Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 August 2006
Issue No. 808
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The elite of the millennia

The second Royal Mummies Hall which opened last week crosses the Ts on mummification and reveals an obscure era of instability in the history of ancient Egyptians. Nevine El-Aref toured the gallery

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Tthe mummy of Pinudjem II; a papyrus showing the mummification rituals; Ka statue of Auibra-Hur; Hosni and Hawass during the inauguration ceremony and Deir Al-Bahari cachet during its discovery in 1881

Preserving the likeness of the deceased was of utmost importance to ancient Egyptians. The immortal spirit, released upon death, needed to be able to identify the body in which it was to repose. Century upon century, efforts were made to perfect a technique once believed to have reached its peak during the New Kingdom in the 19th Dynasty to the 21st Dynasty, with mummies like that of Ramses II, and began to decline thereafter.

The Pharaohs of the New Kingdom hid their tombs in the Valley of the Kings, hoping this would help keep their mummies safe from tomb robbers. But the glittering jewels and precious funerary furniture that filled the royal burials frequently proved too alluring to thieves, and some tombs were violated and robbed soon after their royal occupants were laid to rest. Tutankhamun's tomb, for example, was threatened with robbery at least twice in antiquity, but each time the thieves were caught or frightened away by the necropolis police and the tomb remained intact. On the whole, apart from isolated incidents such as this, the tombs were well-guarded for many years and were relatively secure.

By the end of the Ramesside Period, when the Egyptian empire began to decline and the country was suffering from economic disorder and rampant corruption, several royal and nobles' tombs were entered by robbers. A papyrus relates that a royal commission sent by the vizier at the request of Paser, the mayor of the Theben east bank, to examine the royal tombs reported that the tombs were intact, but Paser insisted on further investigation and it was eventually revealed that several tombs had been violated with the collaboration of Pawera, the mayor of the west bank. Another ancient Egyptian document gives us the names of eight thieves who robbed a royal tomb. The men confessed their crimes under interrogation and were tortured with the bastinado, a stick used to beat their hands and feet.

Some priests of Amun who still retained their respect for the deceased kings and queens tried their best to protect the mummies of these royals from desecration by hiding them in caches. The High Priest of Amun Pinudjem II, who ruled the Theben region in the 21st Dynasty, was the first to move 40 royal and non-royal mummies from their original burials, along with any remaining artefacts, to his own tomb carved high in the rocky cliffs of Deir Al-Bahari on the Theban west bank. The priests unwrapped the mummies, removed the jewels and amulets, and then carefully rewrapped and labelled the kings and queens before hiding them in Pinudjem's tomb. This observance was carried out in part as an act of piety and in part to acquire materials for the needs of the current rulers.

In the 19th century a shepherd accidentally found such a burial cache while trying to rescue one of his goats, which was trapped in a deep crevice. Climbing down, he found an ancient Egyptian treasure trove filled with the coffins of the most important Pharaohs of the New Kingdom. His relatives, the Abdel-Rassoul family, kept the cache secret and entered it several times to remove some of the artefacts, which they sold on the antiques market. In 1881 the cache came to the attention of the Service de l'Antiquités, and all the sarcophagi and mummies were moved to Cairo. In 1889 Victor Loret, head of the Service de l'Antiquités at the time, found the second royal cache in king Amenhotep II's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. In addition to the Pharaoh's mummy, which was propped up on a large model boat, Loret found 13 mummies, nine of which belonged to Pharaohs. These mummies had been taken to the tomb for security reasons by the priests of Amun at some point during the 21st Dynasty. Labels were left on some of the mummies, while the identity of others is unknown and is still being debated by Egyptologists.

The 53 mummies, the total in the two caches, were kept in the Egyptian museum for decades until 1994, when the first Royal Mummies Hall was opened on the museum's second floor. Last week, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni inaugurated the second gallery after two years of preparation. The opening comes almost 12 years after the opening of the first, which displays 11 royal mummies from the age of empire that began in the late 17th Dynasty and continued through the 19th Dynasty. Pharaohs of this period led the liberation war against the Hyksos.

