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In this article we’re going to discover marks of Ancient Egypt that we can see in this city of seven hills. These are not artefacts from that pre-classical ancient civilisation that developed thousands of years ago on the banks of the River Nile. We’ve already told you about those in the article Ancient Egyptian Art in the Museums of Lisbon. This time we’ll dedicate our attention to contemporary Egyptian-inspired elements that you can find throughout the city.
Ancient Egypt is, undoubtedly, a remarkable moment in the history of humanity for the grandeur, peculiarity and beauty of its artistic production. This millenary civilisation, which had fallen into oblivion by Europeans, was rediscovered at the end of the 18th century, during the Napoleonic campaigns and immediately aroused the curiosity and interest of intellectuals and artists. Always surrounded by mystery and fascination, it was reproduced and reinvented in decorative elements like furniture, architecture, tombs… due to the romantic revivals of the 19th century. Such was the impact on the amount of transactions of original pieces, forgeries and reinventions, all over the world, that it was a time of true Egyptomania.
Lisbon isn’t particularly rich in examples of this theme, but we have gathered around a dozen art pieces that will arouse your curiosity.
Are there more? Certainly. These are just a few suggestions where you can start your “treasure hunt” of marks of Ancient Egypt in Lisbon.
Sphinxes, Guardians or Demons
Sphinxes are mythical beings whose representations originate from Ancient Egypt, but were reinterpreted by the ancient Greeks. The Egyptian sphinx is an anthropomorphic creature that associates a lion’s body with a human head, usually a pharaoh with his nemes, the iconic striped turban. Sometimes it’s also represented with a ram’s head. It is a guardian, strong, solar, in a lying position, static and serene, as befits the Egyptian mentality that focuses on maet, that means: justice, truth, order, balance, harmony.
The Greek reinterpretation of the sphinx gives it a different character. Here the guardian transforms into a demon, symbol of destruction and bad luck. The posture becomes erect, ready to devour the unwary, the lion’s body gains eagle wings and sometimes the tail of a snake, the head and chest often become of a woman’s.
These last representations reappeared with the Renaissance and since then have become part of the classical aesthetic that was reproduced as a decorative element in different supports, gaining so many variations and dynamics over time that we often no longer immediately recognise them as sphinxes.
With the exception of Ega Palace, the examples of sphinxes that we point out as marks of Ancient Egypt are ambiguous because they combine characteristics of both civilisations. This fact can be interpreted as a reflection of the lack of concern with rigour or even lack of knowledge, being creativity, fantasy and decorative sense more relevant.
In the Pompeii Hall of Ega Palace, currently occupied by Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino (overseas historical archive), there are representations of these fantastic creatures in the decorative paintings of neoclassical style that embellish the ceiling. This work was commissioned by the then property’s owner, the 2nd Count of Ega, Aires José Maria de Saldanha.
In this painting from 1807, the sphinxes have the characteristics of Greek demons, full of dynamism and movement; they seem to assume the role of guardians when framing the scenes of the medallions, present all around this magnificent noble hall.
Quinta da Alfarrobeira
At Quinta da Alfarrobeira, a baroque recreational property from the first half of the 18th century, today very transformed and current headquarters of the São Domingos de Benfica Civil Parish, there are two large sphinxes that top a garden gate.
Their lion bodies are lying down and their heads are decorated with a very creative nemes, their busts have female breasts and their heads turn vigorously back, aspects that contradict the Egyptian imagination.
Its position is also far from this aesthetic; instead of guardians lining the path that separates them, they are slanted and back to back, in a somewhat theatrical pose, pretending to be unaware of their surroundings.
There are undoubtedly two beautiful pieces, the result of the creative freedom of the 19th century romantic revival, present in a surprising space.
Andrade Pharmacy, located at 125 Rua do Alecrim, is also dated from the 19th century, more precisely 1837. This is one of the oldest establishments in the city and it is classified as a Lojas com História (historic shop).
Its interior is enriched with a beautiful ceiling with stucco work along with the original furniture. This is made up of exotic wood shelves whose corners are topped by fluted half columns, on which four golden sphinxes are located.
Here, we can see small lion bodies with large female heads and protuberant busts. This disproportion makes us think of the superposition of the human (rational) over the animal (natural instinct). Present in the four corners of the space, they position themselves as guardians of the secrets of the medicine recipes that were produced in this pharmacy, a symbol that combines wisdom and secrecy.
Quinta das Laranjeiras
At Quinta das Laranjeiras, in addition to sphinxes, we also found other signs of Ancient Egypt.
Once made up of a palace, theatre, gardens and woods, Quinta das Laranjeiras is the result of the merger, in 1877, of Quinta de Santo António, whose origins date back to the end of the 17th century, with Mata das Águas Boas and Quinta dos Barnacenas, by its then owner, Commander José Pereira Soares. Since 1905, the Lisbon Zoo occupies most of its area.
