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Timeline: Ipi, Flutist To Pharaoh

The Dahshur necropolis is the site of the pyramids built by King Sneferu during the third dynasty of the Egyptian Old Kingdom.

Welcome to our first episode looking at the lives of ancient musicians as detailed in Lewis Holmes’ new book The Mystery of Music. The book gives brief biographical sketches of 30 musicians and composers from many different cultures and we’ll look at a few of them together. Let’s begin with one of the earliest musicians we know by name, a flutist to Pharaoh in the Old Kingdom of Egypt over 4,500 years ago, Ipi.


The Old Kingdom is also called "The Age of the Pyramids." It’s noted for massive monoliths, tombs and statues. Most of these were built by the great kings of the third and fourth dynasties, especially King Sneferu, who perfected the art of pyramid building. At the Dahshur necropolis, Sneferu built the bent and red pyramids that still stand today. In that same site, archeologists have also recovered two statues of a court musician to King Sneferu, Ipi. Ipi was head flutist, director of dancers and master of ceremonies and festivities at the palace. Immortalized in stone, Ipi is depicted as a Sem priest, playing a long flute made of bamboo called the ma’t, a staple of Egyptian music for millennia.

The Ancient Egyptians wrote that the ma’t was invented by the god Osiris, the Lord of the Dead. It was a symbol of rebirth, of a life after this one. As a Sem priest, Ipi would have been involved in funeral rituals, especially a ceremony called “opening of the mouth.” The Egyptians believed that for a soul to survive in the afterlife, it must breathe and eat again. At the interment of a mummy they would ritualistically open the mouth of the dead while chanting spells and singing songs. The famous “Book of the Dead” contains an enchantment which is meant to be read by the dead themselves stating, “My mouth is given to me.”

Life, death and rebirth, this cycle of nature, dominated the thought of Egyptian culture. It’s no wonder that a musician playing such an important musical symbol, who was also a funeral priest would have had such a place of honor. Ipi was buried at Dahshur in a mastaba, a tomb reserved for the elite citizens of the kingdom. From the terrace of this edifice one can see another remarkable symbol of Egyptian thought. Every autumn, out of the desert alongside the Dahshur necropolis, a seasonal lake emerges. As the water table rises at the changing of seasons, this lake fills, as if by magic.

This lake, these tombs, the flute and the rituals all point to a rich cultural life dedicated to the preservation of life, beauty, spirit and art. We don’t know much about Ipi, flutist to Pharaoh, but the legacy of this musician/priest lives on as the cycle of life continues in Dahshur.

Learn more about Ipi in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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