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Senwosret III

Face of Senwosret III

Today, I've got something a little different for you - our first foray into the Middle Kingdom! Encompassing Dynasties 11 -13 (2055 - 1756 B.C.E.), the Middle Kingdom was Egypt's "Classical Age," producing vast amounts of evocative artwork and literature. Like the New Kingdom, this era of Egyptian history also had its fair share of powerful military pharaohs, among them today's subject: Senwosret III.

The fifth king of Dynasty 12, Senwosret III is a significant figure in ancient Egyptian history for a number of reasons. During his reign (1878 -1840 B.C.E.), the pharaoh embarked on a program of political and religious reform, transferring power away from provincial governors and other small-scale officials to the larger mechanism of the Egyptian government. Senwosret also launched numerous military campaigns in Syria-Palestine and Nubia. As a result of this military aggression, pharaoh succeeded in expanding Egypt’s borders to the Second Cataract of the Nile in modern-day Sudan. To keep an eye on Egypt’s southern neighbor, the king commissioned extensions to the preexisting fort at Buhen and constructed a channel through the First Nile Cataract near Elephantine, to expedite the flow of food, supplies, and personnel between the two countries.

Senwosret III was also a prolific builder, constructing an impressive pyramid for himself and his family. Like multiple Old Kingdom monarchs before him, the king chose to build at Dahshur (south of Cairo), one of the traditional cemetery grounds of the pharaohs. Unfortunately, today Senwosret’s glorious monument is in quite a sad state. Over the course of millennia, the pyramid’s original limestone casing was stripped away by tomb robbers, leaving the mudbrick core of the structure exposed. This structure has since deteriorated from an initial height of sixty-two meters to a crumbling mound of twenty-one meters.

What I find most intriguing about Pharaoh Senwosret III is how the king chose to depict himself in official artwork. To even the most inexperienced eye, the statuary from Senwosret’s reign seems remarkably…different than the more conventional works of his predecessors. With droopy, piercing eyes, a wrinkled face, and large, unwieldily ears, Senwosret's visage is a far cry from the youthful, idealized image of an Egyptian pharaoh. Why is this so? Perhaps this is what the king actually looked like; perhaps not. Another probable explanation is that Senwosret III, like many of the monarchs who came before and after him, wanted to send a message to his subjects and used his officially comissioned artwork to do so. By depicting himself as an old, careworn leader, Senwosret may have been trying to communicate his great wisdom (gained with age), and just how much his tireless work as the protector of Egypt had taken a toll on him. Perhaps his striking image and bulging, blank eyes were meant to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies; perhaps not. The true motive behind Senwosret's unusual artistic style might have been a combination of all three explanations, or his reasoning may have lain elsewhere. All we know for sure is that Pharaoh Senwosret III's memory has endured as one of the most successful military and political leaders of ancient Egyptian history.

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