Ancient Egypt is hard. There are too many dynasties. The Book of the Dead has a promising title but there is no clear plot. The cosmology, in which gods have animal heads and night-time is a naked lady and people walk on their hands in the underneath-world, seems a bit surreal.
It’s not just because I’m slow, either. Herodotus had similar trouble penetrating the Egyptian mindset and used up plenty of papyrus ranting about their whacky customs.
The Egyptians in agreement with their climate, which is unlike any other, and with the river, which shows a nature different from all other rivers, established for themselves manners and customs in a way opposite to other men in almost all matters: for among them the women frequent the market and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave; and whereas others weave pushing the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards: the men carry their burdens upon their heads and the women upon their shoulders: the women make water standing up and the men crouching down: they ease themselves in their houses and they eat without in the streets, alleging as reason for this that it is right to do secretly the things that are unseemly though necessary, but those which are not unseemly, in public: no woman is a minister either of male or female divinity, but men of all, both male and female: to support their parents the sons are in no way compelled, if they do not desire to do so, but the daughters are forced to do so, be they never so unwilling. (Histories, Book II, 35)
And yet the whole thing is also irresistible. The animal worship, the picture-language, the animal statues, the mummies, the COSTUMES…Wonderful! Everything about Ancient Egypt attracts me as bathers in the Nile attract crocodiles.
Lucky for me, then, that Turin has one of the world’s oldest and best Egyptian museums. I’ve visited the Museo Egizio on Via Accademia delle Scienze three times, and every time I notice something different, intriguing and bizarre. And every time I get exhausted before I’ve even gone halfway through, which makes me think that next time I should start from the end.
In a lot of ways, the museum’s history matches the history of modern Egyptology, which began with the French campaign in Egypt 1798-1799. Although that little adventure didn’t turn out so great for Napoleon, it did lead to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. No sooner had the French soldier Pierre-Francois Bouchard stubbed his toe on that big chunk of granodiorite, than scholars all over Europe were salivating at the chance to finally unlock the mysteries of the Pharoahs. When France lost control of Egypt with the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, then, the British were careful to take the Rosetta Stone back home with them. From that time on, it has consistently been the most-requested exhibit at the British Museum.
But how did Turin end up with its great Egyptian museum? That story begins with a ragazzo named Bernadino Drovetti (1776-1852), who was born in Barbania, 16 miles north of the city. In 1796, when Dovretti was a student at the University of Turin, Napoleon conquered the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Now a French citizen, Dovretti joined the Grand Armee and by 1801 he was War Minister in Piedmont. In 1803, Napoleon sent him to Egypt as a Commissioner for Foreign Relations and he spent the best part of the next three decades working as a diplomat there. At the same time, he was bitten by the Egyptology Bug and started fossicking around for any artefact he could get his hands on with a view to amassing a valuable collection. He was reportedly rather territorial about his looting rights and had some disputes with rival collectors, who accused him of questionable behavior, including drawing a gun on them (you can read about one of his interactions with his 6’7” rival ‘The Great Belzoni’ here). Eventually, Drovetti amassed three of the world’s greatest collections of Egyptian artefacts. Sadly, he seems to have died in a lunatic asylum in Turin (a mummy’s curse?).
In 1824, the King of Sardinia acquired Dovretti’s first collection for 400,000 lire—a massive sum. It included 5,268 pieces, including 100 statues, 170 papyri, stelae, mummies, and other items. This collection is still the basis of museum’s collection today.
The story doesn’t end there, though.
The next great character to contribute to the museum’s development was Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856-1928). The son of a respected historian (and cousin of Elsa Schiaparelli the fashion designer), Ernesto became director of the Egyptian museum in Florence in 1880, then of Turin’s Museo Egizio in 1894. From 1903 to 1920 he undertook twelve archeological expeditions in Egypt and greatly extended the museum’s collection. His most amazing discoveries were the tombs of Queen Nefertari (d. ca 1255 BC) and of the royal architect Kha.
After World War II, the political and economic situations of both Egypt and Italy meant that there were fewer digs and fewer acquisitions. In the sixties, however, Italy participated in a UNESCO campaign to salvage Nubian monuments before the construction of the Aswan dam and in recognition of this the Egyptian government gifted the Museo Egizio a whole big rock temple from Ellysia built by Pharoah Thutmosis III in the 18th Dynasty. Other gifts have included the libraries of the Egyptologists Giuseppe Botti, Celeste Rinaldi and Vito Maragioglio.
To me, one of the most memorable exhibits is “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”, a dessicated man from about 3,700 to 3,500 BC—long before the first Pharoah. Huddled up next to a basket, you can see his leathery skin and long teeth. For a long time it was believed that he was an example of ‘natural’ mummification. However, a study published just last year details evidence of his body being artificially treated with resin and other ingredients that correspond with artificial mummification.
So it seems that the objects in the Museo Egizio have only just begun to yield their secrets. As technology becomes more sophisticated, we may still make discoveries as astonishing as those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Meanwhile, I got a book from the museum bookshop that is written like a Lonely Planet guide book for time travelers: Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day, written by Donald P. Ryan, who is an archeologist and Faculty Fellow in Humanities at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. The reader prepares for a trip back to the Egypt of 1250 BC, under the reign of Ramesses II. Admittedly it is something of an ‘Ancient Egypt for Dummies’ but sometimes that is what is needed.
Well, as this post draws to a close you may have noticed that I have not gone into any detail about the actual exhibits. This is because there are too many and organizing them into any kind of story would make my head hurt. Also, I wouldn’t want to preempt your visit! As a foretaste of the kind of otherworldly experience in store for you, here is a beautiful statue of Sekhmet, goddess of healing and protector of pharaohs.