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The Gebel El Arak Dagger: Investigating Mesopotamian Influence In Predynastic Egypt James Traynelis Art History

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The Gebel el Arak Dagger is a marvelous piece of Ancient Egyptian history that has distinct Egyptian origins, but possesses a foreign component. Although the dagger was discovered at the archeological site of Gebel el Arak, the absence of detailed records paired with the site’s slightly southern relation to Abydos leads experts to believe that the dagger originated from the archaeological stronghold and major ancient city of Abydos. Today, the dagger is displayed at the Musée du Louvre, in Paris, France. The dagger is twenty-five centimeters long and is dated sometime between 3300-3200 BC, late in the Naqada II period. Little is known 1about the original owner, and the talented craftsman who carved the dagger remains a mystery.

The blade has been flaked with stone along its edges and across its face, giving it a rippled effect, but also adding to its functionality as a knife. The serrated edge allows the dagger to cut with 3ease. The hippopotamus ivory handle is beautifully decorated with animal and human figures carved in relief. Hippopotamus ivory is also extremely difficult to carve. It is coated by a very thick layer of enamel that must be removed through abrasion, and has a very dense, complicated grain. Such difficulties attest the the carver’s skill. Elephants were rare in predynastic Egypt and their ivory had to be imported, on the other, hand Hippopotamus were native to the Nile region. Thus, It seems probable that the materials originate from Egypt. The materials used are would have been valuable, suggesting it may have belonged to someone of wealth and status. It is reasonable to speculate this knife served as a hunting or military knife. Interestingly the figures are oriented upright when the blade is facing downwards, perhaps as resting in a sheath or belt. The hippopotamus ivory could suggest protective or destructive powers since very destructive animals like hippopotamus are associated with such properties. Moreover, the reverse side, depicts a hunting scene further strengthening the dagger’s role as a hunting knife. The obverse side depicts a battle 6scene, suggesting it could have also had a militaristic function. On the handle’s reverse side, a heavily bearded man, clad in only a long skirt and hat stands powerfully, arms extended, as he restrains two ferocious but beautifully-maned male lions. Various antelope dance around the central knob, while snarling hounds leap across the center towards each other. As one moves down the handle, the scene becomes increasingly wild, as a she-lion sinks her razor teeth into a fleeing antelope. Wild goats and oryx bound off the handle, retreating into the unforgiving arid wilderness. This is obviously a hunting scene and captures the wild nature of hunting wonderfully.

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In the upper register, on the obverse side of the handle, four figures fight, bashing at each other with clublike objects. 6 They each are wearing small garments around the waist and some indistinguishable headgear. The tension of the battle can be felt as the leftmost figure is suspended, poised, ready to strike his victim with his deadly staff. Below them stand five more soldier figures, clawing and wrestling each other. Beneath the warring figures lie slain corpses, knees folded, as they fall down out of the foreground. The battle rages on while five unmanned boats rest in the background. Two of the ships have a flat hull and a very steep, almost vertical, stern and bow. Below them, sit three smaller concave boats loaded with some indistinguishable cargo in the center of the hull. The highly composite, overlapping layout of the figures and objects adds to the chaotic feel of the entire scene. The knife’s style reflects certain aspects of the late Naqada II period, in its detailed figures. Stylistically, the dagger seems to fit its date. Although, the knife contains a very curious foreign element. While it has a pronounced Egyptian style, the handle is geographically confusing. The main figure on the reverse side, is heavily reminiscent of the famous Mesopotamian motif “The Master of Animals. ” Even the two dogs, centered on the reverse 7side, do not resemble Egyptian dogs, and posses some foreign influence. While “The Master of Animals ” typically involves the hero being nude, the heavy beard and strange headwear are certainly not Egyptian. While beards were an egyptian symbol of 9power, the hero’s beard appears natural, and does not reflect the false beards typically worn by Egyptian rulers.

Moreover the hero’s head garment could be a turban, but the carving is too small know for sure. However, if it is a turban, the hero very well could have Sumerian roots. Although Sumerians were typically clean shaven, like the Egyptians, they depicted their gods with large, thick natural beards. 8 Although, it seems unlikely the main figure represents a deity. Moreover, there are many reproductions of the motif, and it even appears in 400-100 BC, in Greece and Rome. Interestingly, the two lions on either side of the hero do not reflect Mesopotamian lions. Mesopotamian were known for their rather scanty manes and depicted accordingly, whereas lions from the southeast, in Somaliland, are known to have very thick manes like the ones depicted. 8 Although, the artist might have exaggerated the manes for artistic purposes. Thus, one can’t entirely rule out a mesopotamian influence. Strangely, this is not the only time this motif appears in predynastic Egyptian art. A similar motif is reproduced on the wall of tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis, also known as the painted tomb. The Motif appears on the lower left quadrant of the mural. It is a far less detailed illustration, but is also dated around Naqada II.

The prevalence of this motif in 1210 Predynastic Egyptian art proves some sort of interaction between Egypt and mesopotamia, but the nature of such interactions has been highly disputed among Egyptologists for decades. Another interesting aspect of the dagger handle are the two different style of boats. Some experts suspect the two flatter ships represent a foreign culture. Many researchers has suggested the two boats above the three rounded boats could be Sumerian boats. The reasoning behind this deduction comes from the shallow nature of the Tigris and Euphrates river system. Those river 13systems are too shallow and cannot be traveled by large, deep hulled vessels. Interestingly, on the obverse side of the dagger, the two flatter vessels appear noticeably larger than the three lower ones. The larger size of the flatter ships could suggest that they are sea vessels that had crossed the Red Sea in an attempt to invade. But an invasion seems unlikely, since the ships have no sails or rows to travel such a great distance. It also seems unlikely considering neither Egypt nor Mesopotamia had no access to large timber for building large warring vessels until much later. Interestingly the painting in tomb 100 also depicts two different boat styles: white more rounded boats, and a dark boats with flat hulls. Boats almost identical to the ones on the Gebel el Arak Dagger and Tomb 100 mural also appear on The Metropolitan Museum Knife handle, which is dated in the late Naqada III period. But the theory that 1613 Sumerian ships sailed across the Red Sea and up the Nile to invade Upper Egypt is questionable. Not only because of the reasons previously mentioned, but also because the foreign ships depicted on the dagger and in the painted tomb do not resemble Sumerian warships. In Sumerian artwork, similar boats hold ritualistic connotations and not militaristic. Could these boats 17perhaps represent a second style of Egyptian boats?

One must also bear in mind the possibility that the carvings represent an internal struggle between Lower Egyptians and a Northern neighboring culture in the Nile Delta. Afterall, in the late predynastic period is characterized by northward diffusion. However, because the Mesopotamian motif, “The Master of Animals, ” accompanies these strange boats, it seems likely that the ships were indeed Mesopotamian, but are perhaps not hostile or invasive. Sir William Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist during the early 20th century was one of the first to suggest that an invading, hostile culture from the far east brought civilization Egypt. While there is certainly iconographic evidence that suggests some interaction between 18Mesopotamia and predynastic Egypt, Kathryn A. Bard, another Egyptologist, find insufficient evidence to support Mark’s theory. Bard points out that the “mud-brick” architecture and the utilization of space in predynastic Egypt is completely different than that found in Mesopotamia. 18 Mark relies heavily on representational evidence, particular the boat motifs found on the Gebel el Arak dagger. He even believes the dagger might have been made in the delta and brought to upper Egypt. But there is no real evidence of pre dynastic kingdoms in lower Egypt. There is however abundant evidence that Lower Egypt developed later than Upper Egypt. 19There is an abundance of iconographic evidence pointing to Egyptian and Mesopotamian interaction during the late Naqada II – Naqada I periods, but the nature of such interactions is still unknown. A large scale military conflict seems, in my opinion, highly improbable. Nonetheless, the Gebel el Arak Dagger is a remarkable relic that has provided Egyptologists with vast insight into predynastic Egypt and has shed a much needed light on predynastic Egyptian and Mesopotamian interaction.

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