Hubby and I arrive in London at 7:30 am. Sunday is our day of rest. Breakfast and lunch we skip in favor of sleep. But dinner finds us at J. Sheekey's where I indulge in a creamy risotto with girondelles and Hubby wolfs down a summer lobster salad. Day one of eating is a simple affair: eat well and eat lightly. We have seven days of eating ahead of us.
The day begins early. I have an appointment at the British Museum. Through an odd turn of events, I have been granted permission to see the Stela of Paser.
First, I am led up three flights of a tiny spiral staircase into the spacious office of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Two walls are lined from floor to ceiling with books; the room is filled with bookcases, tables, maps, globes and busts. One bank of windows streams light into the room. Four people are perched at their desks, quietly flipping through catalogs and books, making occasional taps on their keyboards. I am asked to sit at a table and told that the Stela will be arranged for my viewing shortly. To my right are the scholars and their desks; to my left are old books, spines cracked, leather worn. All the titles relate to Ancient Egypt. And there, appropriately enough, is a bust of Giovanni Battista Belzoni -- one of the noted archaeologists who was responsible for finding the piece I am there to see. Moments later, an older gentleman comes into the room and introduces himself. He is the caretaker of the ancient Egyptian artifacts and he motions me to follow him. I think I am being led to another sunny room where the Stela has been laid out for my viewing.
Instead I am guided down into the bowels of the museum. I begin to feel like the chief character from a horror movie as I follow the caretaker, who leads me down the basement, then through one, no two, gates -- both requiring unlocking -- until we reach the last metal gate. Searching through his jumble of keys he at last finds a smallish one. Inserting it into the metal lock, he turns the key and pushes aside first one iron accordion gate before turning to the other and doing the same. Only a few half lights are on; the room is dark but I can see that on either side of me are six or seven aisles stretching the length of the room, each containing high grey metal shelves of ancient artifacts. And in front of me is an open space, more of that metal shelving forming a cubed space about six feet wide and five feet deep. In the center of that space is a table. And on top of that table is a mummy.
My skin crawls, and my heart begins to race. The bandages are tight and taut around the body, arms crossed before its chest. The linen strips are old, yellowed with the age of four millenia. Were I less terrified, I would note with tenderness the care and craft that went into binding this person. Who was it? Was it a man? A woman? Some person of great note? Or a minor courtier? Did this person imagine that four and half thousand years later, he -- or she -- would have been moved from the great burial chambers where he was to live in immortality and deposited on a basement table?
"How long will you be?"
My throat is dry and I cannot stop staring at the mummy perched on the table. "Uh...not too long."
I am scared to death the caretaker's going to cheerfully leave me here by myself with this...corpse. And my nightmare seems about ready to come true as he says, "Oh that's all right, take all the time you need. Some people come and stay for hours. I need to get some things done. I'll just turn on some lights for you. Do you want a chair? A crate to sit on?"
No, I would like a big sword and a gun to kill any undead creatures who decide to reanimate and send them back to Anubis.
"There's your stone," he says, pointing to wall behind me.
I turn around. There, next to the gate-door we have just entered, the Stela of Paser is propped against the wall. For a moment I can ignore the wrapped body on the table behind me.
Imagine a piece of art, or an artist, whom you love; and then imagine that you have been given the opportunity to view a hidden masterpiece, one available only to a handful of people on earth. I think that as I get older, I get more maudlin. And still, even terrified and bothered by the dead, bandaged thing behind me, I am infinitely touched as I kneel down before the stela. I felt like this the first time I saw the Rosetta Stone. The first time I saw the Chandos painting of Shakespeare. The first time I saw the Ginevra de Benci, and then later, her successor, the Mona Lisa. When I saw forty-seven Faberge eggs grouped together. I think at these moments, I feel connected to the past -- to the collective soul? The basement is where the stela resides; it has only been on public view once in the last several years.
The stela comprises two pieces of stone, broken in half, and mounted on a cement block to protect the remaining fragments. It is lined with eighty one inch squares vertically and sixty-seven horizontally. The outer edges are all worn away or nonexistent, having been broken too long ago, but it is surmised that the tablet might once have been eighty squares by eighty sqares. Inside each square are meticulously chiseled hieroglypics. The stela is a hymn to Mut, and according to the top line of instructions, the hymn is to be read three times -- that is, there are three ways to read this hymn. The Egyptians were fond of wordplay and so it is believed that the hieroglyphics can read horizontally, vertically, backwards, or forwards. The third hymn was presumed to have been the outer edge of hieroglyphics. But they do not exist, having long ago been destroyed.
I am too afraid to guess at their meaning, ludicrously afraid that I, in some amateurish attempt to decipher the pictograms -- I recognize that symbol! that's the letter 'K.' And the letter 'L.' And that symbol there -- it means house. And that symbol -- that is for Ra. -- might awaken the sleeping mummy behind me, incite some great curse. I have clearly watched too many horror movies. Still, I am surprised every minute that I sit there poring lovingly over the stone tablet, that the mummy remains prostate and unmoving on the table.
"Is it normally here?" I ask, indicating the wall.
"No," the caretaker says, pointing to the hall outside the gated room. "It used to be against that wall."
It strikes me funny. An ancient piece of work not encased behind lucite walls, connected to alarm systems. This is literally a storeroom of such pieces. It's like walking into someone's storeroom of junk. This feeling is even more reinforced when the caretaker walks with me down the aisles and allows me to exclaim over shelf after shelf of tablets, stoneware, paintings, marble, icons, statuettes, stone cups and sundry other things. It's breathtaking. The only disturbing thing I see is the last, unlit and darkened bay. The funereal feeling is appropriate: three giant sarcophagi are situated here, the one closest to me, black and fierce, its lid open. I walk away from the caskets quickly. They're too frightening, large, dominating. So final.
"Oh," says the caretaker, noting a gorgeous white slab on top of a crate as we pass by. It is cleft in two at the top but its hieroglyphics are sharply and clearly inscribed. I am thunderstruck at how clear the writing is. "That's been lying there for some time. We'll need to shelve it again." Then he points to an open box next to the slab. Therein are five broken pieces of grey stone, each bearing hieroglyphics carved into the stone. "Those have never been on public display."
A bay on the other side of the room yields an astonishing vision. Six or seven clay tablets, broken, but clearly a grouping of paintings. Were they torn down from a crypt wall? Were they already in pieces on the ground when the excavators came and found them? How can that blue still be so vibrant? Those colors so astonishingly vivid? How can those fish and those birds be so unchanged from then? Shouldn't they have evolved? But ibis still look like that -- and so do the fish swimming in the picture of the Nile. Why should things be different? Even the caves at Lascaux feature animals that haven't changed in fifty thousand years. Upon seeing the surprisingly modernistic paintings in those caves, Picasso was reputed to have said, "We have invented nothing."
I imagine scarabs scuttling across the Theban sands. Scarabs were a symbol of immortality. These artifacts, which have not been on public display for decades -- and in some cases, never -- oh, all the past in this room whispers forlornly: You found us -- now let us tell you our secrets! What's worse? To be unfound in the Egyptian desert from which they were plucked, or to be discovered and left in the obscurity of a museum basement waiting for someone to catalog and study them, waiting for some patron to give money to an exhibit so that they may see the light of day?
I don't have much nerve to study the Stela without the caretaker present in the room; after a half hour of scribbling, I finally lose my battle not to run screaming out of the room and the caretaker is surprised by how quick I am. "That was fast! " he notes. "Sometimes people come and stare at the same thing for days."
They probably hadn't watched enough monster movies.
Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I exit the museum. Hubby and I are to rendezvous with a friend for lunch.