DC Diary: Mysteries of the immortal Ancient Egypt

Thebes, Ancient Egypt
Thursday, 1300 BC
10:30 a.m.

Dunes covered with golden sand extend to one side of me for miles and if I close my eyes, I can almost feel moisture in the air carried by the winds of the Nile. The sound of flapping wings echo from a falcon above in the sky. Well – in my imagination. In reality, I’m standing outside of the Foggy Bottom Metro station surrounded by concrete. And the Nile breeze – it’s just the wetness in the air left over from the previous night’s rain. Nevertheless, I trudge on in search of relics from a time that has long been past.

A ten-minute Metro ride later to the Smithsonian station on the Blue line, I find myself walking through the National Mall on my way to the National Gallery of Art in pursuit of a free and exciting new thing to do in the city. As a regular at this particular museum, I have memorized almost every room from the landscapes of Monet to the mobiles of Calder. However, the NGA has a much more interesting adventure in store for me today.

When I heard about an exhibit of artifacts, artwork and statues from Ancient Egypt called “The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt” from friends, I decided that I absolutely must check it out. And the fact that it was completely free, like most exhibits in D.C. museums, only encouraged me more. So I bypass the many galleries of the west wing and head straight for the excruciatingly slow conveyor belt that connects the west wing to the east.

Once inside the exhibit, I was astonished by the amount of color and detail that each piece of artwork still possesses despite being thousands of years old.

The first item that drew my attention was the pyramidion of the royal scribe Amenhotep-Huy. This little pyramid-shaped artifact from Sakkara dated back to 1279 BC and is still in perfect condition. It is covered with ancient markings and I can hardly believe anyone was capable of its creation.

My attention is diverted to a plaque stating in ancient Egypt the color black symbolized fertility and regeneration after the nutrient-rich black soil of the Nile. I find this ironic since the color represents the exact opposite in our modern civilization, death.

Another aspect of this exhibit that amazes me is the sheer size of some of the statues. The head of Ramses II is at least half as tall as I am. Another thing I notice is that the eyes of all the statues are lacking pupils. Artistic license, perhaps?

There are so many aspects of Egyptian culture that I never knew before visiting this exhibit. While admiring the Sphinx of Thutmose III, I learn that the sphinx, which is the body of a lion and the head of the ruler, symbolizes the pharaoh’s strength and valor. It also linked the pharaoh to the sun god, Ra, since the lion is a solar symbol. Imagine what America would be like if we all equated President George W. Bush to a god.

One of the reasons the Ancient Egyptians kept such detailed artistic depictions of their lives is because they felt a person’s ka, a human’s life force, could survive through the artistic images of the deceased. Much of Ancient Egyptian artwork is centered on death and the afterlife. For example, canoptic jars were created for the sole purpose of holding the organs of the deceased. The stoppers were sculpted in the shapes of the four sons of the falcon god Horus in the forms of a human, a baboon, a jackal and a hawk.

Speaking of a baboon, I find it especially interesting as a writer to learn that Thoth, the god of writing and knowledge, often took the shape of a baboon. There is a sculpture depicting Thoth in this shape on the second floor of the exhibit within a room constructed by the NGA replicating an ancient tomb.

Out of all the sculptures in this exhibit, my absolute favorite is the one and only bronze sculpture of a common cat, or miu in Egyptian, dating back to 664 BC. Ancient Egyptians not only kept cats as household pets, but their feline companions were also raised in temples and mummified. As a cat lover myself, I was impressed at the respect that was bestowed upon these animals during ancient times.

After spending such an enjoyable and educational afternoon at the NGA, I would definitely recommend this exhibit to anyone who has appreciation for both beauty and history. I do suggest, however, going on a weekday when there aren’t so many crowds.

For more information on this exhibit and many others at the National Gallery of Art, go to www.nga.gov.

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