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Relief fragment of Isi and Rekhti

Old Kingdom reliefs set the stylistic standards for centuries to come. In addition, they reveal much about what defined the society that created them: a sincere appreciation for human existence and its many delights, a deep reverence for the gods and the pharaoh, and above all else an unwavering faith in the promises of the afterlife. It is no wonder that the great majority of them were found in funerary monuments. The reliefs themselves were meant not to be enjoyed aesthetically in life, but to magically manifest that what is depicted into reality upon death. Shown here is an intriguing fragment of such a relief, showing four standing and striding figures, two male and two female, together with several figures of children accompanying them. Three columns of hieroglyphic inscriptions separate the adult figures.

The two female figures are shown standing upright, in a tightly clinging dress, sniffing a blue lotus flower, an ancient Egyptian symbol of rebirth. The columns on their right bear identical inscriptions, revealing that they represent the same woman: "King's (Female) Acquaintance, Priest(ess) of Hathor of the Sanctuary of Unas, Rekhti."

The two male figures carry a staff and scepter, signaling authority. Only one column of text remains to allow identification, but it is likely that here, too, the same man is represented twice. On the other hand, it should be noted that the two male figures are each wearing a different type of wig. In any case, the remaining inscription reads: "Venerated One with Unas, the King's Noble, Isi."

It is obvious from their titles and iconography that both Isi and Rekhti were of high social status, serving under pharaoh Unas (r. ca. 2375 - 2345 B.C.). Although the inscriptions don't explicitly say so, it is almost certain that they were married couple and that the figures standing at their feet represent their children, who are also named. One of them, the girl in the third register on the right of Rekhti, is named after the king: Neferwy-sut-Unas ("Beautiful are the places of Unas").

Ruling over Egypt during times of economic decline, king Unas (r. ca. 2375 - 2345 B.C.) was the last pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty. His royal pyramid in Saqqara was the smallest of those completed during the Old Kingdom, but it is notable for being the very first to include the so-called Pyramid Texts, a series of magic spells and one of the oldest religious writings from ancient Egypt to survive. The texts identify the king with Ra and Osiris and were meant to help assure him of the eternal afterlife. He is also remembered for building a 750 meter long causeway between his pyramid and his mortuary temple, which was lavishly decorated with very high quality reliefs.

During the slow but steady decline of the Old Kingdom, high officials were building increasingly larger and elaborate funerary monuments. For example, the mastaba of Mereruka, vizier to king Teti, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, counts no less than 33 chambers. Some scholars consider this development to indicate that wealth and power in Egypt was gradually shifting from the royal family to rivaling provincial nobles, which eventually resulted in the fall of the Old Kingdam and the advent of the First Intermediary Period.

However, Unas' funerary cult, established at his death, lasted well into the Middle Kingdom. He may even have been venerated as a local god up until the Late Period (ca. 664 - 332 B.C.), nearly two thousand years after his death. The full extent of this worship and its relation to the historical figure of King Unas remains unclear, however.

Object information

Date and place:
Egypt, Old Kingdom, Vth Dynasty, reign of Unas, ca. 2375 - 2345 B.C.
44 x 107 cm
Private collection Jane Davis Doggett, Florida; Sotheby's New York, 31 May 1997, lot 40; Collection Lucien Viola, Galerie L'Ibis, New York; Ernst Kofler (1899-1989) and Marthe Truniger (1918-1999) collection, Lucerne.

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Object images

  • Relief fragment of Isi and Rekhti, Old Kingdom, Vth Dynasty, reign of Unas, ca. 2375 - 2345 B.C., Limestone, Egypt
    © Axel Vervoordt - Jan Liégeois
  • Relief fragment of Isi and Rekhti, Old Kingdom, Vth Dynasty, reign of Unas, ca. 2375 - 2345 B.C., Limestone, Egypt