Why has ancient Egypt captured the imagination?
From the Roman Empire to Napoleon to the modern-day crowds who visited the King Tut exhibits, people can't seem to get enough. Other civilizations have come and gone. We study them in school, then promptly forget all about them.
But not Egypt, land of pyramids and mummies and golden treasures.
Over the next three months, visitors to Joslyn Art Museum can get a taste of its allure during the "To Live Forever: Egyptian Treasures From the Brooklyn Museum" exhibition, which opens Saturday.
Put together by Dr. Edward Bleiberg, curator of Egyptian, classical and ancient near Eastern art for the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibit spans thousands of years, from prehistoric times to the Roman era.
Bleiberg thinks it's Egypt's history that speaks to us. "This is one of the oldest documented places on earth," he said in a phone interview. "We can see the origins as far back as 7,000 years. It speaks to our fascination of where it all began."
Another draw is the civilization's mystery, said Toby Jurovics, Joslyn's chief curator and Holland curator of American Western Art. "It's still mysterious to us, which is something you don't have with Greece or Rome."
The exhibit's name also is a clue. "To Live Forever." The ancient Egyptians built their society around belief in an afterlife, and everything we know about them through their art, artifacts and hieroglyphic writings attests to that belief.
"It's a basic human desire," Jurovics said.
What the exhibition is designed to show visitors is how two classes of people — the nobility and the middle class — approached death and the afterlife.
When visitors enter the "To Live Forever" show, they will be met by two large stone sarcophagi. Next to grab the eye is an intricately painted sarcophagus of the Royal Prince Count of Thebes.
These are familiar iconic images that most of us identify with ancient Egypt. These also are artifacts associated with royalty or the nobility.
Things that were entombed or buried with a mummy were intended to ease the dead's way into the afterlife. They needed food, testaments to their greatness, statues or representations of themselves and those who would serve them, weapons, and games or other items to make their life after death a happy one.
What is interesting is to see how the middle class, which also aspired to a splendid afterlife, fulfilled what was needed to assure it. They followed the strict rituals for funerals and preparing for the afterlife, and they used the accepted artistic forms but on a different scale and with different materials.
Where a rich man might have a gold mummy mask, a middle class person would have a clay mask painted yellow.
A wealthy woman might have jewelry and statuettes made of gold and gems. A middle class woman would have items made out of faience (a blue glasslike substance made from sand).
"Faience to them is like plastic to our time," Bleiberg said.
Coffin costs could equal a year's salary or more, so the middle class had to make choices. "It's fascinating how similar their choices are to what we choose today," Bleiberg said.
But where we might make sacrifices to go on a vacation or buy a plasma TV, the early Egyptians poured every extra cent they saved into preparations for their deaths.
The exhibit coming to the Joslyn has plenty of exciting objects to offer visitors. They come from the incredible collection from the Brooklyn Museum. Bleiberg said the museum has about 8,000 Egyptian items, of which only about 1,600 are on permanent display.
In creating "To Live Forever," he was able to pull artifacts that haven't seen the light of day for many years. Only 13 of the items for the exhibit are usually on view at the Brookyn Museum; the rest are from the storage vaults.
Visitors to the exhibit may be in for some surprises. One is how tiny some of the objects are. Another is how full of movement and how elegant many of the stylized paintings and sculptures are.
Highlights to watch for:
» The "bird lady," a statue of a dancing woman from the Predynastic period (3650-3000 B.C.) A copy of her made an appearance on HBO's "True Blood."
» Portrait and mummy of a man named Demetrios from the Roman period (A.D. 95-100)
» A swamp scene that was part of an Old Kingdom tomb decoration, with lifelike, delicate creatures (2500-2170 B.C.)
» Two dog mummies from the Ptolemaic period (330-30 B.C.)
» Glazed faience gaming board and pieces from the New Kingdom dynasty of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 B.C.)
» The ultimate cost-saving device, a reused coffin. It first held a woman during the reign of Ramses II and was reused by another woman 200 years later.
Bleiberg said that is difficult for us to understand, but coffins were hard to come by. It probably came from a family crypt, he said, and the original mummy would have been handled respectfully.
One Omaha couple eager to see the Joslyn exhibit are Richard and Mary Hesse. They recently returned from Egypt, where they visited their son.
They quickly fell under its spell.
Before leaving, Mary Hesse said, they didn't understand why their friends kept saying how lucky they were, how they had always wanted to go to Egypt.
"Once over there, we understood," she said.
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