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The Cleveland Museum of Art Reveals the Truths of the Pharaohs


Three thousand years of Egyptian history are on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  A special exhibition, “Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt,” is part of the museum’s centennial celebration.
In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports that it combines works on loan from the British Museum with treasures of Cleveland’s permanent collection.

This is the Cleveland Museum of Art’s first exhibition of Egyptian art in two decades, and it’s a major one with 150 objects on view, from monumental stone sculptures and tomb fragments to tiny scarab pendants and doll-sized shabtis, magical figurines placed in tombs to serve the dead.

These masterworks from Cleveland’s own collection and the vast holdings of the British Museum tell the story of the pharaohs, the ancient kings of Egypt.


  “To show the visitor the realities of power, who they were, what was their idea of kingship," explains the scholar who put it together, Aude Semat.

“I’m an Egyptologist based in Paris, and I worked as a guest curator for this exhibition.”

Ten galleries are filled with objects dating from 3100 to 343 BC. Matt Wilkins came from Oberlin to see them.

“Getting to view something that is that old, 3,000 years old, is really amazing. The craftsmanship that went into these pieces that long ago with the primitive tools that they did have -- I thoroughly enjoy it.”  

Many pharaohs

One of several surprises for those who picture only YulBrynner when they hear the word pharaoh, is that there were so many kings of ancient Egypt.

“Three millennia, 30 dynasties, 10 or more for each dynasty. So it’s a lot,” Semat acknowledges.

At the entrance to one of the first galleries, a ceremonial palette catches the eye.

The original at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is more than 3,000 years old. This cast, made by 19th Century British Egyptologists, shows the very first pharaoh, Narmer, in animal form "showing a bull walking over a dead body, over the body of an enemy. And so this is a depiction of the king crushing enemies and so doing his duty.” 

But sometimes it was the enemies doing the crushing. The curator says one of her goals is to counter some misconceptions these works were designed to perpetuate.

“Propaganda in a way would be the word to describe that. It’s really the way they wanted to be perceived.” The pharaohs used what we would consider works of art to show they were all-powerful and divine.

“Images of power,” says Semat, “and powerful images.”  But the exhibition shows the pharaohs were after all, human, and often not powerful enough to prevent invasions from foreign conquerors.


Semat says they would adopt the Egyptian way. Alexander was a pharaoh.

“So they re-used all the symbols. They had statues or images of themselves. They were pharaohs.” Including Alexander the Great. “Alexander had his name translated in Egyptian,” says the curator, “and he had a titulary made.”

The royal titulary was a standard naming convention. Every pharaoh including Alexander had five names. There are two sculptures of Alexander’s head in a gallery dedicated to foreigners on Egypt’s throne. Throughout the exhibition we see the symbols of power including crooks and flails, and crowns.

Every pharaoh wears a headpiece fronted by a rearing snake. “It’s a spitting cobra defending itself on the forehead of the kings and also on some queens, because it is protecting the king.”Images of lions, falcons, bulls, and rams fill the galleries because most pharaohs took on animal personas.


  “One of my favorite pieces,” says Semat, “is this one. It’s a statue of Seti the Second, a pharaoh from the New Kingdom.”

That was a prosperous period, from 1570 to 1544 BC. Seti II sits on his throne, a spitting cobra on his brow.

“You can see between his legs he has a tail attached at the back of his loincloth. And so with that you know that he is a king.” The pharaoh holds on his lap the head of a ram.  “An animal related to the god Amun-Ra, one of the main gods in ancient Egypt. Giving an offering to the god, so he’s doing his duty because one of the main duties of the king was to maintain the cult to the god.”

That, plus the task of holding the universe together.

“The main duty of the king was to maintain the cosmic order.”  Pharoahs were in charge of Maat, the ancient Egyptian concept of harmony, morality and justice. The objects in the exhibition were among their magical tools. But this is not art as we know it in the Western world.

“There isn’t a word for art in ancient Egypt, so it’s really a different concept. Any written or depicted thing is thought as, in a way, magically alive for the Egyptian. So you don’t really need an external viewer.” 


What we’re getting to look at now, most ancient Egyptians never encountered. “Most of the objects that you will see in the exhibition, they were not supposed to be seen by many people.  The king, the priests, some dignitaries at certain times. Otherwise they weren’t really meant to be seen.” Nor were they really meant to please.

“Pleasure, the way we look at art, is not the way it was meant for the Egyptian. It really has a meaning, a function. It’s supposed to do something for the dead, for the king, for the gods or whatever.”

Part of a capital column from an archaeological site called Bubastis shows the enormous scale of the temples pharaohs were expected to build. Filling the entire first gallery of the exhibition it weighs more than 2 tons.


The Hathor capital dates from about 874 to 850 BC.  It’s the beautiful head of a goddess of joy and fertility that the Greeks identified with Aphrodite and the Romans with Venus. Hathor has the body of a cow. She’s also depicted on a mummy’s coffin from Cleveland’s Egyptian collection. It’s from the great temple of Amun-Ra in Karnak, or modern-day Luxor.

"This coffin was done for a priest. On the outside of the coffin case you can see him. He’s worshipping a cow, and this cow is the goddess Hathor. So he’s worshipping her in order that she can protect him to be able to, to live again.”

Emma Starcher’s staring at the coffin with wide eyes. Her teacher has shown her pictures of mummies. “They look cool in person,” she says with a big smile. Emma and her 6th grade classmate KarissaDavila came from McCormack Middle School in Wellington on a field trip.

“I thought it was very fascinating to know about,” says Karissa, “And it really goes along with what we’ve been taught.”

Curator Aude Semat hopes her work might inspire future Egyptologists. “When I was a teenager I saw a big Amenhotep III exhibition at the Grand Palais, and which was partly organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art. So yes, it’s a fun link.”