Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Egypt: Then, not now.

Kaitep and his wife Hetepheres, about 2300 BC, probably from Giza.

Egypt has been in the news frequently lately, as modern revolutions cause upheavals, not to say the cancelling of tourist plans. Those such as I, who were looking forward to travelling there and exploring the ancient civilisation of the Egyptians, will just have to wait a while, and wish all the best to the country in its search for a better system of governance. But if the wait is too long, there are always the famous Egyptian antiquities in The British Museum, which is presently showing a special exhibition on 'The Book of the Dead'.

The Rosetta Stone
There is no doubt that the BM's Egyptian collection is one of the world's greatest - which isn't always an unsullied compliment, as great museum collections were often amassed by 18th and 19th century pilferers. This blog has previously explored the fraught question of the Ancient Greek Elgin (or, more correctly, Parthenon) Marbles, and suspects that there may be some murky waters in the Egyptian section as well. As to the extraordinary highlight of the collection - The Rosetta Stone - the BM is careful to indicate at every opportunity that it was Napoleon who nicked it from Eygpt - well, they say his troops 'stumbled across it' in a ditch or something during a war campaign in 1799 - which the French eventually lost, along with The Rosetta Stone, to the English in 1802.

The Rosetta Stone is the single most visited item in the entire BM - which is a monstrous great morgue of a place, stuffed to the gills with incredible treasures, so that statistic is mighty impressive. But setting aside how it came to 'enter the collection' of the BM (as they coyly term their acquisitions from these times), its discovery and the ensuing study of it have been enormously revealing, because it was from this stone, covered in carved pronouncements, that scholars were finally able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is an irregular shaped lump, broken off from a larger stone stela. It is about 112 cm tall, 75 cm wide, 28 cm think and weighs about 762 kg. The writing carved on it is a Decree concerning the reign of Ptolemy V, who would only have been 13 years old when it was carved in 196 BC. The years before the Stone was carved were full of strife and political intrigue. Ptolemy IV died suddenly in his mid-thirties (the average life expectancy in Ancient Egypt was probably around 35) and Ptolemy V came to the throne as a six year old child. Life was obviously lived fast and furious back then.

Text carved on The Rosetta Stone
But the really intriguing point about the politics of the times is that Egypt was ruled by the Greeks in this period: so the Stone's Decree is written in three different scripts: formal hieroglyphics, an 'everyday' Egyptian script, and Greek. It is the repetition of the Decree in Greek, which was a language understood by scholars, that largely enabled the deciphering of the hieroglyphics. Oh, and the Stone also bears a fourth language: English. Carved on its side are the words: "Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801" and "Presented by King George III" (who, by the way, would have been a gravely ill lunatic by this time).

Once the Stone was in the museum and available for study, the race was on to decipher the hieroglyphics, with the front-runners being an English physicist Thomas 'Phenomenon' Young (great nickname, eh?) and a Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champollion. They worked together on the project to some extent, but in 1822 the Frenchman had a brilliant insight about the true nature of the hieroglyphics - that the script includes both sound signs and picture signs. It is said that Jean-Francois, upon cracking the code, rushed into his brother and cried "Je tiens mon affaire!", then promptly collapsed in a dead faint lasting five days.As you might imagine, there is a long and involved history of rivalry about which one - the Englishman or the Frenchman - was the true decipherer.

Part of The BM's extensive
Egyptian Collection

It is called 'The Rosetta Stone' because it was discovered at the Egyptian town of Rashid, which translates to 'Rosetta'; but the term has now entered the English lexicon, being defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a phrase meaning: 'a key to some previously unattainable understanding'. In 2004 the European Space Agency launched a space mission to decipher the early history of the solar system, and named it after....The Rosetta Stone. It is an artifact to inspire awe, being the key to the unlocking of 3000 years of previously undecipherable history.

And from the most-visited single item to the enormously popular Hall of Egyptian Mummies...on most days visited by swarming hoards of school children, drop-jawed like the rest of us over the intricacies of the ancient funerary rites -- and the preserved bodies, looking small and shrunken under their bandages. Bizarrely, in the 19th century, a mummy was a tourist souvenir that one brought back from the Near East when one came home from the Grand Tour, so many mummies of unknown provenance were shipped to Victorian country houses and drawing rooms; usually eventually handed over to museums. The BM's collection has of course the best of the examples, and is beautifully curated with all the paraphernalia that the Egyptians buried with their dead.

Everyone's favourite icky exhibit
A boat model for the tomb:
essential after you are dead,
for crossing rivers etc.
Which brings me, at last, to The Book of the Dead, the special exhibition on at the moment. This is stuffed full of examples of the papyrus scrolls of prayers which were not only said for the dear departed, but also buried with him or her, in the mummy case. Sometimes the prayers were written on the shrouds, or painted onto the mummy case. In short, the Egyptians believed - like Descartes - that the body and the spirit are two separate things. But they also believed that the soul would be in need of the body after death - it (known as the 'ba') could fly off and visit anywhere it pleased in the cosmos, but reunited with the mummified body each night. This is not dissimilar to the beliefs of the First Emperor's dynasty in early China, and most probably quite a few other ancient beliefs. It is not, however, the view of modern psychologists or indeed philosophers...but that's a discussion for another blog post.

One particularly interesting thing about Ancient Egyptian beliefs about life after death was that one needed to go through a 'judgement' by the gods - Osiris and Throth and so on - and how well you had lived your life was weighed up. A very early idea about an ethical life being necessary for life after death. If you passed the judgement, you got your heart back and your 'ba' could go winging off...One of the 'prayers' or magic spells in The Book of the Dead reads:

'O my heart of my mother...Do not stand up as a witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the keeper of the Balance! (Spell 30B)

how it looked in Pre-Dynastic times, through the innovative First Dynasties
when writing emerged, to the early years of the Old Kingdom,
when art and architecture crystallised into the building of
the Great Pyramids at Giza around 2600 BC

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