Blue for the pharaoh

In the heat of this midsummer, even the meadow orchards of the Taunus are gradually losing their colors. The green is getting duller every day, the stumps on the mown rapeseed fields are bleaching like ribs of buried skeletons. And then almost all the flowers seem to have disappeared. Bees have to jostle around dull umbellifers, which hopefully will do more in the spectral sensitivity range of their insect eyes. But the only thing left for the human retina on our walk is the roses of a particularly successful allotment gardener and the now ubiquitous common chicory (Cichorium intybus) with its all the more beguiling blue-purple.

Ulf von Rauchhaupt

Editor in the “Science” section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper.

It’s a bit reminiscent of Amarna Blue. This is a pigment made from calcium sulphate and cobalt aluminate for painting pottery that was briefly fashionable in Egypt in the 14th century BC. It was already popular in the time of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, but it is named after the era of his son and successor Akhenaten, who had a new capital city built out of the desert near what is now Tell el-Amarna in central Egypt. A few years after Akhenaten’s death, Amarna was abandoned again under Tutankhamun. People resented the town’s founder for his religious policy and wanted nothing to do with him and his time, apparently not even with the recently popular color of the dishes.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Flower of the Year 2009


Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Flower of the Year 2009
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Image: dpa

A cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) has a visitor.


A cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) has a visitor.
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Image: dpa

Blue, however, continued to be popular. The Egyptians loved this color – they were even the only ones among the ancient cultures who had their own word for blue (“irtiu”) early on, while the Greeks or Hebrews still used it in the first millennium BC. BC apparently got along well without one. However, “irtiu” – similar to our “orange” – was borrowed from a paradigmatically colored natural thing: lapis lazuli. Although the Egyptians had been producing blue pigment artificially since the 5th dynasty of the pharaohs (Amenhotep and Tutankhamun belonged to the 18th), wherever possible they adorned themselves with lapis lazuli, which had to be imported from today’s Afghanistan and was therefore also seen as a status symbol suitable. Considerable amounts of the precious blue rock were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

But lapis lazuli was not the only natural blue that Tutankhamun was given to the afterlife. In his burial chambers and the three nested coffins there were a number of bouquets of flowers, the plant material of which had withered after 3245 years, but was easy to determine botanically. The color spectrum was rich, but the dominant colors were yellow and blue, the latter represented by Blue water liliesthe blue lotus, and especially the cornflower species Quick centaurea. This is closely related to our cornflower Centaurea cyanus and as a member of the daisy family, also, albeit more extensively, with the common chicory. Centaurea-Flowers, however, are darker than those of the genus chicorytheir blue is actually more that of lapis lazuli than that of Amarna pottery.

And yet, on the forehead of the anthropomorphic gold coffin containing the royal mummy, archaeologists found a single wreath of olive leaves and blossoms of only lotus and cornflower, floral that is all blue, thanks to the lotus of a lighter and purplish hue. The excavator Howard Carter once imagined that Anchesenamun, the young pharaoh’s widow, who was also his sister, had draped him there with her own hand. In memory, perhaps, of their childhood together at the court of Akhenaten, the outcast, a last greeting from Amarna.

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