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King Tut Returns to Seattle as Egypt Elects a President
The press preview for the new King Tut exhibit at the Pacific Science Center began with the customary parade of thanks to partners and sponsors, along with civic boosterism regarding this “marquee event” and the tourist dollars its going to rake in for the city (90,000 tickets have already been sold—claustrophobes, take heed). It all started to blur together, as giant photos of selected Egyptian artifacts looped in a soothing slideshow, over and over, on the immense IMAX screen in the PACCAR theater.
Then Dr. Mohamed Ibrahim Aly Sayed, Egyptian minister of antiquities, arrived at the podium. His voice was arresting, and stood out not merely because it was graced with a lovely accent but also because of his startling sincerity. He started off by noting that today was Election Day in Egypt—a monumental event given that this is Egypt’s first Presidential election since the Arab Spring. He reminded us, in soft-spoken but stern tones, “You are the Americans. You like liberty and justice and democracy.” (Sometimes we need reminding.) He then went on to say the best way to support democracy in Egypt is by not being afraid to actually go there. “Egypt is safe,” he said. “We need your help.” Seeing these objects on display here, he said, is nothing compared to seeing the land where they originated, the structures that housed the civilization from which they came. I suspect he was a little off-script here, but it was by far the best part of the opening remarks—and certainly put the exhibit in a contemporary context. Most of us tend to go into such shows with a glossed-over appreciation (look at all this really old stuff!), but Ibrahim’s words made it clear that what we’d be seeing—artifacts spanning 2000 years—represent countless uprisings and overthrows on the road to Egypt’s current moment in history.
The show is quite good. After a corny recorded introduction by Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones being the quickest American conduit to Egypt, I guess), visitors walk into an impressive room full of statuary—gods and pharaohs and the detritus they left behind. This may disappoint people who remember the sparkling gold and jewels of the previous Tut show (in 1978), and in fact, the majority of the boy king’s treasures don’t appear until several rooms in. The exhibit is definitely more stony than shiny. (I overheard a certain local TV personality saying she was confused by walking into the non-Tut artifacts, and wanted to see the glittering stuff she remembered.) But the non-Tut stuff should be given its due. From the colossal statue of Amenhotep and beautifully carved statues of kings and queens whose names I neglected to write down, to smaller items, including a toilet seat (carved of stone) and cat burial box, it’s fascinating.
Eventually you come around a bend and enter Tut’s tomb. It’s set up like the rooms that the explorer (Howard Carter) originally discovered—the antechamber, the treasury and the burial chamber. Keep in mind that there’s no actual mummy here—Tut’s remains are too delicate to move. But it’s nonetheless captivating, if not so much shiny as corporeal. You get a real sense of Tut’s body in absentia, seeing his bowed bed, a small wooden chair with feline feet, and one of the four tiny, solid gold mini-coffins that held his liver, lungs, stomach and intestines. (The audio tour explains that the Egyptians paid intensive attention to these organs during burials, but held the brain in such low esteem it was tossed out with the trash.) Also viscerally enticing: the golden flip-flops Tut’s mummy was outfitted with, as well as his golden finger and toe covers.
After moving slowly through these dark rooms that reflect such passionate dedication to death, getting summarily dumped into the gift shop is a rude awakening. Therein you can purchase Tut Teal Towels (made of Egyptian cotton, natch), Tut neckties, tiny plastic Tut coffins and shelves filled with a very confused take on a stuffed animal identified as CleoCatra. (Sadly, I predict she will sell like Tutcakes.) I pushed a crumpled American dollar bill into a kiosk to have my name “translated” into Egyptian hieroglyphics. The “cartouche” dropped out like a Coke in a vending machine and the word-picture said: foot-mouth-eagle-water-jar-reed-double reed-water, which made me feel about as far away from Egypt—both ancient and modern—as I actually, physically, am. It seems to get the true flavor of Egypt I'll have to take Dr. Ibrahim up on his invitation.