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 had been excavated in 1891 by Boussac and then left open to anyone, which resulted in serious damage to the tomb. When Müller arrived 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 slaves due to the presence of their children (I don’t quite understand but that’s what he says) while the woman without a child is believed to be an Asiatic princess “for the harem of the king of Egypt”. 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 perhaps were a bit lazy about cleaning paint brushes and so painted colors on garments they felt should have more color without consideration for how ancient Syrians actually dressed. And, perhaps, wanting to depict the slave-babies the artist simply painted 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.” Now, 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 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 using the term hostage in the sense of kidnapping to coerce the hostages to meet demands.


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Sources:

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

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About Aradia Wyndham

Proficient nerd on most things baby/ culture/ history/book related. Disability advocate. Has a penchant for photography, languages, and panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler and tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.