BMCR 2021.09.16

Türöffner des Himmels: prosopographische Studien zur thebanischen Hohepriesterschaft der Ptolemäerzeit

, Türöffner des Himmels: prosopographische Studien zur thebanischen Hohepriesterschaft der Ptolemäerzeit. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, Band 76. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2020. Pp. xi, 566; 51 p. of plates. ISBN 9783447112789. €168,00.

Once the thriving capital of New Kingdom Egypt, the city of Thebes by early Ptolemaic times had lost its position as the main political centre of Upper Egypt. The foundation by the first Ptolemaic monarch, Ptolemy I Soter, of Ptolemaios Hermaiu (pȝ sy or modern el-Minsha) as the new regional administrative and civil centre some 120 km to the north of Thebes resulted in the relocation of high officials and, undoubtedly, the partial resettlement of their families and entourage from Thebes and surroundings. Occasionally a thorn in the side of the Ptolemaic government, pragmatically siding with native opposition to the new ruling dynasty, while as quickly returning to the fold when the balance of power shifted once more, Thebes nonetheless remained throughout this era one of the most important traditional religious centres of Egypt. The Theban high clergy, and not in the least the first to fourth prophet of Amun at Karnak (ḥm-nṯr n ʾImn), had already made a remarkable comeback prior to the Ptolemaic era. Established as early as the Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1550–1295 BC), these high priests are missing from the record for several centuries in the middle of the first millennium BC, until reappearing on the scene over the course of the Thirtieth Dynasty (380–343 BC) as part of a major revitalisation of the Theban religious landscape in general and the Amun cult of Karnak in particular during more than a century of Persian occupation. In the subsequent Ptolemaic period (332–30 BC) individual high priests, as well as the families to which they belonged, dominated the local religious landscape, leaving behind a trove of written documents as well as artefacts, containing vital information on their life and times.

In this the seventy-sixth volume of the series Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, Ralph Birk offers a fascinating and vivid picture of the Theban high clergy during a remarkable period, from the very end of the Late Period (Thirtieth Dynasty) through the Ptolemaic era in Egypt. His study focuses not only on the aforementioned high priests or prophets of Amun – originally ranked from first to fourth, but with a fifth one established in 238 BC as mentioned on the Canopus Decree of Ptolemy III Euergetes I. He also includes another top member of the Theban priesthood, the “Great Governor” and “Subsequent Governor” of Thebes (ḥȝti-’ wr/m-ḫt m Wȝst), who came to the fore in the middle of the third century BC. This is the very first time that all available evidence on this significant priestly position has been methodically compiled and comprehensively analysed. This part of Birk’s research represents an essential contribution that greatly furthers our knowledge of the functioning of the Theban high clergy in the last centuries BC.

The bulk of the volume covers, priestly position by position, the numerous individual members of the high priesthood of Thebes. For each individual the author has meticulously compiled case files, bringing together all, often very diverse, available material evidence, containing, in both hieroglyphic and hieratic inscriptions, information about their names, titles and filiation. The material ranges from objects such as stelae, statues and situlae, produced during their commissioners’ lifetime, to funerary remains like sarcophagi and coffins, Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statues, offering tables, canopic chests, papyri and much more. Many of the objects are previously unpublished, not least those from the so-called “Karnak Cachette” – a veritable treasure trove of thousands of bronzes and statues discovered in late December 1906 by Georges Legrain in the courtyard of the seventh pylon of Karnak’s Amun temple. The objects recovered from the Karnak cachette cover a period of almost a millennium and a half, from the New Kingdom to late Ptolemaic times. While the earlier material, up to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty has already been studied in great detail, this has not been the case for many of the statues dating from the very end of the Late Period and the Ptolemaic era. Ralph Birk’s study thus represents an important contribution not only to our understanding of the material contained in the Karnak cachette itself, but especially of the historical and social context of the people, and first and foremost the high priests, for whom numerous of these statues and bronzes had been manufactured.

In the volume, all available information regarding the name, titles and filiation in the inscriptions on these objects is accurately reproduced in hieroglyphs for each member of the Theban high clergy, followed by a transliteration and translation, with commentary. On the basis of the genealogical information inscribed on the object, the author, often for the first time, successfully reconstructs the lineage of individual priestly families. At the same time the assembled family trees also allow him to establish, sometimes rather tentatively, a more precise date for both the individual priests and the associated artefacts.

At the end of each chapter dealing with a specific priestly title/rank, the author adds a brief synthesis of his main findings, reconstructing both the development of the cultic function over time as well as the fate of the individual priests and their families during this period and further contextualises the evidence to obtain a deeper understanding of the historical and social events and changes in the Theban region over a period of four centuries.

In a final chapter, the author gathers all the information and provides an insightful diachronic overview of the development of several families in the Theban area from the fourth to first century BC. The study clearly indicates a shift in the balance of (priestly) power over this period: during the fourth and third century BC families belonging to the traditional priestly aristocracy controlled many of the positions within the Theban high clergy, but from the second century BC one clearly notices a discontinuity and significant change as new families rise to the fore. The rising influence of the religious title and position of the “Governor of Thebes”, the leading figure in the cult of the primeval Amunrasonther (“Amun-Ra, king of the Gods”) in the Akh-Menu of Karnak’s Amun temple, from the second half of the third century BC onward is already indicative of these changes in influence and authority to come a few generations later. The title of “Governor” (ḥȝti- ’) itself is not limited to the Theban region, but occurs in Ptolemaic temples throughout Egypt and suggests it was a priestly appointment initiated by the Ptolemaic administration as a counterpart to the existing, traditional high clergy positions, long in the hands of the local priestly aristocracy. The chapter also includes an overview of the available evidence regarding the (lack of) activities of the Theban high clergy during periods of native revolts against Ptolemaic government in Upper Egypt (especially 205–186, and 88 BC).

An extremely important contribution, which will certainly be a starting point for further research, is the extensive prosopographic register following the conclusion, which provides a detailed overview of all hieroglyphic and hieratic sources on the recovered material culture of the Theban high clergy for a period of four centuries. This inventory represents an extremely useful tool for any scholar focusing on Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic Thebes.

The volume concludes with extensive bibliography and indices. The fifty-one plates at the very end provide generally high quality photographs of some of the objects discussed in detail in the text. The first nine plates are of particular interest since they illustrate the author’s reconstruction of the genealogy of the numerous high priests of Amun and governors in Thebes. These nine plates form an essential visual complement to the vibrant picture of family relations described, analysed and commented upon in the main part of the volume.

Overall, the volume presents a fascinating reconstruction of individual priests and the families to which they belonged, illustrating the waxing and waning of their positions, as well as the rise and fall in importance, authority and influence of their families within the local priestly hierarchy. The volume represents a superb reconstruction of the Theban religious landscape, one of Egypt’s most important traditional religious centres, at the very end of native, Pharaonic rule and during the three subsequent centuries of Ptolemaic government.