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The fascination with ancient Egyptian culture spans all ages and ethnic barriers — but why?



"Splendors of Ancient Egypt"
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
May 25-Nov. 28Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays through SundaysAdmission: $15 adults, $8 ages 13-18, $2 ages 4-12
Free to museum members through June 30, $4 for members after July 1 Reservations: 1-888-349-7882 or online at

If you think "Phantom Menace" has eclipsed all other events in the entertainment galaxy, think again. Locally, anticipation of the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has rivaled that of the "Star Wars" flick, breathing new life into the phenomenon of Egyptomania. The museum has accepted more than 63,000 advance reservations for the visiting exhibition — before spending a dime on print, radio or television advertising.

"Splendors," a traveling exhibition organized by the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, features more than 200 artifacts ranging from 5,000 years ago to the 7th century A.D. The Virginia engagement is the only East Coast showing of the collection. "Splendors," which opens this week, is the largest exhibition ever mounted at the Virginia Museum and is expected to generate about $12.5 million for the state.

The exhibit has inspired the museum's "Night on the Nile" October gala, countless educational programs, guest speakers, and even travel packages. The Museums on the Boulevard (MOB) have joined in the Egyptomania frenzy, as well. The Science Museum of Virginia is showing the IMAX film "Mysteries of Egypt" along with an Egyptian-themed planetarium show. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is featuring plants from ancient Egypt. And the feature film "The Mummy," which opened nationally on May 7, has been luring viewers with the story of an Egyptian high priest who was buried alive 3,000 years ago for murdering the pharaoh.

Dr. Bob Talbott, a professor of ancient history at VCU, reports a great deal of interest in Egypt among college students. "I have no trouble filling a class on Egypt," he says. "I have to have a ceiling on them to keep people out." Most of Talbott's students are too young to remember the King Tutankhamun exhibition that toured the U.S. in 1977, but he believes that "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" will be in some ways more impressive. "This exhibit hasn't had the same hype," he acknowledges, "but Tut came from the New Kingdom; this stuff is much older. The exhibit does go into the New Kingdom and even the Roman Period, but its best pieces are from the Old Kingdom."

That might be true, as far as experts are concerned, but try telling that to the "Splendors" visitors huddled around the mummy of Ta-Bes, who hails from the Late Period (712-332 B.C.). The unwrapped body lies in its original coffin with the lid removed. The blackened skin of its face and feet are remarkably intact. Visitors lean in toward the display case and snippets of conversation can be overheard: "Can you imagine if this thing came to life — what would you do?" This comes not from a child but from the mouth of a grown man.

This fascination with ancient Egyptian culture spans all ages and ethnic barriers — but why? "That's the billion-dollar question," says Dr. Emily Teeter, the associate curator at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, who will speak on "Mummies and Mortuary Rituals" at the Virginia Museum in July.

Egyptomania is not a new phenomenon, Teeter says. Many cultures have emulated aspects of ancient Egypt. Greeks and Romans in particular were fascinated by Egyptian architecture. "They were putting pyramids in their own designs, and St. Peter's in Rome has an obelisk in front of it," Teeter notes.

Egyptian influence on our culture, too, has been profound. Teeter cites the use of Egyptian icons in modern advertising as evidence: "Pyramids, sphinxes, mummies — these things have nothing to do with the products they're advertising," she says, "[Egypt] just has an undefinable power of attraction."

Most Egyptologists agree that simple antiquity is a major part of Egyptian appeal. There is a mysterious nature to anything that is thousands of years old; and mystery intrigues us all. Dr. Margaret Ellen Mayo, curator of ancient art at VMFA, believes in this fascination with the unknown. When we study Egypt in school as children, it looks understandable because the pictures are vivid and specific. But, she says, as we learn more about Egyptians — their use of mathematics to cope with the flooding of the Nile, their mastery of engineering and medicine — we realize that although we know a lot, we still don't know much. Dr. Mayo often hears visitors say, "Can you imagine they knew how to do that back then?" "But," she points out, "they knew how to do so many things that we still haven't figured out."

Teeter witnesses the same incredulity, and refers to it as "the gee-whiz factor." Though she doesn't subscribe to the theory, Teeter says many people, amazed at what the Egyptians accomplished, conclude that they must have had some superior knowledge. "It's as if [the Egyptians] had some perceived wisdom people are trying to recapture," she observes. The idea isn't entirely far-fetched. We think of Egyptian culture as wise — old, but refined. "And," says Teeter, "the basic Western precepts of morality were present in Egyptian culture: women's rights, monogamy, all of it."

While many people are intrigued by what Egyptian culture holds in common with our own, others are more captivated by things Egyptians did differently. People love the challenge of decoding hieroglyphs, for example. They like deciphering the symbolism of ancient Egyptian art, which is very stylized, with torsos facing forward and limbs in profile. And archeologists have been excavating burial sites for years, trying to unearth and understand the Egyptian approach to death.

Egyptian emphasis on death and afterlife is so strong, in fact, that "the average person reading about Egypt comes to the conclusion that they were obsessed with the afterlife," Talbott says. "Those who don't, believe they were obsessed with this life and wanted it to continue." Both notions are probably misperceptions, given that most of our information on Egyptian life comes from artistic depictions on tombs. Nonetheless, the prominence of death inspires people to think about their own mortality.

Mummies fascinate adults as well as children. It's a different approach to burial — therefore curious, and a little creepy. Also, the unshakable belief in an afterlife interests those who are unsure of what might come next. "[Egyptians] believed that this life is like an overnight hotel," says Talbott, "and the afterlife is just that much better. Unlike Christians," he says laughing, "[the Egyptians] believed you could take [your riches] with you."

Even people who are unimpressed by the reassurance of an afterlife admire Egyptians for their ability to create things that have endured for so long, virtually unchanged for thousands of years. In this era of virtual reality, when it seems possible to render the physical world obsolete, it is both amazing and somehow comforting to know that humans can leave behind evidence of their culture and history — a legacy, in short — that will remain long after they are gone.


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