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A Foreign Captive at Medinet Habu

by Elaine A. Evans, Curator, Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum


High gates

Figure 1. Left: High Gate, entrance to the Medinet Habu temple precincts; Right: Ptolemaic pylons to Small Temple, before excavations. Photographer: Bonfils, 19th Century. McClung Museum: 1996. 10.16.

The McClung Museum has been given an ancient Egyptian, hand carved and painted, sandstone fragment of a head of a foreign captive. The purpose of this article is to identify the culture group it represents and its symbolic significance. Also to be established is its original architectural orientation. In so doing, an examination will be made of parts of the imposing Mortuary Temple and Palace of Ramesses III, Dynasty XX (1198–1166 BC), dedicated to the god Amun-Re at Medinet Habu on the West Bank of the Nile in Upper Egypt. The complex was modeled after the Ramesseum, a nearby mortuary temple of Ramesses II and probably built during the peace that followed Ramesses III’s war in Year 11, when prosperity had again taken hold in Egypt. The well-preserved structures, located at the southern most end of the great Theban necropolis at the desert’s edge, mainly consists of a High Gate, earlier Small Temple, Great Temple and Palace (Figure 1). The relief fragment will be documented as having once been attached to a special wall of the Palace.

Medinet Habu is known for splendid reliefs including scenes of the king celebrating military victories and involvement in various religious ceremonies. The best preserved of all such temple compounds built during the pharaonic period, it had been early investigated by the savants of Napoleon’s famous scientific expedition beginning in 1798, followed by many Nineteenth Century scholars and those who cleared the Palace in 1912. Their work contributed to its prominence. Interest in the site continued. In 1927, under the superb direction of the German archaeologist Uvo Hölscher (1878–1963) excavations were begun to restore the whole Temple and adjoining Palace. Some startling discoveries revealed two building periods for the Palace, a second built on top of an original, first structure.1 In subsequent seasons the Palace section of the temple was further excavated.

Two Palaces Instead of One

Head of a Captive

Figure 2.
Fragmentary Head of a Captive from First Palace at Medinet Habu. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Henry G. Fischer of Connecticut, 2000. McClung Museum: 2001.1.1.

Relevant to this article is the alignment of the Palace to the adjoining Mortuary Temple and the building sequences of the Palace. An examination of the two Palace building phases will bring into focus the origins of the Museum’s relief fragment and provide the necessary data for its documentation. The sandstone acquisition represents the sculptured head of a captive (Figure 2). What remains is the proper right side of the top of the head (16.0 wide x 16.5 cm. high). Fortunately, much of its original color has been retained. The furrowed forehead, wrinkled eyelid, and nose areas are covered in black paint. The curly hair is painted a reddish tone. The pupil of the wide, open eye, set against a once white, painted eyeball, has lost most of its black paint. Above the wrinkled eyelid is a full eyebrow, which is almost devoid of its former black color. Little detail remains on the left side of the fragment, except the bridge of the nose. It is clear from these physical characteristics that the identity of the culture group is Nubian. Represented is a man from the black tribes of Kush (Nubia).

It may be noted that although Nubians were continuous foes of the Egyptians beginning in the Prehistoric Period, they had been conscripted from the southern provinces by Egyptian officials as mercenaries as early as the Old Kingdom.2 Nubians worked in various capacities including that of paid policmen, who, among other duties, kept order. In the New Kingdom the police were transformed into a corps called the Medjayu, a quasi military hierarchical police force, which assumed police operations over the whole country. The Medjayu were traditional guards, kept watch over tomb sites, including the necropolis and the capital city of Thebes and of Amarna. They played an important role as efficient soldiers in the army, continuing to provide Pharaoh’s military forces with plenty of skilled archers (Figure 3.).

model of soldiers

Figure 3. Model of Nubian Soldiers (detail). Middle Kingdom, Dynasty XI. Photographer unidentified. McClung Museum: A1 621.

