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Egyptian Funerary Art

Early-day Egyptians found the perfect solution to the uncertainty and chaos they felt in their lives. Although the Nile River gave them untold gifts of fertile soil and abundant crops, intermittent famine and disease reminded them nothing is predictable.

But they had their gods for life's travails and after-death travel through the underworld in pursuit of rebirth. By the time of the golden New Kingdom (1550 to 1069 B.C.) and the Late Period (664 to 332 B.C.), they had an impressive array of gods headed by the sun god, Re. They regarded Re as the primeval creative force, especially in his manifestation as Amun, a link with the pharaoh, and guide for the king through the afterlife journey. (Hirmer, p. 15) He was the most important key in the quest for eternal life. Re, in his many symbolic manifestations, stars in the dramatic 155-object exhibition "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient egypt" at the National Gallery of Art. Opening tomorrow, the show contains the largest group of antiquities lent by egypt for display in North America. It will tour to six North American museums.

Only the sun god of the Mayan culture rivals Re in importance. Representations of Re and his attributes can be as tiny as the "Pectoral of Psusennes I" (a plaque of gold and semiprecious stones representing the scarab sacred to Re) and as small as the granodiorite "Sphinx of Thutmose III." (The hunting of lions was an elite sport associated with kings.) Or they can be as large as the life-size re-creation of the burial chamber of the 15th-century B.C. pharaoh Thutmose III, which is the highlight of the exhibition. (Curl, p. 57)

Factum Arte of Madrid and London replicated the tomb for the show. The original chamber is part of the king's tomb complex in the Valley of the Kings. Ancient artists inscribed the funerary text known as the Amduat in its earliest known complete version in the chamber. (Amduat translates to "that which is in the netherworld.") An illustrated funerary text intended as a guidebook to the afterlife covers the low ceilings and the 50-by-29-by-10-foot walls of the chamber.

It is quite a guide. The hieroglyphics show hundreds of gods, demons and the blessed dead. The Amduat illustrates the sun's nocturnal journey from dusk to dawn and death to resurrection. Egyptians believed a deceased king - Thutmose III, in this case - would descend into the netherworld and join Re. (Hirmer, p.18) The underworld had 12 divisions, corresponding to the 12 hours of night.

After his descent, according to the Amduat, the king boarded the solar boat and traversed the underworld, which the text describes as larger than life, with a desert, fields and the Nile. Traveling through the night, Re confronted a multitude of enemies who tried to destroy his quest for immortality. Hundreds of deities were available to help him, and his body and soul reunited at midnight. The journey ended at sunrise with the pharaoh's resurrection as the sun god. ...

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