Pharaohs in the city of roses
"The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt" last week made its only US west coast stop in Portland, Oregon. Nevine El-Aref
attended the opening at the city's Art Museum
Despite the inset of the rainy season in the American west cost city of Portland, Oregon, hundreds of people were queuing last week at the front gate of the Portland Art Museum to take an incredible journey with the Pharaohs through the afterlife. The street in front of the museum, which looks much like Park Avenue, was also packed with luxurious vehicles as the crème of Portland society flocked into the museum to attend the opening of "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt", the largest collection of antiquities ever loaned by Egypt for a North American exhibition.
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Granite statue of Sennefer, mayor of Thebes, and his wife; a 26th Dynasty wooden statue featuring god Osiris resurrection; limestone statuette of a falcon-headed crocodile god; a black statue of the Recumbent jackal
The exhibition displays 107 artefacts illustrating the Pharaohs' dramatic voyage to the afterlife. Items were carefully selected from the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Luxor Museum and archaeological sites in Deir Al-Bahari on Luxor's west bank and Tanis in the Delta, where the intact royal burial of Psusennes I was discovered in the 1940s.
"The gold masks and jewellery are at least as beautiful as the pieces from Tutankhamun's tomb, but they were discovered on the eve of World War II, when there just wasn't time to deal with that sort of thing," Bill Mercer, curator of native American and ethnographic art at the museum, told reporters during a press conference held in the museum a day before the exhibition's official opening. Mercer went on to say that not only were the objects beautiful, splendid, magnificent and significant, but the scope of the exhibition was huge and included 45 pieces from Tutankhamun's collection.
Mercer emphasis that not only is the Quest for Immortality the greatest hits from the Egyptian Museum, but it is a well crafted exhibition that happens to use masterpieces to illustrate the story of the ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife. He sees the eight-foot-long, beautifully painted wooden boat from the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, which was used to carry the king to the afterlife. as one of the exhibition's highlights. The Osiris Resurrection wooden statuette, for Mercer, is outstanding among the objects on show. It shows the mummiform god Osiris with a gold head-dress on his stomach, while his head is lifted in the process of resurrection.
Mercer told Al-Ahram Weekly that what made the show so different was that for four months the residents of Portland could come face to face with the ancient Egyptian civilisation, which they had learnt about from books and television but which most of them had never had a chance to see for themselves. "Walking around this magnificent collection, visitors will understand the ancient Egyptian belief, and for example why the lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet is referred to as the 'mistress of fear'." Afterwards the press and media were guided by Mercer on an audio visual tour of the exhibition.
The exhibition begins in the museum's sculpture court and continue upstairs to fill most of the second floor. Visitors are welcomed by the seven-foot tall red granite colossal bust of Ramses II standing before dark orange wallpaper. The walls of the hall are decorated with a collection of photographs taken in the 19th-century by J Pascal Sebah and showing Egypt's unrestored monuments. These photographs are from the Portland Art Museum's permanent collection and are from Sebah's album of 150 photographs of Egypt's most famous archaeological sites. The album, which was put together in 1878, had been sold to a collector but the museum had had an eye on it and purchased it in the 1970s after it had changed hands a couple of times. "This collection made an ideal companion to the exhibition," Mercer said.
The exhibition is arranged in six sections: Journey to the Afterworld, The New Kingdom, The Royal Tomb, Tombs of Nobles, The Realm of the Gods and The Tomb of Thutmose III.
The first gallery, which includes sculptures of Isis, Osiris and other gods and goddesses, establishes the pantheon of ancient Egypt. Among them is a large seated statue of Sekhmet, the "mistress of fear". The same section includes very fine gold renditions of nine gods, all between one and three inches high.
In the Royal tomb, delicate pectoral jewellery including necklaces, breast plaques and other pieces from the tomb of Tanis are on display, along with carved and painted art works still bearing its vibrant colours and a wide variety of everyday objects such as beds, head rests, clothes fans, cooking utensils, musical instruments and food stuffs which give visitors a view of the comfort and sophistication of Pharaonic life. There are also the canopic jars of Queen Nedjmet, as well as gold finger stalls, the caps that were fitted over the fingers and toes of the mummies.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, described the collection as displaying an era of great wealth, power and stability "[It was] the zenith of the ancient Egyptian art that marked the New Kingdom," Hawass said. The highlight of the exhibition is the stunning gold funerary mask of Wenudjeoauendjed, one of the few surviving examples of funerary masks made for kings and nobles. "This mask helped to represent the deceased as a transfigured spirit eligible for eternal life, because the gold represents solar power and the flesh of the gods," Hawass explained.
