/ 22 December 2009

Ancient Egypt exhibit gives lessons in immortality

With their pyramids and elaborate funerary rituals, ancient Egyptians appeared to have been obsessed with death, but an exhibition seeks to show that it was their love of life that drove them to seek immortality.

Quest For Immortality: The World of Ancient Egypt made its debut in Singapore on Tuesday, with about 230 antiquities selected from the major Egyptian and Near Eastern collection of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM).

KHM curator Michaela Huettner said the exhibition was one of the biggest of Egyptian antiquities to have ever travelled, with the displays, some dating back as far as 4 000 BC and including fragile mummies, providing an overview of the ancient culture.

”Everybody thinks ancient Egypt was mummies, pyramids and Tutankhamun, but there was a daily life too, and that’s what we tried to show,” she told reporters.

”And it was this obsession with life that caused them to pursue all means to ensure the attainment of immortality,” added Hairani Hassan, the National Museum of Singapore curator.

Ancient Egyptians believed death was only a gateway to another, eternal life, and the desire to ensure immortality was woven into their daily rituals.

Appeasing the gods was very important, as was protection from evil forces, and many of the objects on display — necklaces of various materials which all ancient Egyptians wore as amulets, exquisitely detailed statues of gods such as the fierce Sekhmet and the sky god Horus — attest to that.

After death, Egyptians made sure the departed had the best send-off possible, including ancient tombstones, books of the dead which extolled the virtues of the deceased and vessels for food, beer and wine to give them sustenance on their journey.

Also on display is the poignant mummy of a young mother named Nes-Khons, whose body was preserved along with the corpses of her two babies who are all believed to have died at or shortly after birth.

Hassan said the Singapore museum employees involved in the exhibition held a prayer session before uncrating the mummies. ”We did it just to appease the spirits,” she said. ”It’s human nature to be a bit perturbed in the presence of death.”

The exhibit is sponsored by the Egyptian government. The KHM was keen to highlight the collection was made up of artefacts that were purchased and found at Austrian archaelogical digs in Egypt — not acquired from illegally trafficked cultural objects that sometimes wind up in museums.

”The exhibition’s appeal lies in the fact that we all, in some way, seek immortality, we all fear death, the end of life,” Hassan said.

”For the ancient Egyptians, death was not final, something which has resonance throughout human history. As they said, ‘you have not departed dead, you have departed alive’.” – Reuters