Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The myth of red mercury

The myth of red mercury, a substance supposedly found in the throats of ancient Egyptian mummies, is still widespread in Egypt, writes Zahi Hawass

 The myth of red mercury
The myth of red mercury

The stories of tomb robberies are amazing but also tragic. The robbers do not realise that by cutting scenes and reliefs out from ancient temples and tombs they are damaging not only the history of Egypt but also that of the world as a whole.

During the 25 January Revolution, Egypt went through difficult times. On 28 January 2011, over 1,000 people sneaked into the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. That night, the police had left Cairo and the city did not have a single policeman on the streets. We have to thank God for saving the museum, because the people who sneaked inside it did not find the gold room or the room containing the golden mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

When we entered the museum the next day, we found many gilded statues thrown on the ground. But the museum as a whole was saved because the mummy room was locked and the building was dark, so the robbers could not find its location. If these people had found the mummy room, the royal mummies could have been destroyed.

“Red mercury”, one of the things the robbers may have been looking for, is a mythic substance for many Egyptians. They believe that in the throats of mummies there is a liquid called red mercury. If someone possesses this liquid, he or she will be able to control the spirits and become rich. Of course, there is no such thing as red mercury, but many people still believe in it all over Egypt. A daughter of a friend of mine called me one day and said that her father had held a zar (a kind of religious ceremony) at his house and brought in a Moroccan magician who had made her father believe that he could summon up the djinn, or spirits, to provide him with red mercury.

The secretary of an Arab prince also once called me and said the prince would like to meet me. I agreed. The prince came and said that he would make the story short. “My mother is very sick, and we have taken her to doctors in Egypt and all over the world, but she is still sick. A sheikh who lives near us told me that the remedy for my mother was in the hands of Zahi Hawass.” I did not know what to say, because I did not understand why he was telling me what he was saying. “I am an Egyptologist and not a doctor,” I said.

A few months later, he called me one evening and said he wanted to see me. On his arrival he said, “I have $100,000 in my bag. If you will give me some of the liquid you have, I have the same amount at my hotel.” I realised that he was referring to red mercury. I told the prince that there was no such thing as red mercury. I found out from the prince that the reason he had come to me was because I had been working on a major excavation called the Valley of the Golden Mummies in the Bahareya Oasis and had found a large cemetery full of mummies dating to the Roman period and covered with gold.

The people of Bahareya had become rich because of the production of wine, and it was wine that everyone in ancient Egypt wanted to drink in the afterlife. The discovery of the mummies happened by accident when the antiquities guard of the Temple of Alexander the Great in the Oasis had been riding his donkey whose leg fell into a hole. He looked inside and saw mummies covered in gold. We excavated the discovery, which the foreign press called the “Tutankhamun of the Greek and Roman Period”.

The US channel Fox TV aired a two-hour programme about the discovery hosted by American actor Bill Pullman who played the role of the president of the United States in the movie Independence Day. Many famous actors came to visit, including the British actor Roger Moore with his girlfriend Christina. The Egyptian press wrote several pieces as well, and one day Makram Mohamed Ahmed, a famous writer and journalist, was reading a French magazine that included 10 pages on the Valley of the Golden Mummies as he was flying back to Egypt from Paris. When he arrived in Cairo, he called me and said that not enough was known about the discovery in Egypt. I told him it was not my fault and that we had sent press releases to the Egyptian media, but no one had come to the site. On the other hand, many foreign TV people and reporters had come to write about the discovery. Ahmed then sent journalist Ahmed Abou Kaf who wrote a story about the mummies in Al-Musawar magazine.

I told the prince this story and explained that there was no liquid to be found in the throats of mummies, but people who wanted to be rich had searched for this because of a myth that had become common among Egyptians. The name “red mercury” actually emerged after the fall of the former Soviet Union, when the Russians began to sell uranium to Third World countries. This contains something called red mercury.

Another story concerns the site of Sakkara, where the 27th-Dynasty tomb of an army commander called Padinist was found. Members of the expedition included the famous chemist Alfred Lucas and Zaki Iskander from the then Egyptian Antiquities Service. Inside the tomb a sarcophagus was found that had been completely sealed since antiquity. They opened the sarcophagus carefully and found the mummy of the overseer of the army inside. It was resting on its side, and beside it was a liquid that had remained from the mummification process. Lucas and Iskander collected the liquid and put it in a small bottle. This is now in the Mummification Museum in Luxor.

Today, there are still people who deceive others by presenting them with something called red mercury. I thought I had convinced the prince that the story was a myth because he left, apparently happy. But one week later, I read in the paper that the police had caught an Egyptian who had deceived an Arab prince by selling him red mercury.

Even today, many people in Egypt still believe in this myth, and some taxi drivers even ask me how they can get hold of a sample of red mercury.

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