Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2003
Issue No. 662
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Return of the king

The 3000-year-old mummy of 19th Dynasty King Ramses I made its way back to Egypt last week. Nevine El-Aref was there for the homecoming celebrations


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Hawass inspects the mummy of Ramses I; the sarcophagus constructed to carry the king back home
Sealed in plexiglass, with folded arms and a face frozen in the mask of death, the royal mummy of Ramses I was the star of a grand celebration that took place in the foyer of the Egyptian Museum on Sunday. The mummy -- which had been returned to Egypt by the Michael C Carlos Museum (MCCM) in Atlanta -- was feted by a military band, as well as hundreds of journalists, photographers, scholars and tourists who anxiously sought a glimpse of their shrivelled, valuable ancestor.

"Finally, after more than a century roaming around US museums and archaeological laboratories, the mummy of Ramses I is returning to its peaceful resting place inside its sarcophagus in preparation for its eternal spiritual journey," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Every Egyptian dreams of Egypt recovering the parts of its heritage that have been illegally smuggled out of the country, and today I am very pleased to witness another success on that front," Hosni said.

Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass described the event as "remarkable", an occasion that should serve as a lesson for museums all over the world. According to Hawass, it was a symbol of fruitful cooperation between scholars, showing that museums are not only interested in keeping antiquities for the sake of public display, but also care about returning them to their homeland.

In fact, last May, MCCM also gave Egypt back four painted limestone fragments that were part of the tomb of Seti I, a son of Ramses I. "History will be thanking this museum for what it has done," Hawass said.

Peter Lacovara, MCCM's ancient art curator, said, "We are doing this because we do believe that a royal mummy should be returned back to where it belongs. There is no doubt about that and it was simply the right thing to do."

Hawass said that in the next few months, several other important artefacts would be recovered from the USA with the help of the FBI.

Mahmoud Mabrouk head of museum department said that the mummy is believed to have left Egypt in 1871 as part of a wide scale sell-off of treasures looted from Luxor's Valley of the Kings. Tomb robbers from the Abdel-Rassul family had accidentally stumbled upon the cache, and began selling its mummies, coffins and royal artefacts to tourists and antiquities collectors. According to scholarly conjecture, the mummy was first sold to a mummy collector, who in turn sold it to a Canadian physician. Soon thereafter, much of the collection came into the possession of Canada's Niagara Falls Museum.

When German Egyptologist Arne Eggevrecht, a specialist in New Kingdom antiquities, visited the museum and examined its Egyptian collection firsthand, he realised that it included a royal mummy. A few months later, in 1999, as word of the discovery spread, the MCCM bought the Niagra's entire Egyptian collection for two million dollars.

The mummy was then subjected to three years of intensive study. MCCM Director Bonnie Speed, who attended this week's celebration, told reporters that CT scan, X-rays, radiocarbon dating, computer imaging and other techniques were all used to identify the mummy. "We are one hundred per cent sure that the mummy is royal, and 95 per cent sure that it belongs to king Ramses I, the father of Seti I and grandfather of Ramses II," she said. One indication of the mummy's status, said Speed, is the position of the arms, which are crossed high across the chest, "a position reserved only for royalty".

Hawass told reporters that Egyptian and foreign experts would be carrying out further studies on the mummy in an attempt to provide yet more confirmation of its identity. Hawass said DNA, however, would not be used because it is "an inaccurate measure of identification and its results are only 42 per cent" accurate.

Hawass visited the MCCM over a year ago, at which point negotiations took place with Lacovara and Speed regarding the mummy coming back to its homeland. After a special exhibit at the MCCM, the mummy was offered as a gift from the museum to the SCA.

Ramses I -- who ruled from 1315-1314 BC -- was one of the most important kings in ancient Egyptian history, and founder of the 19th dynasty. He was a renowned military commander during the reign of Horemheb (1343- 1315 BC), and ended up on the throne despite his non-regal origins. Although he ruled Egypt for just one year, his name is mentioned in several important temples, and his tomb includes two large halls, a burial chamber and few side rooms.

Mamdouh El-Damati director of the Egyptian Museum announced that Ramses I's extremely well preserved mummy will be put on display in the foyer of the Egyptian museum for the next two months before being placed back into its original sarcophagus in the Luxor museum's annex dedicated to the military glory of the ancient Egyptians.

At the Egyptian museum on Sunday, Hawass also spoke about his plans to bring back five masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art to Cairo for a three-month exhibit. This wish list includes the British Museum's Rosetta Stone, the Louvre's Zodiac, and several other important pieces. "I am not asking for these five pieces to come back for good," Hawass said. "These museums have the right to these objects because they bought them in the time when antiquities were sold, and we do not have (the) right to return them."

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