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Sheridan Sun: Interview with a Pharaoh

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I got off the subway at St. Patrick station. The bitterly cold evening framed my visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario in gloom. I walked toward the AGO, nestled among satellite galleries and tempting corner cafes. Soon, I would be face to face with a millenia-dead king.


First comes a brief video introduction. Here, we are told that “Pharaoh” is a term for a supreme, powerful ruler. Their legacy lasts to this day, preserved in everything from immense statues to palm-sized idols, to even the dessicated and preserved remains of these rulers in the jerky-like flesh.


The wooden doors ahead creak open ominously, and I prepare for a mummy ambush. This thankfully does not occur, and I creep hesitantly into the first of many artifact-laden rooms ahead, cautiously utilizing the remainder of my unwitting tour group as human mummy-shields. Perhaps the tomb-kings of the Nile sleep soundly tonight.


I examine the procession of archaeological treasures, arranged from earliest to latest by succeeding empires; each swallowed and part-way erased by the next, and the next. I am suddenly reminded of the sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley:


“‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


I wonder to myself, what artifacts of our age will remain to be found by archaeologists of the future? Will it be the cryogenically frozen craniums of famous baseball players? The silicone-and-botox death masks of our surgically enhanced celebrities? I realize that I am wondering this aloud, and unsettling several kind old ladies.


I break the grim mood by pointing to an Egyptian artifact bearing a peculiar resemblance to a TV remote control. They are thrilled. “The exhibit is very exciting so far. It’s touching a piece of history. Well, you’re not supposed to touch, but they let you look close enough,” said Wendy Truscott, visiting the AGO from Montreal. Indeed, signs and security guards caution against any photography of the artifacts.


The King Tut exhibit has taught me that the ancient Egyptians weren’t all that different from us. The Egyptian stone toilet seat, with its meticulously hewn proto-ergonomic butt grooves proved the Egyptians were a people who sought the small comforts, like ourselves. Their giant granite busts and tiny self-representations are idealized, beautiful, elegant; proving that like us, they were vain. Their bejeweled cat boxes proved that – like us – they found cats annoying enough to cram in a box from time to time. Most of all, the ornate decoration of the inner tomb betrayed a desperate attempt to ward off, or prepare for, death. What we strive toward with life insurance and Pilates workouts, the Egyptians attempted by lining their sepulchres with treasures to carry into the uncertain afterlife.


As the tour progressed, we ventured through rooms set up to match the layout of Tutankhamen’s tomb. From the antechamber to the burial vault, each was filled with relics of an assortment of ages – each an attempt by someone to be remembered. I wonder if their spirits are content to hear that their sacred organ-jars and death masks are up on display, half a world away in the frigid north.


As the tour concludes, a child blunders too close to a carved stone slab, setting off a high-pitched alarm and drawing the immediate attention of three well-dressed guards. It seems even in the afterlife, Pharaoh has his protectors firmly at his side.


I debate purchasing a replica of the Pharaoh’s golden death mask in the gift shop. I decide against it.


Those things are mummy magnets.


The King Tut Exhibit is at the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 18. Student admission is $18.50. Taking the subway from Islington, get off at St. George, then head southbound to St. Patrick station. The AGO is a short walk away at 317 Dundas St. West, and is visible from the St. Patrick subway exit.

This story originally appeared in the Sheridan Sun.

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Written by tomczerniawski

March 14, 2010 at 2:43 pm

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