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ENG1WYL Story: My Life in Ancient Egypt

by Caroline Seawright
Year 1 Essay for Writing Your Life at LaTrobe University, Oct 2010.

 

My Life in Ancient Egypt

I stared intently at the image of the mummy before me, my brow slightly creased. The woman's skin had been stained a dark brown colour by the mummification process. Her once soft skin had become wrinkled, her breasts now empty and sagging. However, her dark locks were perfectly preserved and had been delicately woven into tight, elaborate braids. Her eyes were closed as if in sleep and her gaunt face was peaceful. As I leaned forward to peer at her face, I could not believe that her loved ones would have been ready for her death. Even in the land of the pharaohs, where many believe the people did little but prepare for death, death could be sudden.

Egyptologists theorised that it was a heart attack which claimed Lady Rai's life. Yet, there was no sign of it on her face; no protruding tongue peeking out from a gaping mouth, its rictus set in place after her body's last autonomic gasp for breath, like a fish out of water; no bulging, dead eyes, staring blindly; no ugly, mottled purple skin to mar her complexion. The skilful wab-priests, the embalmers, had erased from her face all signs of such a horrific death. In it I could see nothing but peace. She seemed to lie as if asleep, awaiting the resurrection which Osiris would bring, when she would once again walk along the banks of the Nile.

I shook my head silently as I wondered what Lady Rai had seen in her lifetime, when her skin was flushed with warm colour and her smooth limbs were alive with movement and energy. I saw her in my mind, fleshed out and beautiful. She looked at me with interest, one hand brushing back her braided tresses as if anticipating my inevitable barrage of questions.

"Who were you? Were you a meek, quiet and sober nursemaid? Or did you play and laugh with the young princess Ahmose-Nefertari? Did you really live? Did you love? And who loved you? Did they realise that you would be taken from them at such a young age?" My questions slowed down, "Did you feel the passage of time pressing down on you as your time came? Or were you care-free and happy until the very end?"

She seemed to smile enigmatically at me and I let her inscrutable image fade. She would give me no answers, nor would the photograph of her mummy. Twirling a lock of my fine, brown hair I pondered that which I would never truly know for certain.

The long dead do not bother me. I remember that as a child I would eagerly rush deep into the depths of the museum to find the ancient Egyptian section, pausing only to stop at the giant ceiling-to-floor pendulum as it slowly swung back and forth, measuring the inexorable passage of time. I didn't really appreciate the Egyptian antiquities, but I thought that I did.

I rushed into the room, hoping to spy the glass casing which held the mummy. I don't recall my mother being there, but she would be somewhere close behind me. I came to a sudden stop at the forest of adult legs which blocked my view of the display. Impatiently hopping from foot to foot, my mother's omnipotent presence was all that restrained me from pushing through to the front of the queue. The legs and bodies of numerous tall adults blocked my path and my glimpse of the mummy. I looked up at the adults in my way, fervently wishing that they would be anywhere but here. Time stretched out forever, like the slow moving pendulum, as I inched forward along with the crowd. I stepped forward between the adult bodies and spied the colourfully decorated coffin. It was there for moment, before being swallowed up by arms, legs and clothing. Another step, then another inched me towards the case. Then I was there!

I thrust my face up against the glass and gazed into Tjeby's coffin, my fingers leaving smeared marks on the polished casing. Confident in my youthful belief that my mother would keep me safe, I showed my lack of fear by ducking and squeezing as close to the head of the mummy as possible. I looked straight at the elegantly bandaged linen which hid the body of an Egyptian man. His face, indicated only by his funerary mask, seemed awkwardly tilted to his left. The placard said that his head was turned so that his spirit could gaze at the world through a pair of painted eyes decorating the outside of his sarcophagus. I squatted down to look into the painted eyes and imagined the man looking back at me. Adults came and went behind me, having to look over my head as I stubbornly stuck to my place by the coffin.

There was nothing to fear as I touched the smooth, cold glass barrier between myself and the mummy. Yet I would glance up now and again to make sure that my mum was still there. I was safe. It was when my mother told me that we had to go, and I saw her start to leave the room that I jumped. My young heart pumped with fear and exhilaration as I wrenched myself away from the ancient Egyptian and ran out of the exhibit. She wouldn't leave me alone with a dead man! Yet I ran, my hair flying, to her side.

It was during my first at year high school that I fell in love for the first time. I met my first, true love during history class. I did not notice at first, my head bent over my history book. My eyes glued to the pages, I soaked up the mythology and history of the mysterious land of ancient Egypt.

The photographs accompanying the text conjured moving images in my mind. The peaceful, blue waters of the Nile flashed golden in the sun as it flowed between the tenacious ribbons of green plant-life which clung to its banks. Constantly threatened by the red desert, the struggle between life and death in ancient times presented itself in that long, thin, green stretch of plant-life growing on the small amount of fertile black soil which had been supplied by the river. The flood-plain teemed with life, with birds and fish, hippopotami and crocodiles. I learned that Egypt was a place filled with a dark haired, tanned people whose entire existence was focused on dying. Their clothing was pure white, a pale and pallid reminder of death in a land brimming with life and colour. They built grand mortuary monuments and worshipped the gods at majestic temples in solemnity amidst the living beauty of the land.

I had fallen head over heels for ancient Egypt.

Amelia, my insistent blonde friend who had forgotten her history book, nudged me out of my reverie and whispered fiercely, "We're on the next page!"

