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Fernand Braudel

Nubian figures

Reign of Ramses III, c.1184-1153 BC
Temple of Medinet Habu, Egypt

These two parts of a mural decoration show representations of Nubian figures, most probably prisoners. They belong to a group that decorated a room in the palace of Ramses III built inside his memorial temple at Medinet Habu. In the ceremonial rooms, statues, bas reliefs and decorative walls show the full power of the sovereign and symbolize his domination over the universe. The concerned artefact is not a manifestation of xenophobia but displays the use of an image for a magical purpose: to curb the very real and symbolic danger by representing all the enemies of Egypt. They appeared in a position reserved for prisoners with very specific details for identification.

The Nubian figures are recognized by their dark skin, their distinctive headdress, African features and scars on their cheeks. Both figures wear big gold rings in their ears and exotic clothes that are represented in great detail. Each has a rope encircling their necks. The prisoner on the right, who raises his arms which are tied at the elbow and shoulder, is dressed in a bodice and two loincloths superimposed of different lengths. His companion, whose arms are tied behind his back, is dressed in a tunic and white linen pleated kilt. Brightly coloured African ornaments are in contrast to this Egyptian costume: a large red scarf and corset. The stripes, dots and decoration evoke feline fur, accentuating the foreign character of the clothing. Their luxury indicates that they are princes or regional chiefs.

Nubians, who presented a real danger to Egypt in certain historical periods, were not the only ones to figure in the palace of the pharaohs. We can find the personification of all neighbouring countries, in the guise of prisoners with the same attention to detail. One can recognize the Syrians with their heads shaved and their favourites- Palestinians with hair falling over their shoulders, with a headpiece and a long beard; Libyans with braided hair plaited at the temples and a tapered beard. But there is a distance between symbol and reality. At the same time, trade and cultural exchanges were long established between Egypt and her neighbours.

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