Who’s Your Mummy?

On a day when a hot desert wind whipped through town, I found myself in a darkened chamber contemplating death and the afterlife — not my own, for a change, but rather that of the ancient Egyptians.

Currently the L.A. area is hosting two world-class exhibitions of ancient Egyptian artifacts: King Tut has taken up residence in Mid-Wilshire in the LACMA annex. Less than an hour away, in Santa Ana (of the eponymous hot winds), the Bowers Museum is showcasing one of the greatest exhibits of mummies ever seen in the United Statesfrom the collection of the British Museum.

Together, the two exhibitions offer more Egyptian artifacts and mummies on view in America than at any time since Boris Karloff played Im-ho-Tep. Since Howard Carter first uncovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, we have always known more about how ancient Egyptians died than how they lived. Our fascination has manifested itself in comedy and horror, scholarship and satire: from Abbott & Costello to the recent Brendan Fraser resurrections; from the Saturday morning cartoon “Tutenstein” to the record-breaking ticket sales for past and current Tut exhibitions.

“Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs” displays 50 Tut burial objects, including the gold crown found on his mummified body and more than 70 items from his family and other members of the 18th Dynasty, who reigned around 3,500 years ago. Displayed over almost a dozen galleries, each is focused on a specific theme, such as “daily life in Tutankhamun’s world,” “the tomb” and of course, “the gift shop.”

It is hard not to be impressed by the artistry, the sophistication and the sheer beauty of the jewelry and crafts. The collection includes stunning necklaces, chalices, statues and even ornately carved wooden seats.

The exhibit also discusses some of the more interesting aspects of King Tut’s reign. Tut, who assumed the throne as child of 9 or 10 and died no more than a decade later, was known for reintroducing polytheism to Egypt. His predecessor, Akhenopten, had decided to abolish all gods other than the Sun disk and also to move the capital city. Tut’s restoration of the prior capital and the gods proved popular in his time.

Was it his decision or that of a close adviser? No one knows.

I see the movie now: Imagine a mysterious figure, who haunts political figures, giving them spin on how to cast a spell over the public — Tut refers to him as his “architect”; others call him “Tut’s brain.” After the tomb of Tut is disturbed for the 1979 American tour, he escapes in Texas and makes his way to Crawford under the name Karl Rove. Now, that’s spooky!

For the “C.S.I.” generation, the final gallery is devoted to CT scans made recently of Tut’s corpse, which suggest that he may have died from an infection following a fracture in his leg.

Tut himself didn’t make this trip to LACMA. So if it’s actual mummies you want, head down to Santa Ana. The Bowers Museum exhibit is a world-class lesson in mummification and the Egyptian cult of the dead: There are 14 mummies and/or coffins on view. Artifacts include a mummy mask, a child’s coffin and many accoutrements of Egyptian-style death, including canoptic jars in which the organs were preserved and a small wooden boat meant to transport the dead into the underworld (warning: funeral objects appear larger in the afterlife). Also one was expected to work in the afterlife, but you could have shebtis, or little servants, to help you. Apparently, good help is easy to find in the afterlife.

Mary Roach’s new book, “Spook” (Norton), tries to find scientific support for an afterlife. Her book reminds us that throughout history, man has searched for proof of an afterlife, from Herophilus, to DaVinci, to ectoplasm and spirit mediums in the 1920s. Many believed their afterlife to be more important than their corporeal, scientifically verifiable one.

Personally, I side with an Egyptian, but not a member of the Tut clan. This one lived in the 12th century and is best known as “the Rambam.” I speak of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who argued that we are best served by considering the afterlife as true, but also as allegorical and metaphorical. Author Sherwin Nuland’s forthcoming biography, called, “Maimonides” (Shocken/Nextbook), explains this in greater detail.

I believe in past lives — in a Rambam way: I feel with all my soul that I once was a slave in Egypt. As I make my way around present day Los Angeles, I carry with me the voices of the people who have come before me. They are my forebears, both literally and spiritually, and they are always present in my thoughts, conversations and my actions.

The people who have an afterlife are those we remember by day and by night in our dreams and in our prayers — family members as much as poets, authors, singers and songwriters, biblical, historical and literary figures, fading in and out of popularity within the collective consciousness of any age.

As for King Tut, he lived only 19 years, and yet thousands of years later, he is still among us, still on tour, because grave robbers couldn’t find his tomb before Carter did. Is this kind of immortality a reward or a curse? I say it’s one more mystery of the afterlife for us to ponder.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood