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Haremhab The General Who Became King at the Metropolitan Museum

One of the most fascinating pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Haremhab (reigned ca. 1323–1309 B. C.) was a strong leader in a time of political and religious transition. As commander-in-chief of Tutankhamun’s army, he oversaw important military campaigns at the border with Nubia and in the Levant; later, as the last king of Dynasty 18, Haremhab instituted laws that secured the rights of civilians and curbed the power of the army. A statue that was created before he became king shows the general as a scribe and thus an administrator and wise man. This statue—the most famous three-dimensional image of Haremhab—is the focus of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition Haremhab.

The General Who Became King, open November 16, 2010–July 4, 2011. The display will feature some 40 additional objects in various media—wall reliefs, works on papyrus, statuettes, and garment fragments—all from the holdings of the Metropolitan. Haremhab, The General Who Became King is the inaugural presentation in a series of exhibitions that will spotlight masterpieces from the Museum’s collection of Egyptian art.

The Metropolitan Museum’s magnificent life-size statue of Haremhab as a scribe is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Thematic groupings of related objects—whether historical antecedents or parallel works—will explain the particular relevance of this depiction, and will place the statue within the context of history, art history, and the ancient Egyptian religious belief system. The exhibition also will incorporate recent research into Haremhab’s reign.

Commissioned when he was still a general and administrator, Haremhab’s statue shows him in the scribal pose, seated on the ground with his legs crossed. Across his knees is a papyrus scroll on which is written a hymn to Thoth, the god of scribes. In his right hand (now missing) he probably held a reed, the pen of ancient Egyptians. A shell of ink lies on his left knee. Over his left shoulder is a strap, with a miniature scribe’s kit at each end. A figure of the god Amun is incised on his forearm, possibly representing a tattoo. Although his face is youthful, the folds on his belly suggest the torso of an older—and therefore wiser—man. His posture is relaxed, and he gazes down as if reading the papyrus on his lap. He is attired in an ornately pleated shirt and kilt. A prayer to Ptah, the god of creation, is inscribed on the statue’s base. By choosing to be depicted in this way, Haremhab—the leader of the pharaoh’s army—declares himself to be both literate and pious.

Egyptian scribe representations first appeared in the Old Kingdom (3rd millennium B. C.), more than one thousand years before the time of Haremhab. During the New Kingdom, scribes often were shown in the company of Thoth, the god of wisdom, who appeared in the form of a baboon. The tradition of showing great officials as scribes—thereby equating them with men of wisdom—lasted through the whole Pharaonic and pre-Christian era.

Also on view in the exhibition will be other scribe statues of various periods of Egyptian history, a collection of scribal materials and instruments of writing, and a stela whose text pertains to literacy in ancient Egypt. Ancient garments like the one worn by Haremhab in his statue will be displayed near representations of such garments. Another stela will show a procession in which priests carry the shrine of Amun—commemorating the oracle that made Haremhab king. The artistic style of Haremhab’s tomb in Saqqara (built and decorated when he was still a general) will be demonstrated by a few examples of similar style in the collection, and facsimile paintings will represent the royal tomb of Haremhab in the Valley of the King. Finally, the god Thoth will be present in a number of works showing him as a baboon and an ibis, and an image and translation of Haremhab’s decree from Karnak will document the king’s political achievements.

At the end of Dynasty 18, Egypt experienced religious and political unrest. Haremhab would have been a youth when Akhenaten (reigned ca. 1353–1336 B.C.) overturned ancient Egypt’s polytheistic religion in favor of worshipping a single god, excised the names of the old gods from monuments, and moved the center of government to a new city (today known as Amarna) that was built specifically for this purpose. Together with the radical shift in governmental ideology, the country’s social structure must have disintegrated, allowing important posts to go to persons who did not stem from the establishment. Haremhab may have been one such person. After Akhenaten’s death, the institutions he had founded were destroyed, the old religious practices were reinstated, and the new city eventually was abandoned. Akhenaten’s probable son by a secondary wife, Tutankhamun (reigned ca. 1334–1325 B.C.) was only about nine years old when he assumed the throne. The young ruler relied on Haremhab to deal with unrest at Egypt’s southern and northeastern frontiers. Haremhab—who was born into a non-royal family—may or may not have enhanced and strengthened his own position through marriage to the sister of Nefertiti, the chief wife of Akhenaten (but not Tutankhamun’s mother). In any case, he was the one to succeed Aye—who ruled briefly after Tutankhamun—as pharaoh. Upon becoming pharaoh, Haremhab completed the restoration of the traditional religion and stabilized the well-being of the country by curtailing abuses—not least by the army—of its citizens. It was also during his reign that official action began against the monuments at Amarna. A prolific builder, he started, for instance, construction of the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak; he also usurped buildings originally erected and decorated by his two post-Amarna predecessors Tutankhamun and Aye.

During Haremhab’s lifetime, as general and pharaoh, Egypt’s struggles with the Hittites of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) started and his military—and probably his diplomatic—encounters set the tone for ancient Egypt’s foreign relations for a century to come, benefitting both great pharaohs Sethy I and Ramesses II.

A variety of education programs has been organized to complement the exhibition.

A special feature about the exhibition will appear on the website of the Metropolitan Museum (

The exhibition is organized by Dorothea Arnold, the Lila Acheson Wallace Chairman of the Department of Egyptian Art.

Image: Haremhab as a scribe, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Haremhab, ca. 1323–1295 B.C. Egyptian Granodiorite H. 46 in. (116.8 cm) Gift of Mr. and Mrs. V. Everit Macy, 1923 (23.10.1)

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