Nevertheless, there was the threat of incursions to ward against and the possibility of defectors to the enemies side. During the Year 5 to Year 11 of his reign, Ramesses III had to fight major battles against the invasions of hated foes marching to take over the rich lands in the Delta. Among the foreign forces pitted against him were rebellious mercenary soldiers,3 who had previously served Egypt. Although some Nubian mercenaries continued to serve their Pharaoh well, others had become discontent. Therefore, it is not surprising to find on the walls of the complex clearly identifiable images of the Nubian as a captive. The Museum’s head attests such images were accurately detailed, racial portraits in which a sculptor caught the basic features of a Nubian male. Such representations of captured foreigners at Medinet Habu were used architecturally, no doubt to proclaim Ramesses III’s power in battle and diplomacy.

Placement in Phase One Was Important

One such placement for the relief heads was on an outside wall face of the first royal dwelling, or Palace, erected by the king for his own use, a building complete, with mostly spacious, reception rooms. The main entrance to this small Palace was through the First Court of the adjoining Great Mortuary Temple. It is in the south wall of the royal residence where a large rectangular window (39 5/8 inches wide, about 78 ¾ inches above the level of the ground) is located (Figure 4.). The importance of this window is underscored by its opening out on to the abutting Court of the Temple. The window is centered between towering columns with papyrus capitals lining a wide walkway below the window. The columns and the important, decoratively, framed window form an impressive architectural link to the Temple, making the window a grand feature is such a setting. Quite naturally so, for it functioned as “Window of Royal Appearances” for the king and according to the Harris Papyrus was made of gold. The papyrus records the words of Ramesses III: “I made for thee an august palace of the king in its midst, like the great house of Atum which is in heaven. The columns, doorposts, and doors were of electrum; the great balcony for the (royal) apppearances was of fine gold.”4

Reconstructed drawing

Figure 4. Reconstructed drawing of Window of Royal Appearances in First Palace. From Hölscher, 1930/31, Pl. III.

The monarch, after mounting the interior stairway up to the window (Figure 5.), made his momentous public “appearance” as he stood above his subjects. For purposes of its cultic function, the window probably appeared as “heaven.” There the king himself as a god “gleamed” like his father Amun-Re, King of the Gods, as he reviewed a parade in the great First Court and awarded gifts to the deserving, which he tossed down to them. Pharaoh also appeared there as a formal audience for festive occasions such as ceremonial wrestling in which foreign opponents such as Nubians participated.

The Window

Figure 5. The Window and columns of First Court. From Hölscher, Das Hohe, p. 49, Abb. 44, Figure 5.

Essential to this inquiry are the sculptural details of this window for it is the “Royal Window of Appearances” that provides the original location of the Museum’s fragment head.5 Above the window was a cavetto cornice decorated with a row of sculptured cobras in relief, but more importantly below it was a horizontal row of projecting, sculptured relief heads of twenty foreign captives. Six heads were directly under the windowsill, flanked by seven on consoles. Above the latter heads, large, wall reliefs depicted the king smiting and grasping the hair of his enemies, the Libyans, Syrians, and the Sea Peoples his most aggressive foe.

As wall scenes are similar to those found at the Ramesseum they appear borrowed. For this reason some scenes and inscriptions are believed conventional and lack actual fact. With Nubia having been Egyptianized, it would appear the Nubian war relief scenes are inconclusive and may have just illustrated “…unimportant insurrections on the extreme southern frontier, or…expeditions against the outlying tribes on the east of Nubia.”6 However, an associated inscription in the scene of Ramesses III slaying prisoners before Amun-Re on a pylon facade does seem to suggest more than skirmishes as the kng says, “Thou givest to me the land of Kush [Nubia].”7

Heads of captives

Figure 6. Heads of Captives from First Palace at Medinet Habu. From Hölscher, Medinet Habu, 1928/29, p. 13, Figure 9.

Nonetheless, like his predecessors,8 Ramessses III strove to communicate his control over foreign lands including Nubia, even though that land had become totally Egyptianized by then. The placement of the heads emphasized a traditional theme of trampling on foes to highlight a king’s triumph over the enemies of Egypt. In a long relief inscription where captives are shown before a triumphant Pharaoh, it is recorded, “(They) come forth, carried off as captives to Egypt;…bound, under the balcony,” This refers to the “Window of Royal Appearances,” of the Palace, where “Their faces behold the face of the king like Atum….” 9 These scenes were intended to cause a visual and stirring impact, in plain view of subjects standing before Pharaoh in the Court.

