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Tutankhamun for the 21st Century-Modern Misreadings of an Ancient Culture

Tutankhamun for the 21st Century-Modern Misreadings of an Ancient Culture

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Published by: Jennifer C. Johnson on Aug 07, 2010
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All rights reserved by the Oriental Institute.
Robert K. Ritner

The following text was delivered at the first inaugural celebration for incoming University of
Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer, hosted by the Chicago Society at the Field
Museum of Natural History, Thursday, October 26, at 7:30 PM. © Oriental Institute

It is an honor for me to participate in the inaugural festivities for our president Robert Zimmer by
providing a brief introduction to the Tutankhamun exhibition that awaits you. In proper University of
Chicago fashion, however, your raw enjoyment of the exhibit should be leavened by the requisite dose
of intellectual provocation, and I hope to leave you with a few questions to ponder as you go where
thousands before you have flocked, been fascinated and departed with modern artifacts of sphinxes,
mummies and bobble-headed Tuts. I speak as a repeat offender.

I. Mere Glitter?

Thirty years ago, an earlier Tut exhibit, of which I was a part, initiated the phenomenon of "blockbuster
exhibits," and our own presence here tonight is the direct result of the little diminished cultural sway of
such installations and of Tutankhamun in particular. Yet why are we here? Media pundits have regularly
derided these types of exhibits as pandering to the unsophisticated, a criticism --it could be argued-- that
is motivated perversely by their very popularity. Kevin Nance, art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, has
uncharitably characterized "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" as "glitter"1 for "the
crowd who just want to see the shiny stuff."2 If you are tempted by such anti-populist arguments, then
you must augment tonight's viewing with a visit to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which
is the permanent repository for both the most imposing statue of Tutankhamun outside of Cairo and a
large collection of the crockery used during the funeral banquet of the king, ceremonially buried and
wrongly assumed when discovered in 1907 to be the full burial regalia of Tut.3 The statue is imposing
and the pottery dishes humanizing, yet neither glitter and we have adequate crowd control. It is,
however, a useful corrective to know that the "boy-king" buried with so much gold was fêted at death
with little clay cups holding "7 grapes" and that the king's monuments were posthumously usurped by
his own former major general.

In ancient Egypt, the use of glittering gold was both popular and sophisticated. Regional mines made
gold so plentiful that trading partners from what is now Iraq begged that "gold is like dirt in your
country, …please send us some."4 Royal burials employed gold not simply because it was valuable, but
because it was equated with the brilliant skin of the solar creator, who had "flesh of gold and hair of
lapis lazuli." By encasing Tutankhamun in a new golden skin, he is re-embodied as the deathless creator
in fulfillment of his name Tut-ankh-Amun, "The living image of Amun." The glitter and "shiny stuff" in
the current exhibition was intentional and purposefully significant within the culture that produced it; it
is not a distorted assemblage cobbled together by cynical curators. You are welcome to enjoy it without
prejudice to either your populist or your elitist sympathies.

II. Culturally Irrelevant?

Far more problematic, and potentially damaging, to the value of the exhibit is the charge of exotic
irrelevance. This accusation comes from what should seem an unlikely source, the nominal academic
curator for the Field Museum exhibit itself. James L. Phillips, interviewed in the museum's public
journal In the Field for summer 2006, made the pronouncement that interest in ancient Egypt is simply
an accident of the 1922 discovery of Tut's tomb and without cultural foundation:

"The drama of the discovery entered the psyche of the Western world (Egypt was always in the psyche of the Eastern world)… we think of ancient Egypt as a forerunner of our own cultures, even though that really isn't true. Judeo-Christian-Muslim origins have nothing to do with Egypt. Those cultures began in Mesopotamia or the Levant, not Egypt."5

This is a remarkable charge and would seem to clash with the goals of an institution dedicated to
anthropology and the interrelationship of world cultures. It is also false. The refutation of any such
assumption was the guiding force behind the foundation of my home institution, Chicago's Oriental
Institute. The goals of that institute are enshrined in the decoration of the tympanum over our front door,
on which Egypt, followed by the representatives of the ancient Near East, hands over to Greece and the
Western world artifacts of education, literacy and sculpture. The Greek recipient holds an Egyptian text
that states: "I have seen your beauty."

