Ancient Egypt and the Fourth of July

We’ve had a rare and wonderful couple of days around the Case complex. Rare, because I haven’t written a word in the past two days. Wonderful, because Sharon and I did something today we’d been talking about for months—we went to see the World of the Pharaohs exhibit at the Arkansas Arts Center. It was either today or wait until Mr. Peabody fixes the WABAC machine, since today marked the closing day of the exhibit. We’ve been talking about going ever since the exhibit opened last September. At least we didn’t wait until the last minute. There were approximately 343 minutes left before closing when we arrived.

I wish I could share my pictures with you, but unfortunately no photography was permitted in the exhibition hall. Dozens of stern-looking men and women watched every move we made, lest someone whip out an iPhone and take an illicit picture of a rare artifact rather than buying a postcard from the Egyptian tchochke section of the gift shop.

To me, it’s always interesting to explore a culture different from my own.  Not everyone agrees with me, I’m sure. Take the folks who travel to foreign lands are get upset because the people there don’t speak American English. If you want to be surrounded by people just like you, why not stay home and give the more adventurous a little elbow room?

If there’s one thing I wish I had a picture of, it’s a sign that appeared near the exit of the final room of the exhibit, the room with the mummies and sarcophagi. They wisely put that room at the end of the exhibit so all the kids being forced by Mom and Dad to broaden their historical acumen had something to look forward to that kept them focused (sort of). The sign touched on a point of controversy that’s been discussed repeatedly over the years: By displaying these sarcophagi and the linen-wrapped human remains found therein, are we disturbing and/or disrespecting the dead?

I’ve found myself thinking about that question for the past several hours, long after leaving the exhibit. I’m far from an expert on the religion of ancient Egypt, but I know they believed in an afterlife.  I believe in an afterlife too, though not at all the same kind of afterlife they did. I think, however, that the ancient Egyptians wanted the same thing most of us want: to be remembered. I can think of no situation sadder than a life ending and nobody wanting to remember that life,  or mourn, or grieve their loss.

Therein is a thread that connects us all, regardless of our religious belief (or lack thereof): we want to be remembered after we die.  Any honest author will admit that they dream of writing something so powerful that it continues to speak for generations after they’re gone. Medical researchers dream of discovering the cure to some fatal disease and having that cure bear their name long after they’ve breathed their last. Even the steelworkers who erect our modern skyscrapers take pride in knowing that over which they’ve labored will outlive them.

The sign called attention to an inscription on the wall of the room where the actual remains were displayed. It was a blessing that called on their gods to bless those individuals whose mummified remains I had just viewed—a blessing that listed the name of every individual whose remains we’d seen.  I could not recite that blessing without violating my own belief that I should not pray to false gods or idols, but I respected that blessing. As long as the names of those people are spoken and respected, they have the kind of afterlife they craved, an afterlife in which they are not forgotten.

In processing all this, it’s occurred to me that just yesterday we celebrated the day when America declared its independence, a day that began the first of many wars fought to achieve and maintain the freedom most Americans take for granted. One of our most sacred freedoms is the right to choose our religious belief and affiliation. While it’s become a popular sport to look down our noses and badmouth people who don’t believe exactly the way we do, I think it’s important to remember that the same blood that was shed to protect my right to embrace Christianity with both hands and both feet protects the rights of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and whatever-else-ists to believe what they believe. I may respectfully disagree with what you believe, I will fight to the death to defend your right to believe it.

May we never forget the names of those whose blood has defended our right to respectfully disagree.

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