...they worked terribly hard to steal all this lovely stuff themselves. Years ago I flew for six hours, ears and eyes full of clouds. Got hassled by tobacco chewing stall holders pushing their wares onto me, running alongside to tell me I had an Egyptian face. I felt the pink burn of the midday sun on my white skin. The churn of dehydration. But it took a rainy trip to London to truly appreciate that half of Egyptian history lives in right here in England.
Ramesses II, 19th Dynasty,
ca 1270 BC, Thebes,
on display at the British Museum, London.
I've been fascinated by the guts and gore of mummification since I was a kid. That twisted pieces of metal used to scramble the brain. Canopic jars full of organs, the ritual. One of my earliest memories is of being in a museum on a primary school trip. The lady who walked our group around on a tour stopped at one point and took a withered wooden looking ball from a glass cabinet. "What do you think this is?" I've never felt as lucky as when she handed it to me. I puzzled over its surface and just it felt right to shake it. It sounded like an African musical instrument but it wasn't. I was holding an ancient pomegranate still full of seeds. That feeling has never left me. The rest of the visit is a blur, though I do recall stopping at a mummy crammed in a glass box. I can't remember much but the poor thing looked mangled and uncomfortable.
At the Museum of Cairo, Egypt I saw the bust of Tutankhamen for my twenty first birthday. We flew there on a tiny little Indiana Jones plane. I was certain I'd die on that plane. I didn't. It was one of the best days of my life. I welled up, didn't want to leave. But eventually I did, only on the promise I could see the pyramids. For so many years I've dreamed of being inside those cool tombs and when I was finally there, my hands on the wall, I was just awe struck. Sweating alongside our tour guide, we walked around the museum for hours. It was all too easy to get lost in it all: rooms filled with mummified bodies, King Tut's ebony game board and more gold than you could ever imagine (below).
Everything was mesmerisingly golden. It was hard not to imagine it in liquid form, sloshing about, pouring like a metallic tea. The graduated Chinese boxes of pure gold that surrounded Tut's coffin like a Russian doll got smaller and smaller. Shrinking, he was embedded like an Angela Carter narrative. Layers of divine gold and at the centre, the ultimate monarch. Chick-like. Vulnerable. Though not any more. It was bizarre seeing all of that gold and splendor knowing it was never even used by the King. He slept on a simple wooden bed and sat on a simple wooden chair, The throne of ebony, inlays of ivory and gold leaf were all reserved for use in the afterlife. And that's true of his body today, in a bare chamber, stripped of any razz-ma-tazz, just his little withered body in rags.
As I write, I do hope he's enjoying all his goodies elsewhere, though perhaps he could keep the soles of his feet off the engraved slaves on his footstool. Tut could have had his own Abu Simbel had he grown to be as old as the commissioner, Rameses II. That is simply the most beautiful temple I've ever seen. To think it could have all stayed underwater sets the hairs on the back of my neck a flutter. Stepping inside felt like going home, it was the strangest feeling I've ever had. It would certainly not work in London. Though there's an uneasy thought that always comes back to me. How much we have stolen from other cultures through colonialism and under the guise of natural history. And how, if those pesky Egyptologists could have brought these colossal sights home in their suitcases, then trust me, they would have. There's a danger that we let this history slide and forget the part our culture played in the pursuit of imperial control and scientific discovery.
It is maddening to think how many cultural artifacts are here on British soil, captured in circumstances we must acknowledge our shame for through the return of items to their home countries. After all, so much of understanding history is tied to its contect. Abu Simbel, for instance, perfectly aligns with the sun twice a year. The chamber deep in the heart of the place fills up with light. Everything is illuminated.