CONSTRUCTION OF AN EGYPTIAN
Boat-shaped or "naviform" harp.
Fresco from the 18th Dynasty tomb of Zeserkaresomb in Thebes.
The scene above is one of the many beautiful wall paintings in the 20th dynasty (1200 B.C.) tomb of INHERKHAU and his wife WEBET in Deir el-Medina near Thebes, Egypt. Inherkhau was an overseer of the artisans who worked on the tombs of pharaohs and nobles in the Valley Of The Kings and surrounding area. The painting shows him and his wife enjoying the music of a harpist who is playing a 22 string arched harp. The harpist, whose mouth is open, appears to be singing, and the lyrics of his song (which praises Inherkhau) are written in black-on-white hieroglyphs directly behind him. One of the interesting details of this harp is that the artist has shown 22 strings (three full octaves) but has clearly illustrated 36 pegs (five full octaves) on the same instrument. Why the discrepancy? Tomb painters often took liberties with the details of their frescoes and I believe that the musician's harp actually did have 36 strings but there wasn't enough room to portray them all accurately without reducing the proportions considerably. Notice that both the harpist's arms are on the same side of the instrument, a position in which it would be impossible to play, and Webet who is raising her left arm in a sign of approval, is clearly displaying a right hand on the end of it!
The period known as the NEW KINGDOM (roughly 1600 B.C. to 1100 B.C.) was a rich and prosperous era in Egyptian history, and included the reigns of some of its most celebrated pharaohs, including the enigmatic Queen Hatshepsut, the boy-king Tutankhamun and the great "heretic pharaoh" Akhenaten (and his wife, the legendary Queen Nefertiti). The photos above show two types of standing Egyptian arched harps. These instruments were played by both men and women but their design and construction varied greatly. They were generally made of cedar (or sycamore) and animal skin, and were heavily decorated.
Here is my design illustration for a 5 foot high, 21 string harp (left) along with the finished shell for the instrument. It is made entirely of materials available to ancient Egyptians: cedar and glue. I have avoided using nails or screws. The wood has been covered with a coat of white alkyd primer. I put a standard yardstick in the photo for reference. Due to the number of strings, they will be placed parallel to one another roughly one half inch apart. Some arched harps appear to have had a "fan" type of string placement, but the more strings on the instrument, the less room there is for irregular spacing of that sort.
This is a view from the bottom end of the harp which will be left open to facilitate passing the strings through the animal skin that will eventually be stretched over the resonating chamber. The outside curve of the back has been constructed with 1 inch cedar slats placed from side to side across the "spine" of the instrument which consists of laminated cedar in a solid piece from top to bottom of the harp.
The original harps of this sort had a separate, unattached wooden strip that ran the entire length of the center of the soundbox immediately beneath the skin. The strings came through the strip from underneath passing through a tiny hole in the hide. The pressure of the strings pulling upward held the strip in place and kept constant tension on the skin.
The strings of my harp will pass over the neck and attach to the pegs like the strings on the above instrument. This harp (which is of a different design than my own) seems to have been well used. The friction and pressure of the strings cut grooves in the cedar, and it also appears to have been broken and repaired. Ancient tomb robbers, when they looted a necropolis, took great delight in smashing anything that wasn't of value so it's possible the breaks were the result of vandalism and the repairs made by museum curators.
Here is the harp at its next stage. Twenty-one tapered holes have been drilled in the neck, each with its own fitted peg. The animal skin was soaked for 24 hours in warm water, stretched onto the soundbox and allowed to dry. The ancient harp makers would have used a cheetah skin but for obvious reasons I have used a specially prepared cowhide instead. The next step is to paint the neck in the Egyptian style. There are plenty of highly detailed tomb paintings of harps on which to base the design, such as the delightful fresco from the 18th Dynasty tomb of Nacht (above right).
The ancient harps were strung from underneath the leather soundboard with access through the open bottom of the instrument. The animal hide was kept taught by a long wooden strip directly beneath the skin, held in place only by the tension of the upward pull of the strings. The sound of this harp surprised me when I first heard it. It is far more resonant than I might have expected and its timbre is unlike the folk harps of Europe. I think this is due to the closed, trumpet-like shape of the resonating chamber and low string tension. The final stage of the building process will be to add the trim which, if the period paintings of these instruments can be trusted, covered the raw edges of the animal skin.
Here is the finished instrument, fully strung, tuned up and ready to go. According to Danish archeo-musicologist Dr. Lise Manniche, the name for one of these harps in the ancient language was "djedjet", and someone who played one was a "djedjwy". I should add that Dr. Manniche's excellent book, MUSIC AND MUSICIANS IN ANCIENT EGYPT (published by the British Museum Press) has been my constant companion and inspiration throughout this project.
Compared to modern concert harps, the string tension on arched harps was relatively low. The lowest note on this instrument (string #21) is an F1 (43.65 Hz) and I have used a gut concert harp 5th octave 'C' for it. I began stringing the highest notes on the harp with nylon monofilament increasing in gauge to string #10. From that point until the lowest note I used gut. I have also used the modern concert harp color code of red for 'doh' and blue for 'fa'.
Curious about what the instrument sounds like? Here is a short, one minute mp3 improvisation.
August 11, 2012:
I have now had a few days to live with the new harp, and I have found that its string harmonics are particularly clear, bell-like and long-lasting.
The mid-range strings on a five foot arched harp are much longer than the mid-range strings on a modern concert harp. This is because of the absence of the "harmonic curve" on arched harps. Where the neck of a modern harp curves sharply downward, the neck of the arched harp curves upward, making the higher strings longer instead of shorter. I have had to guess at string gauges for the arched harp but after a few experiments it was obvious that on a 21 string "djedjet", the difference in thickness between the lowest and highest strings had to be much greater than the difference in thickness between the strings of a similar 21 note range on a modern harp.
The greater string length produces a wonderfully rich spectrum of harmonics and I suspect that harmonics were an extremely important part of ancient harp technique (as they are in the classical music of China today). Harmonics are played by lightly touching the string with one hand at specific points, while plucking it with the other. Here is a short mp3 of what the harmonics on the djedjet sound like.