1400 BC or 2012 AD. The Sahara or the Mojave. Ancient Pharaohs or Casino Moguls. Face it: no matter how exquisite the desert, we need a little bit of flamboyant relief, something that is not beige. Even purists, swooning over lizard prints in the sand, benefit from a jolt now and then. And what better way to stimulate the senses than a florid architectural extravaganza rising from the desert floor, the more lavish and outsized, the better.
Thebes, where the Pharaoh Tutankhamun reigned, was the Las Vegas of its time, a jaw-dropping conglomeration of building campaigns and state-of-the-art architectural remodeling that lasted a couple of millennia. In Thebes, Egyptian beer and wine poured, and perfumed women danced in sensually transparent robes depicted in the tomb paintings of Luxor Valley. Ancient Egyptians gamed and feasted, drank and dougied. Partying was so important to them that the tombs were stocked for afterlife raves.
Given the harmony of the desert/Egypt/party nexus, the Luxor Hotel was a natural in Las Vegas when the monumental black-glass pyramid with its 10-story sphinx and vertical beam of light (visible from the space shuttle) opened in 1993.
Never mind that the hotel’s namesake, Luxor—home to the largest cache of Pharaonic artifacts in Egypt—is over 300 miles south from the Gizeh Plain, where the iconic pyramids hike toward the sky under the watchful guard of the Sphinx. In Vegas, historical and geographical disconnects fuel reams of Ph.D. dissertations on postmodernism. But by 2008, the family-fun wave in Vegas was ebbing, and the talking camels and Nile ride, along with the rest of the Egypt-themed interior, were has-been hokey. As the mirage evaporated in the heat, Luxor President Felix Rappaport whined, “We’re not a British museum with ancient artifacts—we’re a casino-resort.”
The decision was made to move the full-scale replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb—one of two sets apparently authorized by the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo—from the hotel to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum (NVNHM) where I went to see it. Reluctantly.
Ancient Egypt fascinated me as a child, beckoned me as an adult. Once, in full possession of a precious Antiquities Pass affording free access to artifacts, I lived in an apartment across the street from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, where I spent every spare minute hunkered over the wooden and glass display cases, studying the artifacts and their tiny, hand-typed labels. I’ve looked at the real objects—and their replicas—throughout Egypt, the Middle East and Europe.
As far as world-class museums go, the LVNHM has modest charms—life-size fiberglass dinosaurs with benign, cartoonish faces share exhibition space with formaldehyde specimen jars. Room was made for the ancient Egypt exhibit, presumably by pushing the stuffed ibex herd out of the way.
I could feel my ka—the Egyptians had many words for states of consciousness—stirring as I neared a statue of a kneeling Pharaoh. Was it Amenhotep II? Or one of the rare female kings, wearing a false beard? Eighteenth Dynasty at any rate. You can tell, say, by the shape of the earlobes.
The LVNMH, I discovered, presents a respectable number of top-flight reproductions from the 5000 items in Tut’s tomb, including the famous golden throne and golden mummy masks, exquisitely delicate alabaster vases and water-tight model boats. While various historic liberties were taken for the Luxor Hotel sets—sexy Selket, who protects the canopic jars (full of Tut’s innards), should be 90 centimeters, not life-size—the cache of what the maniacal archeologist Howard Carter found when he descended the stone steps of the KV35 tomb closely matches the photographs snapped in 1923, minus centuries of dust.
As I wandered around the exhibit, the line between reality and reproduction blurred. Replicas, a 20th-century phenomenon, fudge the distinction between real and authentic so that eyes far more expert than mine have trouble distinguishing if the statue of the beneficent Egyptian cow goddess Hathor is the one disinterred from the rubble of KV35, an artifact imbued with historical significance, or a just modern workshop copy—pretty to look at, but meaningless.
The German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, saw this situation coming.
In the 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—a classic on graduate-student reading lists—Benjamin laments the loss of “aura” that attaches to the authentic object and wonders how bodily perception will change as reproductions proliferate. He proposes that human beings will have to manufacture new myths, new ways of being, to accommodate a world exponentially reliant on copy.
Benjamin largely had in mind the impact of photography and film on painting. He could not have foreseen the Las Vegas of 2012. Standing in the city whose signature is reproduction, a city in many ways synonymous with replica and simulation, I wondered if this hub in Southern Nevada, conjured seemingly out of thin air, represents an evolutionary milestone. Decades from now, Las Vegas may be considered a prototype for cities which virtual environments routinely substitute for the real thing.
For now, Tutankhamun’s life-size statue steps purposely forward into the future, the left leg, as always in ancient Egyptian art, advancing in front of the right.
It felt good to see him.
Perhaps the “real” is only what exists in the mind.