Egypt's Crowning Glory

New Kingdom customs rise triumphantly from the dead in "The Quest for Immortality," a dazzling display of treasures from the tombs of the pharaohs

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Being literal-minded about the afterlife, both royalty and commoners arranged to cram their tombs with as many household objects as possible: food, drink, linen, cosmetics, mirrors, even toys and board games. Tomb food could be a fresh-killed duck, a picture or hieroglyph of a duck, a container shaped like a duck, or a mummified duck. Servants, as essential in the afterlife as before it, were represented in royal tombs by small funerary statues known as ushebtis.


Underground tombs were sealed after a funeral, but ground-level offering chapels remained open to mourners, pilgrims and even early tourists, who came to admire the surroundings and say prayers. Families of the dead could contract with priests to deliver meals to the chapel to sustain the departed. “The food would be offered up symbolically to the image of the deceased, who would sort of inhale it magically,” says Berman. “Then the priests would consume it themselves.” In a land without coinage, offerings were a priest’s wages.


To curry favor with the gods, many Egyptians commissioned statues attesting to their piety to be placed in prominent temples. One such object features a pair of well fed crocodiles and an official in a prayerful pose. It was found in the temple of Sobek, the crocodile deity. Priests there may even have bred live crocodiles for ritual use. By the Ptolemaic period, which began in the fourth century B.C., visitors eager to please feline deities, such as Bastet and Sakhmet, paid to have mummified cats (some in small bronze coffins) placed in temples honoring the cat gods. The temples’ priests were savvy fund-raisers. To meet demand, they bred, slaughtered and embalmed kittens by the thousands.


Egypt’s dizzyingly complex religious rites were based on a cycle of death and rebirth. Re, the sun god, it was believed, died each night only to be reborn each morning. When mortals died, whether noble or common, they joined Re on his nocturnal journey through the underworld; at dawn, if all went well, they emerged immortal. Pharaohs, unlike commoners and most nobles, made the trip every night as a fully divine member of the sun-boat’s crew. The cycle was like so much of life in Egypt, from the annual flooding of the Nile to the ripening of fruits and grains each winter. Rebirth was not reincarnation, however. The god of the underworld, Osiris (supposedly the first Egyptian king to be mummified), was always portrayed in Egyptian art as a mummiform deity. Although he would be reborn each day at dawn, in portrayals he remained wrapped as tightly as a man in a full body cast.


Egyptians imagined their own mummification as a temporary phase before immortality, but the various books of the dead didn’t spell out precisely how long the bandages stayed on. According to one text, the magical journey through the night could take as long as several earthly lifetimes. But although a mummy’s body was tightly confined, its soul, at least, was mobile. Astone carving from the tomb of a royal scribe during the New Kingdom shows a human-headed bird perched on a mummy’s bier, gazing beseechingly at its master, like a forlorn pet. The bird represents the ba, a facet of the mummy’s soul. Each day, it was thought, the ba would fly up the burial shaft and out into the sunlit world. At sunset, it would return to spend the night perched by the mummy. In this way, the ba-bird kept its master in touch with the world.



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