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Interview With Betsey Bryan

Aired June 30, 2002 - 11:38   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Still trying to figure out what to do this Fourth of July holiday? Well, why not go to Washington, D.C.?

Many tourists will be heading there in the next few days, particularly to check out an incredible exhibit. There is always so much to do in the nation's capital, but one exhibit in particular will certainly attract many of the visitors. It can help you understand the mystery of Egyptian pyramids. We are talking about the new pharaoh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, and it's got the largest group of antiquities ever loaned by Egypt for exhibition in North America.

And joining us now for more on the exhibit is guest curator, Betsey Bryan. She is a professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Thank you very much for giving us this sneak peek on an exhibit that begins today, right?

BETSEY BRYAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY: That is right. And thank you all very much, too.

WHITFIELD: All right. Well, where are you right now? You are going to help walk us through this pretty fascinating place.

BRYAN: Well, right now, we are standing in the facsimile of the burial chamber of one of the greatest kings of ancient Egypt, Thutmose III. And we are looking on the walls of this tomb chamber at the story of Egypt's afterlife, and the beliefs that they had about where the pharaohs and the people of Egypt were going after they died. And we are right at the beginning of a journey that you take through the underworld.

WHITFIELD: Wow! Now, what does this tell us? I mean, particularly to get this real up-close and personal view of the respect for afterlife in the Egyptian tradition, in culture.

BRYAN: Well, what we learned is that the Egyptians believed that you had to be a good person in order to achieve the afterworld; that it didn't just come from preparing and putting together treasures to take with you. And they also believed that their great god, the sun god, maintained order and faced perils on their behalf every night, and sailed through the netherworld facing obstacles, in order that he could rise as the sun each morning. So they had a very strong belief in morality and in their connections to the gods. WHITFIELD: Now, this particular exhibit is called "The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt," including 115 artifacts. Now, you are going to take us as well into the burial chamber, right?

BRYAN: Well, we are in -- yes, we are in the burial chamber now. And we were going to do a walk-around just a little bit.

WHITFIELD: Yes, let's walk around a little bit.


WHITFIELD: And you can kind of show-and-tell us what you've got.

BRYAN: And so, if we'll start here, we are looking at the walls of the burial chamber. This is the sun god in a boat beginning to descend through the underworld, and he is shown as a ram-headed man. At this point, he has just entered into the netherworld and begun his journey. And the first -- this is a journey of 12 hours of night, and the first three hours are very peaceful. You see a Nile, the river, everything is very easygoing, and they just kind of lapped (ph), go along.

But in the fourth hour, we see the sun god's boat has now turned into a snake, and that's because the water dried up, and suddenly he is faced with having to get his boat across the desert. So this is the first obstacle.

And as we move through the burial chamber, we find that at midnight, he is actually able to find his own body and rejoin it. So his soul joins his body, like the Egyptians believed that their souls would join their bodies, and he begins to be rejuvenated.

And our final moment is the 12th hour, when dawn is coming, and the sun god now turns into a scarab beetle, which was the Egyptian's symbol for the newborn sun in the morning.


BRYAN: So that's the story that you find in your burial chamber.

WHITFIELD: All right. This is not an exhibit where you can figure it all out on your own. You have got to either join in on one of the guided tours or perhaps get the headsets, don't you?

BRYAN: That's pretty true, but we do have this very well-labeled here in the burial chamber, because you're right, this is a tough one.

WHITFIELD: All right. Now, how are advanced sales going? Because this is another one of those exhibits, too, where you need to call ahead and reserve your tickets or stand in very long lines for first-come, first-serve, don't you?

BRYAN: There are certainly ticket passes. It's best to call and try and set them aside. All of the information you want is on the National Gallery of Art's Web site. And -- but there will be hours after July 6 that people can just come first-come, first-serve. But we do recommend that if you want a time, that you call Ticketmaster.

WHITFIELD: OK. Now, I understand that there is a tomb not far from you. Are you able to show us that and tell us a little bit more about what it is?

BRYAN: This -- there is a sarcophagus lid right behind us, and we are -- oh, you are talking about -- I'm sorry, a coffin lid of Queen Ahhotep. Do you have the...


BRYAN: ... footage of that gold coffin?

WHITFIELD: I think we do. Oh, there you go!

BRYAN: There we go. This is actually the lid of a queen, and she died about 3,500 years ago. She was an amazing lady who actually ruled Egypt for her sons, who were away fighting wars. And in that case with her beautiful gold-gilded coffin lid, we actually have some of her own personal items, such as her own mirror and a bracelet. And you can sort of imagine this woman actually looking in that mirror...


BRYAN: ... as she placed the bracelet on her arm.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my, gosh. That was just so fascinating and beautiful. And to get this close-up, close and personal view of this is really a rare treat. I don't know if people understand or realize how rare a view and a gift this really is to the U.S., to be able to have this exhibit available.

BRYAN: Oh, I agree with you. The Egyptian government could not have been more generous in supporting this exhibition, because they really like to have their objects sent where they can have a cultural context with them, and help people to understand more about the great heritage of Egypt.

WHITFIELD: Now, can you help us or help interpret for us some video that we do have available right now as well of a chest painted with some artifacts. Can you explain it?

BRYAN: Right this is actually something called a Canopic box, and a Canopic is -- refers to jars that the Egyptians kept their internal organs in. Because when they were mummified, they removed the organs and embalmed them separately, so that they could be available to them when they needed to start their journey in the next world. And...

WHITFIELD: And what's the symbolism of the jackal?

BRYAN: The jackal is the god of embalming, so he is actually there to protect what is inside the box.


BRYAN: And this box actually belonged to a woman who was a king's mother, and she died around 1050 B.C.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thank you very much, Betsey Bryan, for giving us this quick little walk-through. And of course, if folks want to see more, it means taking a trip to Washington, D.C. to the National Gallery of Art and checking out the "Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt." And how long again is this exhibit going to be available?

BRYAN: It will be up here in the National Gallery until October the 14th. And then it will be all over the country for the next five years.

WHITFIELD: Wow! All right. Thank you very much, Betsey -- appreciate it.

BRYAN: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: Thanks for giving us that private tour.




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