By: Susan Cohen
Sometimes a single image can be made to carry more weight than it was intended. For over a century, one painting in the Middle Kingdom tomb complex at Beni Hasan—located in the 16th Upper Egyptian (Oryx) Nome in Middle Egypt—has given rise to considerable interpretation of the history, economy, and society of the southern Levant. But what, if anything, does the painting tell us about the Southern Levant during the Middle Bronze Age or the biblical Patriarchs?
The particular image is so well known that the phrase “Beni Hasan painting” is taken to refer to one segment of a painting within a larger image on the northern wall of Tomb 3 of the mortuary complex, belonging to the official Khnumhotep II, nomarch or chief of the 16th Nome.
The group shown in the image—identified as “ëAamu (ëæmw) from Shu (šw)”—includes eight men, one of whom is the leader (œþæ) Abishai (Ibšæ), four women, and three children. The accompanying text, however, notes the total number of individuals as 37.
The scene also depicts several animals—two donkeys, an ibex, and a gazelle. The donkeys carry various bundles and other items, including a spear and two objects that have often been (mis)-identified as bellows associated with metalworking. Some of the men also hold weapons, including one traditionally identified as a “duckbilled” axe. Two of the men are carrying musical instruments.
Two Egyptian officials present the group to Khnumhotep II. The document held by one says: “Year 6 under the Majesty of Horus, Uniter of the Two Lands, King of Upper and Lower Egypt Khakheperre: the number of Asiatics which the son of the Count, Khnumhotep brought, on account of the black eye-paint (msdm.t); being Asiatics of Shu (šw), number amounting to 37.” The scene itself is also captioned: “Arriving and bringing black eye-paint, which 37 Asiatics brought to him.”
The identification of the figures as Asiatics is what has prompted so much discussion. The painting appears repeatedly in textbooks, scholarly articles, and popular discussions, in reference to a host of ideas, time periods, traditions, and perspectives. Many assertions about this image are made without considering whether they can actually be derived from the painting, or whether they can, in fact, be substantiated at all.
The Egyptian toponym šwt, the region where the depicted individuals originated, has been located in areas ranging from Transjordan, to Canaan, Sinai, and the Egyptian Eastern Desert. This has lead to vagueness regarding the purpose of the group. Do these individuals from šwt exemplify biblical “patriarchal” types, “typical” southern Levantine peoples, such as Canaanites, Bedouin, West Semites or Amorites, biblical “Kenites,” or even, both anachronistically and improbably, Hyksos, the Asiatic conquerors of Egypt? The painting itself of course does not say.
In more general terms, the individuals are frequently described as nomads, wanderers, or transhumants, assumptions that draw uncritically on biblical descriptions. These assumptions, however, ignore the fact that, by definition, travel is a basic requirement in order for a group of non-Egyptians to arrive in Egypt. This image therefore does not imply that the entire society from which these people come is inherently itinerant or nomadic.
The interpretative confusion is furthered by focus on the material culture depicted or mentioned in the image. Based on the weaponry, the instruments, and most particularly, the so-called “bellows,” the group has been identified as musicians, metalsmiths, traders, and miners, usually with the modifier “itinerant” added in front. Likewise, these occupations have then been extended to represent the entire culture of the (presumed) region and time period, ranging anywhere from the Intermediate Bronze Age (ca. 2400-2000 BCE) through the Middle Bronze Age in the southern Levant (ca. 2000-1550 BCE), and the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period in Egypt (roughly2000-1550 BCE). One painting is thus presumed to illustrate more than half a millennium of culture.
Clearly, however, these 15 (or 37) individuals – depicted in one painting from a specific time and place – cannot represent all of these traditions, peoples, geographies, ethnicities, activities, and chronologies at once. With indiscriminate ascription of identity and purpose, together with inadequate analysis of the painting’s context and function within Egyptian mortuary traditions, scholars have uprooted the Beni Hasan Asiatics from their locus of origin and decontextualized them. Reexamining that context is critical.
The Beni Hasan painting is but one small image within a much larger scene, and must be viewed in its own setting. In its original context on the northern wall of Khnumhotep II’s tomb, it takes up the mere middle section of one of six registers. When placed in perspective in the full decoration of the entire tomb, the scene showing the arrival of Asiatics in Beni Hasan is just one image among many depicting events and activities in the life of Khnumhotep II, which he could expect to continue in the afterlife. These include scenes of the Nile, workers on land and water, and Khnumhotep himself amidst ample supplies of meat and other goods, befitting an official of high stature.
The accompanying text clearly and unequivocally specifies that reason for the Asiatic’s arrival in Egypt is to bring black eye-paint (with the possible implication that they may also mine of the mineral). It remains unknown whether their arrival at Beni Hasan was a singular event, representative of multiple visits, or a symbolic event signifying Egyptian control over distant peoples and resources.
If the painting depicts a unique event then it can hardly be understood as representative of relations between entire societies throughout whole eras. If this image also possesses a symbolic function, especially placed as it in within scenes of desert life and creatures, then it may also reinforce the importance of Khnumhotep II’s role in maintaining order over chaos, concepts integral to the Egyptian worldview and social stability. But an Egyptian official’s tomb propaganda does not tell us much about biblical Patriarchs, itinerant musicians or metalworkers, or even the Middle Bronze Age.
Clearly, the Beni Hasan painting is a unique and valuable image for examining the ancient Near Eastern world. As such, it has been accorded special significance by scholars seeking to elucidate many things not depicted in the painting. When examined responsibly, the Beni Hasan painting can indeed open a window to the peoples, places, and activities of the past—but the viewer must look carefully.
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