The layout of the exhibition Senusret III, Legendary Pharaoh, allows visitors to discover this monarch, whose reign strongly marked the collective memory of Egypt thanks to his power and innovation. The exhibition is divided into three main sections, each revealing different characteristics of his reign, which experienced many upheavals: historical, political, social, cultural, artistic, aesthetic, religious, and funerary.
Pharaonic Egypt has the reputation, often wrongly, of being little inclined to change. But in this period, the 19th century B.C., an imaginative sovereign imposed his ambitions and his ideas, and brilliantly inspired his successors. Senusret III brought greatness and power to his country, which this exhibition puts into context and illuminates through the presentation of large and smallscale works.
The exhibition starts with a series of spectacular statues and the famous Medamud lintel, which reveal the art of representing the king, with his distinctive, often enigmatic features. If his body is always that of a young and slender man, his face is most often that of an older man, with sagging eyes, deeply lined skin, sunken cheeks and large, sticking-out ears. These features were made for propaganda purposes, to give the image of a sovereign who was vigilant, determined, and, as the texts of the time confirm, authoritarian and inflexible. The statues and the papyri testify to this royal ideology, showing the pharaoh’s visual "communication strategy". The royal family (queens, ancestors, descendants) is shown in statues carved in rare materials.
This white limestone lintel was part of the decoration found on the Medamud Temple (Upper Egypt), the antique Madou at the time of Senusret III. Excavated by the Louvre Museum and the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo from 1925 to 1940, the Medamud Temple, situated 5 kilometres north of Karnak on the right bank of the Nile, belongs, with the Tôd, Armant, and Deir el Bahari sites, in the context of temples dedicated to Montu, the god of war. Already the first kings of the Middle Kingdom, who worked to reunify the lands at the end of the First Intermediate Period, were placed under the patronage of Montu, calling themselves Montuhotep, “Montu is satisfied.” They glorified the invincible power of the god with the falcon’s head. Under Senusret III, the god was always invoked and honoured in the Thebes region, where he was responsible for protecting the southern capital by sanctuaries placed like a shield radiating around the city-state. (more details in the article ".
The texts and the images complement each other to express the care the king showed, as soon as he acceded to the throne - when his face was smooth and his cheeks full - as well as when old age arrived - with wrinkled features and hollowed cheeks — to never cease making offerings to the powerful god Montu, Lord of Thebes". These offerings were of food, white bread to the left, cake to the right. In exchange the god guaranteed the sovereign “all health, all joy of life, like Ra" (to the left), and "all life, all strength, all stability, like Ra" (to the right). The scene takes place under the protection of the extended wings of "the one from Edfu".
The double aspect of the king’s face, juvenile and mature, on a body always slender and muscular, was designed to express an ideological intention: the image of a sovereign who was vigilant, determined and, as confirmed by contemporary texts, overbearing and implacable.
Members of the royal family - queens, ancestors and descendants – are represented by fragments of statuary carved from a variety of rare materials.
The nature of ancient Egyptian society is well understood from a number of sources. Statues of the elite, closely associated with the King, show them in all their ceremonial finery. Note that, in order to demonstrate their allegiance to the sovereign, elite men are depicted with the physical characteristics (such as facial features) of Senusret III. The place of the family and the role of women fit into a more classical tradition; women are primarily shown as “mistresses of the household”, i.e. “housewives”. Two of the most striking aspects of society at this period are without doubt the rise of a middle class, supporting the many functions created by the reforms, and the recruitment of many scribes, in charge of administration and of the transmission of orders issued by the central authority.
The world of the craftsman and the farm worker, often described in harsh terms in the ‘wisdom texts’, is represented at the end of this section by tools and models from tombs, depicting workshops or scenes in the countryside.
The second section evokes Senusret III’s military campaigns and his diplomatic contacts. The visitor is welcomed by a sphinx representing the monarch, whose features, imperious and severe, remind us of the conquering pharaoh’s belligerent and fierce character. The Egyptian empire’s expansion towards the south, beyond Aswan, in Sudanese Nubia, is without a doubt his finest military achievement.
