Many visitors to the National Geographic Museum’s “Queens of Egypt” will enter the exhibition knowing two names: Nefertiti and Cleopatra. But it’s the name Nefertari they’ll remember.
The legacy of this Egyptian queen is likely to blow your sandals off.
In fact, a pair of her sandals, on display here, is among the few artifacts that remain from Nefertari’s tomb, which was looted after her death in 1255 B.C. Yet her empty catacomb endured for centuries, until it was discovered in 1904. It’s one of the most spectacular ancient Egyptian archaeological sites ever unearthed.
The vivid way in which the museum evokes the tomb of Nefertari — the first wife of the pharaoh Ramses II — reflects this impressive exhibition. There’s a large model, made in the early 20th century, of Nefertari’s spectacularly decorated two-level catacomb. Adjacent to it, you’ll find a simulation of Nefertari’s final resting place, in a room that seems to spin around the viewer, via virtual-reality glasses.
Such high-tech media smartly supplements the show’s more conventional artifacts, which help evoke the ancient world. One room even features a video backdrop from an “Assassin’s Creed” game set in Egypt.
The historical objects come from five European and Canadian museums, with most of them on loan from Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. Several items from that Italian archive are just as rare — if far more imposing — than that pair of sandals.
The show doesn’t attempt to cover all of Egypt’s known queens. Rather, it focuses on seven from the New Kingdom period, beginning with Ahmose-Nefertari (who reigned from 1539 to 1514 B.C.) and culminating with Cleopatra (technically known as Cleopatra VII).
The latter, who lost Egypt — and her life — to the Roman empire in 30 B.C., is billed as the “last” Egyptian queen, but her story is a bit more complicated than that. A descendant of Ptolemy I, a Macedonian Greek who established Hellenistic rule over Egypt in the late 4th century B.C., Cleopatra is not, strictly speaking, a successor to Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and the other Egyptian queens in this show.
Cleopatra is no stranger to modern eyes, having been depicted innumerable times in high and low culture, but few likenesses of her survive from her own time. One likely exception closes the show: a striking portrait bust from the Museo Egizio that has never been seen before in the United States. Three cobras sit on her head, symbolizing the three lands she meant to rule: Egypt, Syria — and Rome. (No wonder the Romans, after deposing her, destroyed every image of her they could find.)
“Queens of Egypt” maintains a careful balance between the exalted and the everyday. One display of jars contains ancient Egyptian-style perfumes, including Mendesian, which may have been Cleopatra’s favorite. Visitors can pop open the lid and take in the spicy scent.
Elsewhere, a corridor is lined with four large granite statues of Sekhmet, the lioness-faced war goddess. Other galleries reveal what life was like in a pharaoh’s harem, or in Deir El-Medina, a village that was home to the craftspeople who built and embellished the royal tombs. (The Greeks and Romans weren’t the only outsiders to overwrite Egyptian culture and language with their own; “harem” and “medina” are both Arabic terms.)
The workers of Deir El-Medina may have been commoners, but because of their trade, they were unusually well educated, leaving behind detailed records of their lives, inscribed on pottery or stone, and written on papyrus scrolls (some of which are on view here). One scroll featured in the show sheds light on the kind of conspiracies that were hatched in the harem: It’s a record of the trial of a wife of Ramses III, who plotted to overthrow the pharaoh and replace him with her son.
Of course, no tour of bygone Egypt would be complete without mummies. Just before you bid farewell to Cleopatra, you’ll find a grand chamber featuring 12 sarcophagi, arranged so that both container and contents can be seen. In a similar way, “Queens of Egypt” — whether through contemporary technology or millennia-old objects — illuminates its subject from the inside out.
National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW. 202-857-7700. natgeomuseum.org.
Dates: Through Sept. 2.
Admission: $15. Children 5 to 12 $10 (under 5, free).