The second gallery is designed like a royal tomb, with a vaulted ceiling and low, indirect lighting. It displays 11 mummies that are exhibited inside special showcases, each supplied with a small electronic device to observe and control the humidity level around the mummy minute by minute. The mummies belong to royal individuals of the 20th Dynasty such as Pharaoh Ramses III, and to priests of Amun who ruled the southern half of Egypt as priest-kings. These priest-kings proclaimed Thebes as Egypt's religious capital and founded the 21st Dynasty. Among them was Pinudjem II, an important ruler of the Third Intermediate Period, who moved the earlier royal mummies to one of the caches. This room also displays three mummies of queens, including that of Maatkare.

The mummies exhibited in both galleries were among those discovered in 1881 in the first mummy cache at Deir Al-Bahari (DB 320) on Luxor's west bank, and in 1898 in the second cache in Pharaoh Amenhotep II's tomb (KV 35) in the Valley of the Kings. Both caches included the mummies of famous kings of the New Kingdom, including Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep III, and the last warrior Pharaoh Ramses II, as well as mummies of well-known queens and high priests of Amun.

Egyptian Museum Director Wafaa El-Sadiq says that major steps have been taken to create a display that will acquaint visitors with the mummification process and its importance to the ancient Egyptians. This included hanging panels about the first and second caches in the scenario, along with a photograph of Pharaoh Amenhotep II's tomb (KV 35) and other objects, such as linen shreds decorated with an image of the god of mummification, Osiris.

The first mummy one sees is that of Ramses III, the founder of the funerary temple of Madinet Habu on Luxor's west bank. Ramses III was known as the last of the influential Ramesside Pharaohs. He succeeded in repelling the invasions of the sea people during his long reign, which lasted from 1185 to 1152 BC. The second mummy belongs to his son, Ramses IV, whose reign was dissimilar to that of his father in every way. While Egypt under Ramses III was marked by its stability, Ramses IV's reign witnessed weak government under constant threat from internal rebels, which dropped a sorry curtain on the glorious Ramesside period in Upper Egypt and provided an opportunity for the rise of the new royal priesthood. It was Ramses IX who finally handed over all authority when his daughter Nejmet married Hrihor, the high priest of Amun. This opened the way to the 21st Dynasty of priest-kings and the Third Intermediate Period.

Visitors are guided past the mummy of Queen Henettawy, which is wrapped in linen decorated with the image of Osiris alongside some lines of hieroglyphs written in red ink. This queen was married to the High Priest Pinudjem I, father of Pinudjem II, whose mummy is also exhibited next to his wife, Queen Istemkheb.

One mummy, that of Nesikhonsu wears a splendid wig. Some mummies hold their majesty despite affliction. Ramses V's body was pitted with variola. The mummy of Maatkare has stirred the curiosity of experts from the moment of its discovery as it was accompanied by another small mummy. Experts believed that this was that of a baby, but examination revealed that it was the mummy of a small baboon which was apparently her beloved pet. The most beautiful mummy exhibited is that of Prince Djedptahiufankh, which is in a state of perfect preservation. It differs from the others in the galleries in that this prince had no importance in history, but his mummy was found wearing seven gold rings on his hands and another two on his left foot.

To facilitate the visitor's tour, both rooms are linked via a small corridor, and one ticket gives access to both. And for the first time, a catalogue with photographs has been published in English and Arabic, including photographs of the mummies on display and information concerning the mummification process, its rituals, and the deceased's journey into the Afterlife. The catalogue will soon be translated into French, German, and Japanese.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, says that all these mummies will eventually be moved to a special gallery already planned at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat, where they will be displayed with more respect and for educational purpose rather than "for thrills". Meanwhile the galleries in the Egyptian Museum provide a royal resting place.

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