It was Sunday morning, day two of “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story,” the latest grand-scale exhibit at the Israel Museum, and it was busy in the galleries of the exhibit.
Groups of visitors sat on their portable folding chairs listening to museum guides in the far corners of each gallery, or walked around clutching audioguides, gleaning information about the exhibit, which explores the cross-cultural exchange that took place between Egypt and Canaan during the second millennium BCE.
There’s a lot to learn.
The exhibit, which opened March 4 and is on view until October 25, examines the settlement and rise of a Canaanite dynasty in the eastern Egyptian Delta during the Middle Bronze Age (circa 1700-1550 BCE); and the extended period of Egyptian rule over Canaan by the Pharaohs during the Late Bronze Age (circa 1500-1150 BCE).
Specifically, it presents some 800 objects reflecting the sharing of deities, arts, rituals and ideas of the two ancient and influential cultures. What makes it all the more personal to this particular museum is Israel’s innate connection to Canaan, the land that included ancient Israel, as well as parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and the use of hundreds of artifacts from the museum’s own collections for the exhibit.
It’s a unique exhibit for other, more personal reasons. Curated jointly by Dr. Daphna Ben-Tor and Dr. Eran Arie, it is Ben-Tor’s last exhibit at the museum and Arie’s first. Ben-Tor is the museum’s curator of Egyptian archaeology; Arie is the museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian period archaeology. The two worked together on it for the last three years.
“It has a dual point of view as these cultures met and mixed,” said Arie. “We said, ‘Wow, this could be an exhibit.’ We wanted a mass of artifacts to show how each affected the other.”
The connected galleries of the exhibit open with a dramatic, painted relief borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicting the ancient battle of the Canaanites against the Egyptians, a powerful depiction of how parts of Canaan first came under Egyptian rule for so many years.
This piece, as well as six others, were carefully chosen and borrowed from the Metropolitan, as well as the Louvre Museum of Paris, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, and other private collections.
It’s an exhibit based on archaeological artifacts, but with a strong visual and artistic element. Designed with three extended galleries leading off a main hall, the wall of that main hall is designed with a visual dictionary, a combination of drawings and dictionary terms that creates an index helpful in deciphering crucial elements and terms included in the exhibit.
What ensues in “Pharaoh in Canaan” is a carefully curated selection of objects that show the interplay between the two regions, as well as the lasting effects of those periods on other civilizations.
Still, said Arie, they attempted to keep their examination of the period as simple as possible, looking at a period of just 20 years, when the connection of the two cultures was at a height. The exhibit is not set in chronological order.
Even for the curators, both long-time students of their particular civilizations, there were surprises to be had when compiling the exhibit. Many of the artifacts, explained Arie, have long been in storage at the Israel Museum or at its partner museum, the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem, which meant they sometimes lacked context to understand their use and place in the ancient civilizations from which they came.
When considering the remainders of two Egyptian-era pillars from Beit Shean, where the Egyptian government had one of its centers — in addition to Gaza and Jaffa — Arie flipped open one history book and stumbled upon a photo of the pillars in their original, unusual forms, which looks like mushroom caps set on an unusually long stem. Once understood, the pair of pillars, now partially restored, were set in the middle of one gallery, mimicking their ancient location in the home of the Egyptian governor.
There is a pair of massive steles from Beit Shean, but one of the human-sized black plaques detailing the Egyptian army’s victories displayed worn-out hieroglyphics, as it had been used as a portal for many years, its story nearby illegible from all the shoes that had walked on it. The discovery of another stelae, helped decipher the wording and usage of the worn plaque.
Given that the ancient cities of Beit Shean, Jaffa and Gaza, are still standing, the curators attempted to display that longevity, recreating an arched doorway that once stood in Jaffa using some fragments taken from storage. They also commissioned an architect to visually reconstruct the Beit Shean residence of an Egyptian governor, whose palace — including the two mushroom shaped pillars — is displayed in the architect’s three-dimensional rendering on video.
While there is an overwhelming sense that the Egyptians were superior to the Canaanites in their use of better materials and finer artisan work, the Canaanites appeared to appreciate it all, showing that in their rougher copies — whether in the statues, coffins or crude pottery — or in the efforts they made to import Egyptian goods to their own shores.
Massive carved works of basalt were shipped from Egypt to Acre, and then hauled by donkey caravan to Canaanite towns, surmised Arie.
“These were desirable products,” said Arie.
The Egytpians, for their part, adopted some of the Caananite deities, shown in their own artworks.
The second set of galleries begins with a video explanation of where the Israelites and their Canaanite history fits into the historical and archaeological accounts of the two nations. For many, the most direct explanation of Canaanite and Egyptian exchange begins with the biblical Joseph story, when the favored son of Jacob is kidnapped and sent to Egypt, where he eventually becomes a respected viceroy and brings his father and brothers to live.
“It’s the founding story that unites us all,” said Arie.
The video leads into the second half of the exhibit, the display of household goods, coffins, scarabs and jewelry from the era — “There’s no end to what’s here,” said Arie of the collection.
Again, the artifacts display the mixing of customs and rituals, with Egyptian scarabs, both small and large, that were found in Canaanite tombs as they adopted that elite Egyptian custom, as well as statues of Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III, found in Canaanite temples in Beit Shean. Likewise, stelae found in Beit Shean depict Egyptians worshipping Canaanite gods.
The differences between the two cultures are apparent as well. There are the alabaster urns from the Etyuopgians, some of them lit from within by the museum to show the fine materials used, juxtaposed against the more coarse pottery jugs used by the Canananites.
“What can you do,” shrugged Arie, smiling. “It’s the second-rate stuff.”
The end of the exhibit brings another video, this one about the alphabet, the most enduring contribution of the Canaanites, as their hieroglypic drawings, called the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, became the basis of today’s alphabet.
A lasting contribution to society? Clearly. Perhaps even more than the Egyptians.
“Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story” through October 25, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.