Egypt (Sphinx) Signature Gallery at the Penn Museum

Visitors to the Egyptian Lower Gallery can view one of the finest collections of Egyptian architecture on display in the United States. Dominating this impressive gallery is the collection’s iconic centerpiece—a fifteen-ton, red granite Sphinx of Ramesses II, 19th Dynasty, circa 1293-1185 BCE. Surrounding it are the gateway, columns, doorways and windows from the best preserved royal palace ever excavated in Egypt. The palace was built for the New Kingdom pharaoh Merenptah (r. 1213-1204 BCE) at the city of Memphis in Lower Egypt. The Penn Museum is the only museum in the world to exhibit such a significant portion of an Egyptian royal palace.

Gallery Highlights

Gateway to the Palace of Merenptah, Memphis, Egypt.
Museum Object Number: E13575A

Faience Baboon Figurine, Hierakonpolis, Egypt.
Museum Object Number: E3843

Tablet Tag, Abydos, Egypt.
Museum Object Number: E6880

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Visitors to the Lower Egyptian gallery are greeted with an enormous timeline which outlines the various dynasties which comprise the more than 3000 years of ancient Egyptian history. Opposite the timeline is a case dedicated to a discussion of early Egypt -- the predynastic and early dynastic periods -- when the foundations of Egyptian history, culture, language and religion were established. Along the wall in this area of the gallery is the partially restored black basalt stela of one of Egypt's earliest rulers, King Qa'a of the 1st Dynasty (who ruled approximately 2915-2890 BCE). Nearly 5000 years old, this stela supplies a rare example of the monuments erected by the earliest Egyptian kings in front of the low mud-brick structures that marked the royal burials at Abydos. The decoration consists of the serekh, a schematic representation of the niched façade of the palace, in which the king's name is inscribed. Atop the palace sits the falcon god Horus, of whom the king was believed to be a living manifestation.

At the western end of the gallery are the eastern and southern walls of the tomb chapel of Kaipure, a treasury official of the late Old Kingdom (ca. 2415-2289 BCE). Discovered in the late 19th century, Kaipure’s tomb chapel was excavated in 1903 by archaeologist James E. Quibell at the site of a large cemetery located north of the famous Step Pyramid of King Djoser in Saqqara. The outer room, which retained no decoration, was left in place, while the decorated tomb chapel was removed and sent to America for exhibition at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Shortly after the Exposition, the tomb chapel was acquired by John Wanamaker and was donated to the University of Pennsylvania Museum The tomb chapel of Kaipure is one of only four (nearly) complete objects of its kind in the United States.

According to inscriptions in the tomb, Kaipure held the title of “Overseer of the Treasury” and performed several other important administrative roles during the late 5th – early 6th Dynasties. The limestone tomb was decorated with carved and painted scenes, as well as hieroglyphic texts, in the corridor leading from the outer room to the chapel, and in the chapel itself. Originally, the tomb had two interior rooms connected by a short corridor; but only one room (the tomb chapel) survives here at the Museum. The west and north walls are not currently on display, but have undergone considerable conservation and preservation and await re-installation in the Egyptian galleries in the future. In the Old Kingdom, elite Egyptians buried their dead in an underground chamber located beneath a tomb structure. The above-ground structure contained a public chapel where offerings were made to the deceased. The chapel was the center of the mortuary cult, where priests would perform funerary rituals, recite spells, and leave offerings for the deceased, who now resided in the afterlife. Egyptians believed that the spirit of the deceased could enter and leave this chapel through the false door to hear prayers and to receive offerings from the living.

The east wall features a representation of Kaipure standing next to his son, alongside hieroglyphic prayers and images of butchers preparing cuts of meat and servants bearing funerary gifts for use by Kaipure in the afterlife. It is remarkable that so much of the chapel’s original decoration, including pigment, survives.

The Palace of Merenptah

The other half of the gallery is dominated by architectural elements from the palace of Merenptah. Merenptah was the 13th son and eventual successor of the famous Ramses II. The palace, excavated by Clarence S. Fisher, one of the Egyptian Section's early curators, between 1915 and 1923, originally stood beside the temple of the Memphite creator god, Ptah. A water color and model of the throne room displayed nearby depict an artist’s concept of the original appearance of the throne room. The exhibited elements of the palace provide insight into the religious, political and social beliefs of the Egyptian people. For the Egyptians, the palace served as a metaphor for the universe: the floor, decorated with floral and faunal motifs, represented the earth, while the towering columns with their floral capitals seem to grow toward the heavens. The hieroglyphic symbols on the lower portion of the columns depict the inhabitants of the earth giving praise to Merenptah, while the upper portions show the king presenting offerings to the gods. On the massive gateway at the eastern end of the gallery, the king is seen in a ritual pose expressing domination over Egypt's enemies, an image that occurs on royal monuments from the time of Egypt's first king (ca. 3100 BCE) throughout pharaonic history. The stone doorways are topped by images of the winged sun disk, and remains of the original gilding-the earliest example ever found in situ on an Egyptian building-are still visible on one of the doorways.

The palace, which housed the king during religious festivals, originally stood in the vicinity of the Memphite sanctuary of the god Ptah, the patron of this city. Merenptah’s palace was originally decorated floor to ceiling with painted, inlaid and gilded images and symbols proclaiming the power of the king and his associations with the divine. The palace of Merenptah contained not only public ceremonial rooms such as the throne room and vast columned hall, but also private areas for the king and royal family, including bedrooms and bathrooms.

Not long after the death of Merenptah, the virtually intact palace complex suffered a great fire, and columns, doorways, and other well-preserved stone architectural elements were buried in a bed of ash and mud which remained undisturbed until the time of excavation.

The Sphinx of Ramesses II

Displayed along with the palace’s architectural elements is our sphinx, which also comes from the site of Memphis, though it was excavated by the Egyptian Exploration Fund, under the direction of the famous archaeologist, Sir William M. Flinders Petrie. The sphinx, a lion with a human head, represents the Egyptian king as protector of his people and conqueror of the enemies of Egypt. Penn Museum’s sphinx, the largest in the western hemisphere, weighs approximately fifteen tons. It is carved of red granite, which originated at a quarry in Aswan at Egypt’s southern border. In an incredible feat of ancient engineering and transport, this single massive block of stone was shipped on the Nile River from Aswan to the Ptah Temple at Memphis, 600 miles north. During much of its post-pharaonic history, this statue was buried up to its shoulders; only the exposed head was attacked by windblown sand, which eroded the facial features and the royal false beard. The inscriptions on the chest and around the base give the five names of Ramesses II. His son and successor, Merenptah, added his own cartouches to the shoulders of the sphinx after his father’s death.

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