20 - 26 June 2002
Issue No. 591
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
The quest for immortalityThe largest exhibition of ancient Egyptian artefacts ever to tour North America and Canada will open at the National Gallery of Art in Washington on 30 June. Nevine El-Aref describes the masterpieces that ensure the Pharaohs' afterlife
From earliest times the ancient Egyptians denied the physical impermanence of life on earth. They formulated a remarkably complex set of religious beliefs and funnelled vast material resources into the building of tombs and funerary equipment in the quest for immortality. To understand what they expected to happen after the passing of the physical body, and grasp their conception of the afterlife, a tour of the blockbuster exhibition set to arrive in Washington DC this month will quench even the most thirsty in the hunt for knowledge.
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Clockwise from top: a Late Period deity in the form of a falcon-headed crocodile made of limestone; the architect Senmut holding Hatshepsut's daughter in his arms; the unique gilded coffin lid of Queen Ahhotep; a New Kingdom toy in the form of an ivory frog with an opening mouth; the canopic chest of Queen Nedjmet safeguarded by Anubis; a 19th-dynasty painted wooden ushabti box from the tomb of Kabekhnet found at Deir Al-Medina
The show, which will tour 14 cities in the United States and Canada over the next five years, displays 143 works of art chosen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Luxor Museum, and the archaeological sites of Tanis in the Delta and Deir Al-Bahari in Luxor. The objects focus on the understanding of the afterlife as perceived in the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC), an era of great wealth, power, stability and cultural activity, through to the Late Period (664-332 BC). The pieces are insured for just over four billion dollars.
To set off the magnificent collection as if the pieces were in their original locations, and make visitors feel as though they themselves were on a journey to the afterlife in company with the Pharaohs, the National Gallery of Art in Washington has set a suitable backdrop. Its halls have been prepared with soft lighting and ochre-coloured walls with a simple geometrical frieze decoration. The exhibition is divided into six sections and a special visitors' path follows the Journey to the Netherworld, New Kingdom masterpieces, the Royal Tombs, the Tombs of Nobles, the Realm of the Gods, and finally the Tomb of Tutmosis III, one of the greatest Pharaohs, who established Egyptian influence throughout western Asia, Nubia and Libya, heralding one of the most glorious eras of ancient Egyptian history.
The tomb of the world's first empire builder will be visualised through a life-size reconstruction of Tutmosis III's oval burial chamber. Its walls are decorated with the complete mortuary text of the Amduat, or "that which is in the underworld", and the representations on the pillars, delightfully simplified black drawings, have been painstakingly reproduced.
"Some of the chosen pieces come from the storerooms of the Egyptian Museum and have never been on display before," said Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who elaborated that they included a limestone relief featuring the head of Tutmosis III facing the god Amun, gold and jewelled items from the c.1000 BC from the royal tombs in Tanis -- acclaimed as perhaps the most significant royal burial site found in Egypt apart from Tutankhamun's tomb -- and what he described as one of the most unique pieces: a frog-shaped, ivory entertainment item. "This amusing frog boasts a hinged jaw attached under its belly, which can be lowered and then snapped shut with the pull of a string," Hosni said. One of the chosen pieces is the decorated canopic chest of Queen Nedgmet (c.1080 BC) made to hold her internal organs in four jars, and a c.600 BC sculpture of the god Osiris wrapped as a mummy in the process of being revived.
One of the most delightful works chosen is a statue of Senmut, the architect of Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple at Deir Al-Baheri, who was also a steward of her little daughter Princess Nefrure whom he holds in his arms. Another is a 234-cm-long wooden boat in which the deceased Pharaoh could cruise the Nile through the channels of the underworld towards everlasting life. "The boat was found in the tomb of Amenhotep II, who ruled between 1427-1400 BC," said Mamdouh El- Damatti director general of the Egyptian museum, remarking that both sides of the ship are painted with scenes showing the god Montu smiting the enemies of Egypt before the gods. "The painting at the stern is a typical mortuary scene showing, from right to left, the goddess Maat kneeling on a casket with her wings outspread in a protective gesture; before her is a falcon-headed sphinx, with a sun disk on its head and a fan shown above its back."
Among the pieces of jewellery are a necklace of gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli and turquoise which was discovered on the mummy of Princess Khammet, daughter of the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Amenemhat II, and the wife of Senusret II; a gold-covered handle and base of a fan; two fly pendants and a mirror of Queen Ahhotep in the reign of Ahmose I; and the golden mask of Wenudjebauendjed, whom scholars believe may have been a prince in the reign of Psusennes I (1039-991 BC). There are two fine statues, of Sennefer, the mayor of Thebes, and his wife Sentnay, which were discovered by archaeologist George Legrain in 1903 in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.
Although unique objects are not normally included among objects chosen for exhibition abroad, an exception is being made in this case. Two objects of which there are no other examples will travel to Washington alone "and then return to Egypt as soon as the exhibition closes there", said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). "They are the 19th-dynasty, stuccoed, painted and vanished wood sarcophagus of Khonsu, whose title was 'the servant in the place of truth', and the large gilded coffin lid of Queen Ahhotep, who almost certainly was not, as is often stated, the famous queen who was the mother of Ahmose I, founder of the 18th dynasty." Hawass described Khonsu's sarcophagus as "one of the most important funerary objects found in the splendid tomb of his father Sennedjem. It was discovered by Gaston Maspero in February 1886 at Deir Al-Medina. The tomb contained two anthropoid coffins of Khonsu, one inside the other, and a mummy mask covered his head. Now the coffins are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while Khonsu's mummy was transferred to the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts in 1933."
Not since the touring exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun has such an extraordinary collection of Egyptian artefacts travelled abroad. "It is a treasure for the citizens of America and it will serve as an economic engine generating revenue from all who travel to view it," said John Bullard, director of New Orleans museum, in an interview with the Times-Picayune newspaper. Kathryn S Smith, executive director of the DC Heritage Tourism Coalition, described the Egyptian show as "the kind of attraction that more tourists are seeking".
Outstanding Egyptian exhibitions have been staged for North American audiences in the past, and many are those who remember the success of the exhibitions entitled "Akhenaten and Nefertiti", "The Treasures of Tutankhamun", "Egypt's Golden Age", among others. The present "Quest for Immortality" will certainly rank among them. The passing of the mortal body was seen not as an end but as a beginning. Belief in the afterlife was the focal point of the ancient Egyptian outlook. It stimulated their thought, their moral principles and their art. The artefacts for this exhibition have been chosen with care, and they are being professionally displayed to inspire, at once, awe and understanding.
The number of visitors is expected to exceed that to Tutankhamun's treasures in 1976-1977, which reached 800,000. On that occasion people had to stand in the line for as long as eight hours to buy tickets and gain entrance. This time, as the Times-Picayune notes in its issue of 4 June, tickets will be sold to visitors for a specific day and time. The ticket price is expected to be $17, which will include an audiotape guide to the exhibition and "a special pin the visitor can keep, similar to the highly popular Olympic pin", the newspaper said.
Preparation for the exhibition began a year and half ago, when the idea of an exhibition entitled "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt" was suggested by the United Exhibits Group, an exhibition firm in Copenhagen. It was originally scheduled to open in Washington in early May but was delayed in part by the difficulty of making the necessary arrangements, but also because of the reluctance of some Egyptian officials to allow the artefacts to remain abroad for five years, despite the $13 million revenue and the $1 million participation fee by each museum hosting the exhibition. "We had to ensure we had adequate warranty guaranteeing the protection of our priceless items," said Hawass, who added in passing that the insurance amounts to a hefty $409,450 million.
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