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King Tut comes to San Francisco

September 20, 2010

I am sure there are very few who do not get a faraway look in their eyes when the topic turns to “Egypt” and “Nefertiti” and “Pyramids” … so if you belong to the minority, maybe I can help! If you read through this post maybe you will also start sharing the fascination that Egypt holds for many of us. Go ahead, give it a try!

Egypt. The very word evokes vistas of gentle sand dunes and camels walking across the desert with their characteristic gait, and the setting sun lighting up the pyramids the way it has done for millennia. One cannot think of Egypt and not think of the Pharaohs and the Pyramids and the priceless treasures! Fascinating stories of unimaginable riches and cursed mummies have been imprinted on our minds since growing up. So, it was with much excitement that we went to see actual treasures from the legendary boy-king – King Tutankhamun’s tomb which was part of a traveling exhibit from Cairo, showcased from June ’09 to March ’10 at the De Young museum in San Francisco. This opportunity was a rare one, because the last time these exhibits were displayed in the US was 30 years ago! These prized exhibits are not allowed to go outside of Cairo, in fact the most famous of all of King Tut’s exhibits – his death mask – didn’t even make this trip. It was deemed too fragile to travel. But there were so many other treasures and so many stories behind each of these, that it made for a wonderful time. These were some of the most beautifully preserved, most intricately made treasures from Egypt, and we were getting to see them up close for the first time ever! The King Tut exhibit is currently in New York till Jan 2011.

Everything about the pharaohs, their lifestyle, their history, their obsession with after-life and death, is fascinating. Such a great civilization, modern and accomplished, they’ve left behind such a long-lasting legacy, with standing architectural wonders that to this day we marvel at. And because of their obsession with after-life, we have a detailed insight into their day-to-day lives, their stories and culture. I wonder what would be left of our civilization were something to happen and we were all wiped out in an instant. iPads and Macbooks do not have the same shelf-life as bejeweled scarabs and gold-plated masks.

Coming back to the exhibit at De Young, it was very well presented. There were 10 rooms, the first few contained artifacts and exhibits from other tombs of King Tut’s grandparents and aunts and uncles. Seeing these built up the expectations when we got to the last 3 rooms, which contain the actual artifacts found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The rest of this post is dedicated to highlights of the treasures we were lucky to lay eyes on.

Please note: The photographs in this post are not mine. We were not allowed to take our cameras into the exhibit, so these images have been procured thanks to the De Young website as well as the mighty Google search engine. All of these had such interesting stories behind them that I couldn’t resist not sharing it with you! And now … presenting …

To the left, a popular scarab beetle carving, inlaid with beautiful semi-precious stones and representing the king’s name, not directly in hieroglyphs, but overall representing the pharaoh, with the carving below the beetle, the red round stone which the beetle is holding and the extended wings.

The yellow scarab beetle to the right is made of glass and has a fascinating history. The glass is not man-made. Scientists have found out that this glass actually comes from a place very far from Egypt – the Sahara Desert – from a place where it’s likely a meteorite hit the earth, and raised the temperature of the sand to as high as 3000 degrees, and melted the sand into glass. Other pieces of similar yellow glass have since been found in the Sahara. This knowledge might not have been known by the young King at the time, but he likely saw the uniqueness and beauty of this yellowish-glowing-glass and had it embedded in this exquisitely carved necklace.

Can you tell what this is? It’s a spoon! Yes, it’s a grand spoon, worthy of a queen. Carved in the shape of an outstretched woman, where her holding hands are used to dip into bottles of perfumes and other unguents, the delicate carving is spell binding. The details on the hair, the expression on the face have been painstakingly perfected. The reflection of this artifact is to further showcase that the Egyptians carved an object taking into account every angle. It was created like it existed in real life. They did not cut corners to make it look like something it was not. Many artifacts in the exhibit had space to go all around it, because only when you walk around something you realize that the effort that went into carving the back of the figure and each strand of hair was equal if not more to carving the face and decorating the front of the figure or item. The Egyptians were no doubt highly accomplished sculptors, jewelry makers and painters. Each exhibit showcases the hours of work that would have gone into making it.

This chest was perfectly preserved and made us feel that opening it today would give me a glimpse into life in Egypt thousands of years ago. The “ankh” carvings on the side of the trunk are made of solid gold. And the entire trunk is covered in semi-precious stones and detailed setting of tiny items in brilliant colors of blue, red and gold to make it look so regal.

The reason the Egyptians used so much gold was because they worshipped the Sun God – Aten who was considered the giver of all life. And what else to reference everything the sun stood for other than to use something which glittered like it? That’s right – GOLD! Everything the Egyptians made had to have gold in it. Either made of solid gold, or if the artifact was too big, like the exterior of the mummy cases, then it was covered in gold sheets. When Howard Carter first peeked into King Tut’s tomb, he said “Everywhere the glint of gold”. In the exhibit I saw only one item made of silver. The Egyptians associated silver with night and getting old and it had the opposite meaning of the life-giving sun.

