Exploring Treasures of the British Museum
By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
WHAT does the word “museum” mean to you? Never-ending corridors lined with cases of stuffed birds, faded paintings and pieces of stone? Please leave those thoughts behind, for you will not be bored as we tour the British Museum in London.
Are you carrying a camera? Fine! You can use it to compile ‘photographic essays’ in slides or prints.
The Building with the Muses
The tour starts in the forecourt of the museum. First, note its impressive height and length. The statues at the top of this building represent Greek goddesses, patrons of such arts as dancing, poetry and music. These goddesses were called the “Muses” and their temples “Museums.”
Customs in the City of Ur
Eagerly we enter the museum itself and go up to the Babylonian Room. It contains exhibits unearthed at the Hebrew patriarch Abraham’s native city of Ur. Note this magnificent headdress of interwoven gold beech leaves. Those large gold lunate earrings once hung from pierced Chaldean ears. It is a pleasure to see beautiful necklaces, like these made of lapis lazuli, and even shells containing eye shadow.
These items were discovered in the tomb of a queen. Buried with her were numerous attendants. Yes, they were buried alive with the dead queen! It was considered an honor to accompany their royal mistress and serve her in the “hereafter.”
Exhibited evidence indicates that both a belief in the immortality of the human soul and the worship of mother and child were current in Ur 4,000 years ago. Inside Case 14 we read: “Sumerian religion passed on many of its gods, religions, beliefs and practices to the Babylonian Semites who succeeded them.”
Joseph, a son of Jacob and a descendant of Abraham, was taken to Egypt, the first world power of Bible history. Summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph first shaved off his beard. (Gen. 41:14) While shaving, he may have used copper razor blades that resembled small ax heads. And Joseph probably made use of a polished metal mirror like this one made of copper.
Under divine direction, Joseph told Pharaoh that Egypt would experience seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. In appointing that Hebrew as second ruler in the land, ‘Pharaoh gave his own signet ring to Joseph, clothed him with fine linen garments and placed a necklace of gold about his neck.’ (Gen. 41:41, 42) Appropriately, we stop to admire some Egyptian signet rings and beautiful necklaces of gold.
After Jacob, also called Israel, died in Egypt, “Joseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father.” (Gen. 50:2, 3) On display here are quite a few embalmed persons. These mummies are, indeed, a sight to behold.
During the embalming process, a long iron hook was used to remove part of the brain through the nose, the remainder being destroyed by means of drugs. The kidneys, liver, intestines and lungs were removed, rinsed with palm wine, and then placed in four canopic jars. This palm wine also was used with fragrant herbs and spices. Next, the body was steeped in natron (sodium carbonate). Since natron absorbs water, over the course of many days it would dehydrate the body. Ultimately, the entire corpse was wrapped with clean linen bandages. Hot pitch was applied between some layers of bandaging. Incidentally, the finished product is called a “mummy” because the Egyptian word for “pitch” is mumiyah. Preparing a mummy required knowledge of anatomy and chemistry, and this vindicates the Bible’s statement that “physicians” embalmed Israel, or Jacob.
The purpose of Jacob’s mummification apparently was to preserve his body until it could be buried in the Promised Land. (Gen. 50:4-14) Unlike the Israelites, however, the Egyptians believed that the human soul was immortal, and their embalming activity was associated with that false idea. (Ezek. 18:4) In a picture on a wall of the next room that we visit, the soul appears like a bird flying above a deceased person lying on a couch between two candles, one at the head and the other at the feet. Notice, too, that the “soul” is holding the upper part of a cross that had been cut in two because the ancient Egyptians said that life was cut off at death.
Inside a coffin are the signs of the zodiac. A map, drawn in another coffin, indicates the route that the “soul” had to follow. Offerings were made on sacrificial tables in order to appease the soul and to prevent it from returning to trouble a survivor in a dream. Egyptian religion also embraced trinities of gods, as well as adoration of mother and child. Hence, these practices did not originate with the true God.
The ancient Egyptians also believed that the purchase of an indulgence letter would spare them torments after death, bring them forgiveness of sins, and secure for them a better place in the “hereafter.” In the King’s Library there is a letter of indulgence written in Latin. You may recall that the sale of similar letters was partly responsible for the religious Reformation of the 16th century.
Sex worship is indicated by the Egyptian cross, the crux ansata. This symbol represents the male and female sex organs united, thus constituting the key of life. On one wall appears a picture of a god holding a cross to signify that he is giving Pharaoh life. Interestingly, Syrians visiting Egypt nearly 2,000 years before the Common Era were wearing crosses similar to those of today. That the cross was passed on to the apostate Egyptian Christians is evident from their tombstones dating from the fifth to the ninth centuries of our Common Era.
The Ten Plagues
False religion certainly suffered a humiliating stroke when Jehovah God brought 10 blows, or plagues, on Egypt, proving that the Egyptian deities were powerless. The first plague—turning the Nile River and all the waters of Egypt into blood—brought disgrace upon the Nile god Hapi. (Ex. 7:19-21) Visualize Egyptians praying in front of this statue of Hapi. But Hapi could not even protect his own arms. See! He has lost them!
All 10 plagues upon Egypt proved to be judgments against Egyptian deities, but this was especially true of the last blow, the death of the firstborn. (Ex. 12:12) The ram was sacred to the god Amon-Ra, the “King of the Gods,” so that the splashing of the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintels of Israelite homes would be a blasphemous act to the Egyptians.—Ex. 12:6, 7.
