Cairo, Egypt. National Museum, located near Ramses II’s towering presence among the city’s highways and overpasses. I left my American tour group after the talkative museum guide said one too many facts I had known for years. Pharaohs, hieroglyphics, sets of four canopic jars holding the internal organs of mummies which were reburied, now in glass display cases, and then, a crowded, shadowy room with King Tut’s gold.
I look upon the golden bed, the four legs of a leopard elevating the frame. My hand runs down the length and breath of the golden bed-frame, although it’s enclosed in glass, unlike most exhibits here.
Inside King Tut’s new resting place, my eyes flash to four golden goddesses arms outstretched, circling the gilded wooden box that holds his royal canopic jars. Gilded gold? Solid gold? His coffin is the same size as myself, slightly more than five feet long.
Before I could read, I had stood before a child’s mummy at Chicago’s Natural History Museum. The strips of linen were wound so tightly around the small body, I wanted to undo them and talk to her. Could she be real? Still alive? Wrapped in those dirty strips of cloth?
My older sisters were calling my name, but I stood, mesmerized. When they yanked me from the glass, I felt my insides had been ripped out.
Now I stood before the 5,000 year old reality. Many of the exhibits in these high-ceilinged museum rooms are open to the air. Sandstone and granite statutes invite me to touch despite museum notices not to touch. The long processions, with their music and colorful clothes winding along the Nile towards the even more colorful and heavenly temples are silent. Absent. The hieroglyphics – these real ones carved into stone – appear mute compared to the ones I first saw as a child.
Hieroglyphics have always relaxed some craving in my soul. I long to smell the temples’ incense, the perfumed oils anointing the women’s hair, walk upon the lotus blossoms strewn along the path of the living gods to the pyramid festivities.
In the Cairo Museum, I look around the room, crowded with King Tut’s golden and blue headdress. Even I am disgracefully dressed like a tourist. In another room, the mummies are shelved carelessly in the dim light. They look drab, like fool’s gold. I stand amid these tourist-less rooms, eyes moving slowly over one then another and another mummy. Once living, breathing people – who thought they will return to their preserved bodies – are now stacked like discarded books in dusty libraries. I slowly wonder which is more powerful: the idea I had lived with since a child, or the actual physical reality I now stand before?
Ideas made the pyramids which have outlived their creators. And now, the power of the Ancient Egyptians bequeath their descendants with tourist wealth. It’s as if the Pharaohs of long ago knew their tombs would give, like the Nile River, the Gift of Life to their long, long line of descendants.
So which is more powerful: the idea or the reality? Perhaps they are couplets, like night and day, food and water, body and soul, past and present?