It took 3,000 years to build and overturn one of the largest empires of the Ancient world.
Today, you can walk through the rise and fall of the Egyptian empire in just a few hours.A towering red granodiorite rock statue once stood at the entrance of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple in the sprawling hills of the Theban Necropolis. It was 1300 BC and the New Kingdom Pharaoh’s funerary complex was the largest the city had ever seen. Now this piece of masonry marks the start of my journey through one of the world’s most extraordinary ancient civilisations.
Looking through the Egyptian hall at London’s British Museum my eye catches intricately engraved pylons, sarcophagi and grand statues of past Pharaohs.
In the centre of this room lies one of the museum’s most popular artefacts – the Rosetta stone. Once you push past the crowd with their noses pressed to the glass casing it’s quite a sight. The stone features three versions of a decree issued just before the fall of Egypt written in hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek script. For an Egyptian history buff like myself it’s insanely exciting – because of this stone the scholar Jean-François Champollion was finally able to decipher hieroglyphics, and decode what’s written on the walls of tombs and temples across the country.
I’ve always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt. So much so I would take night classes at university to learn to read hieroglyphics. In high school I took on an honours project to learn more about temple symbolism, eventually teaching some of the younger years (nerd alert). For years my hopes were set on visiting European museums housing some of the ancient artefacts and the pyramids, temples and tombs along the Nile while being able to read what was carved on their walls. Now, that adventure is just a few months away so prepare your Instagram feeds.
Needless to say, The British Museum – which boasts the largest collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts outside Egypt itself – was a highlight of my visit to London.
This exhibit takes at least an hour to fully explore. If you want to check out the other periods (which I highly recommend) give yourself at least half a day here. Admission is free so you can return any time.
The downstairs hall takes visitors on an historical and architectural journey from the Old Kingdom – when the pyramids and sphinx were constructed – through the empire’s intermediate periods of unrest to the grandiose, flourishing New Kingdom. Pieces of mortuary temples are displayed and their meaning explained – from false doors which symbolised the threshold between the world of the living and dead world to statues of Pharaohs’ represented as Osiris – the God of the Afterlife.
Hundreds of tourists armed with cameras and selfie sticks pour through the gallery, marvelling at some of the ambitious building projects of the New Kingdom and chunks of stone covered in religious and royal inscriptions. The significance and meaning of most items are explained and scientific methods used to investigate the material and age of some described.
A constant circle of people surrounds a large sarcophagus which was once home to the body of Nectanebo II – the empire’s last native ruler. Two towering obelisks, lay behind this impressive piece of stone work, leading visitors to the largest surviving representation of a scarab beetle. These were central to ancient Egyptian religion as it was believed the sun god assumed the form of the beetle, hatching and renewing his powers each sunrise.
Moving upstairs visitors wander among depictions of everyday life along the Nile and paintings from Nebamun’s tomb-chapel showing idyllic gardens of the afterlife. The most popular and fascinating part of this exhibit are the mummies. These ancient remains of past Pharoahs, noblemen and priests are fantastically preserved, still showing intricate hieroglyphics and bold colours.
The British museum is the most popular visitor attraction in the UK with more than six million people filing through its doors each year. The packed exhibit is a testament to the fascination still held to ancient cultures however it’s a different picture in Egypt itself.
The tourism industry there is waning. Once packed Pyramids and pesky crowds trying to get the perfect picture of the Sphinx are choosing to holiday elsewhere. Between 2015 – 2016 tourism across the country fell by almost 42 percent. The threat of terrorism and kidnapping is of course one reason for the decline, with Australia’s Smarttraveller website advising tourists to “reconsider” their need to travel to the region. But perhaps it isn’t all grim. Attractions like The British Museum allow the masses to step back in time without the risk which comes with travelling to some of the historically and culturally rich Middle Eastern nations. And as the intrigue with the objects on display show, our interest isn’t going away any time soon.