It is tempting to think the heads like other building materials may have been reused, 10 or were copied from the site of Ramesses II’s Palace now destroyed This is not the only location at Medinet Habu for this architectural feature. Noteworthy are the consoles supporting heads, albeit battered looking, of foreign enemies found installed on the walls of the High Gate.

However, this locale is unconvincing for the location for the Museum’s fragment as these heads are accounted for and in place. Also, although anything is possible, it highly improbable the placement of the heads were for reasons other than for those given.

Changes in Phase Two Were Significant

A direct bearing on the relief head fragment are the extensive changes made to the window during the second Palace building phase. The “Window” was enlarged and moved outwards probably to provide greater visibility for the king to see his subjects and they him. The extension was accomplished by building a stone platform out from the window to the columns. Upon the platform a wooden balcony was constructed, now the “Window,” where the king would appear. Unfortunately, this new arrangement had necessitated some architectural adjustments and destruction. The stone frame of the former window was removed, the cobra frieze was cut out from the cornice above it, and the heads of foreign captives were dislodged (Figure 6). In so doing the sculpted cobras and heads of captives were separated and dispersed. A few probably ended up as debris in another area of the complex, were re-used elsewhere, or met another fate.11 In any event one of the heads, in a fragmentary state, subsequently found its way into the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, given by a donor actively involved in excavations in the Valley of the Kings from 1903-1912.12 The fragment was deaccessioned in 1957 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of Egyptian antiquities, rescued from being sold, and after some years of safekeeping was generously given in December 2000 to the McClung Museum.


The sandstone relief was given in December 2000 to the McClung Museum by Dr. and Mrs. Henry G. Fischer of Connecticut and represents their friendly interest in adding to the Museum’s ancient Egyptian holdings.


  1. See, Hölscher, 1924–1928; see also, Hölscher, 1930-3l.
  2. My sincere thanks to Henry G. Fischer for calling my attention to Nubians as mercenaries called the Medjayu. See, Fischer, pp. 44-80, for more on this subject .
  3. See, John Romer, People of the Nile. New York: Crown Publishers, 1982, p. 118; p. 123.
  4. Breasted, IV, p. 115, 192 ; see also, Breasted, IV, p. 115, note c.
  5. I am indebted to Henry G. Fischer for kindly providing the reference for Figure 3., location, donor, and MMA accession number.
  6. See, Murnane, p. 271, note 8., for an example of a stone block bearing the name of Ramesses II under the “Window” at Medinet Habu, which originally occupied a similar position at the Ramesseum.
  7. Breasted, IV, p. 89, 136.
  8. Breasted, IV, p. 81, note a.
  9. See, Jacques Vandier, Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne, IV. Paris: A. et J. Picard et Cie., 1964, p. 649, Figure 356, VIII, for one of the scenes from Amarna showing the royal couple King Akhenaton and Queen Nefertiti at the “Window of Royal Appearances,” looking down to their adoring subjects. Beneath the balcony ledge is a frieze of bound captives.
  10. My sincere appreciation to John Larson, Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, for bringing my attention to their relief head, Chicago 14648, and reference to it in Hölscher,Mortuary Temple, Pl. 33 F.
  11. Breasted, IV, p. 23, 42.
  12. Formerly MMA 14.6.55, donated by Theodore M. Davis in 1913.


James Henry Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, IV. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962.

R.O. Faulkner, “Egypt: From the Inception of the Nineteenth Dynasty to the Death of Ramesses III” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. II, Chapter XXIII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

Henry G. Fischer, The Nubian Mercenaries of Gebelein During the First Intermediate Period” in Kush: Journal of the Sudan Antiquities Service, vol. 9, 1961, pp. 44-80.

Uvo Hölscher, Medinet Habu 1924-1928. II The Architectural Survey of the Great Temple and Palace of Medinet Habu (season 1927-28). OIC, No. 5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929.

___________, Das Hohe Tor von Medinet Habu. Leipzig:
J.C. Hinricks, 1910.

___________, Medinet Habu Studies 1928/29. I TheArchitectural SurveyOriental Institute Communications, No. 7. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930.

___________, Excavations at ancient Thebes 1930-31. OIC, No. 15, 1932.

___________, The Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, Part I. Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. LIV. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

William Murnane, The Penquin Guide of Ancient Egypt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penquin Books, 1983.

Selected Web Resources

The Theban Mapping Project

Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III, University of Memphis