Sunday, March 27, 2011


Sabine Kubisch, Lebensbilder Der 2. Zwischenzeit: Biographische Inschriften der 13.-17. Dynastie. 34. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. Pp. x, 383; 12 p. of plates. ISBN 9783110204957. $151.00.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Frood, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Kubisch's monograph, which is based on a doctorate completed at Heidelberg University in 2002, is a concise, clearly written study of the biographical texts inscribed on monuments of non-royal individuals during the Second Intermediate Period (SIP), a time of political fragmentation and foreign rule in Egypt (ca. 1755-1520 BC). The most well-known and well-studied sources are the royal and non-royal texts describing the wars of reunification at its end. However, the biographies span the period and, although many have been published separately, until now they had not been collected and analysed as a group; in this Kubisch's work is a significant contribution. The catalogue, in its detailed presentation of the monuments, is a research tool with considerable potential for students and scholars of SIP history and its political and social structure, as well as of developments in contemporary Syria-Palestine and Sudan. However, Kubisch's presentation is geared primarily to Egyptologists and will not be immediately accessible to scholars outside this area. For example, maps and basic chronological tables are not provided. I hope that this review may encourage the use of her material in wider contexts of research. A recent English summary of her results, including translations of extracts of some texts, is a useful guide to this full study.1

The Second Intermediate Period encompasses the 13th–17th Dynasties of Egyptian history; the composition of these dynasties in terms of time, territory and ruling group remains controversial. The period is most associated with the Hyksos, a name given to rulers of Asiatic origin who gained control over areas of the Delta and places further south from about 1630 BC. However, few texts are known from Hyksos areas of influence, and all the biographies Kubisch includes were found at, or are ascribed to, sites far to the south; the northernmost is Abydos. Kubisch's texts are mostly associated with local Egyptian kingship, either of the 13th Dynasty or that which later emerged in Thebes. A smaller number were found at sites in Upper Nubia (north Sudan) which came under the control of the kingdom of Kush; two of the texts belong to Egyptian officials who served the ruler of Kush (Buhen 1 and 2, pp. 166–171, see also pp. 87–88). Also included is a group statue from Ugarit in Syria, and a statue and two stelae of unknown provenance.

Kubisch's volume consists of two major parts, the analysis (chapters 1–6) and the catalogue (chapter 7). The catalogue presents the texts from 66 individual monuments and is, therefore, the foundation for the whole study. Her analysis is divided into four main chapters, each of which has further section subdivisions. These chapters are: a brief assessment of the physical contexts of the monuments (ch. 2), a large chapter exploring various themes emerging from the texts (ch. 3), a separate analysis of aspects of historical content (ch. 4), and a discussion of approaches to dating (ch. 5). A short introduction (ch. 1) and conclusion (ch. 6) frame the analysis. End materials include indices which are usefully organised under names, titles, Egyptian words, and sources, allowing targeted use for specific questions.

The catalogue is organised by site, with each monument designated by the name of its area of known or presumed provenance and a number, thus Abydos 1, Edfu 2. These are then ordered alphabetically which is user-friendly although arguably a geographical, south-north, order would have been preferable. The catalogue includes basic details for each monument, copy-texts or line-drawings, and transliteration, translation and commentary of the texts. Readable black and white photographs are given for just over half the monuments.

The translations are generally accurate and thoughtful, managing the more difficult texts, of which there are many, convincingly. The commentaries focus on citing parallels from biographies of the Middle and New Kingdoms, laying the ground for Kubisch's comparative thematic discussion (esp. sections 3.1–3.4). However, sometimes the meanings of particular phrases are not fully explained and the numerous secondary sources she cites are not evaluated. Although detailed discussions of all points could have doubled the size of the catalogue, fuller treatment of more unusual vocabulary or phraseology would have enriched the treatments and made the translations more accessible to a broader audience. Some interpretive points are developed in her chapter discussions and it would have been helpful for these to have been more clearly signalled in the notes.

Despite the geographic basis for the catalogue, the discussion of the archaeological context of the texts in the first major chapter (ch. 2) is limited. She briefly enumerates their media (pp. 7–9) – stelae, statues, architectural elements and rock and tomb inscriptions – and provides a useful list of the necropolis sites from which many originated (pp. 9–20). However there is little developed analysis of the evidence for or implications of a particular provenance. An exception which demonstrates the potential of more contextually based studies is her assessment of the ritual language of the texts on three biographical statues of a single individual, the 13th Dynasty vizier Iymeru, set up in the temple of Amun at Karnak (section 3.7; Thebes 1–3).

Kubisch's third and most substantial chapter offers thought-provoking discussions of particular themes and phraseology, pointing the way to further areas of work. It is divided into seven main sections, each summarising and assessing specific motifs or groups of material, such the expression of personal relationships to peers, king and gods (3.1), childhood and upbringing (3.2), and the presentation of desirable characteristics (e.g. eloquence, discretion: 3.3). Kubisch uses these themes to explore the social and political conditions which shaped the texts. She concludes that although there was a fundamental continuity of style and structure in biographies from the Middle Kingdom to the 18th Dynasty (p. 134), the SIP material develops some distinctive themes and motifs, including the relationship of individuals to gods, and pragmatic and realistic grounding in events and experiences (p. 135). An example of the latter is the expression of relationship to local areas. In contrast to generalised characterisations of Middle Kingdom individuals as patrons of their city, the SIP texts stress acts of service to the community (p. 24), in some cases expressed in speeches voiced by citizens (e.g. Edfu 6, El Kab 4). Such speeches may be modelled on the performance of praise which is a feature of royal courts. Themes that locate the individual firmly within his local environment are characteristic of First Intermediate Period biographies, an earlier time of political decentralisation in Egypt; throughout her discussions, Kubisch finds the most meaningful points of comparison in this material. This is broadly convincing, although the social and political structures of the SIP would have been very different so the selection of such motifs probably had a different range of connotations. For example, unlike many First Intermediate Period texts, traditional kingship remained crucial to self-presentation. However, as Kubisch argues, expressions of royal love and favour were often responses to particular acts of service in contrast to the all-inclusive statements of the Middle Kingdom, and thus were perhaps more limited (pp. 30–39).

