TUT IN TURIN: Ancient Egyptians at home in Olympic city

Updated: February 16, 2006, 4:24 PM ET
Associated Press

TURIN, Italy -- Although the Greeks invented the Olympics, the ancient Egyptians were no couch potatoes in athletic feats.

Pharaoh Amenhotep II -- an accomplished horse rider, runner and archer -- bragged that he was the greatest sportsman of all time and made sure royal sculptors captured his massive biceps and pecs.

The granite colossus of the 15th century B.C. ruler is just one of the ancient marvels that Turin's Egyptian Museum offers to visitors looking for a break from the Winter Games hosted by this northern city and the surrounding Alpine slopes.

The Museo Egizio claims one of the largest collections of Egyptian antiquities outside Cairo. Just in time for the Olympics, it opened a new pride-and-joy gallery set up by Dante Ferretti, Oscar-winning art director for "The Aviator."

The new exhibit gives visitors a who's who of ancient Egypt through 56 monumental statues, bathed in soft light and reflected in ghostly images by opaque mirrors.

Statues like Amenhotep II's were usually placed around temples, highlighting the ancient Egyptians' concern with securing a place in the afterlife.

"When they passed by your statue, the priests would utter your name, and that kept you alive," museum director Eleni Vassilika said.

The trick must have worked, because the 13th century B.C. statue of the revered Ramses II looks ready to rise from its stone throne. The great king's pleated garment, puffy cheeks and hooked nose were painstakingly chiseled using only stone tools on tons of hard black basalt, but look no less lifelike.

Walking through the darkened gallery -- accompanied by haunting background sounds of water, sand and cymbals -- visitors can also gaze upon the lion-headed Sakmeth, goddess of vengeance, and on the creamy limestone depiction of a young Tutankhamen dwarfed by the towering figure of the god Amun.

"It's a triumphal welcome," said retired teacher Ugo Marino after leaving the gallery. "I just stood there for several minutes only to take in the atmosphere."

Ferretti's "Reflections of Stone" exhibit was initially scheduled to be dismantled June 30, but Vassilika said they would try to retain most of the elements in a more permanent setup.

The new gallery is only a fraction of what's on view for the $7.50 admission price -- entire tombs, painted chapels and even a small temple have found a new home in downtown Turin.

Opened in 1824 in a 17th century Jesuit building, the Museo Egizio has about 6,500 artifacts on display and more than 26,000 in storage.

The massive collection was started by Bernardino Drovetti, a Turin-born French diplomat who amassed a hoard of artifacts during his time in Egypt. Later, pieces came from Italy's share in joint archaeological projects with Egyptian authorities, while the museum's latest acquisition -- the rock-cut Temple of Ellesija -- was donated by the African country.

As is often the case with ancient Egypt, most of the insight the museum offers into the daily lives of the Egyptians comes from what they left behind for their dead.

One of the museum's centerpieces is the contents of the 3,500-year-old tomb of the architect Kha and his wife Merit. The skilled and wealthy builder worked for years to prepare his burial, but when his wife died unexpectedly he readily gave up his gilded death mask and his coffin.

Later the architect was buried in the same tomb, together with his instruments, furniture and monogrammed underwear. And if stealing from the dead didn't warrant a deadly curse, you could almost take a bite from the well-preserved supplies for the afterlife that include bread wrapped in palm leaves, salt, wine, dried meat and vegetables.

The couple's mummies -- bodies embalmed through a complex process for preservation in the afterlife -- are only two of a vast collection, which doesn't stop at human corpses, as sacred animals such as crocodiles and cats were also bandaged up for the hereafter.

But it wasn't all death and no play for ancient Egyptians. Artifacts recovered in a workmen's village near the monumental tombs of the Valley of the Kings include a sketch of a provocative, bare-chested female dancer and even a pornographic papyrus.

Vassilika, the director, said the museum was about to open a new section focusing on just such details of daily life in Egypt. Plans are being drawn to expand the exhibits onto other floors of the building, while some of the Olympic venues are also being considered to house part of the vast number of artifacts kept in storage, she said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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