Review: “Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt” Exhibit

On March 13, a new exhibit opened at the Cleveland Museum of Art to celebrate the centennial of the museum. With over 100 objects on loan from the British Museum as well as from its own collection, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt takes a detailed look into the world of ancient Egyptian pharaohs.


Outside the Cleveland Museum of Art (THG)
Outside the Cleveland Museum of Art (THG)

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Founded in 1913 by a group of local industrialists, the museum boasts an impressive collection with an array of galleries on different art themes. The museum has continuously expanded since its foundation (doubling the size of the museum with a major construction in 1958 (1)) and is now regarded as one of the most prestigious art museums in all of the United States. For Egyptophiles, one gallery is permanently dedicated to the display of Egyptian masterpieces and there is seemingly an emphasis on the amazing reign of Amunhotep III (2). In fact, Egyptian antiquities were among the very first objects to be in possession, despite no official building having existed then.

Head of Amunhotep III (EA 30448 - © British Museum, London, UK)
Head of Amunhotep III (EA 30448 – © British Museum, London, UK)

King of Egypt: Divine or Mortal?

Pharaoh is often regarded as being bestowed with unrivalled divine power, though recent scholarship has effectively shown Pharaoh as an individual under the protection of the gods. Indeed, Pharaoh was actually considered mortal or non-divine before his death, while we do know of some pharaohs, who had themselves deified in their lifetimes. Among his or her main duties were the maintenance of divine justice, truth, and order – what the Egyptians referred to as ma’at. Only when the king passed away did he or she gain divine status and was afforded the lush burial with which we are so familiar today.

Ostracon of a Pharaoh offering (EA 50710 - © British Museum, London, UK)
Ostracon of a Pharaoh offering (EA 50710 – © British Museum, London, UK)

Visiting the Exhibit

The exhibit in itself was organized thematically (from “War and Diplomacy” to the “Officials and Government”), each highlighting a particular aspect of kingship. We encountered many of the well-known rulers, such as Montuhotep II, Thutmose III, Sety I, and Ramesses II. Yet, the exhibit also featured Osorkon, from whose reign a block with a depiction of the sed festival survives, or Tiberius, the Roman emperor, seen in a stele offering to Montu and Mut.

Stele of Roman emperor Tiberius offering to Montu and Mut (ca. AD 14-37 – EA 398 – © British Museum, London, UK)

The most powerful aspect of the exhibit is the presentation of artifacts and their long history of curation. Some showed the steps along the process of manufacture, such as an ostracon with the sketch of a pharaoh in an offering scene outlined in red paint (see above). Another is a tool in this process, a paintbox with paint of the various colours still surviving from ancient times.

Paintbox of the Vizier Amenemipet from the reign of Amunhotep II (1914.680 – © Cleveland Museum of Art)

In one instance, we encounter a huge block from the 12th Dynasty with a cartouche of Senwosret III. Upon close inspection, we notice that craftsmen from the 19th Dynasty reused this stone and engraved the cartouche of Ramesses II on it. The block was set up in a temple at Bubastis, where the reuse of older blocks was more economical than bringing the raw stone in from further away. After all, Ramesses II is regarded by many for his extensive building programme around the country. We also saw model objects that were made for ritual purposes for inclusion in a foundation deposit of a new building.

Block from the reign of Senwosret III, recarved under Ramesses II (EA 1102 - © British Museum, London, UK)
Block from the reign of Senwosret III, recarved under Ramesses II (EA 1102 – © British Museum, London, UK)

The King and the Gods: Kingship and the Afterlife

Some sections explored the close relationship Pharaoh enjoyed with the gods as well as looked into the myriad ceremonies and rituals the King was responsible for. When we think of ancient Egypt, we think of the pyramids, of grand tombs filled to the brim with only the most wonderful things. We did encounter a magnificent coffin case of Bakenmut from the late 21st to early 22nd Dynasty, who was part of the priesthood ruling in Thebes. It was decorated in bright colours with various motifs that would guarantee his success in the afterlife such as the figure of a priest presenting offerings.

Coffin Case of Bakenmut – 21st/22nd Dynasty (1914.56 – © Cleveland Museum of Art)

The section on Symbols of Power dealt superbly with the notions and symbols of kingship – especially the Late Period copper alloy of a crook and flail. We know Tutankhamun’s wonderful sarcophagus, where he holds these just as many other pharaohs have done – just imagine the power he commanded!

Copper alloy of a crook and flail dating to the Late Period (EA 11568 & 11573 – © British Museum, London, UK)

I marvelled at the power of the kings through the many different objects that were on display. You could get face-to-face with some of the greatest figures in ancient Egyptian history, while still remembering that they were once mortal beings in their lifetimes. We didn’t see only grand objects such as giant statues of kings, but also gazed in awe at their regalia such as the crook and flail. While some museums and exhibits seem to stop the ‘Egyptian narrative’ at the end of the New Kingdom, this exhibit here emphasized the rulers of later days such as Osorkon or even Tiberius. Actions such as these will help the visitor correct the notion that Egyptian history did not end with the Ramesside period, but instead flourished still for some 1,000 years more. After all, the final hieroglyphic inscription dates to AD 394!

Further Reading:

  • A catalogue of the exhibit is available: M. Vandenbeusch et al, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt (2016) – Amazon and Book Depository.
  • Website of the exhibit at the Museum – LINK


  1. Taken from a brief overview of the museum’s history on its website – LINK.
  2. An exhibit on the life and times of Amunhotep III was organized in the early 1990s with stops in Cleveland and Fort Worth in the USA as well as Paris, France. A magnificent exhibit catalogue was also produced: A.P. Kozloff et al, Egypt’s Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and his World (1992), available at Amazon or AbeBooks.

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