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

The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt
The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt National Gallery of Art

Like some 24-carat Band-Aid, the finely worked gold plaque, inscribed with animal-headed gods and a giant eye, once covered an incision in the abdomen of Psusennes I of Egypt’s 21st Dynasty. Through the cut 3,000 years ago, embalmers removed the pharaoh’s internal organs for safekeeping; the king would need them again in the afterlife. The plaque’s mysterious eye certified that no evil spirits had entered the pharaoh’s body.

When found in 1939, the mummy of the dead king, who reigned from 1039-991 B.C., was fairly heaped with such amulets—bangles, armbands, rings, and a fabulous pectoral of gleaming gold, turquoise and lapis lazuli. Even his toes were protected by thimbles of gold. For good measure, the mummy lay in a silver coffin, inscribed with hieroglyphic texts of protective spells, inside a basalt coffin that, in turn, was sealed in an immense red-granite sarcophagus.

Egyptian art was always both beautiful and, in a magical sense, useful. These dual characteristics are the hallmarks of a gorgeous five-year traveling exhibition now on view through September 14 at the KimbellArt Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Psusennes’ plaque, pectoral and “toe stalls,” as the gold thimbles are called, are among 115 objects on loan from the government of Egypt for “The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt,” which opened last summer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and travels from Fort Worth to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will be from October 19 through February 25, 2004. Nearly all the objects in the show come from the EgyptianMuseum in Cairo, which recently celebrated its centennial. The new exhibition is twice the size of the 1976 blockbuster of Egyptian art, “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” also loaned from the Cairo museum.

“The Quest for Immortality” focuses largely on the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.), Egypt’s grand imperial age. Beginning with the 18th Dynasty, this 500-year span was the era of ancient Egypt’s greatest wealth and power, when the empire’s army dominated a territory stretching from Syria to Sudan. The heart of the kingdom was Thebes, now Luxor, 400 miles up the Nile from the old capital of Memphis, now Cairo. Tribute from neighbors who chose not to fight, and spoils of war from those who did (and invariably lost), flowed into Egypt and its cosmopolitan new capital. The booty enriched the pharaohs, their courtiers, and the temples and priests of Amun, who became the nation’s central deity.

The New Kingdom’s affluent and fashion-conscious elite were probably history’s first leisure class. A highlight of the show is a late 18th-Dynasty limestone statue (c. 1336-1323 B.C.) of the wife—her name is lost to history—of the renowned General Nakhtmin. With the eyes and cheekbones of a fashion model, the young woman wears a formfitting dress of pleated linen and an enormous wig with cascades of individually crimped braids ending in tassels (p. 57). Like most of the objects in the show, the sculpture was found in a tomb—in this case, the couple’s—where placing images of the deceased was a pious act.

“People started preparing for the next world as soon as they could afford to,” says the show’s curator, Betsy Bryan, who chairs the Near Eastern Studies department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “They bought coffins, statues, you name it, from the time they were young marrieds, and stored them in their homes. When they invited people over, everybody knew exactly what they had and how good the quality was.” The New Kingdom elite could have it both ways: behaving devoutly while consuming conspicuously.

Because so much of the finery we know from ancient Egypt came from tombs, it’s hard to say what was worn in life and what was designed only for the crypt. Either way, jewelry and cosmetics were imbued with magical powers. The exhibition includes a gold bracelet (c. 1550-1525 B.C.), inlaid with precious stones and shaped like a vulture, that was found on the mummy of Queen Ahhotep, mother of New Kingdom founder King Ahmose. Inside her gilded wooden coffin, and probably in life as well, Ahhotep wore the bracelet, Bryan says, to identify herself with the great sky goddesses, such as Nekhbet and Nut, who took the form of vultures spreading their wings across the sky to provide a path for the sun to follow on its daily travels. Like the jackal-headed god Anubis, Nekhbet was a protector of the dead. Thus animals that normally preyed on corpses became, in the Egyptian pantheon, their guardians.

Some adornments were clearly designed strictly for the tomb. Aheavy plaque of hammered gold from around 1000 B.C. depicting the winged goddess Maat was probably once affixed to a royal mummy.Areassuring symbol of harmony and natural order, Maat accompanied the sun on its daily cycle, hence the sun above her head. Egyptians believed the goddess would make their passage through the afterworld as smooth and predictable as the daily sunrise. Amore ostentatious example of funerary gold is the mummy mask of Wenudjebauendjed, a courtier in the reign of Psusennes I (p. 50). To ancient Egyptians, gold, luminous as the sun, was the “flesh of the gods.”

