Hail to thee, O Nile! Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt! Mysterious is thy issuing forth from the darkness, on this day whereon it is celebrated! Watering the orchards created by Re, to cause all the cattle to live, you give the earth to drink, inexhaustible one!
Come and prosper! Come and prosper! O Nile, come (and) prosper!
(Hymn to the Nile)
The ancient Egyptians showed great reverence for the mighty river that flowed south to north through Egypt into the delta and opening into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile was a lifeline through these arid lands. Even today, the annual flooding of the Nile is venerated as a sacred natural event. In antiquity, it was a vital occurrence, directly affecting the economy and well-being of the Egyptian people. The inundation of waters would bring the highly sought after rich black mud, or silt, which would enhance the fertility of the lands surrounding the river banks.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the deities that they believed could control the flow of the waters. They made sacrifices in order to ensure that the floods would bring the optimal levels; if the waters were too high, damage and destruction could be devastating; if too low, there could be drought. The god Hapi was believed to bring the silt to the banks of the river, while the three gods of the Elephantine Triad were thought to control the amount of silt that would arrive. The Nile gods of the Elephantine Triad were Khnum, the guardian of the Nile; Satet, the goddess of the annual flood; and Anuket, the goddess of the river cataracts.
The present relief depicts the greatly-celebrated Nile God Hapi in his usual iconography, as the symbol of fertile soil. He is always depicted, as here, with a ceremonial false beard and a nemes-headcloth. Atop his head would be a growth of papyrus plants, while his body would be androgynous, exhibiting pendulous breasts and a swollen abdomen, symbolic of the fertility of the land. This delicately carved fragment, in wafer-thin raised relief, exquisitely depicts the deity in profile with refined detailing including the eye with extending cosmetic line and conforming brow, the distinctive nose with contoured nostrils, and the vermillion line around the lips. The red pigment used for his skin-tone is exceptionally well preserved.
This relief can be dated stylistically to the eighteenth dynasty reign of the great female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Her over-twenty-year reign was known as one of monumental construction projects and extensive sculptural patronage. This period of peace and prosperity produced innovative artworks and architectural marvels; this small yet powerful relief is a testament to the magnificence of the epoch.
American Private collection, acquired 1970s-1980s.
On loan to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, October 1986-June 1989 (inv. no TL1986.502).
Sold, Sotheby’s, New York, 12 December 1991, lot 35.
European Private Collection, 1991-2017.