Ammit, Ancient Egypt, Ankhhor, Children, Death, Democracy, Edgar Allan Poe, Edinburgh, Fascinating Mummies, History, Mummy, National Museum of Scotland, Osiris, Smoking, Smoking Ban, Some Words with a Mummy, Technology, Thebes, Voltaic Pile
This morning I went to the opening of the new exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland – “Fascinating Mummies” – to interview the chief exhibit, Ankhhor, who was once a high priest at Thebes in 650 BC. You buy your ticket (£9) for the day, and as with a Daysaver bus ticket, you can use it as many times as you like. If you cannot elbow your way to a particular exhibit, then you can always return later to have a second go. I am sure that the intricacies of this system are lost on me, for I cannot see what prevents you from giving your ticket to a pal once you have seen the exhibition, rather as eight different flatmates may use a single Daysaver over the course of the day.
The museum staff insist upon “no mobile phones and no filming,” but there is nothing to stop you from bringing a Voltaic pile into the exhibition. I lug the Galvanic cells through the exhibition rooms to where Ankhhor’s mummy is waiting at the very end. Prising open his display case (the staff just stood there staring at me and they were no help at all), I attach the electrode to the tip of the mummy’s big toe and then apply the necessary voltage. Upon awakening, Ankhhor is seized by a violent fit of sneezing. I have brought along a large dressing gown for Ankhhor to wear, for I am anxious that he should be decent for our interview, and he is very grateful, explaining that he finds the viciously cold Edinburgh winter to be worse than hell.
Tychy: Good morning Ankhhor. Congratulations on the success of “Fascinating Mummies.” It’s a fine show.
Ankhhor: Forgive me, but you are mispronouncing my name…
Tychy: Gracious me! I’m deeply sorry!
Ankhhor: Nobody has said it correctly for many centuries. But there is a silent W at the very beginning.
Tychy: I was hoping to interview a sensible mummy. Edgar Allan Poe’s mummy was named Allamistakeo and he “spoke” in hieroglyphics. The climax of Poe’s interview was a joke about laxatives.
Ankhhor: Very well. Do you really like the exhibition? It costs nine pounds to enter and the featured exhibits are not markedly dissimilar to those which are displayed in the free Egyptian exhibition out in the main museum.
Tychy: We’re no longer living in the 26th Dynasty, Ankhhor. These days one expects to pay nine pounds to enter an exhibition.
Ankhhor: I suppose that I’m still living in the past. So what was your favourite exhibit?
Tychy: Some of the papyri were extraordinary. One of these documents – the Book of the Dead of Pakerer – had been produced between 1307 and 1196 BC and the strokes could have been painted yesterday. It was also a great privilege to see a leaf of the Book of the Dead of Nesynakht, which showed a recently deceased’s heart being weighed against Ma’at, the ostrich feather of truth. I’ve always loved the solemnity and the dread of that mythical ceremony, with the monster Ammit waiting to eat any heart that was too heavy.
Ankhhor: In truth, that was most unpleasant. Ammit devoured my heart and I could only stand there and watch her. Fortunately, she didn’t find the sandwich bag of weed that I had hidden in my dreadlocks.
Tychy: My favourite moments from the exhibition were those which conceivably portrayed ordinary people from thousands of years ago. The Book of the Dead of Pakerer depicted mourners at a funeral with what could have been realism – you sensed that the crowd had been drawn from life, or at least from memory – whilst there is a beautiful tomb statue of a married couple, the wife’s arm snaking in tenderly behind her husband’s. The accompanying notice said that the husband’s face and his wife’s breasts had been purposefully damaged, to spoil their happiness in the next world. No reason was given for this, although I imagined that some old flame, jealous of their happiness, had slunk into their chapel in the dead of night with a chisel to chip away at his rival’s face.
Ankhhor: I suppose that, like everybody else, you spent most of your time lingering in front of the mummified animals?
