Pass­port to par­adise

Placed next to a mummy, Books Of The Dead were in­tended to help the dead on their jour­ney through the af­ter­life. The Bri­tish Mu­seum’s new ex­hi­bi­tion rel­ishes the hor­rors of an­cient Egypt.

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that they ex­press were far older than that.

Pyra­mid-build­ing, which reached its peak in about 2500BC, had served as a par­tic­u­lar trend-set­ter – a na­tion­alised project of res­ur­rec­tion-ma­chine con­struc­tion, de­signed to set those laid to rest in­side them on the path­way to the gods: “A stair­case to heaven is built for the pharaoh, that he may as­cend to heaven thereby.”

This prospect, of at­tain­ing di­vin­ity in the af­ter­life, had been, un­der the mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal rule of Egypt’s first dy­nas­ties, a wholly royal pre­rog­a­tive. When, two cen­turies af­ter the con­struc­tion of the Great Pyra­mid, a pharaoh named Unas had the walls of his own burial cham­ber dec­o­rated with a pro­fuse ar­ray of spells, it never crossed his mind that these same spells might end up be­ing widely pro­duced.

That, how­ever, fol­low­ing the im­plo­sion of the Old King­dom in about 2100BC, is pre­cisely what hap­pened. First on coffins, and ul­ti­mately on rolls of pa­pyrus, res­ur­rec­tion spells be­gan to ap­pear in the tombs of rel­a­tive no­bod­ies. By the time of the New King­dom, when Egyp­tian power at­tained its swag­ger­ing peak, their pop­u­lar­ity was as­sured. Whether wedged un­der a mummy’s arm, placed un­der its head, or stuffed, as in Hune­fer’s tomb, in­side the stat­uette, these com­pen­dia of prayers and in­can­ta­tions had be­come a musthave fea­ture of the Egyp­tian way of death.

That is not to say that par­adise had re­motely been democra­tised. The af­ter­life re­mained a priv­i­lege that came very ex­pen­sive in­deed.

The fu­ner­ary scrolls them­selves, as the ex­am­ples on dis­play at the Bri­tish Mu­seum serve to demon­strate, were of­ten exquisitely dec­o­rated, and might be writ­ten vir­tu­ally on the scale of a novel. The so-called Green­field pa­pyrus, for in­stance, which is the long­est Book Of The Dead yet dis­cov­ered, and which pro­vides the ex­hi­bi­tion with its cli­mac­tic coup de the­atre, clocks in at a whop­ping 37m.

Nor was a fu­ner­ary scroll the only in­vest­ment re­quired to reach par­adise. Spells would serve no pur­pose with­out ef­fec­tive mum­mi­fi­ca­tion and a tomb. For the vast ma­jor­ity of the Egyp­tian pop­u­la­tion, who could hope at best for burial in the arid desert sands along-

Mys­te­ri­ous: A vi­gnette from the Book Of The Dead. The fu­ner­ary texts re­flected fan­tasies about the char­ac­ter of an­cient Egyp­tian civil­i­sa­tion.

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