A tale about Love's eternal beauty

3 2002 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

    Let us visit North Africa at the dawn of her history. It was there that the expansive river Nile became the lifeblood of a civilization which was to last for 4 thousand years. Discovering old cultures makes one realize time's relativity although time itself is probably only relative to man. Well then, my dear readers come with me to the second quarter of the 13th century BC generally known as the New Realm when the 18th dynasty was in power. Egypt had seen 26 such dynasties before it all ended after the Persian invasion in the 6th century B.C. The 18th dynasty provided 18 rulers, particularly the queen Hatshepovat, in the span of just over 200 years. She is said to have been rather good in the art of ruling and we still can see her portrait, adorned with the head of Osiris, on the inner wall of her temple.
    The two of the dynasties last rulers were exceptionally loved and loving sons and husbands. The first of the two was a remarkable Amenhotep IV who ended a thousand year old tradition of marriage between siblings. The pharoes were gods and so the great Spouse, as one of the titles of the first lady was went was usually the Pharoes own sister. According to Egyptian tradition, a god entered the wife's womb and the godlike progeny was merely entrusted to the royal couple's care. The father of Amenhotep, however, married a girl called Tejc from a common family, presumably for love. An intelligent and sharp-witted lady she often played a role in the politics of the time and after the death of her husband she ruled capably during the minority of her little son. It was a time of Egypt's cultural and economic flowering. The young Amenhotep inherited much of his mother's capability and belongs amongst the most interesting figures in ancient Egypt's history. He was the first religious innovator of which we know and the extent to which his sweeping reforms affected the development of Egypt are still the subject of much controversy amongst experts today. He introduced the cult of a single god of the sun, called Aton. This god was depicted as a gold disk emitting beams of light which then spread out in the shape of human hands. The attributes of this deity were that of a loving father of all men and creatures on the earth, representing all-encompassing love embracing all beings. In honour of the loving god, Amenhotep built a new city into which he moved together with his whole court. During his reign a new school of beautiful realistic art sprung up and indeed the Pharaoh himself composed a series of unusually moving hymns in praise of the new god of love and understanding. Following the example of his father, he picked out for himself a wife from an ordinary Egyptian family. In the year 1912 in a place called El-Amarna, where the city of the sun god once stood, German archeologists found a painted bust made from polished limestone. It portrays a noble and unusually beauteous face, a shapely head and a slender neck, all suggestive of the grace and charm of the lady it depicts. It is Nefertiti Achanaton, the beloved wife and mother of his children. This image of one of the world's most beautiful women can be seen in the Egyptian museum in Berlin. Today's visiting tourists often take a picture of her home with them as a souvenir.
    Not everyone in Egypt took kindly to the move away from the traditional pantheon of gods. The cult's antagonists were above all the priests of the god Amon from the wealthy capital city, Thebes. After his death they tried to destroy everything which could remind posterity of the daring reformer. In the "sun city" of the god Aton, his name was carefully chipped away from all inscriptions. Fortunately for us today, their efforts were not completely successful and many of the finest works of Ancient Egyptian art in modern museums can be dated to the reign of Amenhotep IV. From the artworks depicting the Pharaoh and his family it is possible to infer the peaceful and loving relationship that must have existed between them. It is not known to us when or how Amenhotep died, or indeed whether or not he was assassinated by the opponents of his reforms. His marriage was blessed by several children, one of whom has become extremely famous, but not for his deeds as a statesman, which his life, terminated as it was at the age of 18 was too short for. He grew up during the time of his father's reforms and in the upheavals which followed his death. His fame lies in the discovery of his final resting place -- his tomb, unique in that it was untouched by the profane hands of grave robbers, lying in the valley of kings. It seems that it was just a chance meeting of several happy coincidences that had prevented the tomb from being broken into, since the wealthy graves of Egyptian rulers or highly placed civil servants, were usually robbed, often very soon after the funeral. The young king was forced by the priests to move his court from the "city of the sun" back to Thebes and change his name from one which meant "son of the sun god" to a name containing the word Amon, the name of the ram-headed god. His name was Tutankhamon. Thanks to that discovery of English archeologists in 1922 his name has become famous throughout the world. The objects that composed the funeral trappings of the young pharaoh, the last ruler of the 18th dynasty, amazed everyone by their great value and beauty. According to anthropological research, he was not only son, but also the son in law of his father Achanaton the reformer and his beautiful wife Nefertiti.
