Friday, July 17, 2009

My date with King Tut

Ever so often, we country mice make the long drive up to San Francisco for cultural events. Last Friday night, I had a date with King Tut, Egypt's oldest and best ambassador, courtesy of my dear friend Janet, who treated me to my ticket for my 39th (again!) birthday.

You might think I would be intimidated, what with him being immortal and all, but then, he was only 19 when he died, mysteriously, perhaps the victim of a wicked step-mother (Nefertiti) who wanted her way in the royal court. (Tut's death is one of the world's longest unsolved crimes.) He seemed to be a daring, ambitious and extremely fortunate teenager, the kind of charmer that always catches my eye.

Bright lights, big city, to use a now well-worn phrase. Yes, it has its charm and it draws me, a different high than the primal, majestic bliss I feel in Big Sur. House-sitting for a friend, I spent many hours on Saturday morning (in the fog) in the bath-tub in her garden, and in the dark wee hours of Sunday (watching the fog roll above the sparkling lights below.) And of course, in between walking the dogs (and following those nasty urban rules about you-know-what) I bought a pair of delightful new shoes. Yay!

But back to the magical evening with the King. Since it was a date, after all, Janet and I dressed up, and giggled together as we began our tour of the tomb, listening to Omar Sharif's sonorous introduction to the riches within. Something about the City makes me impatient, so while I mused over the relics relating to Tut's immediate family in the first galleries, and enjoyed the shabti, or funerary statuary of his relatives, meant to protect them and do their chores in the afterlife, I basically made a beeline to the heart of it all: an amazing chamber filled with the golden treasures of Tut's inner tomb.

Along the way, having forgone the audio tour, I enjoyed something I always love about museums: those casual contacts with fellow exhibit fans: the funny conversations we have about whatever comes to mind as we stare at 3000 year-old-plus relics, two kids sharing headphones bickering over which direction to go, or the way older people sigh as they pause in front of a brilliantly lit case, taking in some domestic artifact with a deeper level of feeling. Then there was the museum guard who was a dead ringer for Nefertiti herself. In the darkened funeral chamber, I could have admired her tranquil face and quiet smile for a long time, too.

While the romance and power is undeniable in the main chamber "Everywhere the glint of gold" as British archeologist and explorer Howard Carter said (thank you British Empire for creating a leisure class that could re-discover the ancient world for us) what really gets me are the more prosaic objects, those that tell a subtler story: The child's chair with the reed seat base slightly indented, the golden walking sticks, the game boards, head-rests and unguent bottles. Those objects that were part of daily life, that absorbed the energy of the people around them in a more familiar way.

Now when I look at my cheap brass bangles they recall the designs of venerable Egyptian artists. I see the soft gold of my chocolate bar wrapper in a different light, imagining it to emerge from the depths of an as yet undiscovered crypt. The exhibit's use of enlarged black and white photographs from the 1922 un-veiling of the tomb are remarkable too: they give a sense of the suspense they must have felt, approaching the entrance in the Valley of the Kings, and the glorious chaos of what they found.

In the last gallery, I feel the sadness of it all. A photo of Tut's sarcophagus, with his X-rayed remains inside, revealing a human man, after all, underneath all the pomp and glory, gone. An untimely death, even one that happened 3200 years ago, still carries grief.

Then, in this last, stark gallery I hear the strains of joyous music and people laughing. We emerge to find children dancing, friends in the audience, a full bar and LIFE! This was the De Young's gift to us, their Friday evening program, this night featuring the Georges Lammam ensemble performing middle-eastern music. Rashid, a SF-style male dancer was introduced as King Tut (to the delight of the uninhibited little ones dancing below center stage) and later the lovely Shoshanna shimmied for us, dressed in a delicious pink costume that undoubtedly left many little girls (of all ages) dreaming of belly-dancing themselves.

Somehow being around death in this intimate, ancient way, left me feeling energized, alive, and more present. We are so very, very lucky to be here now, no matter what. As my friend, gifted drummer and Sufi poet Antoine Lammam says, "Short life or long life--good life."

Now, when I close my eyes at the the end of this long day, I see the golden statuary of the tomb of the tender boy king, and feel the cold of the mausoleum-like museum space at the De Young. These dark, mysterious images contrast beautifully with the golden mountains of Big Sur that live inside me too. Especially at this time of year, the north and south views from the top of the ridge, bright white sunshine on the gray - blue ocean, hills that flow down to the sea, the warmth of the earth coming up at me in waves. Magnificent death and life, in equal measure.

Don't miss it! See King Tut too, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco 'til March 28, 2010.


aengus said...

The shimmering golden grass that rolls down to the grand Pacific,does it make a sound as the wind rustles through it,if you were not there?How lucky to be alive,indeed.Aengus

Lisa G. said...

Ooooh - this is SUCH a GREAT one. I'm in awe of your writing and teaching, my beautiful, beautiful friend.

Christopher said...

I love, how in the photograph, it's hardly possibly to tell where water ends and sky begins.

Agha H Amin said...

good post