01 October, 2010

Three Faces Of Tut

In January of 1977 I went to see King Tut. Sometimes referred to as the Boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun was born in 1341 BCE and ruled from 1333 BCE to 1323 BCE during the 18th dynasty, a period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom.

Well, I guess he wasn't really there with me, but there sure were a lot of his things. He might as well have been there.

No, I didn't go to Egypt - as wonderful as that would have been back then and when I might have felt welcome and safe. I met Tut in Washington, DC - in the cold and damp, as the mid-Atlantic is in winter, not in the warm and dry of northern Africa. He, in the form of fifty-five of his 3500 possessions, was on a tour of the United States, the first time many of these priceless artifacts had been allowed out of Egypt. (The mask pictured above was not allowed to leave Egypt for the most recent US Tut tour.)

I caught up with him at Treasures of Tutankhamun in the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art, the first of six stops around the country. It was good timing for me. I was not happy, having spent a chunk of my holidays alone for the first time in many years. I was visiting a fraternity brother who was on leave from his ship, and Tut was just what I needed to lift my spirits.

As we waited in a long line to enter, we visited with a very attractive and friendly young woman who was also in line. That didn't hurt my spirits either, but I was there for Tut. He was the chance of a lifetime not she - at least as far as I know. Soon we were inside, and I began to explore these ancient wonders - very ancient wonders!

I pondered the jewelry, statues and figurines of deities and animals (Selket - a tomb protector is to the right), a model boat, furniture, miniature coffins for his organs, weapons, jars and vases for oils and unguents - "yes, wonderful things" as Howard Carter exclaimed in 1922 when he first looked into the tomb and was asked "Can you see anything?" And the gold! Wow! Everywhere I looked there was gold.

Then it happened. I came around a corner, and there before me was the case containing the golden death mask you see in the first image above (see note below) - one of the five (not three) nested faces of Tut, if you count his real one. It had lain directly on the bandages wrapping his head. I was transfixed. Twenty-four carat solid gold, burnished and inlaid with several kinds of colored glass, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and quartz - still stunningly beautiful after 3300 years.

I have been moved - even overwhelmed on occasion - by some of the treasures created by those who have gone before. The rose windows in the transept of Notre Dame de Paris and Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain of England come immediately to mind. They may rival what I saw that incredible evening, but I cannot recall anything that ever froze me mid-step the way this did. Literally. It has been over 33 years yet I can close my eyes and see its beauty. I can close my eyes and feel again the emotion I felt as I stood there, mouth agape and in utter awe of what was before me. I shall never forget the power of that moment.

"It was a sight surpassing all precedent, and one we never dreamed of seeing." - Howard Carter

"The tomb of Tutankhamun contained four gilded shrines nested one inside the other in order of decreasing size. Inside the innermost shrine was a red quartzite sarcophagus which protected three anthropoid (man-shaped) coffins. (The middle coffin is shown above.) The first two coffins were made of gilded wood but the final coffin was made of solid gold [1/8 inch thick]. The solid gold coffin housed the mummy of King Tut and his fabulous golden death mask."

For a thorough description of these coffins go here: TUT'S COFFINS

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