As Kubisch observes, one of the most striking features of the SIP texts is the expression of personal relationships to gods (section 3.1.3), especially in the biographies of priests, to which she devotes a whole section (3.5). While biographies that record personal involvement in cult performances are attested in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, these usually focus on culminating events or are integrated with other activities. The biographies of SIP priests are more detailed in their evocation of daily cult activities, describing access to temple areas (pp. 70–73), recitation of cult texts (e.g. 'one high of voice in the place of silence': El Kab 4b, and pp. 75–76, cf. pp. 54–56) and actions such as breaking seals to sanctuary doors, cleansing central areas, 'revealing' cult statues, and participating in processions (e.g. Thebes 6, with pp. 74–80). An example is Edfu 10, a biography of a priest of Horus Behdety, which integrates the performance of offering ritual in the temple with ancient phraseology of community provision, the culminating verses drawing vividly on military vocabulary ('pounding of step before him (Horus)') to describe his return to the temple (see Kubisch's note to lines 16/17 on p. 213). While these texts offer insights into temple activities, hierarchies (pp. 77–79) and delineations of sacred space, others, including some belonging to civil officials, express a more mutually involving and transforming relationship with the gods: 'one who regenerated his god' (Edfu 18), whose excellence was 'perceived' by the god (e.g. Elephantine 6), who came under special divine protection (Elephantine 5) and who, exceptionally, 'knew the plan of god' (Gebelein 2; see p. 56). One of the most remarkable and well-known SIP texts, that of the priest Horemkhauef (Hierakonpolis 1), reports his receipt of an instruction from Horus, perhaps through an oracle, to travel North to retrieve cult statues from the royal residence (p. 82; cf. El Tod 1 which may also record an oracle). The texts themselves and Kubisch's discussions of them, will contribute to challenging the view, still widely held in Egyptology, that such intimate relationships with gods, especially direct communication, were only possible from the late New Kingdom. Her suggestion that these motifs show how royal patronage was replaced by divine in places far from a royal court is perhaps too limiting (p. 46); rather these texts expand and elaborate ideas that had been expressed earlier, and should be understood in the context of broadly innovating textual production in the SIP.

Section 6 of chapter 3 and chapter 4 explore how the texts thematize the complex political world of the SIP, both explicitly through statements concerning territorial borders and roles in military campaigns, and implicitly through characterisations; a stela fragment of a royal official from Gebelein describes him as: 'one who understands the speech of every foreign land' (Gebelein 2 with note on p. 308: also p. 52). Section 3.6 presents the texts that relate to or were dedicated in Nubia, using them to trace developments in Egyptian involvement during the period. Chapter 4 takes a thematic approach, defining military campaigns and royal building work as key historical events and setting out all the texts that deal with such matters. While these discussions offer few new perspectives on developments in the SIP, bringing this material together allows it to be quickly compared with other forms of evidence, textual and archaeological.

Kubisch's discussions and catalogue are a rich resource for on-going work on the historical and social conditions of the SIP, as well as self-presentation in ancient societies more generally. For example, since most of the texts have a certain or attributable archaeological provenance, contextually based analyses have considerable potential. The recent article by John Baines2 on the 13th Dynasty Abydos stelae of Amenysonbe (Kubisch's Abydos 1–2) shows how the study of biography, related iconography, and context can be productively integrated, in this case to examine questions related to the display of religious concerns. A discussion of iconographic elements of the monuments is included in Kubisch's chapter on dating (5.2, pp. 118–124), but this focus means that specific features cannot be related to the texts in any detailed way. Economic features of self-presentation also seem significant, such as texts which seem to record endowments to a wife (Edfu 17) or to a temple (Edfu 6), the building of houses and shrines (Edfu 3, Edfu 6, Esna 1, El Tod 1), and those which mention maidservants (Edfu 17), sometimes as gifts (Edfu 16, Edfu 21). These are just some examples of many. Thus the importance of Kubisch's work lies as much in the ground it prepares for future work as it does in the new perspectives it offers on this controversial period of Egyptian history.


1.   Biographies of the Thirteenth to Seventeenth Dynasties. Pages 313–327 of M. MarĂ©e (ed.), The Second Intermediate Period (Thirteenth – Seventeenth Dynasties): Current research, future prospects. OLA 192. Leuven: Peeters, 2010.
2.   The stelae of Amenisonbe from Abydos and Middle Kingdom display of personal religion. Pages 1–22 of D. Magee, J. Bourriau, and S. Quirke (eds.), Sitting beside Lepsius: Studies in honour of Jaromir Malek at the Griffith Institute. OLA 185. Leuven: Peeters, 2009.

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