24 July 2011
Christiane Desroche Noblecourt (1913 – 2011) wrote about ancient Egypt
Egyptian intellectuals often ask why so many non-Egyptian Egyptologists hold our ancient civilisation in such high esteem, while many Egyptian, Arabist and Islamic scholars so belittle it? On close scrutiny, the answer appears to be that non-Egyptians see the ancient Egyptian civilisation from a non-biased, scientific perspective; while those who come from an Islamic background cannot rid themselves of the ideological prism.
I write this as I mourn the departure from our world of Christiane Desroche Noblecourt, who died last month at the age of 97. The petite Frenchwoman, who was one of the most prominent members of the archaeological community in Egypt, staunchly defended everything Egyptian.
Mme Noblecourt wrote some 26 books on ancient Egypt. She was one of those who set aside all ideological bias—whether political, racial, or religious—and based her observations on her long residence in Egypt, her archaeological experience, and her thorough study of Egyptology and philology. Her books are a solid reference for all students of Egyptology; her book on Ramesses II sold more than a million copies in France.
Among Mme Noblecourt’s books, I especially appreciate the ones she wrote on the Egyptian woman. In the introduction to her The Pharaonic Woman she wrote: “The long years I spent among Egyptian women, peasants and town dwellers, brought me closer to these people. They persuaded me that, even though their appearance and dress has changed over the years, the essence and thoughts were still the same as their grandmothers. The close contact I enjoyed with them helped me grasp the meaning of the ancient inscriptions on the walls of the temples and tombs, and the linguistic expressions in the ancient texts. Egypt’s monuments paint the image of an immortal nation.”
Prevalent knowledge about the ancient Egyptians teaches us that only one queen ruled in ancient Egypt, that being Hatshepsut. Sometimes reference is made to Nefertiti and Nefertari, who shared the titular rule of Egypt with their respective husbands Akhenaten and Ramesses II. Mme Noblecourt drew attention to other, lesser-known queens who were absolute rulers of Egypt: Nitocris of the Sixth Dynasty (2341 – 2180BC), “who exceeded all the men of her age in courage and bravery”, and Sebeknefru who ruled from 1789 to 1786BC.
Mme Noblecourt points out that royal succession in Egypt used to take place through the maternal line. Pharaoh Horemheb, who ruled after Tutankhamen, from 1335 to 1304, was a commoner whose right to rule was given legitimacy by his marriage to a royal princess. She also reminds of the important role played by Queen Ahhotep, wife of Pharaoh Sekenenre and the mother of Kamose, the last ruler of the Seventeenth Dynasty, and his brother Ahmose, founder of the New Kingdom. As regent she was a key figure in the expulsion of the Hyksos and the foundation of a new Egyptian dynasty.
Equal to men
According to Mme Noblecourt, Egypt planted the first seeds of gender equality. It was the only country in the ancient world to place men and women on an equal footing before the law. Women could own property and sign contracts, and their legal prerogatives did not diminish when they married. Unlike the Babylonians and the Assyrians, Egyptian women could inherit property equal to Egyptian men. Ancient papyri testify to there being female treasury inspectors, managing directors, managers of singers, head of physicians, businesswomen, judges and ministers. Because of this civilisational difference between Egypt and Athens, Euripedes and Sophocles criticised the Egyptian man who so willingly relinquished his rights to his wife.
Women or men could marry their slaves, which would automatically make them free persons. Noblewomen were known to adopt the sons and daughters of slaves, grant them gifts and give them legacies. A slave could testify against his or her master, and Mme Noblecourt concluded that Egyptians had no racial discrimination.
She reveals that the word designating marriage in ancient Egypt literally meant “to live with”, stressing the principle of sharing between two equal individuals. In one ancient Egyptian papyrus, a wife tells her husband: “My husband, it is lovely and pleasurable for me to go down to the lake and let you see my beauty. I will wear my linen gown and my perfume, then go down into the water with you.”
In ancient Egypt, justice was the goddess Maat. The Maat was a sacred duty that was taught to children in school.
No slave drivers
Mme Noblecourt often said the pharaohs had frequently been misunderstood and misjudged. The reading of the Torah story of Moses and Pharaoh, she said, placed Pharaoh in an unjust light. Similarly, the widespread notion that the pharaohs were cruel slave-drivers could not be further from the truth.
She had the luck to witness the transfer of the sarcophagus of Ramesses II from Luxor to Cairo in a Nile boat in the1950s. “Egyptians stood on the Nile bank in Luxor, behaving as though they were taking part in a noble funeral. The women wept and wailed, and the men fired shots in the air.”
Scenes similar to these were repeated in 2006 when the statue of Ramesses II was moved from Cairo’s central railway station to its new location in the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is under construction on the Giza plateau. Even though the move was conducted in the middle of the night in order to avoid road closures in the notoriously heavy daytime Cairo traffic, Egyptians stood on the pavements all the way, cheering for the king. The parade was celebrated by the crowds, many of whom cheered him on with cries of “Come on Grandfather!” National and patriotic songs resounded and church bells chimed as Ramesses passed by, and the procession was still moving when the call came for the Muslim dawn prayer.
Mme Noblecourt beleived that today’s Egyptians were an extension of their forefathers; they enjoyed an inherent wisdom and kindness rarely found elsewhere.