The 1970’s exhibition featuring the jaw-dropping wonders from the tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamun took the United States by storm, as anyone sentient in the latter half of that bell-bottomed decade would well remember.
The six-city tour exploded on the American zeitgeist, a master work of promotion that captured public imagination, ushered in “the era of the blockbuster museum exhibition” and of course inspired the unforgettable, eponymous Steve Martin ditty (“…born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, King Tut … funky Tut…”).
Serendipity recently plunked me into the middle of the Golden Pharaoh’s treasures at the Saatchi Gallery in London, where the boy king’s funereal finery is on display again amid another big tour, this one hitting ten global cities.
The experience is both strangely nostalgic – although I never actually saw the 70’s US show – and, as when encountering any wonder of our world, be it manmade or natural, a bit overwhelming. To behold the scale and artistry of the legendary 3000+ year-old gilded find is simply staggering: more than 150 treasures from the tomb in all, including sixty items – jewelry, chariots, statues of soldiers and animals, furniture, decorative arts, chalices, sarcophagus, etc. – that have never left Egypt.
To this day, Tut’s tomb is considered the most incredible archeological discovery ever, the accidental product of a water boy rooting around the site under excavation by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in November 1922.
Tut 2.0, three times the size of previous exhibitions, is reportedly one of the most successful shows of all time in Paris, where more than 1.4 million people queued up to see the tomb’s accoutrements. The exhibition was similarly well received on its last stop in Los Angeles, breaking records at the California Science Center.
Beyond the novelty of taking in such a delightful spectacle, it is hard to come away from the collection without concluding that the display of death itself is part of its magical allure. And therein lies a fascinating disconnect.
It is fair to say that LA and Paris are pretty secular places. Let me fine tune that: from a demographic standpoint, the kind of people who might attend a not inexpensive exhibition like King Tut in those cities could be assumed to be well-educated urban types and not what survey data would suggest are “actively religious.”
What does religion have to do with any of this?
Well, Tut is itself very much about religion, faith, life … the afterlife. It is impossible to digest the magnificence of the tomb’s wonders without an appreciation that all that stuff was actually meant to accompany him into the hereafter. The tomb was fortified with 5000 items he and his court – some of the most sophisticated people walking the Earth at that time – assumed would be good to have at the next level, which they believed was a combination of the world they knew and a scary, psychedelic wilderness.
It is easy to smile condescendingly at the ancient Egyptians for loading up their 19-year-old king with model boats, beds and food for his journey into the oblivion, but when it comes down to it, we actually don’t know much more about what happens after we croak than they did.
Could it be that a subliminal fascination with human mortality is harbored by the legions of Tut-goers? After all, what thinking person hasn’t at some point contemplated what, if anything, might lie beyond the dust we are all to become?
Perhaps that’s a question worth considering. If a morbid – albeit glittering – exhibition like Tut can draw record crowds, then why – outside a few increasingly narrow religious lanes and perhaps Kanye West – do we so rarely see or hear anyone in our culture talking seriously about what comes next after we cash it all in?
In the West – namely places like LA, Paris and London – organized religion is having a down season, to be sure. Through self-inflicted wounds and the challenge of getting anyone to sit still while not looking at a phone, many religious institutions are struggling to remain relevant. In the formerly Catholic nation of France the Church is smoldering, like the tragic embers of Notre Dame Cathedral itself. A recent Pew study showed 54 percent of French people regard themselves as Christian, 5.6 % as Muslim and 40 percent claimed no religion at all. Only five percent of French Christians regularly attend weekly church service.
Young people, in particular, are fading fast from the practice of any kind of organized faith. Church attendance alone, of course, is no surefire exemplar of the depths of one’s contemplation of spiritual matters and what may await us after death, but it is one of the few metrics we’ve got. Another is the decline in the study of religion and philosophy and the humanities in general in universities (Yale awarded just four religious studies degrees in 2017).
Some religious communities have gained popularity by focusing on living a good life, doing well by your family and friends and prioritizing your professional pursuits. Concepts like “mindfulness” and the practice of meditation and even yoga can perhaps bring people closer to the edge of the unknown.
But the big ticket item for faith is the belief that each human being has a soul with the potential for some kind of next act beyond Earth’s mortal coils. Until not long ago, humans were obsessed with the afterlife and its connection to our flesh and blood – what the Roman Catholic liturgy calls the Mysterium Fidei or “sacred mysteries.”
As the new decade dawns, it would be sad indeed if these mysteries were forever relegated to a museum exhibition.