I came face-to-face with the ancient Egyptian fascination with death in an unexpected place: in the Egyptian Antiquities section of the Louvre museum. Hitherto, I had only read about it or watched it on various television documentaries. Seeing the fragments of a civilization that existed 5000-odd years ago, right in front of me, was another experience altogether.
Egyptian civilization has fascinated the world for centuries. And curiously, some of the most famous remnants of this mysterious and powerful civilization are from tombs. The Pyramids at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world, is in fact, a tomb.
As I peered inside seemly endless glass cases, filled with pieces of pottery, jewellery and papyrus, I was intrigued by the recurring appearance of small figures. These were made either of clay or stone. Some cases contained a veritable army of such figurines, titled ‘servants. This got me curious on the purpose of these figurines, and I found a very interesting story behind them.
In Egyptian myth, the afterlife was just as important as life.
The dead stood before Osiris in the Hall of Truth, and their actions in life were weighed. If they were found worthy, they would pass on the Field of Reeds where they would life their ideal life, exactly it was on earth. This meant that they went about their daily life, eating the choicest foods and enjoying all the pleasures that that normally were accustomed to on earth. This is where the shabti – the small figurines – came in.
The word ‘shabti’ means ‘Answerer’. These were buried along with the dead to carry out all the everyday chores in the after-life. The names inscribed on the figurine usually assigned it to a specific task – like baking, or farming. The richer the master was, the more figurines would be buried with him in death. In the afterlife, the master would recite a spell–described in the Book of the Dead–to bring his shabti to life and assign him his task.
Typically, the pharaohs were buried with a lot of shabti and the common folk with a few. At some point in time (during the Third Intermediate Period), they began to add a Master shabti, a type of foreman to oversee the work of these shabtis. The more shabtis a person had, the more leisure time he had to enjoy the Field of Reeds. The shabti were one of the many treasures that transported me to another land in another time.
I also spent some time admiring this papyrus, from the Book of the Dead. The neatly formed hieroglyphs in ink has survived hundreds of centuries. I could almost see the scribe dipping his pen into the ink and writing it out with care. After all, he didn’t have the luxury of whiteners or a delete button.
This detour to the past was an unexpected part of my intended ‘art-tour’ of the Louvre. I had wandered in by accident, and believe me, it is quite easy to get lost in this colossal space.The Louvre museum, which is the world’s largest art museum, also houses over 50,000 pieces of artefacts from Egypt. The museum is a part of the Louvre palace itself. No words can describe the vastness and the grandeur of this palace.
The collection of Egyptian antiquities began as a part of the royal collection. In 1798, Napolean Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 uncovered many treasures of Ancient Egypt. The most renowned treasure of the expedition, the Rosetta Stone, went to the United Kingdom. This expedition brought glimpse of Ancient Egypt to the world through the writings of Vivant Denon. The collection then grew in size from 1852 onwards, through the contributions of many collectors and archaeologists.
Like these artefacts, many valuable treasures lie far away from their country of origin, in a Western-world museum. This was a direct result of the colonial rule of the French and the British in many countries in Africa and Asia. However, now that colonization is at an end, should these treasures return to their homes? Many people believe that they should. The act of taking them from their home country could be seen as an act of robbery.
Yet, without the painstaking research of many Egyptologists like Jean-Francois Chompollion, we wouldn’t have been able to piece together the details of this very complex civilization. Losses and gains go hand-in-hand.
Given the current situation in the world, I am not sure whether I will ever visit Egypt and get the opportunity to lose myself in their fascinating history. This was one of those times when there is an up-side to getting lost inside a museum.
About the Author
Vandana Rajendran loves to explore the mysterious connections that the universe weaves into human experiences. She is a tarot reader and a life-long student of astrology. She is fascinated by mythology of all cultures, and enjoys unearthing stories that give a new perspective to the complexity of human life.