Journey to eternal life of Pharaoh

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PASS through the black curtain and you enter a different world . . . a perilous world populated by five-headed serpents and terrifying demons, where it is not unknown for people to be boiled alive or decapitated.

You have just 12 hours to journey through this place to your final destination. Succeed and you will enjoy everlasting life. Fail and you will be condemned to eternal damnation.

It might sound like the tagline for the latest campaign to sell a computer game, but this is an ancient tale. And it is one which is being played out on the floors of the City Art Centre which has been transformed into an exact replica of the tomb of the Immortal Pharaoh, Thutmose III.

From the dusty, limestone walls decorated with a complete copy of the illustrated ancient Egyptian's Book of the Dead, the Amduat, which chronicles the journey to the afterlife, the replica tomb forms a solid depiction - like a vast, solid papyrus scroll - of one culture's answer to the question that has forever plagued mankind: what happens to us when we die?

The ancient Egyptians were so curious about the afterlife that the question spawned a whole new writing genre - funeral literature. The Amduat is the oldest illustrated book on the subject, and Thutmose's tomb is the oldest discovered burial site featuring the entire book.

Meaning "that which is in the netherworld", the Book of the Dead (which got a starring role in the recent The Mummy movies series) was believed to contain the secret to eternal life, holding the knowledge that was needed to pass from this world to the next.

The Egyptians believed that death was a parallel state of existence, a state of transit between the old form of life in decay and a renewed form full of vitality.

But, according to ancient beliefs, in order to gain eternal life everyone who dies has to successfully complete a 12-hour journey mirroring the journey of the sun god from dusk till dawn.

Mummification and the leaving of great piles of treasures were all ways of helping to protect the dead through this journey to ensure that they secured eternal life and not eternal damnation. And the Amduat contained crucial knowledge to help them pass a series of tests to see if they were worthy of immortality - helping them to use their wits and knowledge, including magic, to beat demons and serpents.

While it first appeared in a tomb in the resting place of Thutmose's aunt and stepmother, Hatshepsut, Thutmose's burial place is the oldest existing copy of the book in a tomb.

Now, thousands of years after he died in 1426BC, his obsession with immortality has been brought to life in the exhibition.

Immortal Pharaoh: The Tomb of Thutmose III has just had its launch in Edinburgh ahead of a world tour next year.

A range of artefacts from collections around the world have been brought together for the exhibition, but the centrepiece is the replica tomb itself.

The original tomb was found in 1898 in the Valley of the Kings, where it remains to this day. By the time it was discovered, by Victor Lovet, its treasures had been widely plundered. But Egyptologists believe that the real treasure remains in the copy of the ancient text adorning its walls.

Spokeswoman for the art centre, Eithne N Chonghaile , says: "Most Egyptian exhibitions are all about the gold and the jewels, and about what the ancient Egyptians created. This is more spiritual. It is about their fascination with what happens after we die."

Thutmose III was a boy when he became ruler of Ancient Egypt in 1479BC, ruling as co-regent with Hatshepsut until she died in 1458BC.

After that he began his solo reign, launching numerous campaigns in Africa and Syria which more recently have seen him described as the Napoleon of Ancient Egypt.

Like other pharaohs he was interested in his own immortality and set in motion the construction of his tomb himself. But his obsession with the afterlife was so great that he went further than other rulers and ordered that the walls of the tomb be decorated with the entire text of the Amduat.

Thutmose's tomb - and the replica - features 12 separate panels, one for every hour. Each panel is filled with elegant line drawings in black and red showing the Egyptian Pharaoh moving through the underworld.

His arrival is greeted by gods of the night, in the form of baboons, while various deities walk in front of a boat which takes him on his journey. Further on he encounters strange snakes with wings and feet, a double-headed fire breathing serpent.

Red circles represent the Pharaoh regaining his sight as he journeys from death to everlasting life.

Other creatures sound less exotic. The eighth hour includes four rams, and even a reference to a sound emerging from a cavern "like the cry of a tomcat".

The final hours show the Pharaoh passing through the body of a snake - the route to eternal life as a sun god.

One late and unexpected addition to the exhibition came from close to home. A carved stone cylinder bearing the Pharaoh's name, thought to be a seal to his tomb, has been found at Newhailes, a National Trust for Scotland property at Musselburgh. It is thought that the seal was brought to Scotland by a member of the Dalrymple family returning from a grand tour.

Eithne adds: "One of our curators was at Newhailes recently when he suddenly spotted the seal and recognised it as something from the Pharaoh's tomb. When you are organising an exhibition with artefacts from museums around the world you don't expect to find something just down the road."

• The Immortal Pharaoh: The Tomb of Thutmose III is at the City Art Centre, Market Street, until January 8, 2006. Open from Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, Sunday 12pm to 5pm. Adults 6, children/concessions 4.50