The Temple of Dendur has a great deal of graffiti on it, mostly from Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. It was one of the archaeological sites that was set to be submerged beneath the waters of the artificial Lake Nasser that would be created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. A UNESCO project relocated a number of the archaeological structures from the area, presenting the Temple of Dendur to Jacqueline Kennedy of the United States in 1965.
The patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the temple is now kept, seem to experience the temple with a degree of reverence that’s bit strange. The position that this temple has in the popular culture of America is hard to underestimate for a single archaeological artifact. New York is the image of the world as a whole, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is treated as America’s museum of the external world. I must admit that long before I set foot in New York, I was exposed to the idea of this temple through the children’s novel The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which describes the adventures of two children who decide to covertly take up residence inside of the museum. This temple, and the halls of Egyptian artifacts that surround it, are the extent of Egypt for quite a few Americans, despite the fact that the temple is hardly the Egypt that they think they know. The arc of Egyptian history is obscured in the popular historiography of Egypt. Egypt is immutable in its death, and highly variant time periods are compressed into one fraudulent gestalt. The drama of Egyptian history is ignored in favor of the profits of idolatry. Children memorize pantheons of gods and their domains of influence without a sense of timeline. I thank my father for noting that Bes, the protector of the household, must have been a foreign import for his style is so divergent from the styles of other gods of Kemet. The visual shock of a Fayum portrait is perhaps the only thing that ever jars a museum goer out of this sedate experience of Egyptian art. This tendency to assume that Egypt was an immutable, steady-state thing is perhaps best demonstrated by the way that popular culture cannot seem to contextualize Tutankhamun as anything other than a generic “boy king,” forgetting his connections to his likely father the proto-monotheist Akhenaten, his likely descent from a mate other than the famed Nefertiti. This further fails to contextualize Akhenaten’s attempted monotheist revolution after the already chaotic first half of the eighteenth dynasty, containing the reign of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut whose son Thutmose III attempted to expunge from the historical record, and the fact that the eighteenth dynasty was begun by Ahmost I’s expulsion of the foreign Hyksos rulers. Instead, history books for children and museum goers look at catalogues of atemporal plunder and say “yes, the Ankh is a symbol of eternal life” if they are feeling erudite. This period, and the Nineteenth Dynasty following it, seem to me to be a pivot upon which the history of Eurasia turns, for if there is a time of the Biblical Exodus, however metaphorical the Exodus was, it is within this time span, and the events described in the Bible are likely a compression of a great many pieces of history into one romantic narrative, refined for the sake of mnemonics and emotional resonance.
This digression serves only to show just how pedestrian the Temple of Dendur is. The Temple of Dendur is the religious equivalent of a 7-Eleven. Admittedly, it’s a Thai or Japanese 7-Eleven rather than an American one, but still. The temple is a fine example of retail ideology. It happened—for even though it is a building it is an event, before it was embalmed in the met—during a far less precedent setting time in history. It’s one of many construction projects that were used to cement the authority of the Roman-Egyptian state during a time of relative confusion about national identity after the deposement of Cleopatera. The story of Egypt was played out, and the bones of the Pharaoh’s projects would eventually be reformatted into various Roman, Christian, and Islamic political projects. The process by which Egypt lost continuity with its past is hardly binary. At my reckoning, late Hellenistic Egypt was relatively stable as a client state of Rome, as the ptolemaic dynasty had effectively just been grafted onto to an existing nation. Cleopatera’s native tongue was Koine Greek, and she was notably the first of the ptolemaic rulers to learn the Egyptian vernacular, and may have been preparing for a restoration of Egypt to its old older by going fully native, given her attempts to associate herself with the goddess Isis. Cleopatera was preparing for a time of chaos both domestically and internationally, for a succession was already threatening her position when the civil wars of Rome overtook her own state’s history, leading to her expert political maneuvering in Julius Ceasar’s civil war, and her debatable effectiveness in the civil wars after the death of Julius, leading to her eventual suicide after her and Mark Antony’s defeat by Octavian and his general Agrippa. She tends to be treated as a femme fatale straight out of a Bogart picture, but even as a teenager she was successfully building a power base for herself in the local population. Her partnership with Ceasar was as much professional—artistic, even, in the military arts—as it was emotional, if not more so.
But, again, this is still the glorious past, for the Temple of Dendur was constructed when the deeds of great men and women were on the wane, and what was left was a great sum of years of relative peace and complete boredom. When the ToD was constructed, Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. The imperator Augustus is depicted on the sides of the temple making offerings to the various gods in a pharaoh’s costume, as are two deified sons of a local Nubian chieftan, for proper integrative flair. The Nile’s rhythmic flooding was perhaps the greatest single unit of agricultural output in existence in the world known to the Romans. At my reckoning the only competition at the time was Chinese agriculture in the Yellow River system, and perhaps the cultivation of wild buffalo in the American great plains or the Northwestern natives of the United States’ and Canada’s salmon farms. If there is any message that the Temple is trying to communicate, it is that order will be enforced by an external entity that will be sufficiently integrated to pass as part of the same social structure that existed in this location before, but that will make no effort to actually empower the defining local characteristics of the territory it controls that is not part of its personal ethnos.
Rome would never attempt to entertain the idea that it might not be first among the nations, or rather that the dimensions that it was first among the nations—heavy infantry and military construction—were not the most relevant. Rome was a fragile thing, like the real estate developers building barracks-like luxury condos decorated like airport lounges for the elite in SF or Seattle. In its quest for stability and the willful blindness that came from it, Rome lost its ability to really ever integrate with the genius, the geist of a given territory, and thus forgot its own animist roots, worshipping the will of the blood of Romulus rather than the seven hills, the Tiber, entertaining the idea of ineffable specialness rather than specialness rooted in territorial adaptation. This was a prize fit only for those lacking the aesthetic discernment to understand anything better, and so Rome stagnated, requiring importation of its Auxilia, and unable to integrate the masses of refugees that it displaced by tiling the Mediterranean world in its image, causing its eventual fall. The Byzantines, of course, were able to embrace the idea of ineffable specialness far better than almost anyone else in history. They represent an alternate path of coordination through distinction that I hardly understand. Wielding incense and icon, focusing a Christianity that was able to hold the East together while the West failed time and again to put itself back together, remaining neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.