Egyptian Bronze and Gilt Decorated Sickle Sword (Khopesh)
Egyptian · Middle Kingdom, early 2nd millennium B.C.
L: 51.3 cm (20.19 in)
A masterful rarity of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, this sword, whose distinctive shape resembles a sickle, was designed with a curved blade and straight base terminating in a tang to which the hilt with a gold knob was fixed. The intricate gilded decorations are made up of pairs of fighting animals: a ram attacked by a lion, a gazelle by a lioness/hyena; an ibex by a hyena/lion/lioness, a deer by a lion/hyena; an ox by a lion, and two fighting oxen.
The details that outline the expressive poses of each animal are artfully incised and gilded and clearly stand out against the dark background of the bronze. The form and direction of the lines correspond precisely to the individual look of the animals (the notches depicting shorthaired fur; the irregular lines imitating the spots of the oxen skin, and even bringing the sense of its contrasting colors). The abundant use of gold for the decoration suggests that this sword was a ceremonial item and belonged to a person of wealth and highest social rank.
Historically, the shape combines the advantages of the battle-axe and the cutting sword. The type was used as a weapon in the Near East in the 3rd – 1st millennia B.C.; the known finds come from sites in Mesopotamia, Levant, Anatolia, and Egypt. Scholars present different opinions of where the shape has originated, either in Mesopotamia or Egypt, but the diffusion of the shape could be the result of itinerant bronze makers. As for the chronology, two periods are recognized: the Middle Bronze Age II and Late Bronze Period, which are characterized by the difference in the ratio between handle and blade and the appearance. In the later period, the hilt was usually cast together with the blade.
Although the blade is not completely preserved in this sword, it is clear that it was sharpened only on the outside while the inside kept a dull edge that was covered with a gold sheet. There is a rib-like stem following the entire length of the sword that was cast for added strength. As a type, it corresponds to the swords classified as type 34 by R. Maxwell-Hyslop, and it is the Egyptian development of the weapon which they called khopesh, Ḫpš, loosely translated to mean “the animal’s leg.”
The earliest examples date to the 3rd millennium B.C. is known as both actual and represented items. The images demonstrate that this specific form of a real cutting weapon was reserved for a ceremonial sword, a symbol of power. Mesopotamian cylinder seals present the gods, both male, and female (Ishtar), as well as the rulers in ritual scenes, holding such swords. The excavations of the royal necropolis of Byblos revealed tombs that belong to the period corresponding to the Egyptian Twelfth Dynasty during the Middle Kingdom; tomb II contained a gold and bronze sickle sword with Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions indicating the name of the king Ibshemuabi (National Museum of Beirut).
Besides the inscriptions, a few examples of sickle swords have engraved images. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sword, with the name of Adad-nerari I, king of Assyria, 13th century B.C., has a recumbent oryx below the hilt. Images of wild and domesticated animals are also important in ancient Egyptian art, many of which are associated with the cult of deities. They appear in temple and tomb murals and painted reliefs, or as figurines, in several scenes related to domestic life and farming, sacrifices and offerings, and hunt. The wildlife of the desert, and especially the scenes of animals fighting, usually made part of the hunting iconography. Already during the Naqada Period III (ca. 3300-3100 B.C.), complex scenes of large “ceremonial” palettes depict hunters, their dogs, and several wild animals.
The decoration of this present sword is unique and does not find an immediate parallel: instead of a single image (a lotus flower, uraeus, or oryx) on known examples placed at the end of the blade or below the hilt; the entire surface of this sword is covered by complex scenes representing several fighting animals. Another rare detail is found in the scenes where there appear to be two different motives present: a peaceful “family” scene with a calf suckling a cow and an ox in the landscape marked by a tree; and a striking scene of a cow giving birth and a lion attacking the calf emerging from its mother. Giving birth is well attested in Egyptian art since the Old Kingdom; however, the attack of an emerging calf is rather rare. The last scene, although tragic, may reflect the Egyptian themes of nature’s fertility and abundance. Considering the symbolic meaning of the entire composition, the sword owner would be thought of as triumphant over the forces of chaos and uncontrolled wild nature.
The sword is in excellent condition. The gilding and gold sheet are vastly preserved, and the bronze retains an even brownish-green patina with some red cuprite. There is some tarnish on the gold. The blade, as well as the hilt, was broken off, lost, and replaced by modern additions.
Art market, prior to the 1960s;
Ex- Eli Bustros, Beirut, the 1960s;
French art market, Paris until 1977;
Ex- A.G. private collection, Zurich, Switzerland, February 26, 1977;
Ex- Private Collection, Zurich, Switzerland, 2012.
CRYSTAL 7, Geneva-New York, 2017, no. 2
TEFAF, New York, 2017.
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