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Click Here to Create a Custom Cartouche of Your Name or Phrase with the Fun and Popular Hieroglyph Translator
NEW YORK TIMES -- September 12, 1999

An Open Book Full of Secrets

EGYPT puts the millennium in perspective. For 3,000 years before Christianity jump-started our calendar, civilization flourished along the Nile. People brewed beer, hewed rocks into huge statues of their kings and gods, and tried to keep the hippopotamuses from ruining their crops. With its towering pharaohs, its cool linen and its expressive typography, Ancient Egypt has a special, favored place in the modern Western imagination.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The remains of the colossal statue of Amenhotep IV, for Karnak, Egypt. He reigned from 1353 to 1336 B.C. The statue will be on view in Boston.
In contrast to how we view the ancient Hebrews, from whom our religions are descended, or the ancient Greeks and Romans, who left an intimidating cultural legacy, we feel we owe the Egyptians nothing -- a much better basis for wholehearted love. Yet their long history, their written records, their practice of providing the dead with everything they might need in the afterlife (and the closet space to go with it) and their peculiar climate, which preserved it all, give us the means of getting to know them.

Strangely inscrutable, strangely accessible, strangely vulnerable, Egypt holds sway as a sort of fascinating uncle with an attic full of treasure but no authority to send us to school. Can we rifle that attic like naughty children, bearing away objects and ideas that we don't quite understand? An endless stream of mummy-revenge movies flickering across our century suggests our ambivalence about such co-option.

Of all ancient cultures, Egypt is the one that most rewards ignorance.

With their hawks and ducks, their hands, eyes, lions, walking legs, jugs and rolls of linen, hieroglyphics offer the impression of significance even to people who can't read them. It's fun to read mystical meaning into the symbols, as pretty much all Western viewers did until 1822, when Jean- François Champillion deciphered the old script on the Rosetta Stone. Renaissance scholars were sure the papyruses and carvings contained hidden wisdom or powerful spells. That their interpretations proved to be nonsense barely detracts from the power of dramas based on supposed Egyptian mysteries, from "The Magic Flute" to "The Mummy."

Two exhibitions this fall, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the other at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, will give visitors a chance to read what they like into Egypt's treasures -- or, if they prefer, to learn from the work of scrupulous scholars. Both exhibits focus on periods of powerful leaders and exciting artistic advances. And if those two aren't enough Egypt for you, there's plenty more a gallery over or a subway ride away.

With more than 30 rooms of top-notch Egyptian treasures in the Met's permanent collection and more than a floor's worth at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York is one of the world centers of Egyptian art. New Yorkers can tour the land of the pyramids without even a camel, following in the footsteps of Western visitors since Herodotus.

"I shall now speak of Egypt, because this country possesses many marvelous things and offers monuments that beggar description, being more magnificent than those of any other country," wrote the Greek historian. The pyramids were already more than 2,000 years old when he visited them in the fifth century B.C.

To Westerners who followed Herodotus, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon and beyond, Egypt was a land of vast, mysterious monuments and toppled kings. According to one story, the idea for Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" came from 18th-century descriptions of monuments at Luxor. (Another story has it that he was inspired by the mammoth red granite head of Amenophis III in the collection of Egyptian sculpture at the British Museum.) He wrote, in part:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.  

Egypt was also, of course, a never-ending source of deliciously venerable souvenirs.

"Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids," which opens Thursday at the Metropolitan, offers visitors a glimpse of "marvelous things" and toppled kings. The pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, which lasted from 2650 to 2150 B.C., were considered semi-divine beings who had the ear of the gods -- and looking at the art they left behind, it's easy to see why.

Artists working under them were responsible not only for the pyramids, those icons of Egypt, but for grand, powerful images carved, painted or molded from a vast array of materials -- stone, wood, precious metals, clay. In one gorgeous sculpture, a pair of goddesses flanks King Menkaure, their shoulders slightly behind his. Hathor, the goddess of love, holds his hand as he steps forward with his left foot, not quite smiling. (The pose -- left foot forward, hands by the sides -- lasted for more than 2,500 years, showing up in statue after statue, until the elegant slouches of Greece and Rome infected Egyptian posture.) A monumental seated statue of Hemiunu, a portly man getting on in years, puts a personal face on the Great Pyramid at Giza. He was not only a relative of King Khufu, who was buried there, but probably the architect who designed it. And though they couldn't bring the whole pyramid over, the curators include one of its stones.

The Boston exhibit, "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen," skips ahead some 750 years to a revolutionary moment.

After the Pharaoh Akhenaten assumed the throne in 1353 B.C., he abandoned Egypt's traditional capitals, Memphis and Thebes, and built himself a new city, Amarna. There he overturned the old religion, ousting the gods and goddesses of the canon -- especially the chief god, Amen -- and replacing them with a single deity: Aten, "the light of the sun." The art that flourished under this visionary king had a new, personal quality. After millenniums of stylized monarchs with broad shoulders and sternly serene faces, Akhenaten shows up in statues and reliefs sporting a skinny chest, a pot belly and weirdly long facial features. On one stele, he and his queen, Nefertiti, hold wiggling daughters in their laps and arms, a playful depiction no previous pharaoh would have allowed.

Akhenaten's revolution didn't last long. After his death and that of his successor -- a shadowy figure who may have been Nefertiti, and in any case ruled for only four years -- the young king Tutankhamen, Akhenaten's son-in-law, gave it up. He moved the capital back to Thebes, abandoned Aten and restored Amen and his priests.

Tutankhamen is, of course, King Tut, the world's most famous mummy, whose spectacular discovery in 1922 by Howard Carter inspired all those ominous movies (as well as a number of flapper outfits and dances). Carter's account of his find, with its combination of awe, respect, excitement and desire, perfectly captures our uneasy exhilaration about capturing the past:

"I suppose most excavators would confess to a feeling of awe -- embarrassment almost -- when they break into a chamber closed and sealed by pious hands so many centuries ago. Three thousand, four thousand years maybe, have passed and gone since human feet last trod the floor on which you stand, and yet, as you note the signs of recent life around you -- the blackened lamp, the finger-mark upon the freshly painted surface -- you feel it might have been but yesterday.

The very air you breathe, unchanged throughout the centuries, you share with those who laid the mummy to its rest. Time is annihilated by little intimate details such as these, and you feel an intruder. That is perhaps the first and dominant sensation, but others follow thick and fast -- the exhilaration of discovery, the fever of suspense, the almost overmastering impulse, born of curiosity, to break down seals and lift the lids of boxes, the thought -- pure joy to the investigator -- that you are about to add a page to history, the strained expectancy -- why not confess it? -- of the treasure-seeker."

Polly Shulman is a contributing editor to Science magazine.

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