HERODOTUS, the world’s first historian and travel writer, was so impressed by the antiquity of Egypt he attributed to it the seeds of his own culture. And so, ever since the Ancient Greeks caught on, the allure of Egypt has not gone out of fashion. The Romans too, always followers of Greece’s fancies, were romanced by Egypt’s wealth, so much so the Cleopatra VII Philopator, the last Hellenic ruler of Egypt became the source of a power struggle that transformed the Roman political system. In early Christian times, Alexandrina was famous as the location of the epitome of libraries and the centre of higher learning, well, at least until the Christians cottoned on.
The footprints and chariot tracks of generations can still be traced across the sand seas back to their long-abandoned camps at the foot of the pyramids. Countless Bedouin and Tuareg clans, Greek hoplites, Roman legions, Napoleonic imperialists and ANZACS marvelled and moved on, their squabbles breaking like tides against an immensity of time.
Tourists and traders, academics and adventurers and of course, writers have looked for inspiration amongst the camel dung fires of Bedouins, or along the banks of the sinuous Nile. In cool temples in the hush of midday, or in the face of the Sphinx in the morning, they come to hear the dead. And I am not immune. Egypt calls to me too and while one day I will make it there in person, I must be content with the remnants of Egypt in Australia.
As a child, my favourite place was the magnificently decorated Egyptian room at the Adelaide Museum. Its high (vaulted?) ceiling, its hushed atmosphere and location in a quiet corner of a respectable and wonderfully dependable institution, opened in me a paradox of longing and satisfaction. It was to reawaken these feelings that I visited the Melbourne Museum to take in their exhibition Mummies: Ancient Egypt and the Afterlife a few years ago.
Perhaps the most touching were the heart-felt pleas of the personal prayer-magic scarabs. The words of a mourning father for his deceased daughter rang as true and as loving as any eulogy. The overwhelming impression was not one not of death, or horror, although there were plenty of artefacts to thrill and appal, rather, it was a sense of familial devotion. Those relics are love-tokens.
Other items, too, were redolent of a richer world than the deserts of imagination. Ancient jewellery revealed Egypt in its original vibrancy: gold and carnelian amulets, the unique green of the faience, amethyst seals set in glowing rings. No longer the hue of sun-bleached sand or blackened linen, Egypt was alive with colour.
The exhibition has moved on, and the darkened yet somehow clinical alcove of the Melbourne Art Gallery is the home of the miscellany of Ancient Egypt in Melbourne. Those craving a piece of Egypt for their own can perhaps find a fragment in some specialist antique store for as little as $80. Yet the colour and vibrancy are perhaps better evoked in my three dollar trinket bought in a suburban shopping centre vendor. On my desk sits this smudged glass dome on a mock gold base, supporting a figure of a goddess, arms and wings outstretched in the glitter that floats around her. It is in every way a travesty to a mighty civilisation spanning thousands of years and of lasting achievements, and yet, and yet. It says everything about what humans long for: echoes of eternity and a glimpse, of something grand and illuminating, even in the mundane and kitsch the other side of the world. Wordsworth would have written lines on the imitations of eternity upon seeing this. So I wonder, could any of our civilisation’s achievements hope to last as long as the pyramids, or speak to us as this trinket does? Perhaps one day, a thousand years from now, this rubbishy bauble, broken and bent, will be unearthed and pieced together by some future Howard Carter, and even as an tiny reverberation, Egypt will again captivate from afar. And humans will get it almost entirely wrong, again, just like Herodotus.