    The members of the 18th dynasty were known to me only through books and pictures. In these, enchanted, I examined the objects portraying the family members. In the magnificent golden death-mask which covered the face of the mummy of the young ruler, I thought I was able to discern the features of his charming mother. I never thought, however, that I would ever see the originals. And then a miracle occurred. In the 70s, for the first and the last time, I obtained permission to visit by aunt who since 1948 had been living in London. Believe it or not, at exactly the same time as my visit, that excellent institution, the British museum, was holding an exhibition of the items found in Tutankhamons grave, borrowed temporarily from the Museum in Cairo. I waited in a long queue and found myself in the world of ancient Egypt during the 18th dynasty. The exhibition was superbly arranged. A series of rooms, whose walls were covered in black velvet, formed a background against which every detail of the artistic objects on display could be clearly seen. Statues of guards and felines, litters, chests and chairs stood independently while other objects were housed in glass cases. Tens of masterfully crafted objects gave an indication of the magnificence and beauty of the court of Achanaton and his family. An exceptional man, who dared to push through the idea of one single loving god against the will of the rapacious priests of Amon and who brought up his children together with his wife. From the perfect beauty of the objects found in the tomb it is possible to infer that the skillful artists from his father's day were employed in his son's court also. On the golden relief which adorns the Pharaoh's throne I was able to gaze into the faces of the young couple. The ruler sits, resting lightly on his right hand. He is dressed in the skirt-like garment typical for his day, his neck adorned with a splendid collar, on his black wig rests a crown which is held on his forehead by the royal snake which is wound around his head. The frail figure of his wife is appareled in the same magnificent style. Her hand gently rests on her husband's shoulder and the faces of both radiate reciprocal love for each other. Above the two figures a disk is portrayed, which warms the couple with it's rays. Amongst the many richly decorated artifacts, I was especially fascinated by the little gold plates that adorned the fingers on the pharaoh's hand. The gentle, young features on the golden mask which covered the face of the mummy were absolutely perfect. Research done on the remains of the pharaoh confirmed that the mask was indeed the exact likeness of that final male descendant of the 18th dynasty. In the windings of the thin linen, in which the body was bound, an endless number of tiny amulets and precious things was found. I discovered an ankh, which is the hieroglyphic symbol for "word" and the concept of eternal life. On many pictures you can see depictions of gods handing this symbol to pharaohs. It is still manufactured in Egypt today, apparently however, if one wears it hanging from something it loses it's effect. Since my visit to Egypt, I wear it like a gold ring on my finger.
    Fortune did not smile on either of that loving, married couple. Tutankhamon died too soon and we know nothing of what happened to the girl who was his wife, and apparently his sister too. The historical trail is lost in the turbulent times following the extinction of the royal dynasty. Along with so many artistic objects I also found a trifling thing, which I already knew about from literature, and which I will let the discoverer of the tomb, H Carter, speak about in his own words.
    "The face was from pure gold, the eyes from aragonite and obsidian, the eyelashes and eyelids from azure glass. This gaily coloured face was as rigid as a mask although at the same time very lifelike, on the chest lay a touching little wreath made from flowers, a final farewell from the young widow to her beloved husband. All that kingly splendor, all that royal magnificence, all the glitter of gold seemed faint in comparison to that poor, faded little flower, which even in that dim light seemed still to posses the colours it once had. These flowers spoke most powerfully that 1000 years fly past like the wind......."
    Three years later in the winter of 1925 -- 26 when he once again entered Tutankhamons tomb, this time in order to open the coffin, he wrote:
    "Once again we were overcome by the mystery of the tomb and by fear and reverence before the distant and yet still formidable past. Even when engaged in purely mechanical work, the archeologist cannot stay aloof from such feelings".
    I can only add that I left the extensive exhibition touched by the fate of those two loving human beings. After examination of the funeral wreaths and of the flowers of the little wreath laid on the chest of the deceased, scientists were able to date the funeral to the end of April around the year 1352 before Christ.
    I could never have guessed that the communist regime would fall and that I would be able to visit Egypt and see with my own eyes the places where the Pharaohs had lived. I visited the valley of kings and El Amarna where in the second millennium the city of the sun god once stood. I saw the objects taken from Tutankhamons tomb in the museum of Cairo. I remember being disappointed with the exhibition, many of the objects were covered in dust which nonetheless failed to obscure the lustre of the perfectly crafted materials and delightful workmanship of the artists from the time of the last rulers of the 18th dynasty. It is my hope that in the afterlife, that loving, young couple managed to get to the Egyptian realm of the blessed. Only I never found that touching, faded little wreath again.....
    I took home with me a little statue of a cat, which was a sacred animal in Egypt. The statues symbolized the goddess Bastet -- the goddess of joy in life who was portrayed with the head of a cat. Whole graveyards filled with the mummified bodies of these sacred animals were found. I bought her from a man who made these statues by hand, presumably in the same way as they used to be made thousands of years ago. She looks at me in a very dignified fashion and brings me joy specially during the hard times. I am moved when I remember the inscription adorning the coffin of king Tutankhamon: "O mother Nut, spread your wings above me like the heavens studded with the immortal stars"
    The figure of the goddess Nut with outspread wings in beautiful azure colours can be seen adorning the walls of burial chambers, looking as if the artist only laid his brush down yesterday.


Jana Volfova
Translated by Andrew Tomský

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