Mummy X-rays wow the UK
Britons have been glued to their TV screens to watch an innovative series which has helped fuel the ongoing fixation on Ancient Egypt. Jenny Jobbins tunes in
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a bust of king Tuthmosis III, the screen of Nes-per-ennub's mummy and his painted limestone sarcophagus
Ever since the King Tut exhibition began its foreign tours in the 1970s, Europeans have been enthralled by Egyptian history. The exhibition currently on show in Basel is advertised all over the city and is drawing huge crowds. Now cutting-edge technology at the British Museum has produced a virtual tour of a mummy. Mummy: the inside story is a 20- minute film of the wrapped mummy of high official Nes-per-ennub, which reveals details of the body from amulets to orifices. At any point the film can be halted so a link can be made to further exploratory channels.
Also at the British Museum, its favourite exhibit and the one that draws the most visitors, the Rosetta Stone, has been moved for the first time in 200 years. It is no longer in the position where it has commanded awe and inspiration," as well as the scholarship to decipher Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs," since soon after its discovery in 1799, and is now in a new, glassed-in display so that for the first time it can be admired on all sides.
But one of the latest spectacles has caused no long queues for admittance to a special exhibition. Attention was focussed not on treasure but on history itself, and it peaked at 9pm on a weekday evening when the British nation tuned in to Channel Four to watch a series of four TV re-enactments bringing the past to life. These are real stories of real historical events, resurrected from texts written on scraps of papyrus or inscribed on temple walls and dramatised with fully computerised cinematic effect. The tales are taken from actual records which have been faithfully reproduced for TV. Even the language spoken by the Egyptian actors is as authentic as can be imagined: the spoken words are also taken from the texts. Historians and linguistic experts have painstakingly attempted to reproduce the sound of the Ancient Egyptian language "as it was spoke", and if the resulting cadences sound a little like those of colloquial Arabic the cause might lie not with the accent of the Egyptian actors but with the similarly Semitic origin of the language.
The first episode, The Road to Megiddo, was the story of the Battle of Megiddo, fought in Palestine under the direction of the XVIIIth- Dynasty Pharaoh Tuthmosis III in May 1458 BC against foreign rebels led by the black- bearded prince of Kadesh. We are quickly immersed in the trappings of the army with its uniforms (or lack of them), its chariots, "light- weight war machines", and weapons. Here the programme veers slightly into fiction, naming some of the motley group of soldiers, a young professional Nubian soldier, the officers, Ahmose and Nakht, one born an aristocrat, one risen through the ranks. The officers are equipped with ivory-tipped arrows and bows of imported birch; the lower ranks with axes, knives and spears. We see new recruits being put through their paces, wrestling to test their manhood. Through this Jeneni the scribe (whose name we know) records the preparations for battle, the long, hot march to Megiddo and the battle itself. It was his words that were inscribed on the wall of Tuthmosis's new temple at Karnak and from which the story is taken word for word, though part of the more mundane record of the soldiers' lives was taken from a script written by a soldier in Syria.
There is no doubt which side the programme is on. "If the rebels win," says narrator Bernard Hill, speaking as though in a live news broadcast, "Egyptian civilisation will crumble."
When young Tuthmosis was drawn into this battle to end all battles he was an untried and inexperienced monarch who had recently stepped into the royal sandals of his stepmother, Queen Hatchepsut. Nonetheless he gallantly marched his army through the desert towards Megiddo. The location, of course, is stunning.
On the eve of battle we hear the Pharaoh's own words on the prince of Kadesh as recorded by Jeneni: "He is there now. He has gathered the troops of all the countries bordering Egypt." Tuthmosis decides to lead his army through the Aruna pass. His generals disagree, saying they will certainly be ambushed.
Tuthmosis insists. He swears that Amun loves him and will protect him. He gets his way and leads his 10,000 men in single file through the narrow gorge of the Aruna pass. Meanwhile the prince of Kadesh, black in black on a black horse with gold trimmings, is waiting to ambush him on the southern route to his capital of Megiddo. Outwitted, he scrambles back to his stronghold. Tuthmosis is already within sight of the town.
Early in the morning of 15 May 1458 BC, the command was given for the Egyptian army to move. The text says: "Tuthmosis anointed his peasant soldiers with perfumed oils to bring them good fortune." The half-naked soldiers, their bodies protected by only a leather shield, meet in battle, Pharaoh faithfully re-enacting the familiar chariot posture and the troops leaping at each other with all the panache of the cast of Mel Gibson's Brave Heart. The battle scene is certainly realistic. And when it was over: "They fled towards the city, but the gates were closed. The people lowered ropes of cloth and hauled them up," Jeneni recorded of the fleeing Kadesh army.
Here the Egyptian generals made what proved a tactical mistake. Instead of taking their chance and attacking the town, they allowed the "other ranks" to waste time looting the personal effects of the dead Syrians "while the enemies' champions lie stretched out like fish on the ground", wrote the disgusted Jeneni. He did not record how many Egyptians fell in the battle, but medical texts tell us how surgeons treated the wounded," and the programme showed this a little too graphically. It seems most of the wounded, though, died from infection.
A papyrus describes what happens to the three sons of one family, who are all taken for soldiers, and of the third: "When he reaches manhood his bones are shattered." The Egyptians however showed no mercy to their enemies, and measured their own success by collecting severed hands. But they did not yet have a victory. The greed of the foot soldiers had been the Egyptians' undoing.
The generals were now in disgrace for letting their soldiers loose on the battlefield instead of taking Megiddo. "Every chief of every country that has revolted is there," Tuthmosis scolded. But he set out to starve them into submission. The siege lasted six months. In December the rebel leaders surrendered by sending out their children, who were taken off to Egypt as hostages to be killed if their fathers rebelled again.
We see the triumphal Pharaoh entering the freshly painted Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. But well away from the temple walls keening peasant women throw sand in their hair and mourn the sons who will not come home. The gap between ruler and people is very clear. In the final part of the text, the prince of Kadesh and other rebel leaders come to pay obeisance to Tuthmosis. "Never again will I rise up against Tuthmosis," are the final words of the text, spoken by the defeated prince.
Tuthmosis went on to win another 17 campaigns and to go down in history as one of Egypt's greatest generals. When he died in 1325 BC his empire stretched "as far as the circuit of the sun".
There were three other episodes in the series, including a dramatic account of the crime and punishment (impaling) of tomb robbing. The final episode was taken from a petition made on behalf of two sisters abandoned by their mother when she took up with a Greek soldier, and saved from a life on the streets by being taken into the Temple of Serapis to become handmaidens to the god. We were left, though, with the future of the sisters uncertain after their older brother robbed them of their temple earnings. At this point the evidence given by the temple scribe who had taken them under his wing ended. By this time our fears for them had become tangible.
These intimate glimpses of ancient life, made possible by the technology to restore documents that were burnt, decayed or otherwise seemingly beyond recovery, by computer graphics and with painstaking attention to detail, show how close we are to, rather than distanced from, the past.