This majestic sphinx, which is missing its front legs, presents an identifiable facial appearance. The eyes with swollen eyelids, the wrinkles and the thin mouth in a melancholic expression connect it to certain representations of Senusret III, said "with marked features". This face shows a leader who is wise but nevertheless an authoritarian. It fully participates in the official iconography that the Royal Household wanted to portray. Reading the serekh (square space used to inscribe the royal name) on the animal’s body confirms the figure’s identity: "The Horus Netjer Kheperu (Divine in his appearances), Khakaura (the kau of Ra appear) ". The figure wears several royal accessories, the false beard and the némès (headdress of pharaohs), of which the uraeus (figure of the sacred asp), which can be dismantled or reworked at a future time, has been lost. The harmonious transition between the soveriegn’s head and the lion’s body shows the sculptor’s skill: the nemes seems to closely fit into the animal’s mane spread on its shoulders. The craftsman took advantage of the curved veins in the rock -a block of gneiss coming from the Gebel el-Asr quarries, west of Abu Simbel- to show the suppleness and strength of the lion’s body.
The Egyptian empire’s expansion towards the south, beyond Aswan, in Sudanese Nubia, is without a doubt his finest military achievement. A stele found in the Sudanese site of Semna, held in the Berlin Agyptisches Museum, of which a translation decorates the walls of this section, shows the king’s state of mind towards the Nubian people: “ (…) embark on an offensive against him, he runs; but if you retreat, he goes on the offensive. These are not people worthy of respect, these are wretches, cowards: My majesty has observed this, it is not a lie. I captured their women; I took their people who had gone to their wells; their bulls were slaughtered, their barley ripped out, and fire was set there (…) ” (translation B. Mathieu).
In order to fight against the enemy at Kerma and supervise the population movements, Senusret III built a string of military fortresses in Nubia along the Nile. One of these was in Mirgissa. Excavated by the University of Lille 3 team in the 60s, the Mirgissa site yielded an exceptional collection of everyday objects, weapons and furniture from the tombs, revealing the habits and customs of the Egyptian troops stationed in Nubia under Senusret III. This rare Lille collection, specially restored for this exhibition, is presented almost in its entirety, returned to its archaeological and historical context.
At the time of the Middle Kingdom, Egypt had to face a rising tide of foreign powers (Byblos, Crete, Cyprus), all the while coping with an increasing need for prime materials, semi-precious stones (Sinai) and labour. Commercial relations, diplomatic contacts, immigration by foreigners into Egypt, or Egyptians moving to the new territories are all illustrated by works found in Egypt or beyond. Visitors can admire the cultural and stylistic influences that marked brilliant jewellery production (pectorals, or ornamental chest plates, found in Byblos), or marvel at the small statue discovered in Adana (Turkey), which represented an Egyptian wet nurse.
The relationship that was maintained between the oriental city of Byblos and Egypt found its expression in the cosmopolitan art which the sovereigns encouraged. This can be seen in the numerous objects found in the city’s royal underground burial vaults. Two of these tombs have revealed objects inscribed with the names of giblite kings near to objects inscribed with the names of the pharaohs Amenemhat III and IV. On the other hand, this pectoral, or chest plate, came from a tomb which had no inscribed monuments in it. Nevertheless it is one of the most striking examples of the interplay between Egypt and the Asian continent at the time of the Middle Kingdom. Its general form recalls that of ousekh necklaces, and its iconography refers to the Egyptian royalty’s official attributes, but the rendering reveals a local origin.
The third section shows the religious and funerary beliefs at the time of Senusret III. Here again, major changes occurred in these areas. At Abydos, the cult of Osiris, god of the dead, rose considerably. Everyone, from the king down to simple craftsman, tried to put himself under this god’s protection in order to ensure a peaceful hereafter. Near the sanctuary of Osiris, on the great god’s esplanade, as it was called in Egyptian texts, hundreds of memorial chapels were built. These were kinds of cenotaphs, or empty tombs, holding funeral steles, with tables for offerings and statues intended for commemorating the names of their owners, and to help them attract the favour of Osiris.
Presented in this section is the 3D historical reconstruction of the tomb chapel of the nomarch (provincial leader) Djehutyhotep, situated in the Deir el-Bersha necropolis in Middle Egypt. Thanks to the technological skill of sponsor Société Ingeo, this spectacular multimedia reconstruction gives visitors the impression that they are really entering the tomb, allowing them to admire the quality of the paintings and low relief polychromes, famous in Egyptian art history.
Then the visitor discovers the objects found by the University of Lille 3 in the Mirgissa cemetery in Sudan, with the funeral ornaments of the lady Ibet, an Egyptian buried in Nubia, in accordance with Egyptian rites.