Thursday, July 4, 2013

Secrets of the Dead: The Silver Pharoah (PBS, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a Secrets of the Dead episode on KPBS about the so-called “Silver Pharoah,” Psusennes I (the name is a transliteration of the Greek transliteration of the hieroglyphic original), who ruled in Lower (Northern) Egypt in the so-called “Intermediate Period,” a sort of Egyptian Dark Ages that occurred between the heyday of the pharaohs most people have heard of — Amenhotep III, Akhnaten, Tutankhamun and Rameses II — and the semi-restoration under the Greek Ptolemies. Psusennes I is unique among the Pharoahs because his tomb survived totally intact — for some reason the grave robbers who plundered virtually all the pharoahs’ tombs looking for treasures they could steal missed this one even though they plundered Psusennes II’s tomb right next door — and was discovered in 1940 by a French archaeologist who, judging from his photos on this show, looked oddly like Peter Lorre in the Mr. Moto movies.

Unfortunately early 1940 was exactly the wrong time to be an archaeologist who had just made a major find in Egypt; due to a pressing engagement with World War II the world couldn’t have cared less, and the archaeologist himself sent the tomb’s treasures to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for safekeeping and hot-footed it back to France so he could be with his wife and their three kids during the national emergency. After the war he returned and continued his explorations, but much of the material — including Psusennes’ remains (he’d been mummified but he’d been buried in the damp soil of the Nile Delta instead of the dry desert heat of the Valley of the Kings, so his body had decomposed and only his skeleton remained) — remained relatively unresearched until recent times. It seemed odd, to say the least, to be watching a show about a time of civil unrest and political turmoil in Egypt during a time of civil unrest and political turmoil in Egypt — the army had just intervened and overthrown Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Peace and Justice Party (meaning Egypt is going the way of Pakistan, Algeria and Turkey: the people can have the illusion of democracy and free elections, but the military will remain the decisive power and any time they don’t like the way an elected leader is governing, they’ll just get rid of him) — and one could make the claim that Psusennes succeeded precisely where Morsi failed, winning the support both of the military (the show included a forensic reconstruction of what Psusennes might have looked like, and the result bore a striking resemblance to a Native American warrior chief) and the church (he was credentialed by the religious leaders of southern Egypt to be the High Priest of Amon in the North, so he had both secular and spiritual authority, sort of like the British monarchs from Henry VIII since).

It was an interesting show, though Charles pointed out that it fell into the trap of a lot of programs about previously little-known historical figures, asserting that Psusennes has now become important simply because we’ve heard of him. The reference to the “Silver Pharoah” is due to Psusennes’ decision to have his sarcophagus made of silver instead of gold — at one point, Live Schreiber’s narration explains, silver was actually rarer than gold in Egypt (until they established foreign trade routes — we know they were trading with Afghanistan because it was the source for the lapis lazuli in Psusennes’ funerary decorations) — and Psusennes may have chosen silver because it was harder to work than gold (it’s a harder metal and much less malleable) and therefore a silver sarcophagus was more of an artistic challenge than a golden one. All accounts indicated that Psusennes reigned for 46 years (1047 to 1001 B.C.E.) and lived into his late 70’s — an unusually long lifespan for the time, even for a member of the Egyptian 1 percent — and though short by today’s male standards (5’ 6”) he was muscular and powerfully built, indicating that he got regular exercise and probably fought in battle alongside his kingdom’s troops. The show was a neat little excursion into a barely known slice of ancient history and was refreshingly free of the gory grimness that mars a lot of the Secrets of the Dead episodes — and it was ironic that we were watching it not long after seeing The Loves of Pharoah, that silly silent film with an almost cartoonishly risible portrayal of the court of a fictitious Egyptian Pharoah!