During their enslavement in Egypt, the Israelites had been compelled to make bricks containing straw. (Ex. 5:7, 8) So, it is very interesting to see the type of bricks that they were forced to make. But we recall that when about to depart from that land of bondage, the people of Israel asked the Egyptians for “articles of silver and articles of gold,” perhaps quite similar to those here displayed.—Ex. 12:33-38.
Of all the British Museum’s exhibits from Egypt, one that has occupied the most prominent position since 1802 is the famous Rosetta Stone. It contains a decree issued by Egyptian priests in 196 B.C.E. to honor the “god” Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The decree was written in (1) Egyptian hieroglyphic script, (2) Egyptian demotic script (the simplified writing of the people) and (3) Greek, the latter language providing the key for unlocking the mystery of the hieroglyphics.
The glory of ancient Egypt exists no longer. Her pharaohs are dead, like this dehydrated slave whose skin has been preserved because of the action of the dry sand. But look at these replicas of a pharaoh and Egyptian soldiers. They all have the left foot forward. It appears that the Egyptian army started marching with the left foot, a custom that has been passed on to practically every military force of the world!
Phoenician Influence on the Israelites
The beautiful Phoenician ivories bear unmistakable traces of Egyptian influence. Clothing, head cloths, gods and the cross of Egypt were passed on to the Phoenicians. Additionally, they had the sacred pole, a religious symbol of the male sex organ. But, even worse, the Phoenicians practiced the depraved religion centered around the fertility god Baal. It involved abhorrent rites of child sacrifice, the babies’ ashes being placed in cinerary urns.
The Scriptures say that King Ahab of Israel married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon (the principal city of Phoenicia) and began serving Baal. Ahab “set up an altar to Baal at the house of Baal that he built in Samaria” and “went on to make the sacred pole.”—1 Ki. 16:31-33.
Exhibited in the Old Palestine Room are ivories in Phoenician style. Where were they found? In ancient Israel’s capital Samaria, where Ahab built his palace using costly ivory and, hence, making it a veritable “house of ivory.”—1 Ki. 22:39.
Assyrian aggressors closed in on Israel during the rule of Ashurnasirpal II, a man noted for cruelty and ruthless military campaigns. Interestingly, his stele shows him adorned with a cross. His successor, Shalmaneser III, is the first king of Assyria to record direct contact with Israel, doing so on the famous Black Obelisk. On it he is depicted standing to receive tribute from King Jehu of Israel, perhaps by means of an emissary. The obelisk also shows 13 Israelites carrying tribute, thus representing all the tribes of Israel, including the Levites.
Noteworthy, too, is the Nonagonal Prism. It chronicles King Sargon’s expeditions and mentions the conquest of Samaria that is recorded at 2 Kings 18:9-12.
In a palace room (known as the Lachish Room) Sargon’s heir Sennacherib is shown sitting on his throne during the surrender of the city of Lachish. Assyrian officers have come before the king for commendation, while prostrate Israelite prisoners beg for mercy as others receive the cruel treatment of flaying and impalement. Actual slingstones and a sling can also be seen here.
On view in the Room of Writing are the famous Lachish Letters. One of them, addressed to “Ya’ush the military governor of Lachish from Hosha’yahu,” contains God’s name, Jehovah, in Hebrew Tetragrammaton form (YHWH). This clearly indicates that the early Israelites were not afraid to use the name Jehovah.
Old Bibles and Manuscripts
Now let us browse through the King’s Library and the Historical Manuscripts Room. There is much to see, but we will pick out some outstanding exhibits.
It is difficult to imagine that anybody would attempt to throw away the Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek Bible manuscript written about the fourth century C.E. Yet, when the German biblical scholar Tischendorf visited the Greek monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in 1859, he found 43 sheets of this magnificent volume in a wastepaper basket.
At one time, the Codex Alexandrinus was in the library of the Patriarch of Alexandria. This vellum manuscript was presented to King Charles I of England in 1627. It dates from the first half of the fifth century C.E.
Look carefully at the Hebrew Pentateuch, a manuscript of the 10th century. In several places, you will see the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton יהוה. Compare this with the beautifully written Wycliffe Bible of 1380 to 1384—the first complete handwritten Bible in the English language. Both are such fine examples of exquisite penmanship! The bold printing of the Gutenberg, or 42-line Bible, believed to be the first substantial book ever printed from movable type, stands out in clear contrast.
The word “polyglot” comes from Greek and means “many tongues.” Two outstanding Polyglot Bibles are displayed. One is the Complutensian Bible of the early 16th century, giving the text in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin. And the other was completed by Christophe Plantin in 1571, with the text in the same four languages, as well as in Syriac. About 1,200 copies of this Bible were printed, 13 of them on vellum, as was this copy.
In one display case, four famous translations are seen together. Here we find Martin Luther’s New Testament, a popular German rendering of 1522 that formed the basis for William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1525. The Geneva Bible was prepared for private reading and study by a group of English and Scottish Protestant refugees living at Geneva in 1557. Next, our attention is drawn to the first edition of the King James Version, printed in 1611.
There is much more to see, but we must draw our interesting tour to a close. A visit to the British Museum is always worth while. Many of its exhibits are unique. So, if you are planning to attend the “Victorious Faith” International Conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses in London this year, be sure to include it in your itinerary!