Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Self-presentation in ancient Egypt

The self in ancient Egypt was often a construction presented to the rest of society by textual and material means, writes Hussein Bassir


Hussein Bassir
Hussein Bassir

Self-presentation, the most ancient and crucial component of high culture, existed in ancient Egypt. Elite members of this culture presented themselves through language, art and other material expressions. The study of this phenomenon seeks to visualise how and why these individuals represented themselves this way, as well as how they depicted their positions in the history of the period and their relationships with the authorities. A more thorough understanding of their motivations can yield information about politics and various changes in society.

The starting point of this inquiry is that “selves” in ancient Egypt were creations that could be presented both textually and artistically to other members of society: the media of the visual arts and literature served as important tools though which an individual could be shown interacting with others, the deities, and society. The defining focus of such studies should be an examination of how and why an individual presented himself or herself in art and literature, as well as how these presentations have survived and been interpreted in different archaeological contexts. Different disciplines offer the potential for a wide array of foci for the examination of self-presentation, with topics and themes introducing individuals from many geographical regions and periods.

An interdisciplinary and holistic approach to this topic is the ideal means by which to examine ancient Egyptian expressions of the self. Various aspects of the texts and monuments of the individuals in question invite a diversity of inquiries, including philological, historical, and archaeological issues, artistic, linguistic, and literary notions, religious and moral values, and features of self-presentation. A philological treatment can shed light on the main aspects of such texts, such as translation, as well as lexicographical and orthographical features of them.  

The examination of the primary aspects of such texts and monuments can explore elements such as dating, history, issues of cultural memory, the role of the individual (both within and relative to the royal sphere), and the relationship between the individual and the deities. Facets of this field all concentrate on the meanings of the “self” in the telling of the life stories of ancient Egyptian protagonists who vary in title, reign, profession and background. Such studies can uncover the close links among monumentality, identity and ideology.

Ultimately, this field of study can undertake its explorations through interdisciplinary analyses and cross-cultural comparisons of literature, art, archaeology and history. The study of the textual and visual corpora of individuals can facilitate the analysis of the emergence and rise of “self” and “individualism” as a historical phenomenon in ancient Egypt. The cultural and political practices of a variety of cultures and periods, including but not limited to patronage and representations of authority, nobility, and royalty, are also open to interpretation. The power of texts and visual representations to shape as well as to reflect history can be seen through such analyses.  

Art, texts, and material culture represent major components that crystallise the overall self-presentation of individuals in ancient Egypt. Our improved understanding of their self-presentation can thus advance similar studies of other cultures and periods in the ancient world.

The writer is director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.        

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