Halloween is just around the corner! In honor of that, this blog is about a mummy. No, not the Universal Pictures mummy (though I love me some Boris Karloff), nor one of the Brendan Fraser variety, but a real, actual mummy.
Namely, Ramses the Great.
My first brush with Ramses was as a kid in 1989 when his exhibit came to the Dallas Museum of Natural History at Fair Park. The man himself was not there, unfortunately — he was still in his resting place in Cairo, but a lot of his artifacts made the trip over. The exhibit included carved statues of his likeness, incredible jewelry, cups, bowls, personal implements, you name it. Not all of it was tied to Ramses himself, but much of it belonged to those who lived in that general era of time, some 3,300 years ago.
Considering in my heart of hearts I wanted to be an archaeologist back then, this was both a figurative and literal treasure trove for me. Egyptology was a field I considered going into, and it remains an interest of mine to this day. So, to say this trip had an impact on me as a kid is an understatement.
At that time, my grandmother was a schoolteacher, and there was a whole unit in social studies that taught us the basics of life in ancient Egypt, about the 19th Dynasty when Ramses reigned, and so forth. After the fact, I wound up with teacher’s resource guide used to teach the lessons. I put it with my other books on archaeology. Here’s a photo. We’ll get back to this book in a moment.
Now, fast-forward to last December. I was passing through Houston and saw a billboard for a new exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science: Ramses The Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs. I knew immediately that this was my chance to revisit the time of Ramses II. So, after the holidays, I loaded up the family and that’s exactly what I did.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science already has a wonderful Egyptian exhibit on permanent display there, which is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. This particular temporary exhibit was an extension of that section. The artifacts of the Ramses exhibit were incredible. I’ve included some pictures here, but trust me when I say that they don’t do them justice.
Beyond that, the technical side of the exhibit was flawless, and I say this having worked on exhibits in museums previously. The lighting, the flow from one display cluster to the next, even the music playing throughout the various spaces was everything I could have asked for. The display that explained the famous Battle of Kadesh, in particular, had a cool back-projection effect that looked nearly holographic. (Unfortunately my photos of it didn’t come out well, so I can’t show what it looked like.)
At one point, I came across a magnificent golden necklace. This one, the Gold of Valor belonging to Psusennes the First, a pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty.
It looked really familiar, as did a number of the pieces of jewelry in the case, all of which are breathtaking. It was at that point that I wondered if some of these artifacts had been on display back in 1989.
Later, when I got back home, I unearthed the teachers guide that had been in my collection for years. In the back of the guide, there was a list of the artifacts on display back then. I put that next to the official exhibit book I picked up in the Houston museum’s gift shop. Turns out, it was the same necklace I had seen as a kid.
It struck me that in the intervening 33 years, the necklace had made the trip to Egypt and back and likely been on display in number of other exhibits. As I leafed through the teachers guide and the official companion book, I realized that I had seen many of the other artifacts before as well. While it had been most of a lifetime for me, what was a mere three decades compared to the three millennia these artifacts had seen since their creation? They were ancient in a way that my fellow Americans often have a hard time comprehending.
As we left the exhibit, we found a bench and started talking amongst ourselves about our favorite moments and displays. That’s when a gentleman from Egypt approached us and asked if he could ask us a few survey questions. I was too happy to oblige. The questions were mainly along the lines of ‘how did you enjoy the exhibit, and what could be better?’ I had nothing but glowing things to say. The question that really stuck with me, though, was the last one he asked me: “Why do you think people are interested in Ramses today?”
In my excitement, I was probably pretty rambling, but my answer was to the effect of: “When most people think of an Egyptian pharaoh, everyone knows the name of King Tutankhamen, but the kind of epic figure they are probably thinking of is likely Ramses himself. Immortality was something Ramses sought in life, and the fact that we are still thinking and talking about him three thousand years later means that, in many ways, he succeeded.”
The gentlemen from Egypt seemed to really enjoy that answer. I didn’t remember until later that I had snapped a picture of an ancient Egyptian prayer as I left the exhibit. I’ll let it speak for itself here.
Perhaps memory really is the closest thing to immortality we can achieve in life. At the risk of this post straying into melancholy waters, I know that the last few years have been ones of loss for many of us, myself included. Yet there is something comforting, something eternal in those words: “Speak the name of the dead and they will live forever.” Thanks for reading…and Happy Halloween!