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Egyptian Immortality in Washington July 1, 2002
by Mark Rose

A new exhibition begins its five-year tour of North America at the National Gallery of Art


The goddesses Nephthys and Isis stand guard on the end of the wooden sarcophagus of the nobleman Khonsu, ca. 1270 B.C. (The Egyptian Museum, Cairo)


This 26th Dynasty (664-525 B.C.) figure shows the resurrecting deity Osiris wearing an elaborate headdress of ram's horns, a solar disk, and two ostrich plumes made of gold and electrum. (The Egyptian Museum, Cairo)


A gold "feather of truth" and rearing cobra (uraeus) adorn a small lapis lazuli figure of the goddess Maat, ca. 800-700 B.C. (The Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

This past week saw the opening of The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His Excellency M. Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, hit all the right diplomatic notes at the opening: the antiquities of Egypt are "ultimately the heritage of mankind as a whole" and this exhibition will be "a bridge between Egyptians and Americans." (On the practical side, he admitted that another objective was to encourage tourism.) Seconding the ambassador, in printed letters, were presidents Bush and Mubarak.

Preceded by Tutankhamun and Rameses the Great, this is the third major exhibition sent from Cairo to North America. Like its predecessors, it is very much an ambassador of Egypt, designed both to bring ancient Egyptian culture to a wide audience and to lure some of that audience into traveling to Egypt, a country that depends in large part on tourism money to fund its museums and archaeological endeavors.


A bracelet with the protective Eye of Horus made of gold and semiprecious stones, came from the royal tomb of Sheshonk II at Tanis (reign of Sheshonk I and II, 945-890 B.C.).


This Ptolemaic era (332-30 B.C.) scarab is made of glass and gold. The scarab was the symbol of the newly resurrected sun god and of the rising sun. (The Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

The Quest for Immortality is in Washington through October 14, then tours the United States and Canada for the next five years, ending in December 2007. On display are 115 objects from the Cairo and Luxor museums and from the sites of Tanis and Deir el-Bahri. The exhibition explores the Egyptian belief in, and search for, eternal life, focusing on the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.) through the end of the Late Period (664-332 B.C.). It is based on five thematic sections--Journey to the Afterworld, The New Kingdom, The Royal Tomb, Tombs of Nobles, and The Realm of the Gods--while a sixth section focuses on the burial chamber of Thutmose III. Credited with the idea for the exhibition is the University of Basel's Erik Hornung, who began his career 50 years ago, translating an Egyptian funerary text known as the Amduat (see below). Egyptologist Betsy Bryan of The Johns Hopkins University, was called in to curate the show. They jointly edited the 256 page catalogue, which is well illustrated with190 color photographs.

Among the exhibition highlights are an eight-foot-long wooden boat model from the tomb of the pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427-1400 B.C.), jewelry from 21st and 22nd Dynasty royal tombs at Tanis, and the painted and gilded canopic chest of Queen Nedjmet (ca. 1087-1080 B.C.) of the late 20th Dynasty surmounted by figure of Anubis. The hallmark piece is a 26th Dynasty (664-525 B.C.) sculpture of the god Osiris resurrecting. The god is depicted on his stomach, raising his head, which is crowned with an electrum and gold headdress. A personal favorite of both curator Betsy Bryan and Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, is a lapis and gold figurine of Maat, the goddess of truth and cosmic order, which dates from 800-700 B.C. My own choice is a brightly painted box made for the funeral of Djed-Maat-iuesankh, which would have held the ushebti figures who would have done her chores in the afterworld. The box (from 1069-715 B.C.) shows a watchful god Anubis in jackal form on one side, the deceased woman rowing herself across the sky in a papyrus boat on the other.

The largest piece in the exhibition is actually a modern creation--an exact replica of the 50-by-29 foot burial chamber of Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.). Its walls, like those of the original in the Valley of the Kings, are covered with the ancient text known as Amduat, "What is in the Netherworld." Primarily intended for royalty, this funerary text is a guidebook that describes the trip through the Netherworld a deceased ruler would make in the company of Re, the sun god. The dusk-to-dawn journey represents death and rebirth. The first hours are spent sailing through a land of plenty on an afterlife equivalent of the Nile. Then, the river dries up and the sun god is beset by enemies and obstacles, overcoming them only with the aid of other gods. At dawn, the sun is reborn and rises and the pharaoh is reborn into the afterlife.


An eight-foot-long wooden boat from the tomb of the pharaoh Amenhotep II (1427-1400 B.C.) is painted with scenes of the god Montu smiting the enemies of Egypt. (The Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

The replica burial chamber was made by Factum Arte, a company based in Madrid and London that specializes in digital production of works for artists, museums, and conservators. The chamber has an aluminum framework on which are more than 100 wood panels, each covered with layers of linen cloth and gesso onto which computer-generated images of the tomb's decoration were ink-jetted using pigment.

Visitors can rent a headset for the audio tour (by Bryan and David O'Connor of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University) or buy the catalogue or video (based on the exhibition but with on-site footage of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and other sites). There is a free brochure and, also free, a 12-page "family guide" that highlights some of the objects and tells visitors what to look for, from individual hieroglyphs that crop up time and again (like the scarab beetle, kheper) to the false beard on the sphinx of Thutmose III. The back three pages of the guide include activities children can do at home, such as writing their name in hieroglyphs. On the web, at, there's a virtual tour of the exhibition, as well as downloadable and printable versions of the exhibition brochure and family guide. Check the website for current information on dates and venues for The Quest for Immortality before you make plans to see it.


This sphinx from the Karnak temple complex symbolized the power of the pharaoh Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.). (The Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

The Quest for Immortality is at the National Gallery of Art until October 14, 2002. The tour schedule is as follows, but please check in advance to confirm dates and ticket requirements before visiting the exhibition.

Denver Museum of Nature and Science
September 12, 2004-January 23, 2005

Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville
June 11-October 9, 2006

Portland Museum of Art
November 5, 2006-March 4, 2007

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
September 2-December 31, 2007

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America