Eternal optimists: The Royal Ontario Museum's exhibition of Egyptian art reminds us of a civilization that believed you can take it with you
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 March 2004)

Five thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, the rich and inventive societies flourishing near the Nile River began sending into the future the most amazing time capsules ever created. It didn't occur to the ancient Egyptians, as they stuffed vast rooms with precious objects, that they were packing their civilization into storehouses for the benefit of people like us. They thought they were furnishing tombs that would never again be entered by humans.

But because the tombs were hidden so well, many of them remained intact until about 200 years ago, when the modern world began discovering them and prying them open, one after another, in wonderment and excitement and gratitude.

And so our own civilization, through the collaboration of grave-robbers, scholars and art lovers, has come to know far more about Egypt than would otherwise be possible. No doubt most of ancient Egypt has vanished into the sands, and we barely begin to understand what we have. But our eyes can tell us that some of the greatest art ever made came from these mysterious people, who never got around to inventing a word for "art" and believed their best work was at once a tribute to the pharaoh and an expression of whatever religion that particular pharaoh happened to embrace.

This week at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, 144 of these objects have touched down for a three-month stay under the title Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from The British Museum.

The eight-city U.S. leg of their five-year North American tour is behind them; after Toronto they'll go to Victoria in July and Montreal next January.

Eternal Egypt leads us through 31 royal dynasties spanning three millennia, putting before us the whole range of surviving Egyptian culture: Massive heads, gold jewellery, satirical drawings on papyrus, mummy cases, exquisite perfume bottles, the lot. This is an event worth celebrating, and it deserves the big crowds it will no doubt draw (though I personally would have been even happier if the ROM had not advertised "Ensure your place in eternity -- get your tickets now," which sounds like something churned out by Mel Gibson's press agents).

Walking among these objects the other day made me remember again how lucky we are that the Egyptian monarchs (and many lesser humans) viewed eternity with a crazy and remarkably materialistic optimism. Like the ancient Chinese, they believed you can take it with you and you certainly should. In fact, they believed it would be improper to do otherwise.

On some level they considered death principally a matter of moving from one place to another. So the wealthy and powerful decorated the interior of their tombs with terrific storytelling murals and stocked them with gorgeous clothes, jewels, perfume, food, furniture and portraits of themselves. They included the Book of the Dead, a kind of guidebook to the afterlife in scroll form. Was the fitting out of their tombs the greatest event in the lives of certain individuals? That seems possible. Howard Carter's discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, one of the most famous cultural events of the 20th century, revealed so many objects that it took a decade to catalogue them.

Egyptian art is much older than almost anything else that regularly swims into our visual imagination. Many of these highly sophisticated objects were being made when Rome was still a city of huts. As the Greek city states developed, they looked back on Egypt the way we look back on antiquity in general. In the 5th century BCE, Herodotus toured Egypt and wrote that "It has more wonders in it than any other country in the world." He was writing mainly about the architecture. He could not have known what was buried within it and probably saw far less small-scale Egyptian work (jewellery, scrolls, household objects) than the average museumgoer of this century.

You could spend all of your time in an Egyptian exhibit just studying the way the sculptors depicted human faces and forms in the various stones they used -- stern granite, glowing sexy alabaster, soft and friendly limestone, and two useful stones I love mainly for their names -- graywacke (a convergence of a stone, rounded pebbles firmly united with sand) and gneiss (a stratified, slaty granite).

The Egyptian sculptors invented portraiture, but while we may admire the portraits and speculate on their meaning, we can't necessarily guess what the artists intended. In the exhibition catalogue ($65 a copy, and worth every penny), Edna R. Russmann of the Brooklyn Museum addresses this point. Her essay, a brilliant piece of work, sharply differs from the usual catalogue writing; it seems to be directed at ordinary visitors rather than colleagues in a priestly caste of specialists.

Russmann points out that the numerous portraits of two Twelfth Dynasty kings, Sesostris III and his son Amenemhat III, seem to say they were weary, depressed men. That's wrong. She explains that documents from the time show that those expressions reflected the politics of the era; it was a time of pessimism and distrust, when kingship was a weighty burden. The portraits express their duties, not their personalities. Russmann says, "The fact that we could not interpret these portraits correctly had the literary evidence not survived should give us pause."

Spreading knowledge is the main business of museums, but on their best days they also do a brisk trade in mystery. While adding to what we know they also remind us of what we don't know and perhaps can't know. This applies especially to Eternal Egypt, where most of the time we can make only intelligent guesses at the religious and political beliefs the artists and their subjects took for granted.

The Egyptian theory of government, while intensely complicated in detail, was in one way stunningly simple. The pharaohs established the divine right of kings by the simple expedient of being divine. Typically, they put it about that they were at the very least relatives of Osiris, the godly embodiment of goodness, and his sister-wife, Isis, the goddess, who described her own status with admirable clarity: "I am whatever was, or is, or will be." In what remains of Egyptian art we catch only a glimpse of the world governed by these beliefs, but that glimpse is magnificent.

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