- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 29, 2002

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. 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.
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. 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.
The Burial Chamber is the last room of the show. However, an example of a boat, so important in the story of the Amduat, greets visitors at the exhibition's simulation of a tomb entry.
Guest curator Betsy Bryan writes on an exhibit label that tombs of kings held either life-size boats or models of them. Rulers traveled by water while alive and also during their journeys in the afterlife.
This boat is 7 feet long and expertly carved from a single piece of wood. Artists chiseled down the wood so the grain shows, and they used vibrant mineral colors in painting Egyptians engaged in battle. Sections of the Amduat text are repeated around the top frieze of the gallery near the boat.
The curator placed the smallish "Sphinx of Thutmose III" on a pedestal farther into the gallery. The sphinx form, which combines the head of a king with a lion, symbolized the pharaoh's power. Combining the bodies of lions with the kings who hunted them created the quintessential Egyptian form of the sphinx.
"It's a perfect example of a sphinx. Though small, the sculptor carved the planes of the body and coiling of the haunches to exude great power in the animal. It's one of the great pieces in the show," Ms. Bryan says.
Another way of creating order out of chaos was to honor the goddess Maat. Religion and the king's authority came from the belief in Maat, translated as "truth," "justice" or "natural order." A goddess with a feather on her head, Maat governed the universe. She made the sun rise and set every day, the Nile flood for gifts of rich soil, and the kings be reborn.
The Maat of the exhibit is a tiny sculpture of lapis lazuli and gold. The goddess is seated, and this image of her probably was worn around someone's neck. The stone, rare and imported from Afghanistan, has incredible richness in its hardness and flecked stone colorings. Visitors will want to reach out and caress it.
No exhibit of Egyptian art is complete without examples of mummification. "Quest for Immortality" is rich in sculptures of gods associated with it. These rituals gave many layers of protection to the deceased in difficult travels to the afterlife. The layers also gave safety for the "ba," or the soul and character of the deceased.
The wrapping of the body connected the dead person to Osiris, ruler of the netherworld. The impressive graywacke "Statue of Osiris" of the exhibition follows the usual custom of showing a mummified Osiris wearing the special atef crown, used for special religious rituals, with his crossed arms holding a crook and flail.
Ideally, the mummified person would be reborn in this magical way. An unusual view of this rebirth is "Osiris Resurrecting," which shows the figure rolling over from its back, raising its head and awakening to its new being.
The Egyptians outfitted mummies of pharaohs and the nobility in elaborate, often beaded garments; many kinds of jewels; finger and toe covers; and masks such as the spectacular golden funerary mask of Wenudjebauendjed. Bodies were dressed handsomely to please the gods and then placed in the protective coffin.
Pharaohs, nobles and other high-ranking officials such as high priests received special treatment. Their coffins were placed in a series of nesting coffins. An elaborately detailed one is the painted and lacquered "Anthropoid Coffin of Paduamen."
The artist carefully painted the figure on the outer lid of the coffin with a beard and a long, rectilinear headdress that exposes the ears. He holds an Isis knot, a symbol of protection. There's also a scarab, a distinct allusion to Re.
Near the end of the exhibit is one of its most spectacular pieces, the shimmering "Sarcophagus of Khonsu." Khonsu came from a family of painters and may have helped decorate the tomb of Rameses II. He let loose his exquisite painting skills for his own sarcophagus. Khonsu decorated it with beautifully limned scenes of the afterlife in yellow and red solar colors.
There have been other shows of Egyptian funerary art, notably the spectacular "Treasures of Tutankhamen" at the National Gallery in 1976. "Quest for Immortality" is different because its objects reflect the later reigns of the wealthy and powerful New Kingdom, with its explosion of culture and art. Most come from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Luxor Museum and the sites of Tanis and Deir el-Bahari. Since Americans may be staying away from Egypt because of turmoil in the Middle East and terrorism fears, the exhibit is even more of a treat.
For visitors who want additional information, a 10-minute film shows continuously on the second floor of the exhibition. The richly illustrated catalog, with essays by four scholars of Egyptian culture, is a steal at $30 in softcover and $65 in hardcover at the gallery shops.

WHAT: "Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt"
WHERE:National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 14
TICKETS: Free at the gallery daily on a first-come, first-served basis. Passes also may be ordered for July 6 through Oct. 14. The first public hour of each day will be reserved for first-come, first-served visitors. A maximum of six advance passes per order may be obtained at Washington-area TicketMaster locations and at Hecht's stores for a service charge of $2.50 per pass. They also may be ordered for a $2.50 service charge and a $1.25 handling fee per order at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling TicketMaster PhoneCharge at 202/432-SEAT, 410/481-SEAT or 703/573-SEAT
PHONE: 202/737-4215

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