It’s the strangest thing.
I was strolling through a museum, not expecting a bolt from the blue, scanning each glass case busily for stories. Minding my own business.
And then our eyes met across a crowded room, and that level gaze captured me completely, and I could think of nothing else.
The Heirakonpolis Ivories are not surrounded by their back story. The label at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, will tell us only that the people standing behind the glass were found in the ‘main deposit’ in the Ancient Egyptian city of the Hawk.
People have lived in that place since 4,000 years before Christ. Called Heirakonpolis by the Greeks, the Egyptians named it Nekhen. Between five and ten thousand people worshipped the hawk god, Horus, there on the banks of the Upper Nile.
Excavations have been going on there, on and off, since the end of the 19th century. I do not know when the strange little ivories were taken from their cool, dark storage place into the dessicating heat and glaring light.
They stand in a glass case in the room which looks at Ancient Egypt and its origins. Many are word, and rough. Even clumsy.
But then time has worn them. They date, it is said, from 3300-2175BC. They have had four millennia to become battered. We forgive them, and marvel at man who made such a thing so far back in time.
And then, I saw his eyes.
I thought He was a Her, until I realised that he wore a sheath, the emblem of a man of Ancient Egypt. But those eyes: they slew me. How was it that all the other faces were made grotesque, rude and rough by time and yet his has remained as fresh and haunting as the day it was fashioned to resemble its flesh-and-blood counterpart?
This world’s artists have succeeded in representing beauty with masterful timelessness. Look at the Venus De Milo and her marble calm, or the enigma that is the Mona Lisa.
But to me, personally, this small ivory surpasses any other representation of beauty I have seen. An unknown figurine created by an unknown artist when civilisation was in its infancy, he radiates focus and energy. He stands among the stumps, refusing to surrender whatever was his life’s mission, a syudy in intensity.
The psychologists say, don’t they, that attraction can have something to do witha mutual attitude to life. When I first saw this long-dead soul I scoffed. He’s just a pretty face, I tod myself, and walked away hugging my camera.
But his intensity – it was palpable. In meeting his gaze I was not just haunted by his face, but by his stance. This man, I feel sure, had unfinished business.
I suppose I shall never know.