Scala/Editorial Photocolor Archives

The lyre of the Semites appears in this famous fresco painted in about 1,890 B.C. in a tomb at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt. The fresco depicts nomads from Sinai or the Negev who have come to an Egyptian frontier post to trade.

The group, probably one extended family, includes a lyre-playing musician (second figure from left). The lyre represented in this fresco is an interesting mixture of fact and fiction since there were no indigenous lyres in 19th century B.C. Egypt—only harps. The painter managed to render a fairly accurate outline of the unfamiliar instrument and the way it was held and played. But the strings confused him. He drew them twice, first diagonally and then straight across. Both times he was unable to show how the strings should be attached to the yoke and to the body. Also, he had not observed that there is a bridge which keeps the strings off the instrument’s surface, a device necessary for all lyres, although not needed for harps.

The lyre player carries a sack on his back which has been variously interpreted as a waterskin and as a bag for his instrument.

Egypt adopted the lyre and its name in the wake of its conquest of Palestine and Syria in the 16th century B.C. The Egyptian spelling of the name reads KNNWR—easily recognizable as the kinnor of Biblical Hebrew.

The painted scene suggests the enumeration, in Genesis 4:20–22, of the sons of Lamech, the descendant of Cain: “And Adah bore Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents and of such as have cattle. And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of such as handle the kinnor (lyre) and uggav (harp?). And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-cain, the father of all who sharpen and work copper and iron. … ” Regarding the latter, note the metal-worker’s bellows transported on the backs of the asses.