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Surrounded by the harsh deserts of northeastern Africa, ancient Egyptians flourished along the narrow but lush banks of the Nile River. From about 4000 to 3000 BCEtheir prehistoric art consisted primarily of finely crafted, relatively small works, often placed in shallow graves dug in the desert sand. Thus, from its beginning, Egyptian art had a strong association with life after death. Around 3000 BCE Egypt witnessed a dramatic transformation, whose central aspects were the unification of the Nile valley under the rule of a king—a Pharaoh—and the invention of hieroglyphs, a pictographic form of writing.
Simultaneously, Egyptian patrons and artists created a highly original style of royal art. As demonstrated by works in this gallery, for three thousand years they adhered relatively closely to its forms, creating some of the most fascinating art—and architecture—in the history of humankind.
While often strikingly beautiful, Egyptian works did not have merely decorative or aesthetic functions. They could also express the status and power of the gods and the Pharaohs; more important, Egyptian imagery could magically substitute for people, things, and acts. When combined with appropriate inscriptions, for example, images could assure a successful afterlife in the tomb, or provide eternal worship of the gods.