Tag Archives: life and death in the valley of the kings

Ancient Egypt and the Quest for Immortality

Me at the Pyramid of Zoser, Saqqara (first pyramid ever)

Me at the Pyramid of Zoser, Saqqara (first pyramid ever)

Last night I watched the second and final episode of Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings hosted by Dr Joann Fletcher. You can read my review of episode one here. In this episode, we learned about the preparations that Kha and Meryt took towards burial as well as the story of the modern archaeologists who found their tomb intact in 1906. And this is what ancient Egypt is most famous for.

After being mummified not by being dried out entirely as we usually learn of it but, rather, being basically pickled with all their organs intact, Kha and Meryt were buried in their tomb near their home village of Deir El-Medina. Meryt died first and was buried in a sarcophagus that looks to have been built originally for Kha. First, however, rites were performed at their funerary chapel. The gilt sarcophagus would have been set on its bottom and then a seventy-step ceremony would have been conducted to revivify the senses of the ka of Kha — that is, his spirit. There would also have been professional mourners — of course.

Most ancient Egyptians would locate their tomb directly beneath their funerary chapel. However, after 2000 years of tomb raiding, people like Kha got smart. He built his lovely funerary chapel at the edge of Deir El-Medina, but located his tomb nearby down through a steep-sided hole in the cliff face beside the village. Thus no one found it until 1906.

The tomb was sealed up and hidden by rubble. Once Kha and Meryt were within, the remaining rites would be performed at the funerary chapel. In the tomb they had most of their earthly goods, including make-up and perfume, jewellery, food, and other things necessary for the afterlife — including little, carved slaves called shabti.

Entombed with them was one of the longest, intact Books of the Dead we have. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, contrary to what viewers of The Mummy in 1999 may think, is not a big, black book bound along one edge full of magical spells that can raise the dead. It is a long, papyrus scroll full of magical spells to assist the deceased in his passage to paradise and the green-faced god Osiris.

One of the concerns that we see played out both in the Book of the Dead as well as some tomb walls and in every papyrus shoppe in Cairo is the judgement of the heart (that is, soul) of the deceased, weighed on scales by Anubis and a god who escapes my memory. If the life of the deceased was not true, was not holy enough, the heart is thrown to a beast that devours it. Thus, one of the objects included in a mummy’s wrappings is a heart scarab, that weighs down the heart to prevent it from speaking ill of the deceased at the judgement.

You can see the appeal of this scene of judgement to a modern Egyptian Muslim.

Immortality is something that people long for. Thus, we have Pliny discussing the idea of immortality through art, as I’ve blogged before. Or Cicero’s scheme to erect a shrine in honour of his dead daughter, hoping to deify her. Or that episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where an entrepreneur determines that death happens because our cells get bored, so he develops a device that can keep them from boredom.

A friend of mine once read a book arguing that all religion stems from our fear of death and desire for immortality. I disagree — I think it comes from a reading of all religion through the modernist distortion of Christianity as simply a ‘Get into Heaven (or out of Hell) free card’. But, certainly, the fear of death and the desire for immortality — or, perhaps, a sense that the soul of the deceased does not simply cease to exist at bodily death — are aspects of many religions and philosophies.

Egyptian pyramids and funerary temples or chapels are certainly religious testimonies, along with the Book of the Dead. The last phrase of the Apostles’ Creed is a belief in the life of the world to come. Hindus believe in immortality through reincarnation. Romans believed that people could possibly become gods and that ancestral spirits were present in their homes — and they had rites as a result of these beliefs..

Today, people scoff at such beliefs. But neuroscience will never fully explain everything about the human soul. We may be psychosomatic unities, but that does not mean that when the soma, the body, dies, the psyche, the soul or mind, dies with it.

Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings, Episode 1

Me and a pyramid at Giza. On a camel.

Me and a pyramid at Giza. On a camel.

Today I watched the first episode of what looks to be a very interesting two-part documentary called Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings by Dr Joann Fletcher. If you live in the UK, you can watch it on the BBC here. This episode is called ‘Life.’

Hitherto, my contact with ancient Egypt has been with Pharoahs and mummies, with its monuments and suchlike as well as with, inevitably, the afterlife. Some items from daily life creep in, such as strange head-rests for whilst sleeping that I saw at the Royal Ontario Museum. One of the better Egyptian exhibits is the current permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that traces Egyptian culture from pre-Pharaonic times to the Nubian pharaohs.

Fletcher takes you into the world of daily in the 18th Dynasty, the reign of Amenhotep III (1400s BC), to the village uncovered at Deir el-Medina. The Egyptian name of the village was, in fact, The Village. It was populated by the workers and artisans who constructed the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, about two miles away. Here we are brought face-to-face with Kha and his wife Meryt.

Thankfully, their mummies have never been unwrapped, so not literally face-to-face. Rather, we get to see paintings of them both, a statue of Kha, and the gilt grave-mask of Meryt. The tomb of this couple was found very well-stocked with everything the pair would have needed for the afterlife — which means everything from their own lives.

Kha was the chief architect for Amenhotep III. He designed and helped execute Amenhotep’s tomb. He was a well-to-do, free Egyptian who was fond of black eyeliner and who was so good at his job that the Pharaoh gave him a golden cubit relating his achievements as an architect.

One of the tombs Kha began work on was that of Akenaten, son of Amenhotep III. But that tomb was never finished because of Akenaten’s attempted religious reform and the building of the imperial city of Amarna.

Meryt was the ‘Lady of the House’ — an ancient Egyptian housewife. She would bake the bread and brew the beer made from the grain given to them as their payment (Egypt had no money as yet) and raise their three children.

I could go on. All sorts of details about daily life and the lives of Kha and Meryt. Fletcher read for us ancient Egyptian love poems from potsherds found at Deir el-Medina. We learned about courtship. We learned a bit about religion beyond the giant temples. We learned about food and payment and … life. Life in ancient Egypt.

Hopefully, oh friends in the UK, you’ll have a chance to view this documentary.