Hellenistic (Ptolemaic) Period, reign of Ptolemy VIII
Findspot: Egypt, Koptos
Height x width x depth: 544 x 458 x 378 cm (214 3/16 x 180 5/16 x 148 13/16 in.) Typical block: H. 18 7/8 (H. 48cm)
Medium or Technique
Egypt: Sculpture and Tomb Chapels (Gallery 209)
One of the most colorful figures in Ptolemaic history was Ptolemy VIII, known familiarly as Physkon, “Fatso.” He married both his sister, Cleopatra II, and her daughter, Cleopatra III, an arrangement that did not foster family harmony. He scandalized the Romans by his ostentatious display (extravagance entirely becoming in a god-king) and alienated the Alexandrians by his harsh treatment of the city’s Jews and intellectuals. But he favored the Egyptian priesthood and the temples during his long rule, commissioning building activity at fifteen sites from the Delta to Nubia.
The ancient town of Koptos lay at the entrance to the main land route across the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea ports and thence to India, a trade much encouraged by Ptolemy VIII, and reason enough for his patronage. There, Ptolemy VIII erected a small temple gateway, which would have stood in a mudbrick enclosure wall of a temple. The gateway was still standing in the reign of Nero, when the emperor added his name to it. Sometime later it was dismantled and reused in a Roman bastion tower of the third or early fourth century A.D. In 1923 the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition excavated twenty-four blocks belonging to this gateway, consisting of the upper part of the right jamb and the façade of the left jamb, approximately one-fourth of the complete structure. Enough remained for scholars to estimate the original height and design, and in 1996 the gateway was reconstructed in the Museum. Presumably the rest is still at Koptos awaiting rediscovery.
The two scenes illustrated here come from the right façade. In the upper register, Ptolemy, looking every inch a pharaoh with his Double Crown and bull’s tail, stands before Min and Isis, the chief gods of Koptos. In his right hand he holds a sphinx with an unguent vessel between its paws, representing the gift of myrrh specified in the hieroglyphic inscription. In the register below, the king stands before Harpokrates and Isis again. The king wears an elaborate headdress — the Blue Crown surmounted by ram’s horns, a sun disk, ostrich plumes, and solar uraei. Harpokrates has the plump body of a child, with doughnut-shaped navel, and the sidelock of youth. Isis appears as usual with vulture headdress, cow’s horns, and sun disk. Her figure is fleshy and voluptuous in the Ptolemaic manner. In return for a platter full of food, the gods grant the king “every good thing every day” and “all offerings and provisions,” according to the inscription.
From Koptos. May-June 1923: excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts Expedition; 1924: assigned to the MFA by the government of Egypt.
Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition