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Looking the dead in the eye

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Death ends, not just in a physiological sense, but also metaphysically. The dead are unreal; they remain only as symbols like monuments and tombs, as images in photos or in paintings or in a written word, and lastly as memories. They are in us and of us but no longer with us.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the body – the earthly vessel, the shell of the soul or the consciousness – does not dissolve and disappear. Sometimes it lingers. It reminds us and it taunts us: I was once like you; look at me, touch me, feel me. I’m no longer, yet still I’m here.

In some cases it’s an accident of nature – the right climate, the right soil – in some cases it’s a result of a conscious human effort; in some cases a combination of the two. The “incorruptible” bodies of Catholic saints, victims of human sacrifice in ancient Europe preserved in bogs, Otzi the hunter dislodged from an Alpine glacier a quarter of a century ago after five millennia of a frozen sleep; and of course mummies, scattered around the world and time – in the Andes, in Urumchi in western China, and, of course, in Egypt.

***

There he is, in his glass sarcophagus, backlit by the warm glow of tiny spotlights in an otherwise dark and dusky room. He stretches flat on his back, not a tall man by modern standards. He’s covered head to toe by a woven shroud; snugly, as if trying to survive a bad dose of man-flu with its nasty temperature and chills. Only the head sticks out above the fabric, the colour of the dark earth, hairless skull, eyes peacefully closed, the fleshy part of the nose rotted away, giving him a somewhat bird-like appearance in profile.

I’m in a small museum in Saqqara, about 45 minutes’ drive on bumpy and potholed country roads along the Nile, south of Cairo. The museum is attached to the Saqqara complex – the oldest – “the step” – pyramid of the Third Dynasty pharaoh Djoser, a number of smaller and largely worn down by time pyramids, as well as a large group of funerary and other temples.

Unlike in some other places – like the magnificent Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where you pay extra for the privilege and the pleasure – photos are prohibited here. But there is only one museum employee around, and while security cameras peer from under the ceilings in every room, I strongly suspect that like many other things in Egypt today they don’t actually work. There are a few Asian tourists around rather blatantly disregarding the signs with their mobile phone cameras clicking along. I make sure that no one else, besides my friend, is in the mummy room, get close to the niche in the wall that doubles as his current bed, press my iPhone flat against the glass and press the button.

Say cheese.

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***

I’m not quite sure what in particular fascinates me about Imhotep. Not the fictionalised character from “The Mummy”, but the real deal, the man after whom the museum is named, the man who made Saqqara.

His name means “he who comes in peace”; but he came with so much more than that. He was a commoner, who by virtue of his sheer talent and brilliance, has worked his way to become the second most powerful figure after the pharaoh he so ably served in Egypt in the mid-27th century BC. He is one of the few commoners to have been deified and worshipped in ancient Egypt; and quite deservedly so.

Imhotep was a polymath, a genius probably, a Renaissance man some four millennia before the Renaissance. He was king Djoser’s chancellor and chief administrator, as well as a priest of the sun god Ra. He was a writer and a philosopher, and he was a physician. One story of his life has him saving the people of Egypt from a seven year famine, perhaps inspiring the later biblical story of Joseph. But he’s best known in history as the architect and the engineer who dreamed up – and then oversaw the creation – of the first pyramid. He was the man whose imagination gave the humankind the very concept and the reality of monumental structures. He’s not a legend or a myth lost under the sands of the past; we know his name, and we know work. If architecture and construction could have a pagan patron saint, Imhotep would be it. As someone whose family tree teems with architects and engineers, maybe it’s this aspect of the man and his legacy that fascinates me the most. In the world of distant antiquity – nearly five unimaginable thousands of years ago – populated by human-like (and animal-like) gods and heroes and god-like kings and rulers – deocrats and aristocrats – he is the first meritocrat; an everyman (yes, in that day and age definitely a man) we know, recognise, praise and can identify with.


***

His tomb has not been found. The mummy I’m photographing is Djoser’s son, Mounib Ra. The blue blood strikes again – I’m looking at a well preserved body of a useless but fortunate (in life and in death) winner and beneficiary of a genetic lottery, while the man who made it all possible still rests somewhere out there in peace, undisturbed for forty-six hundred years. God or no god, maybe he would have preferred it that way anyway.

But I like to imagine I’m looking at Imhotep instead. After all, the desiccated dead all look much the same; the same aged colour, skin like old and dirty parchment tightly clinging to the contours of the skull, no life behind the curtains of eyelids, the nature-mutilated nasal cavity (don’t do coke, kids). None of the sculptures we have of Imhotep are particularly contemporary; they are a pleasant guess-work of what he might have been like alive. And this is pretty much of what he might have been like dead. Maybe one day we will find out.

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***

Imhotep or Mounib Ra, there is something slightly uncanny and unnerving about staring at the face of a four and a half thousand year old body. This is a true survivor after life; a conqueror of damp air, and the bacteria, and the most basic and common bio-chemical process of decomposition and breakdown. The very elite dead. It’s not a representation – a stone sculpture or a wax effigy – this is the real deal. If you could make the glass disappear and touch him, you would be touching someone (someone, not something; there are many old somethings we can touch, at least in theory, since museums frown on such intimate contact) who was alive at a dawn of if not exactly time then definitely recorded history. Someone who breathed the air, ate the food, walked the earth, made love and made things so long before all of us, all of this – the world around us – was even a dream. In the Aboriginal Dreamtime, in the time later called the Stone Age; before Brisbane, before London and New York, before Jerusalem, before Athens, before Rome, before even Babylon. He is not an abstraction, he’s the real skin and bone and tissue of a man, so different to you and me, yet at the same time so like you and me.

***

Outside the museum, Imhotep’s greatest creation, the step pyramid of Djoser, still rises up against the deep blue sky, just as it did all these millennia ago. More like a Sumerian ziggurat, a series of ever smaller mastabas on top of one another, rather than a true pyramid we recognise today, it is one of the landmarks of our civilisation. A few years ago, an earthquake cracked its walls, and now the Egyptian government is renovating it, strengthening the structure and laying a new stone casting. To me it seems like a sacrilege, a Disneyfication of Egyptian antiquity. Pyramids are not supposed to look shiny and new; just as you would not give a mummy a make-up, you shouldn’t contemporise and modernise an old monument. The government would do better to spend that money to ensure that its current infrastructure doesn’t look and feel like it was thousands of years old. I feel that Imhotep would hate it. I like to think that somewhere out there, wrapped in bandages, inside a coffin, inside a sarcophagus, inside a tomb, buried under the sands of all the centuries, the god-architect and builder is plotting a new curse of a mummy to befall all those who have wrapped his creation with scaffolding and turned his Saqqara once again into a building site.

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