Relief of bears and jar tribute from the Levant

The bears and the jar holding oil represented on this relief exemplify the exotic animals and precious goods among the Near Eastern booty. Territorial conquest was not the aim of these enterprises; rather it was the acquisition of raw materials, animals, and sometimes people.) Shown under the northern courtyard portico was booty from the Levant.

This fragment from the pyramid temple of Sahure is remarkable for both its content and its style. It was once part of an ensemble of reliefs celebrating the military exploits of the king that decorated the walls under the porticoes surrounding the temple’s central courtyard. In the section under the southern portico the king was depicted slaying a chief of the Libyans and receiving booty of thousands of cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats.1 (The military feats of the Old Kingdom were either raids into neighboring countries carried out to obtain booty or expeditions that had something of the character of trading ventures.

Relief of bears and jar tribute from the Levant
Relief of bears and jar tribute from the Levant

Here Syrian bears (Ursus arctos syriacus) are tethered to looped objects, possibly pierced st ones, in the ground. These animals were quite common in Levantine mountain regions in antiquity,2 and Egyptians liked to keep them in their royal zoos. Large jugs of the type depicted are known to have been imported from Canaan into Egypt beginning in the Archaic Period. Examples were found in the tombs of the kings of the first two dynasties at Abydos3 and one was among the grave goods of Queen Hetep-heres I, mother of King Khufu, at Giza.4 When they arrived in Egypt, such jugs must have been filled with the precious oils valued by upper-class Egyptians.

This fragment epitomizes the structural clarity and sensitive surface qualities that distinguish the reliefs of the Sahure pyramid complex. The figures blend beautifully with the background because most edges bordering the raised relief areas are rounded and the carved elements rise smoothly from their lowest to their highest points. Nevertheless the animals and the vase stand out clearly, as modeling is kept to a minimum. The effect is enhanced by the rather well preserved color: dark reddish brown on the vase and yellowish brown on the bears’ fur.

Old Kingdom, 5th dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Now in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. ÄM 21828


1- Borchardt 1913, pp. 10-15, 73-78 pl. I.
2- Boessneck 1988, p. 53.
3- Amiran 1969, pp. 58-66, pl. 17.
4- Reisner and Smith 1955, pp. 64-65, fig. 6r, pl. 46d.

Provenance: Abusir, pyramid temple of Sahure, north side of courtyard, Borchardt excavation for Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, 1907-8

Bibliography: Borchardt 1913, pp. 16-17, pl. 3; Priese 1991, no. 24; Grimm, Schoske, and Wildung t997, no. 23