New show rivals the treasures of King Tut

Perhaps no other culture generates as many megawatts of mystery as ancient Egypt.

This atmosphere of exotic intrigue was powerfully evoked in the renowned King Tutankhamen show of 1976, which introduced millions of Americans to Egyptian artifacts and lingered in the public memory as a defining cultural event.

Now, Americans may again glimpse the splendor of one of earth's first civilizations through a major exhibition of Egyptian antiquities, including huge stone sculptures, intricate necklaces, and decorated sarcophagi. it's the largest collection of objects ever loaned by Egypt to the United States.

While the King Tut show focused on the art that surrounded one pharaoh, "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt," on view at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., until Oct. 14, is thematically organized. It attempts to shed light on the Egyptian mystery.

Egyptian art had a profound purpose: The vast majority of it was created to aid the deceased in the afterlife.

The Egyptians placed pictures and messages in tombs, believing that what was depicted would become real in the next world. Artisans also provided ushebtis, or small human statues that would become real servants in the beyond.

Also on display is an elegant boat sculpture (shown below), which belonged in the tomb of Amenhotep II, who reigned from 1427 to 1400 BC. It's modeled on an actual boat the pharaoh would have used on the Nile. The replica was to ensure his transport to the next world.

But what is most visually striking in the exhibition is the sheer design impact of hieroglyphics, which adorn many of the objects displayed. For many Westerners, this is the essence of Egypt: writing born as picture, and the picture – given its emotional potency in this exhibit – as art.

"The Quest for Immortality" culminates in a life-size recreation of the burial chamber tomb of Pharaoh Thutmose III, who ruled from about 1504 to 1450 BC. Though the recreation's artificiality is controversial, such reproductions may become the norm as crowds threaten the stability of the real Egyptian tombs.

The walls of the reproduced tomb depict the entire text of "The Amduat," the Egyptian "Book of the Dead," the original title of which was "The Book of the Going Forth by Day."

The elaborate cosmology pictured here, esoteric to modern eyes, encapsulates the exhibit's theme: The quest for immortality in ancient Egypt, as in many cultures, involves confronting fears and obstacles, which lead to a triumph of light and life.

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