The Johns Hopkins Gazette: June 24, 2002
June 24, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 38


Field Guide to the Afterlife

Hopkins Egypt expert curates major museum show opening in D.C.

By Amy Cowles

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Ancient Egypt was just a mouse-click away from Johns Hopkins in January when the daily progress of the Near Eastern Studies Department's annual dig was posted online. Six months later, Egypt is as close as Washington, D.C., thanks to the department's chair, Betsy Bryan, who is part of an international team bringing a new exhibit of artifacts to the National Gallery of Art.

Betsy Bryan, seen here with the university's archaeological collection that's housed in Gilman Hall at Homewood, selected 115 artifacts to illuminate 'The Quest for Immortality.'

Bryan is the curator of The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, the largest selection of antiquities ever loaned by the Egyptian government for exhibition in North America. Bigger than the blockbuster Tutankhamun exhibit of Egyptian artifacts that toured the United States and drew mammoth crowds in the 1970s, the new exhibit of approximately 115 artifacts debuts at the National Gallery on Sunday, June 30. It will be there through Oct. 14, when it embarks on a five-year tour of the United States and Canada, including stops at the Boston Museum of Science, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Museum of Arts in Houston.

Different from previous exhibits of artifacts loaned by Egypt, The Quest for Immortality focuses on the Egyptians' persistent efforts to reach the afterlife. It includes objects that have never been on public display and many that have never left Egypt. Bryan hopes the funerary artifacts and the stories behind them will demystify this ancient culture.

"Most people's reaction to Egyptian culture is, 'Isn't that strange?' And they're right, it is," Bryan says. "But my intention as a teacher is to show that the ancient Egyptians were human beings just like us. This exhibit is a great opportunity to do that."

Preparations for the exhibit began a year ago when Bryan was asked to advise the National Gallery about an exhibit conceived by Erik Hornung, a Swiss Egyptologist who was working with United Exhibits Group in Denmark. The group presented the idea to the National Gallery of Art, where officials were very excited about the concept, Bryan says. Soon Bryan and two members of the National Gallery staff were traveling to Egypt to select pieces from collections at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Luxor Museum and sites near Tanis and Deir el-Bahari for the display.

Bryan's involvement with The Quest for Immortality led to the participation of her graduate students and Homewood photographer Jay VanRensselaer. As the result of a seminar last fall, the students, most of whom participated in the winter dig at the Temple of Karnak, contributed object entries for the 256-page catalog edited by Bryan and Hornung to accompany the exhibit. The catalog, with essays by Bryan and Hornung, also features photos by VanRensselaer, who has photographed the annual departmental dig for several years. This year, he contributed to The Quest for Immortality by spending part of his time in Egypt shooting a number of the artifacts. Some 30 images, which Bryan considers "stunning," appear in the catalog.

Every winter, Betsy Bryan, center, leads an archaeological dig at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor Egypt. Two of the students who joined her in 2002 were Fatma Ismail, left, and Scott Rufolo.

Elaine Sullivan, Elizabeth Waraksa, Yasmin El Shazly and Fatma Ismail wrote entries for the catalog, Tammy Krygier prepared the catalog's index and glossary, and Kathlyn Cooney wrote a promotional brochure and descriptive wall texts for the exhibit.

"Preparing this [written material] was an invaluable experience for them," Bryan says.

The highlight of the exhibit is a life-sized replica of the burial chamber of New Kingdom pharaoh Thutmose III, who ruled Egypt in the 15th century B.C. The original chamber is found in the Valley of the Kings. Like the original, the facsimile at the National Gallery features walls that are covered in hieroglyphics depicting the first-known complete copy of the Amduat, an illustrated funerary text that pharaohs used as their guidebook to the afterlife. The room was created in layers of plaster and pigment based on laser-scanned transparencies of the original chamber.

"The finished product is so close to the actual site that I was just blown away," Bryan says. "I know it so well, and this is exactly what it looks like, the cracks and everything."

Other smaller Egyptian exhibits have been on display in the United States, including artifacts from Ramses II in the mid-1980s and two Tutankhamun exhibits, both of which were at the National Gallery. The first, Tutankhamun Treasures in 1961, featured 34 small objects; the second, Treasures of Tutankhamun, included 55 objects and drew more than 835,000 visitors during 1976-77. Besides more than doubling the number of artifacts previously displayed, the new exhibit will delve deeply into their meanings and uses.

"What this show is doing is trying to explain the objects, shedding light on Egyptian afterlife beliefs," Bryan says. "We're trying to explain what they thought would happen to them."

M. Nabil Fahmy, ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United States, says, "Egypt is proud of its rich heritage and feels duty-bound to share it with the world at large. The Quest for Immortality is a fascinating and vivid exhibition that will leave long-standing impressions and have an invaluable contribution to better cultural understanding between Americans and Egyptians."

On July 3, Bryan and Fahmy will be guests on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm Show, which will be broadcast live from 11 a.m. to noon by WAMU in Washington, D.C., and heard locally on WYPR. Bryan will present a lecture based on the exhibit from 2 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, in the large auditorium of the gallery's East Building.

For general information about The Quest for Immortality, call the National Gallery of Art at 202-737-4215 or go to

'Quest for Immortality'

From the earliest times, Egyptians denied the physical impermanence of life. They formulated a remarkably complex set of religious beliefs and funneled vast material resources into assuring safe passage to the afterlife.

The Quest for Immortality, the exhibition at the National Gallery curated by Betsy Bryan of Johns Hopkins, focuses on the understanding of the afterlife among Egyptians some 3,000 years ago, in the period of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.) through the Late Period (664-332 B.C.). The New Kingdom marked the beginning of an era of great wealth, power and stability for Egypt and was accompanied by a burst of cultural activity, much of which was devoted to the quest for eternal life. All the funerary objects on display were used by the ancient Egyptians to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife.

"It's a concept you see in many modern Western religions: You could attain the afterlife only if you earned it," Bryan says.

Besides writing elaborate books of magical spells to help them navigate the next world, the pharaohs packed tombs with objects that would protect them in the afterlife and also everyday things they might need if they were granted immortality. Covered in intricate carvings or paintings, many items in the exhibit are opulent, but they were also functional, providing power over potential enemies in the afterlife, Bryan says. "They were looking for an edge, just in case something might go wrong in the afterlife."

One large artifact on display is the boat from the tomb of Amenhotep II, an 8-foot wooden model of a pharaoh's river ship that sailed on the Nile, painted with scenes of the god Montu smiting the enemies of Egypt. It's the main feature of the first of six rooms in the exhibit. Each area depicts the tombs of various social classes, and the tombs' contents reflect their owners. The Royal Tomb includes a gilded ebony chair that belonged to a princess, while the Tombs of the Nobles have simpler amenities, such as a wooden bed and a rattan stool.

"There is a variety of things they would take with them in the tombs," Bryan says. "Once you had 'made it' to the afterlife, the idea was that it would look like Egypt, but no one would have to work and, of course, there would be no mosquitoes."

Work would be avoided thanks to ushebti, little figurines that could be made to do work under the influence of the correct spell. "The ancient Egyptians were incredibly practical people, they really were," Bryan says. "They left nothing to chance."

--Amy Cowles