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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

A Near Failure of Eternity

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Relief of Montuhotep III. Limestone block with many chips on the top edge. In the lower right, and Egyptian king and an Egyptian goddess face each other. There are hieroglyphics above their heads.
Relief of Montuhotep III, ca. 1957–1945 B.C.E. Limestone, 31" x 51 1/2" x 4 1/2", 470 lb. Location: Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Limestone head of an Egyptian king. The nose and uraeus are broken off.
Head of a King, Seankhkare Mentuhotep III, ca. 2000–1988 B.C., Limestone, H. 7 3/16".; W. 8 7/16"; D. 7 3/16". Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.

Seankhare Mentuhotep III had an identity problem. His father through his will, might and cunning reunited the fractured kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt and formed a new centralized ruling city at Thebes, initiating a Middle Kingdom of peace in Egyptian history. Egypt was flourishing once again after an era of disunity and anarchy. When Mentuhotep III’s father died, and he inherited the throne, he was a little too old to stand as the powerful and virile king of a newly united Egypt. His father Mentuhotep II had built great temples and monuments to honor his own reign. As the founder of the new unified Middle Kingdom of Egypt and the cultivator of a golden age of art and culture, his legacy and the glorification of his name was secure to future generations. Seankhare Mentuhotep III could not equal, let alone surpass his father’s accomplishments. What could he do? Were the administrative duties he had been working at as the heir apparent his entire life enough? He could continue to execute the political aspects of his kingdom and complete his father’s building programs to ensure that Egypt would be remembered and renowned for the ages. But what about himself? Like every Egyptian ruler before him, Seankhare Mentuhotep III wanted his reign to outlast his lifetime and be remembered and worshiped through eternity. How could such a king who was already past his prime when he ascended the throne and would only sit as a ruler for 12 years proclaim his power and birthright for all time? Would he merely maintain what his more illustrious father had put in place?

Like all Egyptian rulers, Seankhare Mentuhotep III was extremely concerned with his name and the accomplishments of his reign outlasting his corporal life to become eternal. One of Mentuhotep III’s plans for assuring his eternal life, was to add a chapel onto the holy temple dedicated to Montu the greatest of Egyptian gods, that his father had been rebuilding. This new renovation was replacing the old mud brick temple that had been destroyed through time and conflicts, with a grander limestone edifice. It’s important location at Armat just outside of the new capital of the reunited Egypt at Thebes would add to his influence. The chapel would be dedicated to his own reign and would illustrate his rightful place in the order of the universe and proclaim his own right as a divine ruler.

19th century ruins of an Egyptian temple. The Temple of Montu at Armat.
19th century image of the ruins of the Temple of Montu at Armat, Egypt.

Osiride Statue of King Mentuhotep III, re-inscribed for King Merenptah, 2010–1998 B.C., Sandstone, 83 7/8" x 14 1/2" x 57 1/2 ," (photo, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) One of 6 similar statues that honored Mentuhotep III at the Temple of Montu at Armat.
Osiride Statue of King Mentuhotep III, re-inscribed for King Merenptah, 2010–1998 B.C., Sandstone, 83 7/8" x 14 1/2" x 57 1/2 ," (photo, Boston Museum of Fine Arts) One of 6 similar statues that honored Mentuhotep III at the Temple of Montu at Armat.

The temple dedicated to the god Montu at Armat is located just outside of Thebes on a mound that had been considered a sacred site for centuries. Thebes had been established as the capitol by Seankhare Mentuhotep II for the newly united Egypt and as the capital was the seat of government and its religious center. At the time of Seankhare Mentuhotep III’s reign in 2009 – 1997 BC, Montu was still the greatest of all Egyptian gods. Originally a manifestation of the scorching effect of the sun, Montu‘s destructiveness in this role was gradually magnified into giving him the characteristics of a warrior. His warrior status eventually morphed into his being the most revered of Egyptian gods because of Egypt’s necessity for defense and expansion to other territories. The name Mentuhotep itself translates to “Montu is satisfied,” so both rulers, the father and the son believed they held obligations to honor and venerate the god Montu. The temple whose modification and enlargement were begun by Seankhare Mentuhotep II would eventually consist of a tribune platform (an elevated flat space for the delivery of speeches and formal announcements), a main gate, portico, worship hall, sanctuary, a hall which held the images of Montu, separate quarters for the priests a sacred lake and a large courtyard surrounded by columns which housed the sacred bull. The bull, because of its strength, power, and aggressive temper, was considered the incarnate of Montu on Earth. Nearby would have been a holy necropolis where the bulls representing Montu would be mummified and buried with ceremony and grandeur. By 379 – 361 BC, the Middle Kingdom temple to Montu at Armat (which continued to be remodeled and enlarged during the centuries after the two Mentuhoteps), was extensively damaged during conflicts with the Persians and yet another replacement temple was in the process of being built. The constant rebuilding and remodeling of this temple attest to the importance of this sacred site. This final incarnation of the temple was dismantled in the 19th century and the stone repurposed to build a sugar factory. Not much of the Montu temple at Armat remains, but it is still a live archeological site.

The ruins of the Temple of Montu at Armat today. An archeological site with stone blocks strewn about on the ground.
The ruins of the Temple of Montu at Armat today.

Photograph of Fernand Bisson de la Roque in his tent on site.
Photograph of Fernand Bisson de la Roque in his tent on site.

The Relief of Seankhkare Mentuhotep III and the Goddess Iunyt, now in the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, was collected before 1852 during excavations at Armat by a French archeologist Fernand Bisson de La Roque. The Relief was part of the chapel dedicated to Seankhkare Mentuhotep III. It depicts two scenes of the Egyptian king. On the right, Seankhkare Mentuhotep III faces the goddess Iunyt in unmediated conversation – an immediate indication of the king’s royal and God-like status. Iunyt was a consort of Montu and within her powers of goddess, she is reiterating and conferring upon Seankhkare Mentuhotep III his right to be king by bestowing on him: life, dominion over Upper and Lower Egypt, joy, and his right to sit on the Egyptian throne. She is wearing the vulture headdress traditionally worn by female goddesses and women of royal lineage. It represents the power of the mother goddess to transmute life and death. Seankhkare Mentuhotep III is dressed in the Nemes headdress, which symbolizes his spiritual ascendancy as a god/king and his authority to meet and converse with the gods as near equals. It is an abstract representation of the lion’s mane, meant to confer authority and respect. It is banded across the forehead with a diadem in the form of an uraeus, which is a representation of the cobra goddess Wadjet. Wadjet was created by the primordial god Atum to be his eyes in the search for his lost sons. Her success in her task ensured that Wadjet, in the form of the spitting cobra, would rise to become the protector of the Egyptian gods and the god/kings of Egypt. It was said that when worn on the forehead of the king, she would spit her venom on the king’s enemies. The uraeus became closely associated with the kings of Egypt and was respected as a sure sign of sovereignty. The goddess Wadjet herself in the form of a cobra sits on a papyrus plant above King Seankhkare Mentuhotep III. She offers symbols of protection and power to his name and title.

Relief of the Goddess Iunty wearing the vulture headdress.
The Goddess Iunyt wearing the vulture headdress.

Relief of the Goddess Wadjet sitting on a papyrus plant offering symbols of protection and power to his name.
The Goddess Wadjet sitting on a papyrus plant offering symbols of protection and power to the name of Seankhkare Mentuhotep III.

A uraeus head ornament crafted in gold and semi precious stones.
A uraeus head ornament crafted in gold and semi precious stones.

On the left-hand side of the relief, is another representation of Seankhkare Mentuhotep III in his jubilee year participating in the Sed festival running toward the god Montu (the portion depicting Montu is now missing). The Sed festival was a huge ceremony held after a ruler sat on the throne for 30 years. The object was to test the king’s physical ability to continue as the leader of his people. In ancient times, the festival was to insure the continued prowess of the leader. If the leader was found to be physically unable to continue his rule, he would have been executed. Aside from pictorial depictions, there is not much evidence that many Egyptian kings actually participated in their Sed festivals.

Mentuhotep III is wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt which proclaims his rule over a united Egypt. He is holding the flail in one hand, a symbol of his authority to punish adversaries and usurpers, and a mekes object in his other. The mekes object has inscribed on it a divine decree believed to be written by Thoth, the god of magic. Holding the holy mekes, would provide the king with the power to complete with ease the rigors of the Sed festival. Mentuhotep III is depicted running toward the god Montu because the temple is dedicated to him and as the titulary, Montu would grant favors of success to the king in his Sed endeavors. Flying over the king’s head is a depiction of the falcon god Horus in his role of adjudicator. Horus’ presence ensures that the contests of strength and endurance are fair and true despite the intersession of Montu. Mentuhotep III, dressed in his regalia denoting his supreme authority over Upper and Lower Egypt participates with youthful prowess in his Sed contest even though in life the king only ruled for 12 years. For kings who did not last on the throne for 30 years, the depiction of them triumphant in completion of their Sed challenges, would be assured of millions of Sed festivals in the afterlife.

Relief of the god Horus flying with wigs outstretched as adjudicator for the Sed festival. (photo Brooklyn Museum cropped)
The god Horus as adjudicator for the Sed festival. (photo Brooklyn Museum cropped)

The Relief of Seankhkare Mentuhotep III and the Goddess Iunyt was found at the site of the Temple of Montu at Armat. Because of the temple’s ruined state at the time of excavations, and it many renovations and rebuilds it can only be speculated that Mentuhotep III ordered its creation. Given the precarious nature of life in ancient Egypt, and the time it took to build and decorate a building in pre industrialized times, the completion of a project by future generations was common. The Relief was certainly part of the Middle Kingdom building expansions and not part of the 19th century ruin. It stands as an emotional testimony of a minor king’s quest for immortality and recognition. The entire relief proclaims the king’s importance and legitimacy. The symbols and inscriptions are all a testament to Mentuhotep III’s reign and God-like status. The carving is some of the most delicate and moving in Middle Kingdom Egyptian art. The depiction of the king conversing with the Goddess shows an unsurpassed connection of intimacy and equality between the spiritual divine and the corporal divine on earth. Their looks of mutual admiration and respect have been sensitively rendered through the remarkable skill of the sculptor. The carving shows a proficiency of technique through not only the subtle modeling of the faces, but also through the delicate details of the clothing and jewelry worn by the figures. That this emotion in the faces and the exquisite rendering of the texture of the various clothing elements could be achieved in such a shallow relief deserves its place as a masterpiece of art from Egypt’s golden age in the Middle Kingdom. Seankhare Mentuhotep III through this nearly lost, fractured, and partial carving, may have achieved the desire for his legacy to outlast the 12 years of his rule until the stone itself crumbles. This remarkable work is a statement of Mentuhotep III’s place on earth which has endured through the centuries. It immeasurably adds to the glory of the exquisite achievements of Egyptian culture and art.

Arthur Bruso © 2023

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