The influence of, and interest in, Egyptian culture is hardly a product of 1922, though the tomb's
discovery certainly did ignite a renewed wave of modern interest. However one describes "our" Western
culture, Egypt played an active role from its inception. Few --if any-- Biblical scholars are ignorant of
the significance of Egypt both politically and culturally for the development (favorable as well as
hostile) of Canaanite and later Hebrew cultures. Levantine Byblos was in fact an Egyptian cultural
colony, adopting Egyptian religion, funerary practices and hieroglyphs and serving as a major export
center for Egyptian papyrus, imagery and ideas throughout the Aegean. The alphabetical letters that I am
reading now derive not from Hebrew or Mesopotamian cuneiform, but from Egyptian hieroglyphs,
adapted by Semitic workers in Egypt and spread to the Classical world by Phoenicians. The phoenix is
an ancient Egyptian solar bird that rose regularly from its ashes. The official symbol of the University of
Chicago is thus an ancient Egyptian deity, borrowed by Greek mythology. Archaic Greek sculpture
began as provincial Egyptian art, adopting the Egyptian representational canon. Greek and Egyptian
cultures would become closely entwined, with Greek scholars from Hecateus onward visiting, or
claiming to have visited, Egyptian priests for theoretical discussions. The occupation of Egypt by
Alexander the Great caused Greeks to settle in Egypt, where they married Egyptian wives. Their bi-
cultural and multi-cultural descendants would spread Egyptian ideas to the wider Hellenistic world.
Egyptian medicine contributed, among other things, soap, the practice of taking the pulse, a rudimentary
knowledge of the circulatory system, the world's first comprehensive theory of disease and aging, and a
less invasive philosophy of treatment that was unfortunately abandoned by the Greeks in favor of
bleeding.6 Later Egyptian theologians were also Greek grammarians, philosophers (including the Stoic
teacher of Nero) and active in the Alexandrian schools that would produce the doctrines of nascent
Christianity. Egyptian temples, perhaps not incidentally, were regularly dedicated to a divine trinity, and
the notion that "all the gods are three without a second" was well established in Egypt by Ramesside
times (ca. 1300 BC.) Far earlier, the multiplicity of Egyptian gods could be summarized as "The One
God Who Made Himself into Millions."7 For Egyptian intellectuals, monotheism vs. polytheism was a
matter of seeing the collective forest or the individual trees. Egyptian religious iconography was adapted
for Christian depictions of Madonna and Child and Saint George and the Dragon. Pharaoh was the
product of a "virgin birth" wherein the queen was impregnated by the creator to produce an intercessor
for his people who was at once human and divine.8 That idea seems to have had some longevity and
cultural relevance.

Through Biblical and Classical literature, ancient Egypt was always in the Western consciousness, and
far more so than in the Islamic East. The fall of Constantinople brought the Greco-Egyptian Hermetic
literature to Renaissance Rome, where it became so intellectually popular that portions of the Vatican
were decorated by Pinturicchio with scenes of Isis, Osiris, Horus and the Apis Bull. It is a little-known,
but significant fact, that the private apartments of Pope Benedict XVI are illustrated with the same
deities worshipped by Tutankhamun, but in Renaissance attire.9 The last heretic burned in Rome
(Giordano Bruno in 1600) died for advocating the return of Egyptian religion.

As the conquest of Egypt by Macedonia and Rome initiated a vogue for Egyptomania in the Classical world, so the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon from 1798 to 1801 began not only renewed Egyptomania in European decorative arts but the new field of Egyptology itself. Egyptologists have never had doubts about the relevance of their field. Two Oxford volumes on The Legacy of Egypt (1942 and 1971)10 offer sections on

1. The alphabet and the hieroglyphic tradition
2. Calendars and chronology
3. Mathematics, geometry, astronomy and science

4. Artistic traditions
5. Technology and materials
6. Medicine
7. Mystery, myth and magic
8. Language and writing
9. Literature

10. Egypt and Israel
11. Concepts of Law
12. Greek and Egyptian interactions
13. Preservation of Greek and Multicultural Hellenistic culture in papyri
14. Egypt and Rome
15. Egypt, the Coptic Church, origins of Monasticism and Early Christianity
16. The legacy to Africa
17. The legacy to Byzantium
18. The legacy to Islam
19. The legacy to Modern Egypt

Any of these topics is worthy of a lecture longer than that of tonight's date, which is, by the way,
reckoned by a Roman adaptation of the Egyptian calendar of 24 hours in a day, ideally 30 days in a
month, and 12 months in a year of 365 days. Mesopotamia contributed the 60 seconds in a minute - and

These earlier volumes are now supplemented by a 2003 series of 8 volumes issued by University
College London on "Encounters with Ancient Egypt" which provide thorough interdisciplinary coverage
of such varied issues as ancient perspectives on Egypt, ongoing western views of Egyptian wisdom and
civilization's origin, revised views and appropriations of Egypt since Napoleon, modern Egyptianizing
architecture and "consuming ancient Egypt" through media, museum exhibits and gift shops.

Any suggestion that Egypt has not been, or is not now, integral to notions of "our" western civilization is simply false. Yet there are equally fascinating aspects of Egyptian history and culture that are not mere legacies, but are relevant for current political and social discussions. Egypt was the world's first nation state, in which people spoke of themselves as "Egyptians" (rather than clan members) and evolved

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