Pharaoh superstars

David Tresilian , Tuesday 22 Nov 2022

David Tresilian reports from an exhibition of celebrity Pharaohs in the French port city of Marseilles.

Fred Wilson, Grey Area, 1993
Fred Wilson, Grey Area, 1993


For people in many parts of the world today a superstar is an individual who has achieved a leading, perhaps the leading, position in his or her profession – though of course not every profession produces superstars, since only some, mainly sports and entertainment, are known for them.

Everyone is familiar with superstar singers, actors, and athletes who owe their fame to their willingness to perform in front of large audiences. This marks them out from even the most successful doctors, dentists, or lawyers, all of whom will probably lacks the kind of stardust that attaches to some of today’s singers and football players.

But superstars can also be superstars for no apparent reason. The US artist Andy Warhol, a kind of superstar himself, once said that one day everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. His words captured something about contemporary superstardom – earnestly sought for, sometimes only momentarily enjoyed, and perhaps devalued by the fact that there are now more superstars than ever.

Superstardom as a special kind of fame was the subject of this summer’s main exhibition at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in the French port city of Marseilles. But instead of looking at contemporary stardom, the exhibition, entitled “Pharaoh Superstars,” examined how it worked in the ancient world and particularly in ancient Egypt.

It avoided the more usual Greek or Roman superstars such as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar and presented a list of pharaonic superstars that included Ramses II, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and Cleopatra instead. Not superstars in quite the modern sense of the term, all these had attributes that met the ancient conception of fame.

Ramses II was probably ancient Egypt’s most successful military leader, victorious over the Hittites and Libyans and extending Egyptian power well into the Levant and what are now Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. He was also its greatest builder, projecting the image of an all-powerful ruler in the giant statues at the Temple of Abu Simbel at Aswan that once marked Egypt’s southern border.

He spread that image across the country such that even those who had never and would never set eyes on Ramses himself could not fail to recognise his public image and the power it conveyed. He built enormous temples to himself and set up monuments to ensure that his achievements were constantly in the eyes of his successors.

Amenhotep III was also a major builder, with hundreds of his statues having been discovered by modern Egyptologists. While he did not enjoy the same military successes as the more famous Ramses II, his reign was marked by major diplomatic successes in its dealings with neighbouring Assyria and Babylon. He is the Pharaoh commemorated in the ruined statues of the so-called Colossi of Memnon that still stand guard on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor today.

The case of Cleopatra was different in that as a woman she could scarcely enjoy the kind of masculine fame that came through winning battles or erecting statues even if some of her diplomatic victories were almost as impressive. Instead, she relied upon other modes of publicity to ensure that she would be remembered, almost coming close to modern celebrity methods. Her appearances were carefully staged, as if carried out for the ancient equivalent of the cameras, and she knew how to get herself talked about, almost as if she had mastered the art of always managing to appear on the newspaper front pages.

The result was that though Cleopatra perhaps achieved little over the longer term, even managing to lose her country, she certainly made a splash for herself while she did it. She must be somewhere near the top of the list of celebrity Pharaohs, though like the rest of Egypt’s then Ptolemaic elite she was almost certainly predominantly Greek-speaking.

She probably achieved the height of her fame after her death, even many centuries after it, when the story of her relationship with the Roman general Mark Antony attracted authors as different as William Shakespeare and Ahmed Shawqi in their search for ancient Egyptian subject-matter.


FAME IS THE SPUR: The MUCEM exhibition begins by reminding visitors of these famous ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, while making the point that those that are the most famous to us may not have been the most famous to the ancient Egyptians themselves.

As co-curator Frédéric Mougenot writes in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the title of “Pharaoh,” having a similar significance to the “shahanshah” title used by the ancient Persian kings or the “Caesar” title used by the Roman emperors, was used by all the ancient Egyptian kings from the earliest dynasties onwards.

“It is the transcription, via Greek, of the ancient Egyptian expression per-aa, meaning the ‘big house’ and at first denoting the royal palace and then by extension its main inhabitant, rather in the way that we talk about the Elysée today” when referring to the French president, he says.

It therefore denotes more the institution of the monarchy than the individual monarch, underlining the fact that “it was the god Horus who placed the affairs of Egypt in the hands of his human representative… with more than 340 kings bearing the title of Pharaoh over the 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history.”

