Monday, October 5, 2015

My mummies: first, last, and in-between

So, as I have said many times and places, my childhood home away from home was the Quincy Public Library, which looked like a castle; the children's reading room was in a tower. I was the Queen of Reading.

I checked out three particular books so often the librarian called my mother; they reached an agreement: Michalea can check out these books once a month. She cannot renew them. What were the three books? Great Queens of History, Cleopatra of Egypt, and a book of mythology. Right then and there, I was hooked on Egypt. At the time, I didn't know Cleopatra wasn't a REAL Egyptian.

During my formative years, my Egyptian and mummy experiences were limited. I kept a spiral notebook of clippings and sayings about Egypt. One notable entry was a bit of dialog from the old Dick Van Dyke show where Dick played Mark Antony and Mary Tyler Moore played Cleopatra at the community theater of New Rochelle. It was all pretty mundane, but I was dedicated.

In my tenth year, that all changed. I spent the entire summer with my aunt in Chicago, who made it her mission in life to introduce me to museums and culture in general, but most specifically, the Field Museum. Deep in the basement of the Field Museum were the mummies. I'd heard about mummies, but seeing the small mummy of a child  (shown beside this paragraph) was profound experience for me. Of course, there were several other mummies at the museum, all mysterious and beautiful.

No doubt this picture from 1870 ofselling mummies in Luxor is how so many mummies came to be in the Field Museum.

Seeing the mummies opened the door to questions about immortality and my place in the history of the world. It also was my first real introduction to Egypt beyond Cleopatra. On Fridays, my aunt let me choose where I wanted to go, and I visited the mummy section many, many times. It was the site of my first vow to visit Egypt.

Fast forward to 1977 when I, along with 1.3 million Americans saw the Treasures of Tutankamun in a touring exhibit in the US. Naturally, I saw it at the Field Museum, my old childhood stomping grounds. It was a special treat for me, because my husband served on the Illinois Arts Council, and I was able to go on an after hours visit with about 20 other people and an Egyptologist from the University of Chicago. The exhibit was set up to mimic a tomb, the lighting was shadowy and mysterious. It was marvelous, and afterwards I made my way to the basement to pay my respects to my childhood mummy and renew my vow to visit Egypt.

In 2006, I actually made it to Egypt, and one of  the places I visited was the Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo where I saw the mummy of Ramses the Great. It was thrilling, because I had followed the news of his visit to Paris, traveling on an Egyptian passport and receiving a 21-gun salute.

When I went back to Egypt, they had just discovered the mummy of Hatsheput, so I visited the Mummy Room again to see her before visiting her mortuary temple.

Since then, my life has been relatively mummy-free, unless you count research on the mummification of Osiris for my novel, Queen of Heka, until the Labor Day holiday here in the U.S. My daughter came to visit from Texas, and we took the train to Chicago for a couple of days of culture. We visited the Field Museum.

Since my first visit, the museum built a three-story recreation of a mastaba,  featuring two authentic rooms from the 5,000-year-old tomb of pharaoh’s son Unis-Ankh. You enter the top-level, and when you exit at the lower level, you are near the mummy exhibit, which in many ways, hasn't changed that much since I was 10. It was like meeting an old friend.