The great Greek historian Herodotus was the first in a long line of Westerners to succumb to a case of love big-time for things Egyptian. When he traveled there in the the late fifth century B.C., Egypt already was many thousands of years old--a stunning 17,000 years old, according to the Egyptians themselves. Herodotus was duly impressed; after all, the Greeks could claim only a few hundred years of history as an identifiable people, and that was stretching it.
More accurately, he was smitten with Egypt and remained so. In his magnificent compendium of all he learned about the Ancient World known as The Histories, Herodotus--"the father of history," as Cicero was first to dub him--promised he would devote much time to describing Egypt and its traditions.
Egypt's religious practices and the depth to which they permeated all things Egyptian fascinated him. So did the country's many monuments--the great pyramids already were 2,000 years old when he first glimpsed them--and Herodotus wrote fondly of the "works greater than speech can tell" that he saw all around him on his travels along the Nile.
Nineteenth-century European and American archaeologists shared Herodotus' passion for Ancient Egypt. They excavated its ruins with a tremendous enthusiasm derived from a belief that they were uncovering Europe's own earliest origins. Not only did they find countless treasures, they also managed to learn to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, something no one had been able to do for 2,500 years.
This delight in things Egyptian has not waned. Mid 20th-century moviegoers poured into theaters to watch Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, with its lavish re-creation of the Egypt of 3,000 or more years back in time. And a quarter-century ago, 835,000 museumgoers poured into Washington's National Gallery of Art to gush and sometimes swoon over the legendary blockbuster show, "Treasures of Tutankhamun," an exhibition that traveled to six other U.S. cities.
Now there is another major Egyptian show at the National Gallery. "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt" presents 107 items, including many that have never before left Egypt. The earliest date from 2300 B.C.; the most recent from 320 B.C., 2,000 years later. Most were done in the period between 1500 and 1300 B.C.
The objects (each of which deal in some way with Egyptian attitudes toward dying, the afterlife and rebirth) range in size from a colossal head of Ramses II--more than 7 feet tall--to tiny representations of gods Amun and Ptah, less than two inches high. The craftsmanship of the items chosen for this exhibition is always good, and often exquisite. Ancient Egyptian artists are nameless--as were most everyone except the pharaoh and his (or her) immediate associates. Yet these talented craftsmen lavished impressive care on these works, most of which were made to be locked up in the pharaoh's (or another highly placed individual's) tomb after death, to be used in the afterlife.
That these objects were locked up and largely immune to what time can do saved them for us to see, however, if not to comprehend completely. Much of the art strikes us as strange: The frozen, passive and unindividualized faces on statues, the frequent half-human/half-animal figures such as the sphinxes and the hyperstylized gestures of human figures on wall paintings and in bas-reliefs are all from a world very different from our own. …