September 2, 2003

Wagner, Ramesses headline convocation

Michael Terrazas

Last week’s Freshman Convocation focused on the departures and arrivals of two prominent campus leaders: Ramesses I, the 3,000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh currently holding court in the Carlos Museum but booked on a flight home very soon; and Jim Wagner, who becomes Emory’s 19th president this week after being named to the position July 30.

Wagner, presiding over his first Convocation at the invitation of former President Bill Chace, spoke at the event’s conclusion. “I have no official stature nor right to welcome you here, but my thanks to Bill Chace for allowing me to do that,” Wagner told his “fellow freshmen” gathered Aug. 27 in Glenn Auditorium.

Wagner told the students a story about 19th century scientists A.A. Michelson and E.W. Morley, who attempted to study the cosmic “ether,” the medium through which people at that time believed light traveled. The two conducted experiments designed to determine the difference in the speed of light as it traveled “with” and “against” the ether, like a boat traveling up and downriver.

The experiment, Wagner said, was a “spectacular failure,” but only until Michelson and Morley reached an epiphany: There is no ether. This kind of moment, of allowing for a possibility never before considered, is one the Class of 2007 should seek out during its time at Emory, their new president told them.

“You can expect, in an inquiry-based environment like this, to experience your own Michelson/Morley moments,” Wagner said. “Enjoy them.”

But before Wagner took the podium, most of the ceremony centered around the embalmed leader lying in state just a few hundred yards away from the Glenn dais. Ramesses I, acquired as part of a collection four years ago from a museum in Niagara Falls, Canada, has since April starred in a Carlos exhibition titled “Ramesses I: The Search for the Lost Pharaoh.”

That exhibit is scheduled to close Sept. 14, after which time Ramesses will return home to his native Egypt as a gesture of goodwill from Emory to the Egyptian government. Sending the pharaoh home, Emory officials often have said, is simply “the right thing to do,” and the Convocation speakers urged Emory’s freshman to get a look at the 3,000-year-old king before he is gone.

Gay Robins, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Art History, helped students re-create in their minds how Ramesses would have looked as a freshly entombed king, not as the three-millennia-old mummy stripped by tomb raiders of all his royal trappings. She described a body wrapped in white linens and adorned with gold, jewelry, lapis lazuli and placed in nesting coffins painted in symbolic red, dark blue and turqoise.

“Go to the museum and visualize how the Egyptians equipped their king for the most important journey of his life,” Robins said. “Get a glimpse into the time and place that was ancient Egypt, and dare to explore and strive to understand another culture so different from our own.”

“There are many wonders here to greet you at Emory, and, for a short time longer, Ramesses is also here to greet you in all his royal glory,” said Laurie Patton, professor of religion, who delivered the Convocation Address. “Ramesses can act as a kind of gatekeeper for the dramatic transition that you are making in embarking on this intellectual journey called Emory University.”

Patton’s address, titled “Cooperative Genius,” challenged the freshmen to understand that, more and more in this global society, genius resides not simply in the intellect of individuals, but rather in the combined energies and faculties of groups or even entire cultures. Using the Ramesses mummy as an example, Patton described how it took teams of researchers from an array of disciplines to seek out the pharaoh, bring him to Emory, identify him as conclusively as possible, and make the decision to send him home.

“The Carlos staff were global citizens enough to understand and be committed to the idea that if this quiet coffin inhabitant was indeed royal, then he belonged in Cairo, where the rest of his family resided,” Patton said. “The staff debated amongst themselves; I know the second-floor offices where such conversations took place, and they are ordinary offices, not the stuff of the pauncy archaeologist nor of Lord of the Rings. And yet, those offices were the places of great generosity—of collective, global genius.”

Other faculty speakers touched on various aspects of Emory’s royal resident’s stay: Physics’ Ray DuVarney announced several planetarium shows in September that will present the night skies as they appeared in Ramesses’ time; human genetics’ Neil Lamb explained the mystery of DNA—the Blueprint of Life, he intoned ominously—which scientists attempted to use to identify Ramesses; Middle Eastern and South Asian studies’ Devin Stewart, tongue firmly planted in cheek, explained the centrality of proverbs in Egyptian culture; and theater studies’ John Ammerman and Lisa Paulsen delivered a “performance” that defies easy description but seemed to revolve around lessons of love—and lots of beer.