Libyan and Ethiopian
Art & Culture


In conjunction with the attempt to bring the period of Libyan and Ethiopian domination in Egypt into correct alignment — within the framework of the history of that land and in proper synchronism with the histories of foreign countries — I shall select several examples from the fields of language, art, and religion to demonstrate that the revised chronology does not contradict the natural evolutionary process we would expect to find in these various fields. To the contrary, the evidence in all these fields will argue for the new version of history. Paradoxical finds will no longer be paradoxical and enigmatic solutions will be easily understood. We shall elucidate, on such examples, the close following of the Libyan and Ethiopian dynasties upon the Eighteenth and their precedence in relation to the Nineteenth Dynasty.

On the other hand, the comparison of language, art, and religion of the Eighteenth Dynasty with examples from the same three fields under the Nineteenth Dynasty exhibits a veritable gulf, or break in tradition. With the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty, “Egypt was a changed world” . The author of this evaluation, Sir Alan Gardiner, explained: “it is impossible not to notice the marked deterioration of the art, the literature, and indeed the general culture of the people. The language which they wrote approximates more closely to the vernacular and incorporates many foreign words; the copies of ancient texts are incredibly careless, as if the scribes utterly failed to understand their meaning.” (1)

Considering that, in the conventional chronology, between the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty (King Ay) and the beginning of the Nineteenth (counted from Ramses I) only some fifteen to twenty years are available (and Haremhab is supposed to fill them) — and even taking into account the revolutionary tendencies of Akhnaton — a break in all aspects of cultural development marking the transition between the two dynasties, the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth, is more than enigmatic.


The oracular stele of Thutmose IV, father of Amenhotep III and grandfather of Akhnaton, is a famous relic. Thutmose, when still a prince in his teens, visited the oracle of the Great Sphinx at Gizeh. There he fell asleep and heard in his dream that he, not the eldest among his brothers and not in the line of succession, was destined to follow his father Amenhotep II on the throne. The oracle required Thutmose, upon his ascent to the throne, to clear the Sphinx of the desert sand that had swept in around it; when pharaoh, Thutmose fulfilled his vow and also erected a stele with a description of both the oracular dream and his freeing of the Sphinx from the sand. This stele was found between the paws of the Sphinx when in modern times the sand, that had again buried the huge figure above its paws, was removed under the supervision of archaeologists.

A. Erman, an eminent Egyptologist, tried to prove that the stele is a product of a late dynasty, possibly the Libyan. He presented the evidence of literary style, epigraphy, and spelling, concluding that the stele must have originated between the tenth and sixth centuries, and not in the fifteenth which was the accepted time of Thutmose IV.(2) “Our Sphinx stele is thus to be regarded as a restored inscription, but obviously a careless and free restoration. The time at which it was completed cannot be estimated exactly; it is not in any case later than the Saitic period, but can be placed equally well in the 21st or 22nd [Libyan] dynasty. “(3)

Erman’s position was disputed by another equally eminent Egyptologist, W. Spiegelberg, who presented the argument that the “late style and spelling” are actually not late and that, furthermore, the texts of the Saitic period are conspicuous for their classical style; additionally, no marked difference is evident between the texts of these two periods. “The good archaizing texts of the Saitic period are conspicuous in their use of correct ‘classic’ orthography.” (4)

Spiegelberg concluded that, because of this similarity in the art of writing in these two periods, separated by half a millennium and more, Erman’s argument was unfounded and the stele must have been carved in the days of the pharaoh whose name it bears, Thutmose IV.

Is it not strange that the style and epigraphy of two periods, thought to be separated by such a large span of time, are so similar as to engage two specialists in such a dispute?

The Eighteenth Dynasty and the Libyan period in Egypt produced very similar literary works. In no language, ancient or new, would four to seven hundred years have passed without very considerable changes: one need think only of the metamorphosis of English between the time of Geoffrey Chaucer and that of Oscar Wilde. It was no different with the Egyptian language; and most likely, the two epochs under consideration show so little change simply because there was so little time difference. Thus the conflicting opinions are much less conflicting if only scores of years, not five centuries, separate the time of Thutmose IV from the beginning of Libyan rule.


