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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His heroic achievements notwithstanding, Thutmose wanted to make sure his passage to the next world went smoothly. To that end, he had the walls of his burial chamber painted with a minutely illustrated, hour-by-hour guide—the Amduat—for his posthumous nightly journey through the underworld with the sun god Re. Every obstacle on the route is meticulously labeled. In ancient Egypt, to name a thing was to master it.


Despite his painstaking preparations, however, Thutmose III’s afterlife was not happy. His tomb, once probably far richer than Tutankhamun’s, was plundered in antiquity. When archaeologists discovered it in the Valley of the Kings in 1898, about all that was left was a wooden statue of the king, a beautifully modeled leopard on the prowl, and the royal sarcophagus, empty. Thutmose’s tattered mummy had turned up a few years earlier, in 1881; it had been hidden by priests some time after the New Kingdom in an underground cache not far away, stacked with dozens of other royal mummies. Thutmose’s had a large hole hacked in its chest (most likely by an impatient jewelry thief).


Fortunately, the enchanting Amduat on the walls of his tomb fared better and has been exactingly reproduced, blemishes and all, in a life-size replica of the king’s 50-by-29-by-10-foot burial chamber for the current exhibition. “Other than the fact that the tomb in the show is air-conditioned and the one in the Valley of the Kings is about 120 degrees, you can’t tell them apart,” says Mark Leithauser, the National Gallery’s design director.


With its almost cartoonish combination of stick figures and red and black text, Thutmose III’s Amduat is unlike the careful hieroglyphics we’re used to seeing carved in stone. Later in the New Kingdom, as funerary texts became more common in tombs of any citizen of means, pharaohs insisted upon elaborate, full-color Amduats.


In Thutmose’s Amduat, the deceased king travels as one with Re on a perilous boat trip through the 12 symbolic hours of night. In hour four, the river of the underworld dries up, and the boat becomes a snake, the better to slither over sand. In hour seven, helpful deities decapitate Re’s enemies and, four hours later, toss their body parts into flaming pits. At dawn, acclaimed by a crowd of deities (the Amduat includes more than 700), a scarab, symbol of regeneration, nudges the sun out of the underworld toward the arms of Shu, god of the air. Anew day begins; a dead pharaoh is reborn.



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