Dressing like gods
Two temporary exhibitions in Egypt and Mexico highlight similarities in the history of both countries, as Nevine El-Aref
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From top: Mesoamerican deities on display at the Egyptian Museum; engravings from the Oaxaca civilisation; Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni with Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the Ancient Egyptian Department during the inauguration
The ancient civilisations of Egypt and prehistoric Mexico number among the world's earliest cultures, appearing in a similar way to those in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley of modern Pakistan, the Yellow River Valley in China and on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea.
All these civilisations had certain features in common. They built cities, palaces, and temples; worshipped several deities, made pottery, used metals, domesticated crops and animals and formed complex social structures. All of them invented a form of writing and numeration.
As for the ancient Egyptians and the Mexicans, who never met and lived centuries and thousands of miles apart, both worshipped feathered-serpent deities, built pyramids and developed a 365-day calendar.
To show the similarity between these two ancient nations, two temporary exhibitions are currently on show in Egypt and Mexico. The dual exhibition is a first for both nations and comes as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of Egyptian-Mexican diplomatic relations.
The coordinator of the ancient Egyptian exhibition at the National Museum of Mexico, Gina Ulloa, says Egypt and Mexico have huge cultural parallels in religion, astronomy, architecture and arts, and these deserve to be appreciated together.
The earliest civilisation in Mexico to leave an established style of art were the Olmecs, whose sculptures echo Egypt's finest. Olmec artists carved large man-jaguar warriors not unlike Egyptian Sphinxes; the seated statue of an Egyptian scribe shows stonework and attention to detail that parallels a seated stone sculpture of an Olmec lord.
Shared traits also run to architecture, with Egyptians building pyramids as royal mausoleums for kings and queens while the Mayans and Aztecs followed suit with pyramids as places of sacrifice to the gods.
"Dressing like Gods", the exhibition currently at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, has a display of treasures brought from the indigenous pre- Hispanic region of Oaxaca in Mexico. Through 58 work of art, the exhibition highlights the richness of the pre-Colombian world, their communities, their hierarchical systems, their attire and regalia ornamented with magical symbolism and religious beliefs in Mesoamerican cultures.
Numerous figurines of Oaxaca gods in glass showcases give visitors to the Cairo exhibition a first glimpse of the fine detailing, which shows the character of the gods in their remarkable expressions, so much so that the innocent act of viewing is almost tainted with voyeurism. Alligators from Mexico and jewellery, Mexican male and female regalia are on display alongside urns, items of attire, ornaments and an exuberance of cloths and feathers from Mexico.
Among the various styles of headdress are the penachos, a fan-shaped design made of brightly-coloured feathers and worn by both men and women, and a turban-like headdress, tocados, which was a very important accessory for Pre-Hispanic Oaxaca people. The style and the fabric of the tocados expressed the wearer's social class.
"This is the first time in history that artefacts of any other culture and origin have been exhibited in the Egyptian Museum," Wafaa El-Sedik, director of the Egyptian Museum told Al-Ahram Weekly. She added that the exhibition fell within the framework of the museum's planned programme to show other civilisations to Egyptians in line with other international museums.
Located in the southern part of Mexico, Oaxaca in ancient time was home of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. The first Zapotecs, whose culture is said to go back more than 2,500 years, settled in Oaxaca from the north and became the predominant ethnic group, building many important cities the most renowned of which are Monte Alban and Mitla. They left several buildings including ball courts, tombs and graves including finely worked gold jewellery.
The Mixtecs, 1220-1525, also carried out major construction at the city of Monte Alban, as well as creating works of art in stone, wood and metal.
Meanwhile in Mexico city, treasures from ancient Egypt are now on display at the city's National Museum in a museum entitled "Isis and the Feathered Serpent".
The exhibition features 144 pieces carefully selected from the Luxor, Nubia, Karnak and Denderah museums.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says Egypt will earn $1.6 billion as a fee for the exhibition at $800,000 for each city, and if the number of visitors exceeds 800,000 it will gain 25 per cent of the revenue of the exhibition. The first stop of this exhibition was opened in October in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, and this month it will move to Mexico city where it will stay until June.
The exhibition includes sculptures of Ramses II, of deities, painted sarcophagi, jewellery, bracelets, necklaces, and porticos from Nile temples.
"From 3000 BC onward, Egyptians often portrayed their gods, including the goddess Isis, in art and sculpture as serpents with wings or feathers. The feathered serpent and the serpent alongside a deity signifies the duality of human existence, at once in touch with water and earth, the serpent, and the heavens, the feathers of a bird," Ulloa says.
Egyptian sculptures at the exhibition, which were flown to Mexico from temples along the Nile and from museums in Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria show how Isis's son Horus was often represented with winged arms and accompanied by serpents. Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen before the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, saw herself as Isis and wore a gold serpent in her headpiece.
Mexicans are expected to flock to visit the exhibition as soon as it opens to the public, and the number of visitors could number several million during the five months it is on.