Also notable are the numerous examples of royal jewellery intricately worked in gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise and other semi- precious stones. Another part of "The Quest for Immortality" shows the game of senet and other amusements, apparently to entertain the deceased in their journey. Nearby is the coffin lid of Isis-Em-Akhbit, made of painted wood and gold and little changed from when it was first placed in the tomb. Much of the coffin lid is a veritable tabloid of divinities, laid out in five registers divided by goddesses with outstretched wings.
Displayed in the middle of another gallery is a statue of Sennefer and Sentani, a noble couple, with a miniature daughter between their legs and two other daughters, one on either side. On this floor too is a sculpture of one of Amenhotep III's greatest officials seated cross-legged. Among the highlights of the first floor part of the exhibition is a wooden model of Amenhotep II's wooden boat painted with scenes featuring the god Montu smiting the enemies of Egypt. This is a model of the Pharaoh's river ship that used to sail the Nile.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is a reconstruction of the tomb of Pharaoh Thutmose III, who ruled in the 15th century BC. The walls display the earliest complete copy of the Amduat, a text describing minute-by-minute the sun god's passage through the underworld during the 12 hours of night, when he defeats his enemies and is reborn at dawn as the sun rises in the eastern sky. The Pharaoh joins the sun god at his birth in the eastern horizon, and the people of Egypt share in the triumphant cycle of rebirth.
The exhibition's treasures form the largest and most comprehensive selection of artefacts from ancient Egypt depicting the Pharaohs' journey to the afterworld. It is the winter blockbuster event in Oregon, not only at the Portland Art Museum but all over the city, which had to compete with several other cities to host the show. The roving exhibition began in 2002 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and Boston, Texas, Houston and Denver have been among the exhibition's 12 stops over the past five years. The next leg, which will witness the completion of the 14-state itinerary, will be at the Houston Museum of Fine Art.
In addition to the towering displays of red, yellow, purple and white roses, Portland's main roads and key points are adorned with Pharaonic posters and billboards featuring New Kingdom kings and queens and deities of ancient Egypt, as well as posters of some of the items on display at the exhibition. Local TV channels have also launched a promotional campaign for the exhibition's duration which includes the screening of films such as The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King.
To mark the exhibition's opening, the museum organised an Egyptian musical night. The main hall was decorated to resemble a wide desert tent, while the walls were embellished with photographs featuring several areas of mediaeval Cairo: a Cairo market, Fatimid Cairo, Khan Al-Khalili and the Khayamiya zone. An enormous pyramid-shaped cake coated with off- white glass sugar stood in the centre of the hall, along with temple-shaped cookies and chocolates featuring the faces of famous ancient Egyptian kings. The hall was buzzing with the chatter of elegantly-dressed men and women while an American orchestra played tunes made by the famous Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez and the renowned Syrian singer Farid Al-Atrash. After almost two hours, guests went to another hall to enjoy an Egyptian dinner while a Moroccan belly dancer in an embroidered green costume enchanted them with her oriental dance.
During the ceremony, the museum's Director Brian Ferriso said viewers would find this exhibition a prime educational experience, a way to learn about the beliefs and concepts of Egyptian life in concrete form. The museum expects a large turnout.
"We've sold out all of the school tours," Ferriso announced. "We have 30,000 kids."
Ferriso expects that Mondays will also be opened up for school tours to allow more children to attend.
Obtaining "The Quest for Immortality" for Portland over larger cities such as Seattle and Los Angeles was a major accomplishment for the museum, Ferriso said. "We're fortunate in this region that the Portland Art Museum has a relationship with this area that will support an exhibition like this," he continued.
On the fringe of the exhibition, three scientific lectures are scheduled. The first was conducted by Hawass on the day after the opening, in which he spoke of his new discoveries in various archaeological sites in Egypt.
More than 1,000 people crowded into the museum's auditorium on the third floor and an overflow of some 700 watched on closed-circuit TV downstairs. Hawass, was extremely entertaining, and, at the end dropped a couple of surprises on the audience: the most amazing being his prediction that the burial place of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony was on the verge of being unearthed; and that the location, in the Temple of Isis now being excavated in Alexandria, would yield very exciting results by the end of the year.
The other lectures will be held simultaneously by American Egyptologist Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins University and Colleen Manassa of Yale University.
A 12-minute film produced by the National Gallery of Art showed footage of the Karnak Temple, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and other sites on the west bank of the Nile.