Sunday, July 29, 2007

An Antique Land


I went to the Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum today. Photography was not allowed in the room of course, ‘out of respect for the dead.’ Anwar Sadat thought the whole concept of displaying dead royalty was blasphemous and closed to room for many years. But we are people of science, and know that the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians were just so much silly superstition. So, in the name of science and curiosity about the dead (are these related?), the mummy room is again open to the public. It’s a good thing the religion of these Egyptians has died out, and that science has taught us the truth about these things, or else we might have to respect their beliefs and leave these people in their graves. Just for the record, I am also, despite my agnosticism, a ‘man of science’ in this regard. We should be aware, however, that our so-called respect for diversity and other religions and ‘value systems’ is done from a standpoint of what we believe to be certain knowledge about the truth of these claims and beliefs.

It was still quite early when I left the mummies so I headed to the Tutankhamen room, where it struck me that the works of the human mind are far more impressive than the remains of the human mind…This reminds me of Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” which was in fact inspired by a statue of Ramses II (whose mummy I had just seen):

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Among the many things going on in this poem is the fact that the work of the artist has outlived everything else - even though it too seems destined to perish. So who was greater? Ozymandias who ruled the kingdom and perhaps made it possible for the sculptor to work, or the artist, without whom not even this meager trace of the kingdom would exist? And why should we despair? Clearly this was meant as a warning to potential enemies while the king lived, but is now a warning against the futility of striving to make anything lasting on earth (compare Ecclesiastes 1:11). Part of what distinguishes human beings from other creatures is the awareness of our own mortality, and, more importantly, our reaction to this knowledge. The striving for eternity is what drives poets and artists and what, at the beginning of human civilization, built the pyramids. No wonder so many people are fascinated by mummies.

Chris McClure

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