Sunday, December 21, 2008

Geographica: Ancient Egypt!

King Tutankhamun's tomb was opened in 1922, and in 1977, over fifty of the 5,000 or so artifacts taken from it went on the road to dazzle the world - and nowhere did the show have a more enthusiastic audience than in America, where millions of people thronged to see these often weird and always beautiful items the teen-pharaoh had placed in his mortuary chamber with him, for his use in the afterlife. We are that young man's afterlife, and his fame lives on in our own day in a way he would probably have found quite pleasing.

Audiences marvel at the ostentatious wealth on display - so many items coated or entirely composed of gold, so many fine gems, and most of all such stunning craftsmanship - things of breathtaking beauty, preserved for mind-boggling amounts of time. This is true for all the remnants of Ancient Egypt, and it serves both to underscore the sheer ocean of time that separates the present day from their distant ages (when Herodotus saw the Great Pyramids 2000 years ago - or claimed he did - they were already over 2000 years old) and to annihilate it.

And surely no single artifact from all of Ancient Egypt produces this weird double-effect quite as strongly as does that face, the sumptuous golden face-mask of Tutankhamun that has become so iconic in the modern Western world that many people take it for granted, as much a background detail of the Ancient Egyptians as those pyramids themselves. But if you stop for a moment and really look at that face, you can almost feel the temporal certainty of the ground beneath your feet tilt a little. There's perhaps nothing in the world at once so aloof and so immediate; the eyes look like they're looking at you, the mouth looks like it's about to sneer just a little, at you; the combined affect is of an entire civilization looking right at you - or no, not a civilization but a civilization's ideal conception of itself, its dream of what it wants itself to be.

Nations often find such things in the oddest places. In England, it's the face of Winston Churchill; in America, it's the Lincoln sitting in the Lincoln Memorial. And here it's the death-ornament of a boy who didn't live long enough to become even a good pharaoh, much less a great one, an ornament that was never meant to be seen by the world at all.

Naturally, National Geographic was on hand to commemorate Tutankhamun's tour through the United States, and the short pictorial piece about it is the highlight of the March, 1977 issue.

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