Carved colossi like these of Rameses II at Abu Simbel were also loci for survival, another hope for life after death, transmuting materiality into spirit. Likenesses provided alternative houses for the soul.
Unlike say the images of American Presidents depicted in giant scale at Mt Rushmore, these statues are not decorative or even memorial. Through magic, the Egyptians attempted to transmute matter into spirit. Statues like this were vehicles through which the dead pharaoh could take material shape. In front of these lips, priests performed the most important ritual in Egyptian religion, the ceremonial opening of the mouth. Using either an adze or two little fingers of meteoric iron they would touch the lips four times, re-enacting the clearing of a baby’s mouth at birth, and this would be accompanied by the sacrifice of a bull and the presentation of a foreleg and heart. A similar ceremony opened the king’s eyes. Statues were imbued with life, which explains why they called the Egyptian sculptor: 'he who makes to live’.
There was no art for art’s sake. Nothing was fashioned for its sheer aesthetics. Everything was fashioned for a magical purpose and charged with the purpose for which it was made. That’s why their work defies reproduction. And that’s why their art holds such a fascination. It is imbued with heka, magical force, the animistic, motive power of the universe. Jewellery was not just jewellery, but prophylactic charms, statues were never vanity portraits, but houses for the soul, tombs were not painted to brighten the darkness of the underworld but to harness the power of heka. Death, ultimately, was the inspiration of all Egyptian art, or at least eternal life after death, about embodying eternity to create a home in which the soul of the dead could survive. In place of flesh they built themselves bodies in paint, wood and stone.
And here, gazing down on us in monumental stone, is Egypt’s confidence, writ large, in the existence of the afterlife.