This carving is actually part of a balustrade from the time of Akhenaten. Akhenaten was a rebel king. He came to power and decided to get rid of all the other hundreds of gods the Egyptians worshipped and retain just one god – the sun god. Hence he changed his name from Amhenotep to Akhenaten where aten meaning the round disk referring to the sun was now forever part of his name.

Recent DNA studies led by Zahi Hawass (Egypt’s famous archaeologist, egyptologist and Secretary General of Antiquities) have found that King Tutankhamun is the son of Akhenaten. His mother’s exact identity is not known, although speculation is that she may have been Queen Nefertiti. In the carving, the queen – Akhenaten’s wife is behind him, both of them their hands raised in worship to the sun god. Akhenaten is considered one of the first rebels / progressive thinkers of Egypt because of his radical idea – worship one god. Which if you think about it, is just one step away from atheism.

This coffinette was undoubtedly the most beautiful item in the entire exhibit. It’s the canopy jar containing the innards of King Tut after mummification. All of the pharaoh’s important organs – the liver, the stomach, intestines and kidneys were stored in 4 separate canopy jars, to go forth with the king onto his journey for eternal life. This is one of four, and contained King Tut’s liver when it was unearthed.

The workmanship on this statue is astounding. The amount of detailed carvings, the designs, the colors, the beautiful, mystical, mesmerizing eyes and features of the young boy pharaoh have been elegantly captured in an expression of timeless beauty. This artifact is not huge, it’s very small in fact, no larger than a water jug. However, it’s beauty lies in the exquisite details (as seen in the closeup). Even the back of the statue is decorated as grandly as the front.

Another interesting thing we learnt from this exhibit is that the boy-king died so unexpectedly, there was no time to plan a grand burial in advance. However, the required items and treasures which are worthy of a king were hustled up and remade into something that could go with the king into his tomb. This very canopy jar for example, actually had another king’s name carved inside, and King Tutankhamun’s name was carved over that in hieroglyphs. Which means that the king did die expectedly, and a lot of the items that were laid with the king to rest in his tomb, were items which might not have been meant for his burial in the first place. The exact cause of his death has never been determined, but extensive CAT scans of his skull have shown that he might have had a blow to his head. However, other tests have also shown a broken leg, and that indicates an accident, maybe a chariot accident, and if the leg didn’t heal and got infected, that might explain the cause of his sudden and unexpected death at the tender age of 19. That is just 10 years after he took over the throne of Egypt as Pharaoh at the tender age of 9.

We did get an opportunity to see a death mask though it was not the famous King Tut’s.  The mask is that of Queen Tuya, wife of Pharaoh Yuye. This death mask is beautiful, very similar in workmanship to that of King Tut. The black marks on the mask are residue left from fine linen cloth which was placed over the death mask. And of course, the mask is made of pure solid gold.

The item to the left is an ostrich feather fan. There are holes alongside the rims of this fan to hold large ostrich feathers, which would no doubt be held and swayed by nubile servants as the king and queen held court or rested in Egypt’s heat. The carvings on this fan are very beautiful. They show the King setting out for an ostrich hunt (on one side) and returning successful with capturing numerous ostriches (on the other side). Many artifacts of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s showcase details of daily life. This fan fascinated me, because I read that it has an animated “ankh” holding a similar fan and running behind the king as he’s out hunting for ostriches. An actual cartoon from that far back in time!

Calling this knife and sheath exquisite is an understatement. Made of solid gold, this knife – perhaps a ceremonial dagger – had superb carvings on the handle. The cover for the knife had beautiful animal carvings on it. The knife handle was also decorated with gold, tiny gold beads adhered in symmetric delicate designs and adorned with blue and red semi-precious jewels.

And coming to the last few of the exhibits we saw and admired, the wooden chair on the left still had its rattan/straw seat in place! Even after all these thousands of years! The boy-king probably sat on it as a child or a teenager. The chair had its trademark legs made of lion’s claws and the sides of the chair are decorated with men and women servants. The back of the chair depicts the Queen from whom this was probably a gift to King Tut.

And with that, I hope to have captured our excitement and enthusiasm for the amazing exhibition of King Tutankhamun’s treasures. Thanks to Howard Carter and Lord Carnavaron, the world can still continue to see these beautiful treasures, and look back on a time when Egypt was a powerful kingdom ruled by the Pharaohs, when there was so much gold that everything could be covered with it, when a boy of 9 could ascend the throne to rule a kingdom and became a popular and well loved king thanks to his efforts to bring back all the gods under worship and keep the people happy. When the legacy of a young king and his young queen wife, etched in chairs and murals and walls and pottery and jewelry would go on to live forever.

If you belonged to the minority, I hope you are now a convert and will wholeheartedly agree that Egypt is truly fascinating!

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