King Tut has returned—this time to Philadelphia. Having first been rediscovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, and having toured the world in the most popular exhibition ever in the 1970’s, the treasures of King Tutankhamun are on display at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. The boy-king will not pass this way again any time soon. By special permission of the Egyptian government, more than one hundred objects from his tomb and elsewhere are here through the end of September.
If you are thinking of going to see “Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” there are a few things you should know. Tickets are expensive, at more than $30 apiece for regular adult admission. Lines can be long; more than 600,000 people have seen the show in its first two months.
And know this: you will not see the king’s mummy or his famous death mask, which may be the world’s most well-known artifact. The huge pictures that you see on buses and billboards everywhere are close-ups of a small figurine with a head that looks the king’s death mask, but is much smaller. The figurine, which is less than two feet tall, is really only the coffinette that was designed to hold the king’s royal liver. It is little wonder that some visitors feel like they have been suckered in by the show’s hype. As someone from the Philadelphia Inquirer exclaimed in a recent editorial, “I paid $32 to see a royal liver box?”
Still, the objects that are on display are exquisite in their opulent beauty. The tickets may be thirty dollars, but the show is priceless. As Howard Carter exclaimed when he first opened Tut’s tomb, there is “everywhere the glint of gold.” The figurines, statues, chairs, caskets, coffins, diadems, and other burial items are golden treasures from a golden age.
One of the reasons why these Egyptian artifacts are so captivating is because many of them portray the human face. The images of various members of the royal family are so life-like that when we look at them face to face, we know that we are seeing real people as they really looked. And they are presented to us with such royal dignity that we sense we are looking at the only creature in all creation that is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).
Yet hovering over everything is the specter of death—the mortality of our humanity. Perhaps it is inevitable that objects from a tomb will seem death-like. We are confronted everywhere with the reality of Tut’s own unexpected and (some would say) untimely demise. The king took Egypt’s throne when he was only 9, and he died of disputed causes at age 19.
Like most of the ancient pharaohs, King Tut was obsessed with death and the life to come. It is for this reason, in fact, that all of his precious artifacts have been preserved. Tutankhamun was striving desperately for immortality. He was asking the question of all questions: Is there life after death? And if there is, how can I guarantee my acceptance in the afterlife? But did King Tut come up with the right answer?
Egyptian preparations for burial were elaborate. After Tutankamun died, his body went through 72 days of mummification. As servants prepared his body with various spices and resins, they also performed magical spells to protect him in the afterlife. A sacred ritual called “The Opening of the Mouth” was intended to rejuvenate the king, giving him life after death. Other rituals were meant to protect him from evil spirits, or to bring movement to the king’s limbs—a notable problem for any corpse!
Many of the objects that were buried with King Tut supposedly helped him in some way in the afterlife. There were amulets and other charms to ward off danger. There were models of sailing boats so the king could go hunting on the river. There were games to play; there was food to eat; there were ointments for the pharaoh’s royal skin. The Egyptians were trying to find some way of preserving the pleasures of the present life. Now their longing for immortality is on public display. In almost every gallery we sense Tut’s desperate desire for eternal pleasure.
Yet the ancient Egyptians failed to achieve their objective. King Tut did not secure eternal life because he did not believe in the one true God. Instead, he believed in worshiping many gods. In fact, the exhibit documents the move that Tut’s father Akhenaten made from worshiping many gods to worshiping only the god of the sun. King Tut overturned this commitment to religious monotheism and reinstated the worship of multiple gods. Undoubtedly this included many of the gods on display at the Franklin Institute—Ptah the falcon, Sekhmet the lion, and many of the other gods that were later defeated in Israel’s exodus from Egypt (see Exod. 12:12).
King Tut was one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the history of the world. His people regarded him as a deity—the son of God. The treasures of his kingdom have lasted more than three millennia. To this day, they are a wonder to all who see them. Yet because he did not believe in the true and living God, Tutankhamun was powerless in the face of death. For all its extravagant beauty, the exhibition of his royal treasures merely ends up showing us the dead burying their dead (see Luke 9:60).
Even after all his elaborate preparations for the afterlife, Tutankhamun could not be certain of a favorable verdict from Osiris, the god of the dead. Thus he became like the man described in the book of Ecclesiastes—“a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Eccles. 6:2).
If King Tut could not gain eternal life, then who can?
We should not consider King Tut without remembering the true Son of God. He also died and was buried, but that is where the similarities end. His body did not receive any elaborate preparations, but was hurriedly buried in a new stone tomb. Yet three days later the Son rose from the grave, and in his life we find the hope of our own resurrection. In ancient Egyptian mythology, only the king had any hope of living forever. But everyone who believes in Jesus as the risen Christ receives eternal life as a free gift. By faith we belong to a royal family in which every son is a prince and every daughter has a golden inheritance “that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet. 1:4).
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org