LOS ANGELES — Big, needlelike sculptures, based on Egyptian prototypes, are dotted all over America. The most famous, obviously, is the Washington Monument. Another, in Boston, commemorates the battle of Bunker Hill. There’s even an authentic, 3,000-year-old Egyptian one in New York’s Central Park, known as “Cleopatra’s Needle.”
Why Greek, rather than Egyptian? Because that is what early Greek visitors to Egypt called these strange stone pillars, which they hadn’t previously encountered. Similarly, when the Greeks saw what the Egyptians had built at Giza, they were reminded of the little wheat cakes back home they called “pyramis.”
The nickname stuck. We still call them pyramids.
“Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World,” at the Getty Center (through Sept. 9), is a deep dive into how encounters with ancient Egypt shaped the civilizations of Greece and Rome. The exhibit vibrates with charismatic objects, among them portrait busts of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and several famous sculpted heads depicting Egyptian priests.
The show culminates in a kind of tropical cocktail party, featuring hippos, palm trees and a nude acrobat balancing upside down on an Egyptian crocodile.
The show underlines an obvious but oft-overlooked fact, which is that for Greeks and Romans, Egypt was — as curators Jeffrey Spier, Timothy Potts and Sara Cole write — “the cultural and political behemoth of the Mediterranean.” It was “the most ancient, monumental, and powerful kingdom of their world and a land of incomparable wonder and mystery.”
Part of what’s thrilling about the story of Julius Caesar and Queen Cleopatra is the image it conjures of a meeting not just between two historical figures of unrivaled glamour but also between two great civilizations.
Such a coming together was bound to be momentous. What “Beyond the Nile” demonstrates is that, by the time of Cleopatra, encounters between Egypt and the Greco-Roman world had been taking place for at least two millennia, with consequences that had already proved momentous.
Inspiring the Greeks
The story begins with contact between Egypt and Minoans from Crete as early as 3,000 B.C. Evidence comes in the form of Egyptian scarabs — made from hippopotamus ivory — found in Minoan collective burial mounds.
There was later contact with Mycenaean Greece. A papyrus from 1,400 B.C., for instance, shows that Mycenaean mercenaries fought on Egypt’s side against Libyan invaders. And in the 7th century B.C., after a long hiatus, Greek soldiers were back in southern Egypt fighting for the pharaoh against the Nubians. We know this, because they left graffiti on monuments to the pharaoh Ramses II.
It was at this point that Greek sculpture started coming into its own.
What stimulated the Greek sculptural revolution, recognized to this day as among the crowning glories of Western civilization? In a word, Egypt. Without the phenomenon of Greek artists traveling to Egypt, returning home and trying to emulate the scale, skill and ambition of what they had seen, ancient Greek sculpture is impossible to imagine.
The show’s first really stunning display demonstrates the drama of this moment in the simplest way possible. A large Greek kouros — a sculpture of a boy — carved from marble in about 520 B.C. appears alongside an Egyptian sculpture of a priest, carved from limestone maybe a century earlier. Both are frontal. Both show the figure with one leg advancing, as if mid-stride, arms stiffly by their sides.
The Greek kouros, on loan from the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, is not only bigger but also slightly fuller, and curvier. The figure’s stomach muscles are more exactly defined. And he is nude, unlike the Egyptian priest, who wears a shendyt, or kilt.
These small points of divergence will come to count for more and more as the centuries go by. But for now, what’s undeniable are the profound similarities.
A compelling pair
A little further into the show comes an even more compelling sculptural pairing. The Boston Green Head — a small, intensely naturalistic depiction (owned by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) of an Egyptian priest from Memphis, in Lower Egypt — has a counterpart, almost as famous, in Berlin. Both are displayed here in Los Angeles in what amounts to a coup for the organizers.
The two lifelike heads may reflect a reversal in the flow of influence between Egypt and Greece. Because scholars can’t agree on when they were made — at the end of ancient Egypt’s Late Period (circa 664-332 B.C.) or at the beginning of the Ptolemaic period, which began after Egypt’s conquest by Alexander the Great — there is lively debate about whether they were directly influenced by Greek naturalism.
In truth, it doesn’t matter. There is something incredibly concentrated, urgent and immediate about them. They were carved from dark, matte graywacke, a favorite material for Egyptian sculptors. Note the crow’s feet at the corner of the Boston Green Head’s eyes, the asymmetrical crease at the bridge of his nose, the wart on his left cheek, and the mounds and hollows of his shaved skull.
It’s astonishing, really. You look at it, and it is as if 2,400 years had simply evaporated, as if all the sediment and grime of history, all the death, the drama, the dismay, had been whisked away by an archaeologist’s brush, and a force like fate had placed us face to face with a familiar, clear-eyed contemporary.
Caesar and Cleopatra
The show has other moments that are almost as powerful. It is hard not to be mesmerized, for instance, by the larger-than-life-size head of Julius Caesar, carved from the same dark graywacke, quarried from the Egyptian desert, as the Boston Green Head. Or by the head of Cleopatra, made in Alexandria but discovered in Rome, where scholars believe that it may have been displayed in the home of one of Caesar’s aristocratic supporters.
As the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra was “Egyptian” only to a point. The Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt went back to Ptolemy I Soter, the Macedonian general Alexander the Great installed on the throne after he conquered Egypt, established the city of Alexandria in 332 B.C. and basically changed everything.
Ptolemy established a cult to Alexander. A posthumous sculpted head on exhibit here depicts Alexander with plump lower lip, straight nose, heavy brow and the long, wavy tresses of an Italian soccer star. He is indistinguishable, in other words, from a god.
The final section of the show traces the ways in which Rome, after Caesar, succumbed to a rage for all things Egyptian. Cults to Isis were established. Painters decorated Roman villas with Nilotic scenes featuring crocodiles and hippos.
Proud, pharaonic Egypt was reduced from its daunting, imperious status to a cheap excuse for exotica, thereby establishing for Europeans a way of picturing North Africa that would prove remarkably enduring.
Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World Through Sept. 9 at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. getty.edu.