A good portion of Japan’s summer is dedicated to honoring the dead. Memorial services in early August remember lives lost to the atomic bombings of 1945, while the Bon holidays pay respect to familial ancestors.
The Mori Arts Center Gallery in Tokyo is also set to commemorate the dead, but not the spirits of this country. July 7 sees the opening of “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead,” an exhibition from the British Museum in London that hopes to distinguish itself from previous Egypt-themed shows by focusing less on the riches of the civilization and more on its customs, beliefs and rituals.
It’s also only the second time the 37-meter-long Greenfield Papyrus, a copy of the actual Book of the Dead held by the British Museum has been shown in its entirety.
All exhibitions focusing on ancient Egypt (3100-332 B.C.) smell of the tomb to some degree, simply because the best artifacts have been recovered from the graves — this is true of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” an exhibition currently being held at the Osaka Tempozan Exhibition Gallery and which comes to the Ueno Royal Museum on Aug. 4. According to professor Jiro Kondo, a director of the Institute of Egyptology at Waseda University and the curator for the “Book of the Dead” exhibition here, such shows usually follow a set pattern.
“Every two or three years in Japan we have some sort of ancient Egyptian exhibition,” Kondo says. “The focus is on golden objects and jewelry rather than a theme, leading Japanese people to think ancient Egyptian civilization is gold, mummies and jewelry. But this time, we are following the British Museum exhibition and taking a deeper look at the beliefs related to the afterlife.”
The exhibition features around 80 objects sourced from a show held in autumn 2010 at the British Museum, with the centerpiece being the Greenfield Papyrus. This remarkable scroll, made for a high-ranking priestess named Nestanebtasheru in 930 B.C., contains a richly illustrated version of the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text that is a rich source of information about the civilization.
“This is a unique papyrus, adding cosmology to the normal Book of the Dead contents,” Kondo says.
The two exhibitions on ancient Egypt, along with “The Inca Empire Revealed” exhibition earlier this year at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, are all part of the Japanese public’s love affair with ancient cultures and civilizations, according to Kondo.
“We are interested in ancient cultures and also expeditions to learn about them,” he says. “We have a lot of information from these civilizations and many TV programs and books about them, so we are very familiar with their cultures, monuments and history.”
While there is no denying the keen interest, many ancient civilizations have remained enigmatic and elusive. However, ancient Egypt benefits from being both fabulous and familiar, with copious amounts of material left over to testify to its awe-inspiring reign.
“There are so many pictures and paintings, so many hieroglyphic writings and inscriptions, so much architecture,” Kondo says. “Because so much information still remains I think it is easier to directly access ancient Egyptian society.”
But a wealth of material can also be confusing, especially with a civilization as complex as Egypt’s, which, among other things, had a pantheon of dozens of major gods and hundreds of minor ones, the result of political unification around 3100 B.C. Kondo, whose special area of research is the Necropolis of the city of Thebes during the New Kingdom (16th century B.C.-11th century B.C.), offers some clues to unraveling the mystery.
“The thought and religious philosophy of the ancient Egyptians was based on contrasted dualities: for example, desert and riverside, morning and evening, east and west, north and south, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, and of course life and death,” he explains.
Many of these dualities took their origin from the landscape and environment of Egypt, dominated as it was by a river flowing due north and the sun moving on a perpendicular axis through a cloudless sky. While the waters of the Nile create a sharply demarcated area of fertility, the blazing heat of the sun gave rise to the largely lifeless deserts. These deserts were also important in insulating Egypt from other countries and populations, helping to create the additional duality of Egyptians and non-Egyptians, according to Kondo.
Unlike Mesopotamia, the other important area of early civilization, Egypt experienced comparatively few invasions or influxes of population. This facilitated a stable society that was culturally conservative. This factor helped to contribute to the elaboration of rituals and ceremonies recorded in the various Books of the Dead that have been found. These include nearly 200 distinct spells designed to aid the deceased in the afterlife by helping to reunite elements of the dead person’s being and to overcome various obstacles.
“The ancient Egyptians believed that real life started after death,” Kondo explains. “During their lifetime they were preparing for this afterlife, thinking it was more real than this life.”
Part of the afterlife assault course involved the weighing of the heart, when the moral worth of the deceased was judged by the gods. This is depicted in part of the Greenfield Papyrus, where we see the jackal-headed god and guide to the dead Anubis weighing a human heart while the Ibis-headed god Thoth apparently takes note of the result.
“The key element of Egyptian civilization was its sense of eternity,” Kondo says. “Our society and civilization is very highly developed, but it changes every 50 or 100 years, but in the case of ancient Egypt the continuity stretches over thousands of years.”
The conservative nature of ancient Egypt contrasts with the more dynamic character of Mesopotamia. With no clear borders, there were constant influxes of populations and various competing states, leading to more chaos but also more progress. The result of this was that Egypt began to borrow ideas from Mesopotamia, rather than the other way round.
“Egypt had many influences from Mesopotamia,” Kondo says. “Some architectural elements are from Mesopotamia, such as some fort designs and the way of making walls from mud bricks; also, pottery styles and the use of animals in cultivation, and some of the concepts connected to political and urban life.”
The flow of ideas from a politically unstable area of competing polities to a relatively isolated and stable society is reminiscent of the dynamic that developed between Japan and the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. While Egyptian influence may have been weak in Mesopotamia, Kondo believes it was stronger in other areas.
“I think there was a strong influence on Judaism and later Christianity,” he says. “Jerusalem was only a short distance away.”
Egyptian religion began to go into decline after the country became more closely integrated with the wider Mediterranean world, first through the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled the country, then through its absorption into the Roman Empire in 30 B.C., following the suicide of Cleopatra.
This introduced a period of religious fusion that saw Greek and Roman gods worshipped in Egypt and the Egyptian goddess Isis venerated throughout the Roman Empire. It also saw central concepts of Egyptian religion, like the judging of souls and the belief that the afterlife was more real than this life, subsumed into the new ascendant religion of Christianity that finally displaced Egypt’s “eternal” religion.
Nevertheless, it is still remarkable that the religion that inspired the Great Pyramids could fade away so easily. A possible weakness is hinted at by one of the items at the exhibition, a box of funerary figurines called shabtis. These dolls represent servants who were supposed to attend the dead person in the next world. As such they were substitutes for human sacrifices that Kondo says were part of the funeral rites practiced during the first dynasty (c. 3100-2890 B.C.).
If the ancient Egyptians truly had believed that the afterlife was more real and worthwhile than this life, as their priests taught, then it seems odd that they would feel the need to save the lives of servants and slaves by replacing them with dolls. Perhaps, then, the best way to read the rituals and spells of the Book of the Dead is as a means of hiding this intrinsic lack of faith in an intricate religious system.
“Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” runs from July 7-Sept. 17 at the Mori Arts Center Gallery in Minato-ku, Tokyo (10 a.m.-10 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays;  5777-8600); and Oct. 6-Nov. 25 at the Fukuoka Art Museum in Chuo-ku, Fukuoka (9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; closed Mondays and holidays;  724-2266). Tickets cost ¥1,500 (¥1,000 for high school and university students; ¥500 for elementary and junior high school students). For more information, visit egypt2012.jp.