The Libyan Dynasty, following directly upon the Eighteenth, perpetuated not only its literary style, but many of its artistic traditions as well. In some instances, the resemblance was so close that experts mistakenly attributed a work of art to the wrong Dynasty; and while the difference in time actually amounted to not more than a few decades, on the conventional time scale many centuries were involved — centuries which could not have passed without profound changes in the mode of execution of statues, bas-reliefs, and paintings.

Metal sculpture: One such instance is the Carnarvon statuette of Arnun, a rare chef-d’oeuvre discovered by Howard Carter at Karnak in 1916. When first exhibited in 1922 it was described by Carter as a “Statuette of the God in the Likeness of Thotmosis III” . “This attribution has never been challenged by any of the scholars who have published illustrations of the specimen,” wrote Cyril Aldred in 1956, (5) “and the present writer must include himself among those who accepted without cavil a dating to the Tuthmosid period.” But a more detailed examination of the statuette convinced Aldred that “a date in the Eighteenth Dynasty is untenable” . The statue was not of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It was not even Ramesside. “There is, in fact, nothing in this statuette which does not belong to the style of the Third Intermediate Period [the Libyan and Ethiopian dynasties] and everything is in favour of such a date. . . . If a more precise dating within the Third Intermediate Period be insisted upon, then the writer is inclined to place this statuette of Amun early in the Twenty-second Dynasty, since it shows the stylistic features of such metal sculpture in fully developed form. . “(6)

Conventional chronology puts almost six hundred years between the the time of Thutmose III and the early Libyan (Twenty-second) Dynasty kings. Were the changes in the execution of the sculptures so minute in this span of time that they could not be detected by an art expert? Or was the elapsed time much shorter, a century perhaps, as the revised chronology implies?

In trying to explain how a blunder of this magnitude was possible, Aldred goes on to discuss the history of metal sculpture in Egypt. Metal sculpture, introduced under the Eighteenth Dynasty, experienced a setback under the Nineteenth Dynasty, but becomes plentiful again in the Libyan period. With the time of Libyan domination immediately following on the Eighteenth Dynasty, there was no interruption between the introduction of the technique under the Eighteenth Dynasty and its greatest florescence in Libyan times.

We can cite another instance of misattribution of a sculpture in metal. A bronze figurine of Anubis, dated to the Libyan period in 1963, was only three years later re-dated by half a millennium to the Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Dynasties.(7)

Sculpture in stone: Problems not unlike those involved in the dating of metal sculpture arose in the attribution of monumental sculpture in stone. In a private communication, the late Egyptologist Walter Federn brought to my attention the case of the sphinxes erected at Karnak in the temple of Mut. According to Federn:

"In the temple of Mut at Karnak stand more than a hundred statues of the lion-goddess Sekhmet. The majority date from [the time of] Amenhotep II, and can be so identified by their inscriptions. Many were dedicated also by Shoshenk I, and are without the inscriptions characteristic of the others; they are notable for their somewhat careless execution. . . . It is remarkable also that one statue, which is the largest of all, and which was formerly taken to be the oldest of them, originates rather from Shoshenk I.” (8)

Was the completion of the Sekhmet sphinxes interrupted for more than six centuries? Why did Seti the Great or Ramses II not complete the work, if, as is generally thought, they followed the Eighteenth Dynasty? It was the Libyan kings who completed the decoration of the temple begun by Amenhotep II, only a few decades after his death; and they did so in a style hardly distinguishable from the original work.

