Rare glimpse of old Egypt

21st October 2005 at 01:00
IMMORTAL PHARAOH: The Tomb of Thutmose III. City Art Centre, Edinburgh. until January 8 tel 0131 529 3993 www.cac.org.uk

Deedee Cuddihy steps inside a pharaoh's burial chamber

The exhibition lacks the glitz and glamour that might be expected from one with "pharaoh" in the title but, despite a complete absence of gold, Immortal Pharaoh: The Tomb of Thutmose III is a fascinating show.

The centrepiece of this touring exhibition, with Edinburgh its only UK venue, is an exact replica of the burial chamber of Thutmose III, who ruled Egypt from 1479bc to 1426bc.

The tomb was discovered in 1898, half-way up a cliff face in the Valley of Kings. After the pharaoh's burial, masons destroyed the stone stairway leading up to it and concealed the entrance. In the intervening period, however, the tomb had been raided and most of its contents stolen or smashed. Fortunately, the walls of the burial chamber, every inch covered with intricate drawings and hieroglyphs, were untouched.

Egyptologists discovered the artwork in the tomb was not mere decoration but a complete transcription of the Amduat, the ancient book of the Hidden Chamber, revealing what happens after the death of a pharaoh during his 12-hour journey to the afterlife.

Designers working on the Immortal Pharaoh exhibition took two years to create an exact replica of the tomb. In Edinburgh, the reconstructed chamber takes up more than half of the ground floor of the City Art Centre.

Visitors entering its windowless, soundproofed walls are greeted by exactly the same sight that someone travelling to the Valley of Kings would see.

As in the original, the corners of the oblong-shaped chamber are rounded.

Cracks in the painted ceiling have been copied; huge square columns support the roof and a floor of rough wooden boards has been laid, with the gap between its edge and the wall spread with sand. A plain wooden rail separates visitors from the decorated walls, where the reconstruction detail is so exact that even areas of surface damage have been replicated.

Effective lighting allows visitors to see every detail on these amazing walls, mainly painted in black and red on a cream background.

The pharaoh's 12-hour journey to the afterlife has been set down in chronological order and discreet information panels placed in front of each "hour" explain what the figures and hieroglyphs mean. (The same information is printed on the souvenir leaflets every visitor receives.) During the Seventh Hour, for instance: "The enemies of Osiris are bound and decapitated in front of the seated god while, in the central registry, the dismembering of Apophis is taking place". And, thanks to the simplicity of ancient Egyptian art, it is not difficult to make out that that is exactly what is happening up there on the wall.

Schools have been flocking to Immortal Pharaoh and it soon becomes obvious why even lower primary school classes like this show. As well as scenes of dismembering and decapitation, the walls of Thutmose III's tomb are covered with pictures of four-legged snakes, disembodied eyes and huge beetles.

Although no artefacts were found in the tomb of Thutmose III, the exhibition, which covers all four floors of the City Art Centre, is complemented by a fascinating range of authentic objects found in other royal burial chambers, all relating to the Amduat and the afterlife. The Ba-bird, for example, a little human-headed bird, made from painted wood and dating from 1070bc, represents "the human soul or spirit and was able to move freely between the realm of the living and the dead".

There are lucky charms featuring the baboon and crocodile gods; a mummy's headrest which, according to magic spell number 166 in the Amduat, was said to have special powers; and a mirror, which was also believed to have great magical potential. A mini-sarcophagus is opened to reveal a wrapped body made from Nile mud and grains of barley, designed to sprout in the tomb.

Also on display are full-size coffins which were decorated inside as well as out, so that the "wrapped body came into direct contact with the painted images and could access their magical powers".

On the second floor is a spacious education and activities room with areas set aside for jewellery making, reading and sand writing and more than a dozen information packs are on offer, explaining hieroglyphs to life in ancient Egypt.

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