Tychy: Well, this was an absolute joy. Apparently, there was a sizeable industry in your day which was devoted to mummifying animals for religious purposes. Some cats were reared only to be mummified, and they even mummified certain insects. A horrible image came to my mind of an ancient Egyptian equivalent of the Disney Store, with stinking shelves full of bandaged dead cats.
Ankhhor: It was more tasteful than that. But the trouble with this exhibition is that people insist on bringing their children into it. You cannot imagine how it feels to lie here listening to their squeaky, scratchy tuneless little voices – it truly grates on my nerves. This exhibition is like a wedding reception in which the adults want to talk and the children want to dance, and one marveling over the gorgeous canopic jars is always distracted by the children a few feet away who are assembling some stupid giant jigsaw. They should erect a little sweatshop for manufacturing trainers outside the exhibition, where any children can be incarcerated for a couple of hours.
Tychy: I struggled with some of the interactive features. For example, there is a touch-screen computer which shows all of the different sarcophagi from your tomb, but they have installed it in front of the tomb where people can already look at the sarcophagi with their own eyes.
Ankhhor: This is an art exhibition. Nobody cares about which bit of innard went in which jar or whether a certain mummy died with all her teeth. You should soak yourself in the beauty and the craftsmanship of our civilisation.
Tychy: After a circuit of “Fascinating Mummies,” I think that I understand your civilisation somewhat better. I had always thought that the whole pack of you were completely demented, squandering all of your wealth on lavish tombs which were then buried in the desert where nobody could enjoy them.
Ankhhor: And now you know that our dead were more alive than the living. The personality or ba – a sort of winged face – nightly returns to the dead body to feed. The corpse is effectively like a bank account, and the ba returns rather like somebody taking their money out of a cashpoint. The only purpose of earthly life is to prepare for death.
Tychy: But it was naïve to think that you could make a home for the dead, an everlasting sanctuary from the living and from history. Besides, all that now remains of your civilisation is the world of your dead.
Ankhhor: But our civilisation was still vastly superior to yours…
Tychy: I hardly think…
Ankhhor: Technologically, so much has been lost.
Tychy: Your ignorance astounds me. Why, look at this. My new Android smartphone, the latest in information technology.
Ankhhor: Pitiful. Our poorest peasants were given these…
Tychy: I don’t believe it. We’ve never discovered ancient Egyptian smartphones.
Ankhhor: Because they were flimsy things that always fell apart. I doubt that there will be any left in your own civilisation in ten years’ time.
Tychy: And don’t tell me that you had the internet?
Ankhhor: Our peasants had the internet. It’s always useful to be able to immobilise the most numerous and dangerous section of the population by consigning them to an insignificant artificial reality, full of social networking and video clips.
Tychy: Ah… but… err… Our civilisation gives ordinary people more opportunities to travel. You didn’t have airports and jumbo jets and Ryanair?
Ankhhor: It’s a question of ends rather than means. We had the Valley of the Kings, the Pyramids, and the Sphinx. You may have Ryanair, but you no longer seem to have any worthwhile destinations.
Tychy: But we are politically more sophisticated. We have democracy.
Ankhhor: Ah, democracy. How is that working out for you?
Tychy: Why, you’re being sarcastic!
Ankhhor: I’ve never heard of a civilisation which was so comfortable with authoritarianism. I’ve heard that the latest initiative of your “democratic” politicians is to ban smoking inside pubs. Any old boy who wants a cigarette has to go outside and brave freezing cold temperatures. Such cruelty would be inconceivable to us. I was able to smoke freely inside all of the pyramids – perhaps I was lucky enough to live in more enlightened times.
Tychy: Enough of this bickering. But allow me to congratulate you once again on your wonderful exhibition.
Ankhhor: I am obliged to you. But, you know, my head seems to be nodding and growing a little heavy. I think that it’s time to climb the hill to Bedfordshire. Perhaps you could be so kind as to wrap me up in my linen again.
Tychy: Certainly. Thank you for granting us this interview.
Ankhhor: The pleasure was all mine. Goodnight.
[“Fascinating Mummies” runs at the National Museum of Scotland until 27th May. Ed.]