The Laranjeiras Palace and the Thalia Theatre, with entrance from the Estrada das Laranjeiras, date back to the first decades of the 19th century when the property belonged, first to the 1st Baron of Quintela, and then to his son, Joaquim Pedro Quintela, 2nd Baron of Quintela and 1st Count of Farrobo. He was responsible for the improvements, beautification and fame of the property, where he promoted memorable parties and shows that even gave rise to the expression forrobodó, a term derived from the title Farrobo.
In the Thalia Theatre we can find four sphinxes aligned that flank the accesses to the three entrance doors. In addition to being protective guardians, they give monumentality to the neo-classical building, marked by the architectural cornice formed by four columns that support a triangular pediment, crowned by two decorative urns and the muse Thalia.
In the free access area of the Zoo, with entry from Sete Rios, we come across another sphinx near a curious suspension bridge. It is made up of four columns, with palm-shaped capitals, on which four identical statues of Egyptian men can be seen. With bodies more Greek than Egyptian but still in a frontal attitude, they are dressed in short skirts and turbans that reveal their identity. The shape of their hands indicates that they had wielded spears, which is why they are possibly a representation of guards.
In the direction of the Palace and the boxwood gardens, there is an alley, now integrated in the Zoo but visible from the free access area, where an obelisk of considerable dimensions marks a visit of King João VI to the property.
Obelisks, Pyramids and Other Marks of Ancient Egypt
The marks of Ancient Egypt in Lisbon are not limited to sphinxes and human figures such as those from the Zoo or the Egyptian of Torel Garden to which we have already dedicated an article. Architectural structures such as obelisks and pyramids are also equally present.
The obelisks are a stone pillar with a quadrangular base that tapers towards the top and which is topped by a pyramid. It is a solar symbol of exaltation and protection, originating in Ancient Egypt which was erected with a commemorative character. Inscriptions were engraved on their sides with the description of the deeds or personalities to be praised.
The greatest example present in Lisbon would be the Monument to the Restauradores (restorers), a large obelisk of 30 metres, implanted in the square with the same name, on April 28, 1886, which commemorates the restoration of Portugal’s independence, on December 1, 1640.
But we can find other smaller obelisks, for example related to funerary monuments in historic cemeteries. There are numerous, of different sizes, but we can highlight for its greatness the obelisk that marks the underground tomb of José Elias Garcia (1830-1891), a prominent army member, intellectual and republican Freemason who was alderman and mayor of Lisbon, built in the Cemetery of Alto de São João.
More exotic and directly related to the idea of death, preservation of memory and eternity in Ancient Egypt, are the pyramids that, with the same intention, appear here associated with tombs.
We highlight as examples in the Prazeres Cemetery the grandiose mausoleum of the Dukes of Palmela (1849); in Alto de São João Cemetery, the tomb of the Pizani family (built in its likeness in 1852); or in the British Cemetery, the tomb of the German general Christian August, 3rd prince of Valdeck, who died in Sintra in 1798.
The latter also has two urns to which four figures are leaning against which, apparently, take us back to Ancient Egypt but which, unfortunately, are headless. Around the urns, in a decorative band with classical aesthetic, are small winged sphinxes.
These three funerary monuments are undeniably spectacular but they are not unique and if we’re attentive we can see that the theme of the pyramids is recurrent.
Other Marks of Ancient Egypt from the 20th Century
If so far the examples mentioned of marks of Ancient Egyptian are all from the 19th century when this aesthetic was more appreciated and exalted, we must not fail to point out two interventions of the 20th century that seem unavoidable: the monument in honour of Calouste Gulbenkian and the Tombo Tower.
The first is a large sculpture located in the gardens of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and dating from 1965. By Leopoldo de Almeida (1898-1975), it reproduces in bronze and stone a photograph of the collector, taken in Egypt in 1934, where he is seated at the base of the statue of the mighty falcon-shaped god Horus, god of the heavens and light, a guardian permanently attentive and ready to fight the darkness.
In turn, the Tombo Tower is a building located in the Alameda da Cidade Universitária, opened in 1990 and designed by the architect Arsénio Cordeiro (1940-2013). Its composition contains symbolic elements, some of them related to Ancient Egypt. Its configuration resembles the pylons of ancient temples that overlap the base of a pyramid. Constructions then conceived for eternity, in an aesthetic here perfectly suited to a building destined to contain the national historical archive. We have already told you about the particularities of this building in Tombo Tower, a Temple Guarded by Gargoyles, an article that we now suggest you to re/read.
The marks of Ancient Egyptian that we’ve been talking about are, in general, incoherent representations that associate elements of different inspirations but whose meaning remains within the spirit of the ancient Egyptians: protection, preservation of memory and monumentality.
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