NARRATOR: The Quest for Immortality -- the desire to extend the certainties of life beyond the grave -- is as old as Egypt itself. The pyramids at Giza, the wonders of the ancient world, were not just designed as the pharaoh's last resting-place. They were the first stop on a long night's journey to everlasting life. By 1550 B.C., power had shifted to a New Kingdom -- 500 miles south in the ancient city of Thebes, now called Luxor.
To the west, in the hills beyond the Nile's west bank, the royal tombs of the Valley of the Kings were cut into limestone cliffs. Their interiors are richly decorated with hieroglyphs and paintings -- signs and symbols that detail the necessary steps to attain immortality. In the minds of the ancient Egyptians, the pharaoh's power and authority as a king stretched far beyond the boundaries of his country and into the cosmos itself. After death, he would escape the earthly bounds of his tomb, board a solar boat, and sail into immortality. After a perilous and carefully prescribed journey through the night, the king would be reborn as the sun god Re [ray].
The cosmological landscape of the life after death was rich with deities -- hundreds in number. Osiris [oh-SIGH-riss], ruler and judge of the dead in the underworld... a powerful figure in ancient Egyptian cosmology. Hathor, sky goddess, -- protector of the sun at night. The jackal Anubis [AN-you-biss], guardian of the body, its divine embalmer and protector. The falcon-headed Horus [hore-us], god of the sky and the embodiment of divine kingship. Isis, patroness of magic and queen of the sky. The supreme deity, the sun god Re was believed to die each night. He is rejuvenated each day in the form of the scarab beetle. The beetle seemed an apt symbol of rebirth because its eggs were laid in dung, the ultimate form of death and nothingness -- and nonetheless sprang into the preciousness of new life. The road to new and eternal life began with mummification -- an attempt to preserve the body as an eternal vessel for the soul. These practices continued for centuries. In the mid fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus detailed the process of embalming.
READER: First with a crooked iron tool they draw out the brain through the nostrils, after this they make a cut along the side and take out the whole contents of the belly. Then they fill the belly with myrrh and sew it together again. They keep it covered up in natron salts for seventy days.
N:Ornamental plaques covered the incision made when the vital organs were removed. After embalming, mummies of kings and the upper echelons of Egyptian society were elaborately dressed with mummy nets and intricate jewelry -- their faces covered with luminous masks. Fully prepared and adorned, the mummies were then placed in coffins. They were made from precious metals or carved and gilded woods. The mummy was now prepared for its westward journey across the Nile.
BETSY BRYAN: The west side of the Nile is for the Egyptians, of course, where the sun sets. Where the journey to the next world starts, to be on the west side is directly related to the fact that the sun's journey is what we're following. At the end of each day, the sun sets in the west and then travels backwards to the eastern horizon to rise the next morning.
N: Tucked beneath a peak called el-Qurn [el-Kern] that may have appealed to them because of its resemblance to a pyramid, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom began to construct a cemetery of royal tombs carved into the limestone hillsides. Nearby, a set of smaller tombs began to take shape -- final resting place for nobles whose service to the king was acknowledged by close access to their master for eternity. The tomb of Sennefer [seh-NEF-er], mayor of Thebes, depicts Sennefer and his wife united eternally in the afterlife. On the ceilings, arbors heavy with ripening grapes evoke the vineyards of Osiris [oh-SIGH-riss], a source of vitality and regeneration in the next world. Judging by the scenes of funeral processions in the tomb of the noble Ramose [rah-MOZE-eh], the bereaved dealt with the expression of grief much as we do today... But there was a major difference... Egyptians bearing offerings -- food, wine, clothing, furniture -- joined the funeral procession... Representations of these provisions weren't just pictures... Egyptians believed what they depicted would come into being.
DR. STEPHEN HARVEY: I think it's important, when you look at objects from an Egyptian tomb, including the decorations on the walls and the mummy itself and even the elements of food and furniture, to remember that all of it was functional. Everything was intended to function magically in the next world.
N: The tombs also included ushebtis [you-shep-teez] -- small lifelike figures that performed work for the deceased, acting as their servants in the afterworld. Boats to carry the king through the netherworld were also common in royal tombs. Funerary texts, guidebooks to the land beyond life, were a long tradition in Egypt. The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells, sometimes inscribed on coffins and sarcophagi [sar-COF-a-guy], to help the deceased make his way to the ideal world.
DR. ERIK HORNUNG: The Egyptian had a fixed idea of the landscape. He had his Nile Valley with its canals and the bordering desert, and of course he imagined that in the beyond it would look about the same. But he imagined the possibilities in the beyond to be simply greater. That, for example, all the flaws connected with the body would be smoothed out, that the grains would grow much taller. Therefore it would be an improved life, really. Imperfections in this life would be healed in the afterlife.
N: The New Kingdom's addition to the funerary literature -- a text called the Amduat [AHM-due-aht] detailed the pharaoh's long night time journey into oneness with the sun god Re. The Amduat [AHM-due-aht]-literally translated it means "that which is in the netherworld" -- is a guidebook to the afterlife. And a secret text primarily reserved for the use of pharaohs. It was reproduced in full on the walls of the tomb of Thutmose [TUT-moze] the Third, who died in 1425 BC. The black script written against a lighter background suggests a giant papyrus wrapped around the burial chamber walls. It tells the story of a journey through uncertainty where time and space merge.
BB: For the Egyptians, the notion of trying to turn time, that is, twelve hours of night, into space is very complicated. The way they did it was to identify each hour with a particular region. So that as you moved through your hour you were moving through a particular area associated with it, and then you'd move into the next hour and be in a different geographical region.
N: To begin his journey, the pharaoh unites with the sun god and boards the solar boat. During the twelve nocturnal hours, they sail from dusk to dawn, from death to resurrection. In hour one, the sun god appears as a ram-headed figure symbolizing the soul of the sun... and as a beetle, a symbol of the hoped-for dawn... He's greeted in the netherworld with jubilation -- deities raise their arms as he brings light into the underworld. The regions of the first three hours are fertile lands fed by an underground Nile. But as the river dries up and the boat descends into desert regions, the sun god encounters obstacles -- and overcomes his arch enemy, the powerful serpent Apophis. In the depths of the underworld, the sun god's soul reunites with his corpse, bringing light and eternal life -- not just to the king but to all the blessed dead. Throughout the nocturnal turmoil, the pharaoh as sun god is protected by hundreds of deities who fend off enemies with a mixture of magic and force. In the twelfth and final hour of the Amduat [AHM-due-aht], the journey through primeval darkness ends, as the sun rises in the east and the sun god is reborn. The fully-fledged Re emerges as a beetle, flying into the arms of the god Shu, who will lift the sun up to daylight. The Amduat and the vast array of funerary accoutrements protected the deceased and ensured his safe passage to eternal life. The pharaoh's successful navigation of the netherworld resulted in more than his own rebirth as the sun god. By ensuring that the life giving sun would rise each dawn, the journey promised all Egyptians that day would follow night and that life as they knew it would continue.
The Quest for Immortality in Ancient Egypt
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©2002 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington