The False Door of Iry-En-Akhet
is an example of relief sculpture
— sculpture that is carved or modeled as part of a wall, tombstone, or column and is, therefore, limited in spatial projection. Relief sculpture is most often used for architectural ornament. This false door is a sunken relief
since the image is carved into the surface.
- This relief sculpture is made of limestone, which is very durable.
- The process used was copper and/or flint chisels with hammer.
- This false door comes from the cemetery west of the Great Pyramid of Giza (near present-day Cairo). It was either part of the West wall of the offering chamber or it was on the eastern facade of the tomb.
- It served as a passageway to the afterworld for the spirit (ka) of the deceased who was buried in the tomb.
- It functioned as an altar where provisions for the ka could be left by the living.
- Both functions, therefore, were related to Egyptian belief in the afterworld.
The Egyptian language possessed only a single word for "writing" and "drawing," which proves the close connection between script and image. Hieroglyphs are pictures representing words, syllables and sounds, used in ancient Egyptian writing. Egyptian scribes developed the symbols from images of humans, animals, plants and other common objects in Egyptian life. They obey the general principles for the representation of objects in two dimensions, although some are more stylized and abstract than others. The repertoire of standard signs, instantly recognizable and differentiated from one another, remained essentially unchanged over the centuries. This type of writing retained its pictorial character to the last.
Hieroglyphs were used primarily for inscriptions on monuments such as tombs, temples and important documents. They continued to be used until the ancient Egyptian religion was suppressed in the 4th century A.D.. Hieroglyphs were held to have magical power in their own right. The owner's name, carved on a statue of a tomb owner, was essential to give the statue identity and to allow it to serve its purpose in the tomb, namely, to allow him to come back to life. In the same way, a magical papyrus was thought to have power in itself, and not merely when spells were read aloud.
Hieroglyphs were divided into three types:
- Ideograms: rendered a certain word without reference to its sound. The sign may depict the object or action signified by the word in a recognizable form, or some looser association with it e.g.: a rectangle with an opening below meant "house" the ankh signified "life." The hieroglyphic signs for the gods are true symbols; the falcon for Horus, the throne for Isis, a desert animal with arrow-like tail for Seth.
- Phonograms: used to represent sounds. The hieroglyph reproduced one consonant or a succession of two or three consonants, whereas the vowels remained unwritten. e.g.: the image of the goose was also used to write "son" since this word had the same framework of consonants.
- Determinatives: had no phonetic value. Used singly or in combination, they were placed at the end of a word to indicate its category. Thus the names of towns contained the ideogram for town; the locust was determined with the sign for bird (goose) because both fly.
In all contexts, hieroglyphic writing paid no attention to the separation of individual words. Punctuation was entirely unknown in inscriptions, and inscribed passages of continuous text very rarely marked even major divisions of the subject matter.
A hieroglyphic text can be arranged either in horizontal bands (read either from left to right or from right to left) or in vertical columns, which are always read from top to bottom. Related groups of hieroglyphic texts are often arranged symmetrically. A passage of text running from left to right is a precise mirror-image of the same text written from right to left. In the interests both of legibility and of appearance, straight lines were drawn to separate bands and columns of text, even when there was no need to divide them from other matter. Texts that accompanied representations of human beings or of gods were arranged to "face" the same way as the figures to which they belonged.
The orientation of hieroglyphs reflected the Egyptian orthogonal concept of space, which was essentially two dimensional. The ancient Egyptian was highly conscious of the box-like structure of his world, transversed by two coordinates at right angles: the south-north flow of the Nile, and the east-west passage of the sun across the ceiling of the heavens.
The final break with Egyptian cultural traditions came with the adoption of the Christian religion in the 4th century. With the closing of temples and the dispersal of the priesthood, knowledge of the hieroglyphic script, the indispensable key to understanding Egypt's past, disappeared entirely. Only with Champollian's decipherment of the ancient script in the early 19th century could the modern era of Egyptian archeology begin.
This false door is of the kind found on the mastaba1
tombs of priests and nobles who were buried in the royal necropolis of the Memphite kings during Dynasties V and VI, approximately between 2345 and 2181 B.C.
Iry is depicted seven times, four times standing and three times sitting. The figure who sat opposite Iry at the table has been worn away. During this period, the missing figure customarily would have been Iry's wife or mother. Occasionally, but rarely, Iry would have been portrayed seated here. However, in this case, the hieroglyphs next to the obliterated figure form Iry's name, which would seem to indicate that he was depicted in the damaged spot. Without the figure present, it is impossible to know for sure.
Iry was a lector-priest (one who read prayers over the deceased). Since that was a job with high status, he is shown carrying a long staff and the flat-ended baton (or wand) of authority. His costume is the typical attire for an Old Kingdom priest. He wears a short linen dress, a long wig to protect him from the sun, a short false beard, bare feet, and a collar. He is shown in the conventional Egyptian pose with profile head, legs and feet and frontal eye and torso.
On the horizontal, centrally placed tablet, Iry is represented seated before a table well-stocked with loaves of bread and other provisions. The inscription tells us: "A 1000 of bread, 1000 of beer, 1000 of alabaster, 1000 of oxen, 1000 of fowl and a 1000 of clothing." The door is covered with inscriptions (see translation on pp. 8-9) which beg that the king grant an offering so that Iry will be permitted to travel the "good paths" that the revered travel and be accepted in the land of the dead.
Notice that all of the human and animal figures, whether they are hieroglyphs or depictions of Iry, tend to face towards the central niche as this is the portion of the doorway through which the ka would pass.
Iry's name is repeated countless times to ensure the survival of his spirit in the world beyond. His name is literally Akhet-n-iry (see hieroglyphic breakdown on page 11).
The order and stability of the Egyptian society is suggested by the series of vertical and horizontal rectangles of which the false door is composed. Within these rectangles, carved pictures and figures are combined in simple, ordered groups. In addition, the balanced composition, where one side almost mirrors the other exactly, is a further reflection of the order and stability of this culture.
Aldred, Cyril, Egyptian Art in the Days of the Pharaohs, 3100-320 B.C.
, London, Thames & Hudson, 1982, pp. 13, 15-18.
Bulletin, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, March 7, 1953,
V. XLII, #10.
Bulletin, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, March 14, 1953,
V. XLII, #11.
Bulletin, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, March 21, 1953,
V. XLII #12
Dictionary of World Art, (London, Phaidon, 1996), vol. 10, pp.1-3.
Lurker, M., An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt, 1982, pp. 63-64.
Use on the following tours:
- People and Places
- African Art
- Ancient Art
- Writing in Art
- Visual Elements
- Spirituality and Art
Transitions can be made to the following:
- Any of the Egyptian objects on the basis of subject or style.
- The Assyrian Winged Genius (comparison of style and subject matter).
- The Greek Grave Stele or the Ijaw Screen to compare use of line, relief, format, and figure conventions in another relief sculpture.
- Greek or Roman sculpture, or Christian art of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, to compare "conventions" in art.
- Any of the other African doors: Yoruba door, Swahili style door, Senufo granary door.
FALSE DOOR OF IR-N-3HT
Translated by Otto J. Schaden
University of Minnesota
Department of History
A. May the king grant an offering (and) may Anubis, who is before the divine booth, grant an offering (to) the lector-priest, IR-N-3HT, (namely) that he be buried in the necropolis in the western desert (after) a very good old age before Osiris.
B. May Anubis, who is upon his hill, the Lord of the Sacred Land, grant (to) the Lector-priest, IR-N-3HT that he travel the good paths upon which the revered travel.
C. The Lector-priest, IR-N-3HT.
D. May the king grant an offering (and) may Anubis, who is before the Divine Booth and who is upon his hill, grant that he be buried
E. in the necropolis (after) a very good old age as one who performs offerings (and) who attains reverence before every god.
F. May the king grant an offering (and) may Osiris, Lord of Busiris, grant invocation-offerings to him in festivals every day;
G. The Sole-Companion, the Lector-priest, He-who-is-over the Secrets of all the Mysterious Divine Words, Great of Incense;
H. The Lector-priest, IR-N-3HT.
I. (Same as line D)
J. (Same as line E)
K. May the king grant an offering (and) may Osiris, Lord of Busiris, grant invocation-offerings to him in the necropolis.
L. The Sole-Companion, Lector-priest, He-who-is-over the Secrets of the Divine Words, Leader of the Great Ones of the South and North.
M. The Lector-priest, IR-N-3HT.
N. May the king grant an offering (and) may Osiris grant an offering (namely) that he be buried (Lit. "united to the land") in the west
O. in peace, in peace, by the western desert (after) a goodly age;
P. the Lector-priest, He-who-is-over the Secrets of the Robing-room.
Q. His nickname is IRI.
R. (Same as line N)
S. (Same as line O)
T. (Same as line P)
U. (Same as line Q)
V. The Lector-priest, IR-N-3HT.
W. A 1000 of bread, 1000 of beer, 1000 of alabaster, 1000 of oxen, 1000 of fowl, and a 1000 of (clothing).
X. Revered before the Great God (and) before Anubis who is upon his hill;
Y. the Lector-priest, He-who-is-over the Secrets of the Sky, Leader of every Divine Office,
Z. the Lector priest, IR-N-3HT.
- A mastaba (from the Arabic word mastabah meaning "bench") is an ancient Egyptian underground burial chamber marked by a bench-like mud-brick rectangular structure with inward sloping walls and a flat roof.