Along with the fascination and gripping stories, Silverman hopes to convey some important lessons. One is that “this is a non-Western culture” from North Africa, he says. “It had a very early influence on Western culture and people forget that.”

How sweeping social changes like the ones that spawned Amarna affected ordinary individuals is another factor to consider, says Houser Wegner. “Imagine that you are one of the common folk and you have just been told not only that you have to move to this new city from Memphis or Thebes but you also have to stop worshipping your gods and, moreover, the one god you are allowed to believe in you can’t worship. Instead, you have to worship the king who will worship the god Aten for you,” she says.

“Think about the everyday person. What did this time mean to them? Amulets of the traditional gods were still there—people didn’t give them up, and they’re gods that people turned to on a daily basis, gods that protected the home, women in childbirth, and the like, not the big national gods. Take a look at the everyday objects. Look at the comb [in the exhibit]. We know what house, from what room it was taken. It looks like combs of today. [And] think about a nine-year old boy. What was his experience?”

The Amarna episode is also a telling demonstration of the limits of even the greatest power, adds Josef Wegner. Here was the most powerful king of the ancient Near East at the time, and even his experiment failed—he took it too far away from the needs and desires of the people.

But there’s another, very compelling lesson in all this. “For me,” Wegner says, “the most exciting thing about Amarna is that it really nicely illustrates the fact that there are so many mysteries yet to be solved. Amarna is the most discussed and well-understood period in Egyptian history, and yet for every topic you look at, it turns out we actually know very little.”

The three curators hold similar hopes for what the visitor will take away from exploring Amarna, Tutankhamun, and the 18th Dynasty: that this remarkable ancient experiment in change will be appreciated for how radical it was, that people will feel how dramatic it must have been for the average Egyptian, and that they will connect with these people across time and space—and recognize how much like ancient Egyptians we are.

“These were people that, even though they were living thousands of miles away from us, thousands of years ago, they had the same basic human emotions, feelings, hopes, dreams, that we all have,” says Houser Wegner. “They fell in love, they had families, they did their jobs, and they just happened to be living at this rather tumultuous time in history.”

Beebe Bahrami Gr’95, a regular contributor to the Gazette, has also written for Michelin Green Guides, National Geographic books, and for Archaeology, Expedition, Bark, and Wag magazines.

The Radical and the Restorer By Beebe Bahrami

Photos: (Amarna) University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Tom Jenkins; (Tutankhamun) © Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig.

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Gilded-wood statuette of Tut wearing the tall crown of Upper Egypt, one of 35 ritual figures placed in sealed wooden shrines in the tomb.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/07