July 15, 2002
The Quest for Immortality

Sometimes living inside the beltway can be trying at best. Traffic that makes cold molasses look like quicksilver, radio advisories suggesting you take a shower after just walking around outside, and a cost of living that gives you single family starter homes "in the $230,000's", can make it all seem a bit much at times.

But then you find out you get dibs on things like The Quest for Immortality, Treasures of Ancient Egypt, a collection of New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) artifacts that have largely never been seen in the west.

Of course, D.C. is crawling with tourists this time of year ("If it's tourist season, how come we can't shoot them?" is a common bumper sticker). Large clots of identically dressed youngsters clog the museums like rainbow hued mold on three-week-old milk. Giant buses radiate thermite-like heat and spew dry sulfur diesel fumes while they idle eternally outside. Beleaguered adults demonstrate it's not just cats which are impossible to heard while teens and youngsters barrel through the halls playing "knock over the locals".

But dammit, we wanted to see this thing so we went ahead and braved the "4-H club of the Future Farmers of the Knights of the Young Leaders of the CubBoyGirlscouts" crowd and took the plunge into the city.

D.C., like many east coast cities, has a very well developed public transit system. It's clean and it's safe, and if you're ever planning on visiting it'll be the way you get from point A to point B inside this town. It gives the city a certain weird Disney-like feel, with islands of outside attractions connected only by dark modern tunnels and near noiseless trains. You can easily visit, say, Arlington Cemetery, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and the White House and have little if any knowledge how these sites interrelate in the "real" geography of the city.

As with most weekends this time of year the Orange line train we pick up underneath my workplace was already crowded with colorful chattery clueless throngs, all heading toward the only stop they recognized... Smithsonian. The Smithsonian complex is large enough (you did know there eight or nine museums on the mall alone, didn't you?) that you could actually use two or three stops to cover it all, but when they put the metro in they didn't want to put the tour bus companies out of business, so the exit marked Smithsonian actually dumps you in the middle of the mall, far away from anything you might want to visit. To avoid the crush we got off a stop early at Federal Triangle and hiked the five blocks to the East Wing of the National Art Gallery.

The East Wing is the newer wing, an almost painfully self-conscious distillation of late 60s architectural thinking. It's very open, very gray, and almost completely forgettable once you set foot outside its doors. The views inside are, of course, magnificent, but I'm always left wondering just where the hell the museum part of it is.

We followed the signs up to the second floor only to be confronted with a classic case of Johnson-luck-meets-Carozza-planning. The line for the exhibit was folded into no fewer than six 100 foot sections completely full of people. Figuring that this would work like the White House and the Washington Monument, our plan was to pick up some timed-entrance tickets and go get something to eat. Nope, not this time, tickets were on sale elsewhere. Our luck was it seemed most of the Western Hemisphere had decided to come see this thing with us.

In all honesty we didn't have anything better to do, so we hopped in line. Ellen and I like to people watch in situations like this, and this line did not disappoint. Ahead of us we had the slightly overripe but otherwise attractive French 20-something girl hanging onto her shorter, balding, but otherwise attractive American boyfriend, with Ellen and I taking bets as to who would grab the other's ass first. Passing us back and forth one "fold" ahead was a very well dressed female power-forward from some law firm or another, her professional demeanor only somewhat sabotaged by her seventh-month pregnancy. Just behind us was an older mother with an eight or nine year old boy trying valiantly to convince him that no, the mummies don't rise up like on Scooby Doo because they're really old.

After about 45 minutes we wended our way up to the front of the line. In spite of the fact that this was supposed to look like some sort of "timed release" of visitors, in actual fact it seemed more like what determined the flow of the line was how many people they could stuff into the exhibit with a stick and hot poker. But one of the advantages of being married to a perpetually angry Italian-New Yorker is her ability to throw elbows to make Dennis Rodman proud, and so we got "in the mix" pretty quickly. The exhibit did not disappoint.

You see these things all the time on TV and in books, so at first you don't expect much. The difference is with well designed exhibits (and this one is quite well designed), you can walk right up to the artifacts. Putting your nose six inches away from a chunk of wall off a tomb is a completely different experience than seeing it in a book. The level of detail is astonishing. It's not some abstract illustration of people who dressed funny. It's got brush strokes in it, and imperfections from fingers. You can see divots from the chisels used to write the hieroglyphics, and uneven colors where the artist had to make up another batch of paint. And then you realize these people died fifteen hundred years before Caesar kissed Cleopatra.

When you look at a chair and realize it looks pretty much like chairs your grandmother had in her parlor room (only a bit smaller), then read the placard and realize that chair is three thousand years old, the humanity which comes rushing up at you has to be experienced to be believed. You see that the caskets weren't just painted, but actually carved in relief, with a care that brings home these people believed when you went you needed instructions printed somewhere handy so you'd know what to do when Anubis arrived with his feather and the scales.

There is some gold on display, but not all that much. Again, it's not the gold itself but the exquisite detailing that grabs you. It's one thing to see a close-up photo of an amulet necklace, but it's completely different when you can see how it changes color in the light, and pick out the marks of the carver's hand in the engraving he held on a workbench. At that moment instead of being just a pretty picture of a pretty bauble, the thing bridges a gap you didn't know could be spanned, and you almost expect to see the craftsman smiling over your shoulder when you turn around. And maybe he is.

The climax of the exhibit is an amazingly detailed replica of the tomb of Thutmose III (d. 1450 BC). All that was found in the original was a few bits of broken furniture and a massive stone sarcophagus, but the walls themselves ended up being the real treasure, forming an essentially complete text of the Amduat, a royal book that acted as a guide to the underworld. Again, it's the detail that gets you. Even in reproduction you can see that these are handwritten hieroglyphs. At times you can watch the columns of text slowly bend to the right, just like you do when you write lists on unlined paper, only to be corrected half way through.

And then you walk through a door and are brought, almost jarringly, back to the modern world. But even though you've returned to the world of tacky t-shirts, smoggy buses, and yowling car alarms, you still carry a little bit of that ancient world inside you.

The ancient Egyptians believed that by preserving their bodies and all their worldly possessions they would achieve immortality. When you stare down at the face in the sarcophagus you realize that in a funny sort of way they have.

If you could just get the damned 4-H'er to move out of the way.

Posted by scott at July 15, 2002 09:22 PM

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