the entrances of the temples.
5. Statue of Nakhthorheb
Here is the statue of a privileged man. Nakhthorheb had his statue positioned in a temple of the god Thot, the god of writing. It means that as an important dignitary he was under the protection of the god.
Nakhthorheb lived in the 5th century BC, towards the end of the Egyptian civilization. After a period of foreign invasions, the Egyptian elite wanted to go back to its roots, searching to retrieve the power and glory of the past.
This quest can be seen in the statue as it is an imitation of the traditional Egyptian style. The sculptor wanted to convey simplicity with this soft smile. Nakhthorheb is shown in an attitude of reverence, kneeled with his hands flat on his thighs.
Like for the other statues in the Egyptian temples, the priests would regularly presented food to this statue.
6. The zodiac at Dendera
This sandstone slab gives us a symbolic representation of the sky as it was visible in 50 BC.
The intention of the sculptors was to represent a night skyscape in the ceiling of a chapel in the temple of the goddess Hathor at Dendera. The vault of heaven is represented by this disc supported by 4 women and 36 falcon-headed spirits symbolizing the 360 days of the Egyptian year.
Remarquably, the signs of the zodiac visible within the disc are usually represented the same way as today. It seems that the Egyptian cultural elements were mingled with the astronomical theories of the Greeks that ruled the country at this time.
The discovery of the zodiac in 1798, during the expedition of Napoleon, sparked a big controversy. Some estimated that this object, along with others, might date back to 3 000 BC. This was incompatible with the world view of the Catholic church that considered the year 2 348 BC as the date of the creation of the earth.
An abbot forbid to study this zodiac and threaten to excommuniate those who would not obey. The estimation of the age of the zodiac was wrong but it was the beginning of a heated debate that lasted the whole XIXth century.
7. Bust of Akhenaton
This is a statue of a very unique pharaoh: Amenophis IV, who changed his name into Akhenaton.
The pharaoh is represented in a traditional position called the Osirian position: standing, arms crossed on his chest holding the royal scepters. But his features are unusual. Contrary to his predecessors, he is not represented like a muscular athlete. He seems frailer, some said androgynous, with also an elongated face.
These changes in the style were ordered by Akhenaton himself. It is called the Armanian style. There might be a religious message behind. Some also supposed that it represents in a realistic way the features of the pharaoh who might have suffered from physical deformations.
There is still some mystery behind the story of Akhenaton and his spouse, gifted with a legendary beauty, Nefertiti.
Akhenaton, who ruled between 1372 and 1355 BC, imposed some changes on the Egyptian religion. The Sun god, Amon-Rê, was made the main god, maybe the unique one, under the name of Aton. The pharaoh was the living image of Aton and his unique interlocutor. This bust was part of a sculpted pillar in the new temple of Aton.
These changes were abolished as soon as the pharaoh died to go back to the old polytheism. There was a will to forget his memory. Later, his tomb was even desecrated under official orders, to prevent him access to the afterlife.
8. Statue of the chancellor Nakhti
This expressive statue is coming from one the rare tomb that escaped pillagers. The tomb of Nakhti, high-official who lived around 1900 BC was found in Assiout.
In his offering chapel and burial chambers there was many objects, some visible in le Louvre, including this life-size statue.
The stone of the necropolis was too friable to be carved. That is why the sculptor used a single trunk of acacia. A thin layer of colored stucco was added to make him more life-like.
9. The little figurines like the god Thot as a baboon
In the Egyptian temples, there was some workshops where craftsmen produced a lot of little figurines. They represented gods using a wide variety of materials, often precious one. Here, this statue is made of siliceous faïence, gold and silver. These figurines were offered by Egyptians to their gods. In this case by a man called Horhetep.
Here we have the god Thot: wise, knowledgeable, he was considered the inventor of hieroglyphics, and as such was the patron god of the scribes. Assistant of the other gods, he would register their decisions.
He was usually represented with the body of a man and the head of an ibis. However, he could be represented as a monkey, like in the figurine represented here. As he measures time, marked by the phases of the moon, he wears a crescent moon on his head.
You have many other figurines to discover in the Louvre. I particularly appreciate the blue hippopotamus.
10. The European woman from the Fayoum
We finish with an art piece that dates long after the end of the time of the pharaohs. Here is a portrait from the third century AD, during the Roman domination of Egypt. It shows an intermingling between old Egyptian traditions and Greco-Roman art.
This kind of portrait was made to be attached to a mummy. The piece of wood was carved to fit the body of the mummified person. The features and the social status of this woman had to be identifiable for the afterlife. It is not certain whether it represented her at the age where she died or before.
Even if the painting was integrated to an Egyptian rite, the technique and style of the naturalistic painted portrait is Greco-Roman. It seems, from her light skin, that this woman was herself European, maybe one of the many Greeks that settled in the country from the third century BC.
I find this portrait captivating by their realism. For reasons I could not explain, I find it much more lifelike than most paintings or statues. I can feel a connection with this woman despite she belonged to a seemingly very distant and different civilization.
This overview is just a start. When visiting the rooms where these art pieces are, you are given some context, with sometimes the other pieces found in the room. The rooms of some temples are even reconstituted in Le Louvre.
I recommand to take a guide to discover it. It is much nicer than to spend five minutes reading the panels in every room. It is better that you precise before the tour that you want to see the Egyptian department, as it is a bit isolated from the other highlights and not all the tour guides know this department well.
Pay attention when you choose the date of your visit: the whole museum is closed on Tuesday and the Egyptian department is closed on Friday.