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Egyptian Treasures Featured in New Museum Show - 2002-06-04

A wide ranging exhibition of some of Egypt's greatest treasures opens at Washington's National Gallery in the coming weeks. The exhibit will travel to four other museums across the country over the next five years.

Experts say the display of about 115 artifacts is the largest show of its kind outside of Egypt. The show includes a replica of the burial chamber of the pharaoh known as the "Napoleon of Egypt".

The focus of the exhibit is the mythical journey into the afterlife and the ancient quest for immortality. What better guide than the hieroglyphics and pictures of the Amduat that describes the Sun God's journey through the afterworld? The funerary text decorates the burial chamber of the warrior king Thutmose III who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago (1479-1425 BC).

It is not easy for most travelers to get to the pharaoh's tomb in southern Egypt on the western shores of the Nile River. So, the exhibit's curators brought the burial chamber to the traveler - in the form of a life-sized reproduction.

A special art team from Madrid used a laser to scan 360 square meters of relief paintings that cover the walls of the chamber in the Valley of the Kings. Then they transferred the digitized information onto aluminum panels and coated the aluminum panels with plaster that was made from the recipes of ancient Egypt.

Egyptologist Betsy Bryan runs the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. She is guest curator of the exhibit. She said, "They actually mixed pigments, again using [materials] as close as they could [duplicate] ancient Egyptian types of materials. And everything is hand-painted on top of the original black and white image." She said the team worked day and night for two months to complete the job.

Ms. Bryan says the reproduction can be dismantled and remounted as the exhibit travels around the United States during the next five years. "It's like an erector set," she said. "It comes with an aluminum structure that clamps together and the panels are hung on that. So yes, it can be dismantled and easily shipped to each venue."

The illustrations describe the sun god's journey through the afterworld during the 12 hours of the night when the sun god defeats his enemies and achieves rebirth at the eastern horizon to rise again in the morning sky.

The Director of the National Gallery of Art, Earl Powell, expects the exhibit will educate as well as fascinate. "Ancient Egyptians funneled vast resources into their quest for immortality," he said. "The exhibition of the same name will dramatically present ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices based on the afterlife journey of Pharaohs, through [the display of] 115 objects, including some that have never been on public display and many that have not been seen outside Egypt."

One of the exhibit's many objects never seen outside Egypt is the 52 centimeter sculpture of Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. Curator Betsy Bryan says it is made of a special Egyptian stone, called Gneiss. "You can see the veins running through it," she said, "which give the piece a green glow in certain lights. And the God Osiris actually had green skin so it's quite possible they intentionally chose that stone. His headdress is made of electrum and gold. And, what you see is Osiris having turned over in his tomb from his back to his stomach has lifted his head and he is resurrecting."

The exhibit, Ms. Bryan said, is the brainchild of Egyptologist Erik Hornung of Switzerland's Basel University. "He is without any question the foremost Egyptian scholar on funerary texts," she continued. "And he has worked in the Valley of the Kings for the last 40 years. And what he really wanted to do was point out the treasures that have come from the valley in not just objects but the thought that you find in a book like the Amduat and he thought that an exhibition could help to do that."

The display includes an array of royal jewels and toys, a solid gold funeral mask and a stone sphinx of Thutmose the Third that usually resides in the Temple of Karnak in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor.

The stone sculpture combines the Pharaoh's head on the body of a lion to symbolize his power. Egyptologists find the image appropriate for a warrior king whose 15 military campaigns 3,000 years ago expanded Egypt's influence across what is today Sudan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

Exhibition photos courtesy Egyptian Museum, Cairo