But whereas the ancient Egyptians are most likely to have remembered Snefru, Amenemhat III, and Thutmosis III, in addition to Ramses II and Amenhotep III, seeing them as rulers comparable to gods, today we may be more likely to remember Tutankhamun, queen Nefertiti and Akhenaten, figures who the ancient Egyptians made efforts to forget or even remove from the historical record.

This is partly due to accident and partly due to more deliberate processes of selection, the exhibition says. Whereas it would be difficult to forget the Old Dynasty Pharaohs Cheops and Chephren, if only because they were the builders of the Great Pyramids at Giza and were therefore unusually determined that they should not be forgotten, other Pharaohs were not so lucky.

Akhenaten, originally Amenhotep IV, was the son of Amenhotep III, one of the exhibition’s famous Pharaohs. For reasons that have never been entirely clear, once he had ruled in the conventional way for a few years he decided to introduce monotheism into Egypt to replace the traditional pantheon, changing his name to Akhenaten as he did so.

 He and his family later suffered the ancient Egyptian equivalent of blackballing by the country’s priestly caste following the restoration of the traditional gods, with Akhenaten’s achievements being deliberately suppressed along with those of his son Tutankhamun and wife Nefertiti. It may be that Akhenaten and his wife are better known to us today than they were to the ancient Egyptians, as the latter would likely have known little about him because of the suppression of his achievements.

Accident as much as design plays a role in who and what is remembered, all the more so when our knowledge of ancient Egypt is inevitably determined by the evidence that has come down to us.

Tutankhamun, for example, perhaps with Ramses II and Cleopatra the best remembered of all the ancient Egyptian rulers, was almost immediately forgotten by his countrymen and successors, with our modern memory of him being more or less entirely due to the accidental preservation of his tomb, the only one of all those of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs that survived intact from antiquity.

The second and third parts of the MUCEM exhibition address the modern memory of the ancient Pharaohs, dwelling on ironies such as the exaggerated memory accorded today to Tutankhamun, and the almost total forgetting suffered by the more important Amenhotep III, while also considering phenomena such as motivated or innocent misreporting and mythologisation.

The ancient Greeks were responsible for some later misconceptions, with the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, one of the earliest foreign visitors to ancient Egypt who left a record of his visit, muddling up what he was told by the ancient Egyptian priests and even confusing Ramses II with a Pharaoh he called Sesostris to the confusion of later generations.

There are also the records of neighbouring religions, with the Old Testament of the Bible containing the story of the tyrannical Pharaoh who drove Moses out of Egypt after he had been adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter who found him in a basket in the Nile. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud says in his book Moses and Monotheism that the Pharaoh in question was Akhenaten, but he mixes the story up with his own theories and it is not accepted by most commentators.

The MUCEM exhibition generally casts an indulgent eye on such reports and transformations, even devoting its last section to the ways in which some ancient Egyptian Pharaohs have found their way into the modern advertising and entertainment industries, perhaps in this way emphasising their superstardom.

Cleopatra has been used to sell everything from beauty products to soap, for example, and the exhibition has been able to discover US advertising campaigns using Ramses II to sell cigarettes and Akhenaten to sell beer. From modern Egypt, it presents advertising using Cleopatra to sell cigarettes and bathroom fittings and Nefertiti to sell sewing machines. The ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, chief among them superstars like Ramses II and Akhenaten, are often used to sell souvenirs to tourists.

While not a pedagogically earnest exhibition, Pharaons Superstars does have serious points to make. There is the way in which the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs represented themselves to their subjects, for example, using familiar propaganda methods to do so. The image of the Pharaoh and his achievements filled public space, with military achievements followed by political stability underwriting superstardom.

There is also the way in which certain Pharaohs were taken up by later generations as representing superhuman powers, authoritarian rule, or, in the case of Cleopatra, political seduction.

However, finally the Pharaohs like other stars have had to come down to earth. For every marvelous modern interpretation, there have also been countless other more vernacular attempts at appropriation. Perhaps that is how it should be. Where would any superstar be, pharaonic or otherwise, without his or her fans?

Pharaons Superstars, MUCEM Museum, Marseilles, until 17 October.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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