"Sorry," I murmured, jogged out of my daydream, and quickly turned to the correct page.

"What's up with you? I thought you liked this stuff."

Wanting to divert attention from my newfound passion, I tipped back my chair to a dangerously jaunty angle, steadying myself with a foot hooked on the table leg, and whispered, "I do, but the teacher's boooooring!"

She giggled quietly, and I thumped the chair down. The teacher merely paused in his droning to glare at us disapprovingly before everyone refocused on the textbook.

My imagination had only begun to take flight when the unit of Egyptian study concluded. Resentment filled me, for it took me away from my beloved ancient Egypt, as I was forced to look at other cultures. Despite this, I still would wickedly sneak peeks of exotic Egypt in my book, when I should have been looking at ancient Greece or Rome. My eyes brazenly sought out the place I loved while my teacher droned on about what seemed to be such lifeless, boring and staid cultures. I would ignore Amelia as she rolled her eyes pointedly at me, and drift back into my Egyptian musings. My heart was with the pharaohs and queens of a truly ancient civilisation.

It was years later, during my first years at Monash University, that my intellectual interest in ancient Egypt grew and expanded. No longer did I take trips to the museum, but instead my trips to the library and bookshops became more frequent. Aside from my computer studies, I set my own goal: to share ancient Egypt with the online world. The internet was new and exciting and I was brimming with ideas on how to apply web page technology to my objective. Saturdays were spent on the family computer, with multiple books on ancient Egypt surrounding me, as I worked on my Egyptology website.

I realised an important truth about the Egyptian people. They were not a people who whose entire lives revolved around death; instead, they gloried in life. Death was simply rebirth into a better, new life. After a successful judgement, parts of the sound would be rejoined in the creation of the radiant akhu, the immortal intellect, so that the deceased may live once more. Their living family and friends would visit them, remember them and bring them offerings. Life would continue, and the bright, new soul could be reborn and may even re-inhabit its earthly mummy on the day of Osiris' return.

As I worked, dad would look over from his PC occasionally. Eventually he asked, "What're you working on?"

Assimilating the sparse information I'd been reading on the ancient Egyptian's concept of the soul, I pondered for a moment, wondering how to sum it up.

"Ankh ankh an mit-k. 'Live life, not shalt thou die,'"¹ I nodded slightly as I gave my eventual reply.

"What?"

"I'm writing about what the Egyptians believed. That's basically it. Life should be lived as if you'd never die." I paused for a moment, before continuing, "And even when they did die, their life continued on in the Land of the West."

"Oh. Well, don't be too long - mum said that dinner's almost ready."

Death was not really a subject to be dwelt upon. More immediate things, such as avoiding my mother's wrath should we be late, were of greater importance. My new understanding of the ancient people of Egypt was something that my family could never truly comprehend. My heart told me, however, that it had to be shared. After dinner that night, my knowledge was published on the internet for an anonymous public. A slow trickle of e-mails appeared in my inbox: thanking me, encouraging me, asking questions and spurring me on to write more. These messages gave names to a nameless audience, giving me a connection which my family did not share.

Almost a decade later, at the same age Lady Rai died of her heart attack, I returned to university. My love of the ancient Egyptian people led me to do something for myself; I decided to follow the maxim 'live life, not shalt thou die'. I left behind a life of living from payday to payday; I submitted my application to enter the Bachelor of Archaeology at La Trobe University. The following day, I received a phone call advising me that I had been accepted into the Archaeology programme.

I jumped up from my desk, and bounced around the office, squealing, "I got in! I got in!"

After my initial exuberance waned slightly, I sat down at my desk, excitement bubbling just below the surface, and eagerly composed a short e-mail to share the good news.

I got in to the Bachelor of Archaeology!!! I'm thrilled!"

I was too eager to do any work. Instead I watched my inbox. The first reply was from my dad, and later I received one of mum's rare yet characteristically pragmatic e-mails. Both replies were practically instantaneous.

> Hey................ Bachelor - Congratulations !!! That's fantastic news!!!
> Any more details? Love Dad.

Hey dad, yes - thank you! It is at LaTrobe University at Bundoora. Far away,
but it has the right degree. :) Love, Caroline.

> Hello love, Congratulations! It is great news you have got a place at
> Latrobe, even though it is further away. Train and bus should be fine
> to get there, but just give yourself plenty of time, just in case you
> have a wait between the two things. Anyway, just do your best and put
> lots of effort and energy into this, so you get good results. Love, Mum.

Hi Mum, Thank you very much. I will! And don't worry, I will give myself
plenty of time. Love, Caroline.

Other e-mails followed, but my family finally had real proof of the importance of ancient Egypt in my life. I had started to follow my dream; I was turning my love of ancient Egypt into something tangible.

I looked once more at Lady Rai's image, before putting it away. I will never know what she was like but through archaeological interpretation I can begin to understand how she might have lived. I can learn about her world, and in so doing, maybe learn a little more about myself.

¹ Budge, E.A.W. 1967, The Book of the Dead: (The Papyrus of Ani) Egyptian Text Transliteration and Translation, Dover Publications, Mineola, p. lvii

Seawright, C , My Life in Ancient Egypt, Short Story, <http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/ kunoichi/themestream/ ancientegypt.html>.


© Caroline 'Kunoichi' Seawright 2010 - present

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