Friday,14 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Friday,14 December, 2018
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Can mummies fly?

Ancient Egyptian mummies have long captured the public’s imagination, as the strange story of a flying mummy confirms, writes Zahi Hawass

Ancient Egyptian mummies are often believed to have magical powers, and their secrets have long touched the hearts and imagination of the public. People have said that mummies can move or leave their tombs and that there are curses connected to them. Hollywood film producers have cashed in on this widespread cult and succeeded in making movies that have further inspired the public’s imagination, capturing the fancy of adults and children alike. 

Mummies first made the international headlines after the revelation of a secret cache of them at the historical site of Deir Al-Bahari in 1881. This contained about 41 royal mummies, which, after they were brought to the surface, were taken from Luxor to Cairo by boat. On the day the ship set sail, women dressed in black lined the sides of the Nile in mourning, while men stood in stoic silence to say farewell to their ancestors. 

The late Egyptian film director Shadi Abdel-Salam made a memorable film called The Night of Counting the Years (The Mummy) in which famous movie star Nadia Lotfi captivated audiences with her astonishing performance. This film won international acclaim and is still often shown abroad. 

While I was earning my PhD in Philadelphia in the US in 1983, the film was screened at the Cultural and Educational Bureau of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. My dear friend Mohamed Ghoneim was the embassy’s cultural attaché at the time, and he saw to it that The Mummy was screened at universities, colleges and libraries all over the US. 

I was invited to attend the showings and introduce the film and to talk about the Abdel-Rasoul family in Luxor who had made the 1881 discovery. I had the opportunity to tell American audiences about Ahmed (Pasha) Kamal, a great Egyptologist who lived around the turn of the 20th century, who had pushed for the training of Egyptians in a field that had until then been monopolised by Westerners. 

To add to the mystery of mummies, an American magazine once published a very strange article claiming that there was an Egyptian mummy in Saqqara lying inside a limestone sarcophagus and dating back some 2,500 years to the 26th Dynasty. The article said people watching the sarcophagus had seen it open and the mummy levitate about two feet above the ground for eight hours before it fell gently back into place to rest for 16 hours. It went on to describe how the mummy “flew in the air slowly in a circle around the sarcophagu”. The article even mentioned that a scientist, called Bubouchile, had claimed that the mummy’s behaviour was similar to the waking and sleeping habits of human beings. 

The article went on to claim that scientists were endeavouring to solve the mystery of this mummy and explain the phenomenon. It specifically mentioned that Egyptian, Italian and French scientists had been trying to penetrate the mystery. This “legend of the flying mummy” enthralled the public at the time. 

Of course, scientists and Egyptologists could not explain the claimed strange behaviour of the mummy because no scientific explanation could be given. Consequently, an English magician was brought in to try to solve the problem and determine whether trickery had been involved. Was the phenomenon a joke that had captured the public’s imagination, as mummies tend to do? In films mummies are often shown walking very slowly. This was the first “evidence” that they could fly as well. 

The magician reputedly examined the sarcophagus and found nothing out of the ordinary — there were no strings or wires that could have been used to deceive observers. He then claimed that the mummy had flown without any intervention from humans. “It is true that here we have evidence of a flying mummy,” the magician said in an interview. 

One scientist said that the mummy had belonged to an Egyptian priest who knew the secrets of the ancient Egyptians and that he had come back in the form of this mummy. It was said that the ancient Egyptian concept of ka, a part of the soul of a person, would be able to fly in the after-life if mummification had been carried out perfectly. However, if the mummification was poorly done, the mummy would fly in the air around the tomb because it was not permitted access to the nether world. 

Newspaper reporters called me to ask whether the claims were true or false. I said that I had never heard anything about a flying mummy. I called the director of the Saqqara site, who told me that no “scientists” were working at Saqqara, nor, indeed, had they found any new mummies. I found out that a film crew working on the very marketable theme of mummies had invented the story working with an Egyptian mummy expert. 

Can anyone believe in a flying mummy? I think our imaginations are wont to work overtime sometimes. However, there is also the story of the mummy of the Pharaoh Ramses found in Atlanta, Georgia, that will be the subject of a following article.

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