Chalices: Chalices, or drinking vessels with relief decorations, are unique objects; they seem to have been made “by the same group of men over no long period of time” .(9) Some of them definitely belong to the Libyan period (Twenty-second Dynasty) because the names of Libyan kings, such as “Shoshenk” , are inscribed on them. These come from Memphis, at the apex of the Delta; but another group of somewhat finer workmanship originates in the town of Tuna in the vicinity of Hermopolis, almost directly across the river from Tell el-Amama. The style of the uninscribed chalices from Tuna recalled so strongly the el-Amarna style of art that several experts ascribed to them a late Eighteenth Dynasty date. The case was argued most forcefully by Ricketts in an article he published in 1918.(10)

In the decoration of one chalice Ricketts found “an almost Asiatic richness of design, a certain lack of severity” which tended to confirm his impression that it belonged “to an age of experiment, even of cross-influences, such as the later years of the Eighteenth Dynasty” .(11) Another cup which he examined made him even more secure in his attribution: it was “yet richer in aspect and, with its sparse figures, more certainly in the temper of the Eighteenth Dynasty” .(12) A “spirited fowling scene” on a third chalice, so familiar from Eighteenth Dynasty painted tombs, strengthened his case still more.(13)

The arguments presented in 1918 for a late Eighteenth Dynasty date for some of the chalices were at first accepted by most scholars; and when Sotheby, the renowned art dealer, listed them in his 1921 catalog, he also labeled them as such.

Soon, however, several art experts expressed their unhappiness at such an early attribution, chiefly because of the similar, though somewhat inferior, chalices from Memphis, which could be dated securely to Libyan times on the basis of inscriptional evidence. It was unthinkable that there could have been a gap of over four centuries between the two groups. It was difficult to imagine that the art of manufacturing the objects died out under the Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-first Dynasties, only to be revived under the Twenty-second or Libyan Dynasty. Scholarly opinion swung toward a Libyan date for all the chalices. Ricketts’ paper of 1918, so carefully argued on the basis of artistic analogies, was termed “misleading” (14) - yet no real reasons were adduced to invalidate the Eighteenth Dynasty attribution of the objects discussed by him.

The solution to the dilemma becomes obvious when the Egyptian dynasties are placed in their correct sequence. The chalices were made as Ricketts deduced, during the Amarna period — the late Eighteenth Dynasty. They continued to be manufactured under the Libyan Dynasty that followed, even while exhibiting the same decline in artistic standards which characterized all Egyptian art in the wake of the civil war and foreign invasion that precipitated the end of the house of Akhnaton. And if they were made, as Tait argued, “by the same group of men over no long period of time” , they appear to have been manufactured in the space of two or three consecutive generations.


The Eighteenth Dynasty saw, toward its end, the worship of Aton. Akhnaton in his religious reform — or heresy as it is usually called — instituted Aton as the supreme god. His heirs, Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen, having worshipped Aton in their earlier years, reverted again to the worship of Amon, and the circumstances of these religious vacillations are described in my Oedipus and Akhnaton. These kings, however, reigned for a few years only and died in their youth; they served as prototypes for Polynices and Eteocles of the Theban cycle of tragedies.

Under the Libyan Dynasty not only the worship of Amon, but even the worship of Aton survived. Amon was a deity through long periods of Egyptian history, but the worship of Aton was very characteristic for the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty only.

A stele,(15) now in the Cairo Museum, shows a priest in office under king Osorkon II, one of the later Libyan pharaohs. The priest is described in the text as “Prophet of Amonrasonter in Karnak who contemplates Aton of Thebes” , a somewhat peculiar description which H. Kees remarked upon. He noted that it is “as if the priest had lived in Amarna times! “.(16)

At the beginning of this century James H. Breasted drew attention to the fact that the Ethiopian temple-city Gem-Aten, known from the annals of the Nubian kings, carries the same name as Akhnaton’s temple at Thebes, and that the two must be in some relation, despite the great difference in age. A relief in a Theban tomb shows Akhnaton with his family worshipping in the temple of Gem-Aten. “The name of the Theban temple of Aton therefore furnished the name of the Nubian city, and there can be no doubt that lkhenaton [Akhnaton] was its founder, and that he named it after the Theban temple of his god. . . . We have here the remarkable fact that this Nubian city of lkhenaton survived and still bore the name he gave it nearly a thousand years after his death and the destruction of the new city of his god in Egypt (Amarna).” (17)

Recently, Alexander Badawy discussed the worship observed by Akhnaton at the Gem-Aten ("Meeting of the Aten” ) which stood at Amarna. It is thought that the king used to come to meet the Aton “daily in the eastern open courts of the Gem-Aten” .(18) “Music and singing, rattling of sistra, presentation of incense and flowers gave a festive note of jubilation to the daily liturgy of Aten. “(19)

The Gem-Aten (or Gempaton) of the annals of the Nubian kings was found by F. Addison at Kawa in 1929.

