Simanaitis Says

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I SEEM TO be accumulating a lot of ancient Egypt tidbits, of which several follow here.

Philip Glass’s Akhnaten. A week prior to its December 7, 2019, final performance at Lincoln Center, Daughter Suz and I saw Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in our local movie theater as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD series. In fact, we had seen Akhnaten in person when this same Phelim McDermott production was performed during the Los Angeles Opera’s 2016-2017 season.

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Both experiences were memorable. Opera in person is compelling. Yet the Met HD’s superb hi-def camera work is equally satisfying in a completely different way: Closeups confirm that the best of opera performers do more than sing, they act.

For an unorthodox, but novel and highly entertaining, albeit shorter rendition of Glass’s Akhnaten, this Opera For Kids version is highly recommended. Those who enjoyed the McDermott production will recognize features.

Akhnaten is about the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who ruled perhaps 1353 B.C. to 1336 B.C. Later known as Akhenaten, he is noted for attempting to convert Egypt’s polytheism to worship of a single god, the Sun.

One of his wives, Nefertiti, is perhaps more familiar to us. A son, Tutankhaten, later called Tutankhamun, succeeded his father as pharaoh and returned Egypt to its worship of many gods.

Tutankhamun is also known for the rediscovery of his tomb in 1922, one of the richest archaeological finds and source of the rumored “curse of the pharaohs.” According to Wikipedia, “A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years.” Only eight….

The Book of Two Ways. A study published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology gives details of a 2012 discovery of the earliest now known version of the Book of Two Ways, the guide to ancient Egyptian afterlife, wherein the two ways are by land and by water. The artifact was part of a coffin believed to be for a woman named Ankh, perhaps related to an elite provincial official.

Another example from four decades later: The two ways of afterlife are shown in the floor of a coffin of Gua, physician to Djehutyhotep, an Egyptian Middle Kingdom monarch. Image from The New York Times, December 30, 2019.

The Ankh find is described by Franz Lidz in “An Afterlife So Perilous, You Needed a Guidebook,” The New York Times, December 30, 2019. Lidz notes that the remains of this 4000-year-old Book of Two Ways are “the earliest known copy of the first illustrated book.”

Lidz says, “The two journeys were a kind of purgatorial odyssey reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons: extraordinarily arduous, and so fraught with peril that they necessitated mortuary guidebooks…. Success in the afterlife required an aptitude for arcane theology, a command of potent resurrection spells and incantations, and a knowledge of the names not just of Underworld doorkeepers, but also of door bolts and floorboards.”

Fragments from the Book of Two Ways found in Ankh’s coffin. Image by Harco Willems.

Resurrection Spell 1130, for example, links the deceased person’s identity forever to the sun god Ra, the creator. “Assuming Ankh casts her spells properly,” Lidz says, “she has become a god.”

Cleopatra, 1963. Almost, but not quite, coincidentally, Wife Dottie and I are watching the movie Cleopatra on the telly. I use the continuous sense because we’re enjoying this 4.1-hour epic in four stints.

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The movie has quite the cast: Julius Caesar is portrayed by Rex Harrison, whom I keep expecting to break into his My Fair Lady Henry Higgins character. Cleopatra, portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, wears appropriately provocative gowns and has a child by Caesar not long before the dreaded Ides of March.

Eventually, through much drama, she hooks up with Mark Antony, portrayed by Richard Burton, with whom Taylor had a tumultuous affair at the time in real life. gives details, including the Vatican City’s weekly newspaper denouncing their “erotic vagrancy.” I wonder, did L’Osservatore Romano have paparazzi?

Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Image from

Watching the film got me interested in Shakespeare’s take on these three. Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark; not Rex, Liz, and Richard. The Bard’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are even more densely plotted than the movie. And a Wikipedia search confirmed that real life was yet more complicated, what with Cleo having three of Mark’s kids, twins Alexander Helois and Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphus. She was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt.

The Berlin Cleopatra, a Roman sculpture from mid-1st century B.C., about the time of her visits to Rome. The sculpture now resides in the Altes Museum in Germany. Image by Louis le Grand.

By the way, Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian. The Ptolemys were Macedonian Greek. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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