By: Yvette Alt Miller
“In every generation each individual is bound to regard himself as if he had gone personally forth from Egypt.” – the Passover Haggadah
At Passover Seders each year, we recite the Haggadah’s timeless instructions to regard ourselves as having personally lived through the events of the Exodus. The Seder itself is designed to help us envision our participation in the story. We dip parsley into saltwater to remember the tears we shed in Egypt, and we munch on spicy, bitter horseradish in an attempt to replicate a little of the misery we experienced as slaves.
But how far can saltwater and horseradish really take us? For most of my life, when I pictured ancient Egypt, I thought of the 1956 epic film, The Ten Commandments. The sets were opulent, and I loved Anne Baxter’s gorgeous robes and headdresses as she played Nefertiti, queen of Egypt.
Years later, when I caught the traveling King Tut exhibit, my preconceptions of ancient Egypt were confirmed. The craftsmanship of the artifacts was breathtaking. I knew that ancient Egypt wasn’t good for my ancestors, but it was hard to picture it as something really unpleasant. To the contrary, it seemed fascinating, advanced and beautiful.
That changed recently, after my family and I spent an eye-opening afternoon viewing ancient Egyptian artifacts at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. I don’t think I’ll ever think of ancient Egypt the same way again.
“And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick.” – Exodus 1:13
The first artifact we beheld was a magnificent tomb, transported from Egypt. We were able to see the provisions that had been packed for the tomb’s wealthy occupant: foods, moneys, cosmetics…. and pictures of the hundreds of household slaves who had been massacred, so that their souls could accompany their master on his voyage to the afterlife. Each time a nobleman died, their household of slaves was murdered en masse in this way.
As I peered at the faces painted on those walls thousands of years ago, I tried to imagine that they were each somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s father or mother. Tears began to well in my eyes.
Next in the exhibit we saw a fascinating array of everyday items: pots for food, scales and weights for measuring transactions. And then we learned of the horrific punishments meted out to merchants and slaves who were thought guilty of shortchanging their masters: gruesome tortures, maimings, public punishments such as beatings, impaling, the gouging out of eyes…. The list went on. The upper-classes were protected, but lower-class people in ancient Egypt were considered fair game for the most terrible treatments imaginable.
My family and I were getting a little discomforted, but we continued on with our visit. We viewed examples of ancient Egyptian dress. While the more prosperous wore long, flowing robes of white, the clothing shrunk the lower you went on the social scale. Lower-class workers and slaves went completely naked, battling the hot Egyptian sun, as well as snakes and scorpions.
Finally, we saw pictures of public fights. I’d always associated gladiatorial displays with ancient Rome, but hundreds of years earlier, in ancient Egypt, slaves were forced to fight wild beasts such as lions, in what was, apparently, a very popular spectacle.
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