July 25, 2006

A JOURNEY TO EGYPT: Part One - Royal Mummies, Priceless Treasures & A Weird Pharaoh

Egypt is a land that has always been surrounded by hype, whether it be in the writings of the Greek Ptolemy or the reports of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. Certainly the pharaohs themselves engaged in mammoth efforts to promote the superiority of their civilisation. Inevitably then, the first time traveller to Egypt comes with high expectations, and a tinge of fear that the legend will not live up to its reputation. Such fears, however, are very quickly vanquished after arrival.

The Egyptian people are both friendly and beguiling. They have all the mannerisms and fiery temperament of the Italians, but this betrays a far softer, gentler side to their character. It comes as no surprise, though, that after having a tourist industry that stretches millennia, the universally tried and tested techniques to depart the dollars from the traveller's hands are well honed.

On my first day in Cairo - a sandblasted city of incessant tall buildings and winding streets - I headed to the Egyptian Museum. As soon as I entered through the main entrance, I realised that the sheer number of items housed within would overwhelm me.

I started in a section that contained objects from the Old Kingdom - a time when Egypt was first unified as a nation by Narmer, and when the pharaoh, Khufu, built the Great Pyramid in Giza 4500 years ago.

One of the prized artifacts, and one that is overlooked by many tourists, is a tablet housed in a modest glass case near the entrance of the museum. Engraved upon the stone is an image of Narmer's establishment of power throughout the Nile Valley. This was the starting point for a civilisation that would last for 3000 years.

Also on the ground floor, is a section devoted to a pharaoh I am particularly fascinated by, Akhenaten. For many reasons he remains a tantalising mystery. Firstly, he is considered a heretical leader, because he broke from the traditional religion of the priesthood, which worshipped Amun and the various deities that are so associated with the ancient Egyptians. Instead, he established the first monotheistic religion, which replaced the worship of the Egyptian pantheon, with the worship of one sun god, called the Aten. This, of course, made him the enemy of many.

The second aspect of interest for me, regarding Akhenaten, is the unique design in sculpture and painting. The statues of the pharaoh appear almost deformed, with a distended stomach, large pouting lips, a long neck and extenuated eyes. The statues of Akhenaten stand out in contrast to the bold pharoanic design of those that preceded his rule and those that followed.

His famed wife, Nefertiti, is portrayed in all her legendary beauty by an unfinished piece that is present in the Akhenaten display.

On the second floor of the museum, is a section devoted to Akhenaten's son, Tutankhamun, who took power as a boy king, after perhaps Nefertiti, who is assumed by some archaeologists to have taken pharoanic duties after the death of her husband. However, there is some uncertainty, because there was an active campaign to extinguish any memory of Akhenaten and his new religion, which included the defacement of stelae and statues, as well as written records.

By the time Tutankhamun became king, the old religion had been re-established. However, he was to be an insignificant ruler, who would die young. If it were not for the discovery of his perfectly intact tomb, by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, his name would not resonate as it does today.

Housed in the museum are items discovered within his humble tomb. Unlike many of the royal tombs in Egypt, which had been plundered by tomb robbers for millennia, Tutankhamun's remained miraculously untouched.

Walking around the display cases that contain the artifacts, one is immediately impressed by not only the sophistication of the work, but also how contemporary they feel. There are little chests with various small chambers for storing personal items. There are linen gloves, sumptuous beds and chairs, reed pens with inks of charcoal and henna, gold rings and necklaces that seem like they could have been fashioned today, rather than 3000 years ago.

Of course, the famous Tutankhamun mask is a marvel of artistic achievement. Made out of beaten gold, it radiates the youth of the dead king, as well as his wealth.

Also on the first floor is the Royal Mummies' Room. Within are housed the wrapped bodies of some of Egypt's (and the world's) greatest rulers. Among them is the mummy of Ramses II - perhaps the greatest pharaoh of them all. To look upon their dried faces is to look at history literally in the flesh. These rulers had once lived, breathed, ate, made love, walked, argued, cried, fought and played as we do today. What an honour to come face to face with historical figures of such magnitude!

Part 2 - Coming shortly.

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Travel Guide - Travellerspoint