Tjetji and Autobiography

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Tjetji and Autobiography


Art and Life . Tjetji’s autobiography provides a good example of this literary form in the First Intermediate Period (circa 2130–1980 b.c.e.) and the integration of words and pictures in Egyptian art. It reflects traditions of the late Old Kingdom and anticipates the best of Dynasty 11. It is carved on a stela that is divided into three unequal fields. At the top is a fourteen-line, horizontal, autobiographical inscription reading right to left. The lower left portion depicts Tjetji facing right, in high raised relief, with two members of his staff; a small figure presents offerings before him. The lower right field is an elaborate, five-line, vertical offering-prayer listing wishes for the afterlife.

Revived Tradition . Tjetji’s autobiography revives an Old Kingdom literary tradition nearly two hundred years after its disappearance. In Tjetji’s era, autobiographies typically praised nomarchs’ efforts on behalf of their nomes. But Tjetji, a court official, returns to an Old Kingdom theme: the ideal of service to the king. He makes constant reference to his success at carrying out the king’s wishes. This ideal would continue to dominate subsequent autobiographies written during the Middle Kingdom. Tjetji recounts his service as Overseer of the Seal Bearers of the King to Wahankh Intef II (2102–2063 b.c.e.) and Nakht-neb-tep-nefer Intef III (2063–2055 b.c.e.), establishing for historians the order of these kings. Tjetji also describes the borders of the Theban kingdom just before the reunification of Egypt under Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II (2008–1957 b.c.e.). These borders stretch from Elephantine Island in the south to Abydos in the north. The text is limited in length by the size of the stela, unlike later, extended autobiographies that were carved on tomb walls. Yet, Tjetji’s use of the Egyptian language is striking and eloquent. Ronald J. Leprohon, in a conference paper, has recently suggested that this elaborate language, structured in tight grammatical patterns, derives from the deceased’s own efforts to attain the ancient Egyptian ideal of “perfect speech.”

Unusual Hieroglyphs . Many commentators have noted the unusual shapes of some common hieroglyphs in this inscription. The ms-sign in line one used to write the word “to give birth, to create,” for example, could be read as an elaborate ankh-sign used to write the word “to live.” The scribe has created a visual pun that the ancient reader would surely have noticed.

Details . The relief, like the text above it, relates to the end of the Old Kingdom and anticipates the mature Theban style of Dynasty 11. The large figure of Tjetji and the subsidiary figures of his Seal Bearer, Magegi, and his Follower, Tjeru, exhibit the features of this style. Cyril Aldred has identified the sharp ridge defining the edge of the lips, the accentuation of the muscles at the base of the nose, and the long ear lobes as typical of both late Dynasty 6 and mature Dynasty 11 relief styles. Edna R. Russmann has identified these same characteristics as elements of the Old Kingdom “second style,” ancestor of the Theban style that is recognizable here. The Theban style also included high raised relief, deep sunk relief, and incised details. Gay Robins has pointed out the typically narrow shoulders, high small of the back, and lack of musculature in the male figures. Details of Tjetji’s face are also typical of the Theban style. The eye is large, outlined by a flat band representing eye paint, and extended to form a cosmetic line that widens at its outer end; the inner corner of the eye dips sharply downward; and its eyebrow appears flat rather than following the curve of the eye. The nose is broad, while the lips are thick and protruding. The lines of the lips end at a vertical line, representing

the cheek, rather than meeting in a point. The layout and contents of the offerings spread before Tjetji are also typical of this period.

Other Differences . The vertical columns of the offering prayer and afterlife wishes, written from right to left, lead the eye toward the main figure. Previously the offering prayer was included in the introduction to the autobiography. Tjetji’s stela illustrates the changed position of the prayer that will continue into the Middle Kingdom.

High Standards and Unification . Tjetji’s stela clearly demonstrates the high standards of language and relief carving that had been established in Thebes before political unification with Lower Egypt. These standards and their connection to the previous period of political unity perhaps point toward conscious political plans for reunifying the country during early Dynasty 11.


Cyril Aldred, “Some Royal Portraits of the Middle Kingdom in Ancient Egypt,” Ancient Egypt in the Metropolitan Museum Journal, volumes I-II (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977), p. 5.

Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Autobiographies Chiefly of the Middle Kingdom: A Study and an Anthology (Freiburg & Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988), pp. 39.

Edna R. Russmann, “A Second Style in Egyptian Art of the Old Kingdom,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo, 51 (1995): 278.