Syrian Baby Carriers in Ancient Egypt

I stumbled upon this image on Period Paper and had to learn more. Using the text on the image I found that it was from W. Max Müller’s series, Egyptological Research: Results of a Journey in 1904, which was published by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in 1906.

The lithograph of the women depicted a painting on the wall of the Tomb of Ann’a located on the Theban necropolis (mount Shêkh ‘Abd-el-Qurna) in Egypt. It was built in the Middle Kingdom, during the 18th dynasty, around 1500 bce (3500 years ago).

The tomb was excavated in 1891 by Boussac and then left open to anyone, which resulted in serious damage to the tomb. When Müller arrived in 1904 he was determined to record what he could for future researchers.

“I have tried to save for science by sketching, tracing, and photographing the part which is of special value to the anthropologists, viz, the representations of the foreign nations bringing tribute to Egypt.”

The Women

He described the four women pictured as Syrian, (Asiatics being any number of peoples from the east of Egypt). Three of the women are believed to be slaves due to the presence of their children (I don’t quite understand this but that’s what he said) while the woman without a child is believed to be an Asiatic princess “for the harem of the king of Egypt”. (calm down, bro)

All four women are in high-class dresses, owing to the generous tucks of fabric and the blue and red embroidery or fringe on their dresses. Müller notes that depictions of Syrian women are very rare in ancient Egypt and that this one should be taken as representative of Asiatic types not a depiction of an actual historical event.

The Carriers

“Is the white (i.e. linen) bag in which the children are carried on the mother’s back a part of the clothing? I suspect it is. The first woman has indications of a piece of cloth (like a plain seam) running over the right arm and shoulder; likewise the following person, who seems to support the right arm by it; notice there the embroidered seam. It would appear that this is the same piece which, unwrapped and held up (by a string or by its own end) serves as a carrying-bag for the baby; But is it then a loose end of the shirt-like dress?”

Müller isn’t entirely trusting of the original artist, thinking that they were a bit lazy about cleaning paint brushes and used colors without consideration for how ancient Syrians actually dressed and that the artist simply painted the babies how they were commonly seen carried in Egypt.

“The babies (one carried on the shoulder in the way still most common in modern Egypt) are stark-naked, as is the rule both with Syrian and Egyptian children in such representations. Only one wears a princely costume– a long shirt (the Hebrew kuttoneth) with characteristically embroidered seams. The tress on the crown of children, which other paintings exhibit (somewhat similar to the ancient Egyptian characteristic of children), has not been observed by our artist.”

The child in princely costume is assumed to be a high-born or royal child sent as a hostage to Egypt:

“The richly clad child with the third woman would then not be the child of his leader, but some young nobleman sent to Egypt as hostage.”

The term hostage might give the wrong impression: in the European middle ages, noble or royal families sent their children to other families to be raised involuntarily, as a hostage. But they were still well-treated, like a house guest who wasn’t allowed to leave until they were grown and well-indoctrinated. But I could be totally wrong here and maybe he used the term hostage in the sense of kidnapping to coerce families (or subjects) of the hostages to meet demands.

Infants are often ignored in art history, so a case like this, in which enslaved and/or hostage infants were considered important enough to the ancient Egyptians to have rendered upon this tomb 3500 years ago is fascinating. What connection did Ann’a have with Syrian women and their babies? Was it how he came to Egypt?

Then thousands of years later, Müller, in some haste to preserve the art for posterity, stopped to consider how these women were carrying the babies. He took note of infants around him in contemporary Egypt, of how they were being carried in a similar fashion to the infants in this ancient tomb art, a palpable connection to history.

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Müller, Max W. (1906) Egyptological Research: Results of a Journey in 1904, Washington D.C.:Carnegie Institute of Washington.

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