The face of fayum in Beijing
By Omar Badr  ·  2021-11-12  ·   Source: NO.45 NOVEMBER 11, 2021


A Fayum portrait on display at the Meet Egypt exhibition in Beijing on September 2 (VCG)

The moment I set eyes on one of the Fayum portraits depicting a middle-aged man on a coffin lid in Cairo's Egyptian Museum, I was hooked. His pensive gaze and striking resemblance with many Egyptian friends put me on a journey of learning more about these spectacular mummy portraits, many of which reside in diaspora far away from home. Little did I know back then that my next encounter with them would be in no other place than the capital of China. 

Fayum faces, as they're known in Arabic, are naturalistic wax portraits painted on hardwood panels. Most of them were discovered attached to coffins of upper-class Roman mummies in the Fayum basin in Egypt's Western Desert. Panel paintings by definition, some historians consider these portraits to be the earliest attempt at the art of portrait painting as we would later come to know it.

On a cloudless warm day in September, I went to the China Millennium Monument where the exhibition takes place, joined by two Egyptian friends. My display of national pride overtook me at the gate where a masked lady handed us the tickets.

"We come from Egypt," I said. "We should be getting free tickets." An admittedly petty remark which she acknowledged with a dismissive nod.

The exhibition is designed to mimic the experience of delving into an Egyptian tomb. The black walls, dim lighting and funerary musical backdrop all serve as a means to that end. On display is a carefully curated collection of exhibits including jewelry, coins, pots and statuettes which belong to the Greco-Roman period (332 B.C.– A.D. 396) in ancient Egyptian history, a period not as widely celebrated as the Pharaonic Egyptian era which dates back to 3000 B.C. The centerpiece of the exhibition is of course two or three mummies in their original sarcophagi along with screens that present X-ray scans of the bodies. My personal favorite, however, was a number of Fayum portraits that I was dying, pun intended, to see. Other spaces were dedicated to showing movies about the history of major archaeological discoveries in Egypt and the different deities Egyptians worshipped.

The exhibition seemed to enthrall the flocks of visitors. Young couples listened intently to Chinese audio guides on their phones. Old ladies took off their glasses to squint at the small Chinese characters on an exhibit label next to a necklace Cleopatra might have worn one day. Children were particularly excited, something I wouldn't expect from their Egyptian peers on a school trip to a museum in Cairo or Alexandria. They participated in interactive classes on Egyptian history and took photos wearing some of the props at the entrance.

On your way out, you pass through a massive gift store that stocks Egyptian-themed merchandise of all sorts sold by the British Museum—from overpriced silk scarves with hieroglyphic patterns to umbrellas bearing images of a Bastet Hello Kitty. A small crowd huddled around a stall which turned out to sell sea salt- and chocolate-flavored King Tut-shaped ice-cream lollies. 

As I waved goodbye to two Chinese kids that were coloring in some ancient Egyptian scenery on a piece of papyrus, I was pondering the fact that the whole collection was not on loan from a museum in Egypt, where the artifacts belong, but from the Manchester Museum in the UK. A sad realization that points to ongoing legal battles between many countries including Egypt and China whose looted cultural relics were smuggled or illegally acquired, and former colonial powers that now refuse to return them. While I appreciate the care Fayum portraits must have received in the different museums that house them around the world, I cannot help but dream of a day when all those noble men and women in diaspora return home to, once and for all, rest in peace.

The author is an Egyptian working in Beijing 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to dingying@bjreview.com 

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