Egypt’s Restless Dead
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Embalmed, bandaged and boxed away in secret tombs, Egypt’s pharaonic finest were intended to be preserved for all eternity, or at least until they were collected by their respective gods and transported to the afterlife in the underworld.
But, alas, for most of the mummies, the fate of their carefully preserved bodies was not quite so everlasting.
In fact, for millenniums, Egypt’s mummified royals have been repeatedly preyed upon by grave robbers and looters who have pillaged their sacred tombs for treasure and curiosity.
And while their embalmers may have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the sanctity of their dead lords, a universal fascination with their carefully preserved remains (which prevails even today) proved far too strong to prevent their desecration.
To date, the only pharaonic tomb that has been discovered entirely intact is that of the young King Tutankhamun, and it survived mainly because it was improvisingly carved into the ground under that of the much larger tomb of King Ramses VI and went unnoticed until Howard Carter stumbled across it in the Valley of the Kings in 1922.
Today, Tut’s earthy remains can still be seen inside the entrance of his tomb, in a climate-controlled glass box, reassembled under a linen cloth after having been sliced into segments for its removal from his sarcophagus.
But, for the most part, the fate of his fellow pharaohs was not nearly so perpetual, despite the best intentions of their embalmers.
The embalming and mummification of the ancient dead was a tedious process.
After having been purified and washed with palm wine and water from the Nile, the deceased pharaoh’s body was disemboweled, with the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines carefully preserved and stored in ceramic jars that would accompany the corpse in the tomb.
The brain, meanwhile, was liquefied and sucked out of the skull to be disposed of because it was considered an unimportant organ.
Finally, the deceased was embalmed with sacred herbs and chemicals and wrapped in soft bandages before being placed in a brightly painted sarcophagus to await his or her journey to the afterworld, where they would allegedly face a series of trials and tribulations to determine their merit before the god Osiris.
But, as it turned out, it was not the tribunals of the afterworld that would most task the mummified pharaoh’s eternity.
As far back as history relates, the mystical preservation of the mummies had been associated with medicinal – and sometimes magical – properties, and while the earliest Egyptian grave raiders may have primarily been interested in gold and precious jewels, they almost inevitably ended up sacking the mummified remains of the tombs as well, later selling bits and pieces of the corpses for pharaonic snake oil therapies.
That misconception gained international popularity when the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to Egypt in the fifth century B.C. and wrote extensively about the mummification process.
Eventually, Europeans began to turn to the practice of using pieces of mummied bodies to treat their own pantheon of ailments, and by the Middle Ages, the use of mummy parts was standardized medicine in tending cuts, bruises, fractures and even menstrual cramps.
And thus arose a flourishing trade of mummified human flesh, which was excavated from ancient Egyptian tombs and exported the world over.
The international trade in mummy parts came to a zenith in the late 1500s, when John Sanderson, an agent for the British-based Turkey Company, purchased more than 600 pounds of mummified Egyptian flesh, along with a complete corpse to be exported to England.
The corpse was subsequently diced into pieces by traveling medicine men before astonished audiences and sold in potions that were alleged to cure just about anything that could ail a Medieval patient.
For the next 100 or so years, mummy powder and mummy parts were patent medicine in Europe, and even King Francis I of France was believed to carry a small supply with him wherever he went.
But eventually, mummified flesh fell out of popular favor as science-based medicine became more accepted, although mummy parts were still used in many occult ceremonies and Egyptian mummy powder could be found in Western pharmacies as late as 1920.
There were also collectors with a morbid interest in owning the embalmed body parts of deceased pharaohs.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian authorities strived hard to prevent the desecration of the ancient pharaonic tombs and to ban the export of mummied bodies and all ancient antiquities, but rampant corruption and the growing international value of the corpses made it nearly impossible to stem the export.
All this came to an end in 1970, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ratified an international convention banning the sale and export of illicit antiquities.
Since then, the Egyptian government has taken the preservation of all its ancient treasures, including its mummies, very seriously, and has drafted a number of strict laws prohibiting both the possession and sale of antiquities.
All research and excavation of ancient pharaonic sites today is carefully supervised and directed by the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities, and the sanctity of any tomb is respected and preserved.
Anyone caught trying to pillage any of these sites faces serious jail time and fines.
At long last, it seems, Egypt’s once-restless dead can rest in peace.