This sandstone relief panel, which is not inscribed, depicts a pharaoh to the right. He is bare-footed and bare-chested and wears a broad collar and double crown, symbolic of his suzerainty over the delta and the valley, the two geographic areas of Egypt which together formed the Two Lands of his realm. His power and might are emphasized by the tail of a bull which has been attached to the belt of his traditional kilt and, via the principle of sympathetic magic, imbues the pharaoh with all of that mighty animal’s characteristics. He proffers a nu-jar in each of his open palms; these vessels traditionally contained liquid offerings, such as wine, beer, or milk, but since pharaoh is offering to Isis, one can assume that these nu-vessels are to be understood as ritual milk jars, evocative of the nurturing nature of the goddess Isis.
The goddess Isis to the left is wearing the traditional, forming fitting, tightly-clinging sheath which was the staple of the female wardrobe in ancient Egypt. It has short-sleeves and reaches to the level of her ankles. Like pharaoh she is bare-footed and wearing a broad collar. The hand of her right arm, held parallel to the side of her body, holds an ankh-sign, the symbol of life, while the hand of her bent left arm holds the papyrus staff, the traditional attribute of goddesses.
Her headdress consists of an unstriated, tri-partite wig, the lappets of which cascade over her shoulders and broad collar. On top of this is the vulture crown, its tail and head distinctly visible at the front and back of the goddess’ head. This headdress reinforced the maternal characteristics of Isis. This is in turn topped by a modius, or circular support, from which the traditional attributes of the goddess are attached. These consist of a pair of cow horns, appropriated from the cow-goddess Hathor to indicate the fecund aspect of Isis, fronted by a solar disc, indicative of her cosmic powers. Superimposed upon the sun disc is a short-backed throne, the hieroglyph spelling the name “Isis,” which thus insures the identification of the entire scene.
Both Isis and the pharaoh stand on a groundline, beneath which is a horizontal, star-spangled border designed to resemble the hieroglyph for “sky,” which served as the upper frame for the scene which stood below this rectangular panel. That star-spangled sky-sign indicates that this relief originally came from a royal temple. The fact that it is sculpted in sandstone suggests that this temple was erected either in Upper Egypt or in Nubia, since sandstone is the principle building material of those regions. The fact that pharaoh offers to Isis narrows down the possibilities of the original location of the temple. Sandstone temples to Isis were erected in great numbers from Aswan to the south into Lower Nubia.
The modernly abstract design of the relief which does not employ incision for details of the kilt or the broad collars is in keeping with the complete absence of any inscriptions in the fields before the two figures. On the other hand, the corpulence of the full-figure of Isis with her pronounced thighs, buttocks, tummy, and breast are in keeping with design tenets for the female figure during the Ptolemaic Period, to which era this relief panel is assigned.
The Ptolemaic era is named after the Macedonian Greek Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, who was an older contemporary of Alexander the Great and one of his best generals. Upon the death of Alexander, this Ptolemy seized Egypt as his re
alm and proclaimed himself pharaoh in 305/304 BC, thereby inaugurating the dynasty, called the Ptolemaic in his honor, whose descendants were to rule Egypt as pharaohs until the death by suicide of his distant descendant, Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. The Ptolemies were particular fond of Isis and promoted her worship both at Philae, to the south of Aswan, and in Lower Nubia where they erected Egyptian-styled temples in her honor.
Because of the longevity of the relief style employed by the Egyptian craftsmen in the employ of the Ptolemaic Court, it is currently not possible to assign this relief to a more specific reign. Nevertheless, it is significant to note that this relief style is identical to that used to depict Cleopatra the Great herself on the rear wall of her temple at Dendera where she is shown in adoration before the goddess Isis on the left hand side. The relief, therefore, evokes the glories of the Ptolemaic dynasty and is a reminder of the lasting impact its pharaohs in general and Cleopatra in particular had upon the destiny of the Western world.
Robert Steven Bianchi, Cleopatra’s Egypt. Age of the Ptolemies (Brooklyn 1988), page 56, for the representation of Cleopatra VII, called the Great, on the rear wall of the Temple at Dendera, and pages 69, 109-111, 122-123, passim, for the style in which these full-figured women are depicted.
Wolfgang Helck and Eberhard Otto, Kleines Lexikon der Ägyptologie (abridged by R. Drenkhahn) (Wiesbaden 1999), pages 132-133, for a succinct discussion of the Egyptian cult of Isis and her association with the throne-hieroglyph and its significance as a emblem of power and its associations with the Egyptian [royal] house.
R. E. Wit, Isis in the Graeco-Roman World (London 1971), for the popularity of this goddess in the Ptolemaic Period.