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Saturday, September 20, 2014

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Hollywood’s vision of the ancient world

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Ancient Egypt has played a prominent role in both the Bible and Hollywood’s vision of the ancient world. In my last column, I concluded with Hollywood’s depiction of the Finnish author Mika Waltari’s novel, The Egyptian.

Surprisingly, it was not a bad portrayal of the tumultuous events surrounding the reign of the controversial pharaoh, Akhenaten, who briefly but futilely attempted to introduce a quasi-monotheistic faith to Egypt in the middle of the 14th-century BCE. Some scholars, such as Freud, have tried to link Akhenaten to Moses, who most scholars date to about 100 years after Akhenaten.

It is the story of Moses, as told in Cecil B. DeMille’s film of The Ten Commandments, released in 1956, that has given us one of the most vivid portrayals of ancient Egypt in the cinema. In the movie, Moses is played by Charlton Heston. This film provided cinema-goers with a fairly accurate portrayal of ancient Egypt during the reign of the megalomaniac, Ramses II. That may be due to the fact that DeMille had as his historical adviser, John A. Wilson of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, who was one of the major American Egyptologists of the day. It also didn’t hurt that some of the filming was done on location in Egypt. The movie did a fine job of conveying the grandeur and majesty of that civilization that has fascinated us for such a long time.

Another empire that has fascinated Hollywood, with its grandeur, might and ties to biblical history, is ancient Rome. Again, it was Heston who played the title lead in the movie Ben Hur, which was based on a novel written by Lew Wallace (who coincidentally was governor of New Mexico in the 1880s during the time of the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid).

Ben Hur is set in the early first century CE, a time of turmoil and unrest in Judea, which had been made a Roman province by Pompey the Great in 67 BCE. Rome ruled the land through its officials, and its puppets from the family of Herod the Great. The film deals with the tumultuous events surrounding the life of Jesus Christ. It portrays the unrest of the country under the yoke of Rome and highlights the messianic hope of the populace during this era. Ben Hur also shows what life might have been like for a wealthy Jewish patrician family such as that of Judah Ben Hur.

Archeology bears out this picture of opulence that wealthy, privileged Jews enjoyed at the time thanks to the excavation of the “Burnt House” in upper Jerusalem, overlooking the Temple Mound. The house was excavated by the renowned Israeli archeologist Nachman Avigad, following the unification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967. The Burnt House has given us a vivid portrait of Jewish aristocratic life in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

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