The further excavations of Griffith and Macadam at the site uncovered “two documents of Amenophis III which attested the foundation by this king of the historical Gempaton” .(20) Breasted’s conclusion that the later Ethiopian temple went back to the Amama period was now confirmed by archaeology.(21)

This only underlines the “remarkable fact” that the city carried, through the many centuries that supposedly elapsed between the Amama period and Ethiopian times, a name recalling a heretical cult and, moreover, remained unnoticed throughout this period in contemporary documents. After Akhnaton’s time the name Gem-Aten is first referred to in an inscription of Tirhaka in one of the side-chambers of the Gebel-Barkal temple(22)— yet “its earlier history is totally unknown” .(23) Between the Amama period and the time of Tirhaka, the accepted chronology inserts almost 700 years — but we know that in fact only little more than a century elapsed, the period of Libyan domination; and we have seen that the cult of Aton persisted through the Libyan period.

Possibly the cult of Aton was perpetuated for a time by priests who fled south when, about - 830, the tide turned back in favor of the religion of Amon and the Libyan kings from the Delta were pushing toward Thebes. In any case, the religion of Atenism did not survive into Ethiopian times. When Piay (Piankhy) invaded Egypt about - 725 he did so under the guidance of Amon — but even then, ironically, Amon’s chief sanctuary in Ethiopia retained the name it had received from Akhnaton a century earlier.


The Ethiopian period, following the Libyan, came between the Eighteenth and the Nineteenth Dynasties, and its art shows affinities with both. This can be seen for instance in the decoration of the tomb of Mentuemhat, governor of Thebes in the time of Tirhaka and Assurbanipal.

In 1947 the Brooklyn Museum purchased “a fragment of limestone relief of exceptional quality” .(24) It was evaluated by John D. Cooney of the Egyptian Department as a product of the late Eighteenth Dynasty. The bas-relief contains scenes already known from paintings in the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Menna in the Theban necropolis (tomb no. 69) — a peasant girl sitting on a chair and taking a thorn out of the foot of another girl sitting opposite her; and a second scene of a woman with a child in a sling at her breast arranging fruits in a basket (Plate XIV). Both scenes, of exquisite bas-relief technique, have so many identical details with the paintings of the tomb of Menna that Professor Cooney was not acting inconsiderately when he assumed he purchased objects of art of the late Eighteenth Dynasty.

However, “only a few months later,” Professor Cooney narrates, “two other fragmentary reliefs were offered to the Museum” and were assessed by him as dating from the seventh century.(25) They were also purchased at a price appropriate for art of the Saite period, or the seventh and early sixth centuries, which is by far below the value of comparable art pieces of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The two fragments contained a scene depicting musicians and scribes with certain details that “made a Saite date completely certain” (26) (Plates XIII and XVI).

Of the first acquisition Cooney wrote: “I was so convinced of the early date of the relief with peasant scenes that I failed even to consider a relationship between it and the Saite pieces.” (27) Yet when, at the suggestion of a colleague (W. Stevenson Smith), he compared all three reliefs he found that the limestone and the heights and divisions of the registers were the same in all of them; the conclusion became unavoidable that all three had been made in the seventh century, and actually were recognized as being derived from the same tomb (Theban tomb no. 34) — that of Mentuemhat, the governor of Thebes under Tirhaka the Ethiopian.(28)

Because of the artistic similarities between the scenes in the tombs of Menna and Mentuemhat, Professor Cooney had to assume that the Eighteenth Dynasty example was still accessible and artistically influential after more than seven hundred years had elapsed. “The lucky preservation of the Eighteenth Dynasty original,” wrote Cooney, “which served as model to the Sai’te sculptor provides an ideal chance to grasp the basic differences between the art of these periods separated by a span of almost eight centuries.” (29) Actually, however, between the time of Menna and the time of Mentuemhat not 800, but ca. 200 years passed, only a fourth of the span noted by Cooney.

Upon having surveyed some of the problems in language (style and trends) and art (including religious art), in comparing the Eighteenth Dynasty with the Libyan and Ethiopian dynasties, the conclusion is irresistible that the logical development of Egyptian culture requires re-ordering the sequence of the dynasties as they are presently known from Manethonian heritage to modern scholarship.

At the same time, the obvious rift between the language, art, and religion of the latter part of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the language, art, and religion evident at the inception of the Nineteenth Dynasty is extremely difficult to explain given the proximity of the two dynasties in the conventional scheme of Egyptian chronology.


  1. A. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs (Oxford, 1964), p. 247.

  2. A. Erman, “Ein neues Denkmal von der grossen Sphinx,” SKPAW, 1904, p. 1063.

  3. Ibid.

  4. W. Spiegelberg, “Die Datierung der Sphinxstele,” Orientalistische Literaturzeitung, Vol. 7 (1904), pp. 288ff. and 343ff.

  5. Cyril Aldred, “The Carnarvon Statuette of Arnun,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 42 (1956), p. 3.

  6. Ibid, p. 7.

  7. N. Dorin Ischlondsky, “Problems of Dating a Unique Egyptian Bronze,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 25 (1966), pp. 97-105.

  8. Cf. Percy E. Newberry, “The Sekhemet statues of the Temple of Mut at Karnak,” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology XXV (1903), pp. 217-221; Henri Gauthier, “Les Statues Thebaines de la déesse Sakhmet,” Annales du Service des Antiquites del’Egypte XIX (1920), pp. 177-207; Kurt Sethe, “Zu den Sachmet-Statuen Amenophis’ III,” Zeitschrift fürAegyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde, 58 (1923), pp. 43-44.

  9. G. A. D. Tait, “The Egyptian Relief Chalice,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 49 (1963), p. 132.

  10. C. Ricketts, “Two Faience Chalices at Eton College from the Collection of the Late Major W. J. Myers,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 5 (1918), pp. 145-147.

  11. Ibid., pp. 145-146.

  12. Ibid., p.146.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Tait, “The Egyptian Relief Chalice,” p. 93.

  15. Catalogue no. 4 2213.

  16. 16. “ . .. als ob er in der Amarnazeit gelebt hatte!” - See “Ein Sonnenheiligtum im Amonstempel von Karnak,” Orientalia, Nova Series 18 (1949), p. 442.

  17. James H. Breasted, “A City of Ikhenaton in Nubia,” Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache 40 (1902/1903), p. 107.

  18. A. Badawy, “The Names Pei-Ha’y/Gem-Aten of the Great Temple at ‘Amarna,” Zeitschrift für Aegyptische Sprache 102 (1975), p. 13.

  19. Ibid., p. 12.

  20. Jean Leclant and Jean Yoyotte, “Notes d’histoire et de civilization ethiopiennes,” Bulletin de l’Institut Français d’Archeologie Orientale 51 (1952), p. 6.

  21. T. Säve-Soderbergh, Aegypten und Nubien (Lund, 1941), p. 162, affirms that the city, while founded by Amenhotep III, received its name from Akhnaton.

  22. R. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Part V, (Vol. 10), pi. 12.

  23. Breasted, “A City of Ikhenaton in Nubia,” p. 106.

  24. John D. Cooney, “Three Early Saite Tomb Reliefs,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 9 (1950), p. 193.

  25. Ibid., p. 193.

  26. Ibid.

  27. Ibid., p. 194.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Ibid., p. 196.