Something more than masks and amulets, however, was needed to protect the flesh of the deceased from decay. Egyptian embalmers worked for 70 carefully scripted days to prepare a mummy. “First, by means of a bent iron instrument inserted through the nostrils they extract the brains,” a fascinated eyewitness, the Greek historian Herodotus, wrote in the fifth century B.C. The body was cleaned out, dried in a bed of natron salts, and carefully groomed. By the 19th Dynasty, the lungs, stomach, liver and intestines of royalty were mummified separately, then sealed in jars; the heart, believed to be the seat of thought and action, stayed put. Embalmers charged different rates for different levels of service. Adeluxe mummification could involve artificial eyes and hair extensions. For the poor, the body was simply allowed to dry out, then swaddled in linen bandages.

Egyptians pictured the deceased’s destination as a NileValley with taller crops, easier work and unlimited beer. “Being dead was just one of the modes of existence, but a finer one,” says Lawrence Berman, curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian and Near Eastern art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. “You were more perfect when you were dead. After you were mummified, you had a stronger, better body.”

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.

Areigning pharaoh was the closest thing to a divinity on earth; Egyptians referred to living pharaoh as a “young god”—an intermediary between them and their all-powerful deities. For their part, rulers lavished the Theban temples with offerings—of gold, silver, slaves and more—to thank the gods for their own good fortune.

The ambitious Queen Hatshepsut, who was particularly extravagant in her offerings, had good reason to be thankful. She was both Thutmose II’s principal wife and, as a daughter of Thutmose I, his half sister. (Incest was common in Egyptian royal families; it simplified lines of succession.) After her husband’s death in 1479 B.C., Hatshepsut elbowed aside her young stepson-nephew, Thutmose III, to become pharaoh in her own right, although during her nearly 15-year reign, she was officially his co-regent. She justified the power play in inscriptions carved in her enormous, multi-terraced mortuary temple near Thebes. The god Amun had not only chosen her to be the next pharaoh, she declared, but had also impregnated her mother, Queen Ahmose, years before to effect her divine birth.

Hatshepsut erected obelisks at the temple of Karnak to honor Amun and covered them with precious electrum, a mixture of gold and silver. “I measured it by the gallon like sacks of grain,” she asserted in an inscription on the base. “Not shall he who hears it say, ‘It is a boast,’ what I have said. Rather say, ‘How like her it is. She is devoted to her father!’ ” —meaning the god Amun, not King Thutmose I.

By the time his imperious stepmother died, circa 1458 B.C., Thutmose III was in his 20s. He ordered her self-serving inscriptions covered up or hacked away, along with any appearance of her name or image, and he set about building a new series of obelisks detailing his own divine birth. (Among them are the misnamed Cleopatra’s Needle, now in London, and monuments in New York City’s Central Park and Istanbul’s Hippodrome.) Apainted relief (above, right) in the exhibition shows Thutmose and his otherworldly father, Amun, nose to nose like twins. This time, however, it’s the god who’s been all but obliterated—a victim of King Akhenaten, whose short-lived campaign a century later for a new central deity, Aten, led to widespread defacement of Amun’s image.

Thutmose III, who stood just 5 feet 2 inches tall to judge from his mummy, mounted at least 14 foreign military campaigns, some of which he led personally, all of which he won. His military exploits were recorded by contemporaries, including a lengthy account carved into rock walls at Karnak. There are tales of his soldiers hiding in baskets delivered to an enemy city, of his ordering a fleet of boats hauled 250 miles overland by oxen for a surprise raid across the Euphrates on the Mittani Empire, and of a victorious elephant hunt afterward. A painted fragment portraying Thutmose’s royal bark shows a hull decorated with two scenes of the king: one as a warrior smiting an Asiatic, the other as a sphinx trampling a Nubian. Pharaohs returning from battle sometimes heaved into port with the bodies of vanquished princes dangling from the bows. By all accounts, Thutmose was more compassionate. He neither enslaved enemy chiefs nor massacred their subjects, preferring to bring foreign princes into line by taking their sons hostage and raising them as loyal Egyptians.

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.

Indeed, to judge from today’s enduring fascination with ancient Egypt and the superb art it created to put the next world in reach, Thutmose III and the other mighty New Kingdom pharaohs are enjoying something very much like eternal life after all.

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