Last Call

The Birth of Vanity

Tutankhamun really wasn't as pretty as advertised.

By From the March 2010 issue

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Cairo, Egypt -- "Do you have to open graves to find girls to fall in love with?" an alluring Helen Grosvenor saucily taunts Frank Whemple in The Mummy (1932) after the archaeologist confesses that sifting through a tomb's artifacts sparked ardor within him for the wizened, mummified corpse of its princess occupant.

Ambling amongst the Egyptian Antiquities Museum's legion of exquisite effigies, it is easy to understand Whemple's enchantment -- so much so, in fact, a paunch-laden likeness of an unidentified imperial noble installed in an uncharacteristically quiet corner of the bustling complex struck an intriguing discordant note. "Realist, as opposed to idealist, sculpture," a museum guide told a gaggle of young European women, several of whom had taken the standard guidebook "dress modestly" advice to include hot pants. Husbands escorting burqa-clad wives did not attempt to conceal their stares. Realism may not have been in vogue with the pharaonic class, but these men coveted an ideal not locked away in a glass case.

I felt a pang of sympathy for the sculptor, imagined his artisan pride morphing into unease as the pharaoh's smile evaporated at the unveiling, some favor-seeking court supplicant piping in a bit too eagerly, "But Aapep, why did you not show the pharaoh as he is, slender and with abs like a board of washing?"; the belated realization that dabbling in potbelly realism just got his one-way ticket to a shovel-ready project stacking bricks at Giza punched. Slave labor is such nasty terminology, Aapep! Think of it as a mandatory wellness program...

If Egyptian mythology is accurate, however, the dissident artist is now likely sharing the last laugh with Osiris in Aaru, peering down at Frank Whemple's loveless present-day incarnations as they unspool mummies to coldly corroborate stories -- CAT scanning remains to pinch a digitally imaged inch, dragging linens out of sarcophaguses to measure waistlines, excavating previously unrecorded imperfections as if desperate to recompense for Star's failure to open a Nile valley bureau back in the B.C.

Three millennia after Tutankhamun's death, for example, the Daily Record touted research revealing that the "boy-king portrayed as a godlike figure in statues" was actually "a pear-shaped fatty" and unceremoniously redubbed him "Two-Ton-Khamun." A 2007 wire headline blared, "Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt's greatest female pharaoh was fat, balding and had beard." National Geographic notes that the queen was "one of the greatest builders in one of the greatest Egyptian dynasties," a woman who was "more afraid of anonymity than death." Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Perhaps Gloria Allred accepts turquoise protection amulets and cast gold as payment?

Perfection is, of course, a perennial obsession. The crowds at the trim and dapper Giza pyramids dwarf those exploring the older, endearingly flabby step pyramids of nearby Saqqara. Michelangelo made an executive decision not to circumcise David that people still quarrel over. The U.S. Congress believes economic salvation lies at least partially in a proposal nicknamed "The Botox Tax."

Yet as Daniel J. Boorstin observed in The Image, "It is only a short step from exaggerating what we can find in the world to exaggerating our power to remake the world." Lard-assed icons may not have saved the pharaohs from Alexander the Great or, transitively, us from a particularly egregious Colin Farrell film performance. A few whacks at strenuously cultivated presumptions of godly perfection couldn't have hurt, though. Then again, who are we to judge? Even as the flaws in the pharaohs' hair and waistlines are gleefully catalogued, the transcendent lesson concerning the high cost of leaders playing god is conveniently ignored.

Cows, sheep, and crocodiles populate the mummified animals room of the Egyptian Museum, dusty and brittle. A baboon and dog recruited, no doubt against their will, for afterlife entertainment face one another frozen in a staged playful pose. If the pair could be conjured, Karloff-like, back to life, they would almost certainly intuit the same unuttered primal truth from the glean in our supposedly enlightened eyes as from those of the men in flowing tunics approaching with organ hooks and linen rolls millennia ago: These people are crazy!

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