Tell el-Dab’a: Late Minoan wall paintings


Freeze of Taureador from Palace F (Graphic: OREA)

Two of the palaces of the famous ancient Egyptian naval base Peru-nefer near Tell el-Dab‘a/‘Ezbet Helmi in the eastern Nile Delta, which date to the reign of Hatshepsut/Thutmose III and Amenhotep II, were embellished with Minoan wall paintings (see project ‘Ancient Egyptian palaces’). Unfortunately, they were no longer in situ on the walls, but had fallen to the ground, as they had been painted on hard lime plaster unsuitable for the mud-brick walls of the palace (as such soft building materials shrink over time). From there they were picked up, taken out of the palace and dumped down the landing of the entrance ramp or disposed of in several middens near the beginning of the ramp.

The reconstruction of the painted scenes from thousands of plaster fragments is a challenge of the highest order. Only about 5–20 % of the former wall paintings are preserved. They are reconstructed now with the best of knowledge of the entire corpus of Minoan and Mycenaean art, including the small finds and glyptic art. This requires a team of the best specialists of these sectors of Aegean art. Works on restoration and reconstruction will take years if not decades to complete.

The wall paintings date to the first half of the reign of Thutmose III. Their unexpected occurrence in Egypt is seen as an expression of a trend in the eastern Mediterranean area to incorporate Minoan themes of rulership as symbolic images for the decoration of palaces. Minoan wall paintings, and imitations of Minoan wall paintings, were found in palaces at Alalakh, Qatna, and Kabri and now in northern Egypt in the most important port city in Egypt. The decoration of the palace complexes of Peru-nefer is accompanied by the appearance of representations of Cretan delegations with prestige goods in elite tombs of the necropolis of the residence in Thebes. At the same time, the influence of Minoan art can be noticed both in terms of the ornaments and in the style of the Theban grave paintings, for instance in the composition and the movement of animals, such as natural trot and flying gallop.

The paintings in the palaces are applied to lime plaster when wet – a technique (buon fresco) that was unknown in Egypt until the reign of Thutmose III and can be traced to the Aegean. Further technical details such as cord impressions to segment the walls and the use of templates to draw consistent figures on the wet wall plaster with styluses also point to the origin of the painting schools in the Aegean area. Likewise, colour conventions such as the use of blue instead of green, or blue instead of grey and black are typical for Minoan art. 

Unlike in other Minoan wall paintings of the eastern Mediterranean, there are themes represented in Ezbet Helmi that are only known from the palatial context of Knossos. These motifs include the half-rosette frieze – probably an emblem of the Palace of Knossos – and emblematic animals, like a lion, a leopard, and a griffin with wings in the same size as in the palace of Knossos. These most likely belonged to the throne room in Palace F. Moreover, two scenes with bull leapers and bull grapplers in small format have been discovered, one composed against the background of a labyrinth and the other against the backdrop of a rocky landscape. Since bull scenes are so far only known as wall paintings from the palace of Knossos (apart from the late Mycenaean palaces), a direct link between the Egyptian court and the court of Knossos becomes more evident. Moreover, a strong Minoan influence on Egyptian art can be recognised in Theban tomb paintings and in Egyptian small art.

Other motifs in the palaces of Peru-nefer during the reign of Thutmose III and Hatshepsut include felines such as leopards hunting fallow deer, or lions that follow and kill ungulates. In addition, there are also people who hunt, such as Akrimis hunting wild animals with dogs. Perhaps they are also the ones who follow the felines and thus represent the uppermost elite in the hierarchy in nature in art – a motif found in the Middle East and the Aegean. There are also ritual scenes against the backdrop of painted stone facades. Apart from these small-scale scenes, remnants of large-scale representations of humans and animals, including cattle, lions and leopards can be seen. Noteworthy is the life-size representation of a woman in a flounced skirt with hoop anklets in blue, representing silver. It is unclear whether it is the representation of a worshiper, a lady of the elite or a goddess.

Particularly noteworthy are plaster reliefs with representations of bulls, lions or griffins and possibly of athletes, including the appearance scene of a young man holding a rod in his outstretched hand – a motif well known from glyptic arts. Plaster reliefs as medium of art can be taken again as an indication of close ties with the court of Knossos.

In association with the clearly recognizable connections of the palaces of Peru-nefer (Tell el-Dab‘a/‘Ezbet Helmi) with the Minoan world, particularly to Knossos, Papyrus EA10056 at the British Museum comes to mind. Besides listing materials for repairing ships in the docks of the naval base at Peru-nefer, it also mentions Keftiu ships, which so far have been considered by Egyptology as a Cretan type of ship. As this term is only known in the time of Thutmose III, one could now seriously consider them as original Cretan ships that were maintained in the Egyptian naval base. The Minoan wall paintings in the palaces of this base would endorse such an interpretation. It seems that Egypt during the earlier part of the Thutmoside Period actively sought proximity to the Minoan thalassocracy to promote strategic development towards a maritime power.