Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Beyond the British Museum

By Nyier Abdou

It's a drizzly grey day in London as I make my way to Sir John Soane's Museum, in search of the alabaster sarcophagus of Egyptian pharaoh Seti I. At the Holborn tube stop, crowds of museum-goers lurch off the train towards London's Mecca of ancient artefacts -- the British Museum -- but I'm the only one who cuts off towards Lincoln's Inn Fields, training my eye for the joined apartments that once belonged to the renowned architect Sir John Soane.

I miss the place anyhow, wandering aimlessly into the fields, which are graciously presided over by the Lincoln's Inn. Doubling back, I finally stand before the unassuming museum, tucked in at number 13 (and encompassing numbers 12 and 14). At the door I prepare to knock; but before I even raise my hand, the door opens majestically into a warm foyer. I'm impressed -- and I tell the doorman so. "We like to ambush our visitors," he says.

The object in question awaits me in the crypt of this curious museum. I make my way there slowly, drifting lazily past the enormous portrait of Soane by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1828) that dominates the dining room. Continuing on my way, I stroll carefully through Soane's study, which is filled with ancient Roman artefacts acquired from another architect-collector, Henry Holland.

In the colonnade at the back of the house, pieces of Soane's ambitious collection abound, overflowing from the walls, rising from the floor -- a low-lit concrete garden of fragments from the past -- imbuing the visitor with a sense of timeless serenity that heals the wounds of London's winter winds. Soane's presence is everywhere -- the house is virtually untouched since his death -- and the pride he took in his collection is palpable.

The museum is what seems to be a word-of-mouth phenomenon. "Yes, I've heard about it," says a British friend, "It's supposed to be very interesting." "Oh yes! My husband says I have to go," says another, "He said it was so interesting." The place would have remained utterly unknown to me were it not for my editor, but I found myself later promoting a visit to anyone who would listen. I told them all how interesting it was indeed.

 
Sir John Soane's MuseumThe object of my affection: An artist's rendering of Soane's Crypt in 1825, with Seti I's sarcophagus at the heart (top), is the best glimpse of the piece one can get outside of visiting the museum. Renderings of the artefact-filled Dome in 1825 (top, left), and a view of the library from the dining room in 1822 (top, right) give an idea of the house as it was in Soane's day. Images courtesy of Sir John Soane's Museum.
Sir John Soane's Museum
Sir John Soane's Museum

In a domed gallery adjacent to the colonnade, I get my first view down into the sepulchral chamber of the crypt; below lies the sarcophagus. Only from this view can you appreciate the depiction of the goddess Nut nestled within, protecting the pharaoh's now-absent mummy. Again, antiquities prevail in the corridors surrounding me, resting imposingly on immaculately arched halls and manicured walls; a large statue of Apollo reigning over the brood.

Quiet reigns as I flit past another treasure-hunter into the crypt, modelled on Roman burial chambers and filled with plaster design prototypes of famous marble sculptures. The sarcophagus of Seti I, acquired by Soane in 1824, rests here; his mummy is in the Cairo Museum. The sarcophagus is carved from a single piece of "Egyptian" alabaster (calcite limestone), which is semi-translucent and glows with golden luminescence when lit from inside by candlelight. It was once a bright white, its hieroglyphic inscriptions elegantly wrought with brilliant blue. Sadly, the stone has not aged well outside of the Valley of the Kings, where it was discovered. The piece has yellowed, with only vestiges of the blue inlay remaining.

One might wonder how such a significant piece of Egyptian history came to number 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields.

"You're not writing one of those articles saying we should give it back to Egypt, are you?" jokes Christopher Woodward, assistant curator of the museum. "Every five years that comes up." I assure him that my interests are purely to inform the public about the museum's charming collection.

The sarcophagus was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Belzoni, the famous adventurer and strongman-cum-Egyptologist. Soane grabbed the piece when the British Museum, which had just acquired the Elgin Marbles, declined to buy it at 2,000 pounds sterling. Soane was overjoyed with the acquisition and celebrated its arrival with a three-day reception, lighting the crypt and sarcophagus with hundreds of oil-lamps.

"People are still captivated by it," says Woodward. "It's a mesmerising object."

We linger on the subject of Belzoni; a handsome, seven-foot Italian giant who started his career as a strongman entertainer -- the "Indiana Jones" of Egyptology, as Woodward calls him. Belzoni would return from his expeditions and hold raucous exhibitions on Piccadilly Street, drawing crowds to gawk at his wares. When Belzoni discovered the tomb of Seti I -- the longest in the Valley of the Kings and certainly one of the most splendidly decorated -- the pharaoh was little known. The find was instead referred to as the "Belzoni sarcophagus." Belzoni was known to scandalously carve his name on all of his findings -- the sarcophagus is no exception.

The piece was a sensation in Soane's day, although it languished in the holdings of the British Museum before Soane managed to acquire it. Now the sarcophagus seems more like a lucky glimpse -- a "something-I've-heard-of" sight on the untaken London tour -- another time, perhaps.

Despite the evident appeal of the piece, the museum does not possess any satisfactory image of the sarcophagus. An artist's rendering of the piece, as it was in Soane's day, is available, as is a single uninspiring photograph depicted on a small postcard that makes the ethereal artefact look rather like an ancient bathtub. One longs for a glimpse of the splendour of those three days in 1824, when the sarcophagus gleamed in candlelight, the tinkling of wine glasses and the slow murmur of heady conversation providing the setting for its prominence.

Soane died in 1837, having established the house and his collection as a museum four years before his death.

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