Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Mummies as salted fish

The ancient Egyptian royal mummies from Deir Al-Bahari on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor were once considered salted fish, writes Zahi Hawass

Deir Al-Bahari
Deir Al-Bahari

The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor were the resting places of royalty, though some privileged nobles and officials during the golden age of the Pharaohs were also laid to rest in the Theban necropolis. 

In the late 19th century, the necropolis was taken over by tomb-robbers and collectors of antiquities who established their residences there. European countries sent their consuls to Egypt to collect antiquities in addition to attending to affairs of state. Ancient Egyptian antiquities were all the rage, and none was more popular than mummified flesh, which was thought to have therapeutic qualities. Ground mummy powder was believed to cure a wide range of ailments. 

The excavators ranged from scholars like the British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, called the “Father of Egyptology” because of his scientific methods of recording excavated sites, to explorers and treasure-hunters such as the Italian Giovanni Belzoni and the British explorer Howard Vyse — the latter even using dynamite to open up ancient pyramids and tombs. 

The Rape of the Nile, a book by UK author Brian Fagan, tells the tale of this period of the exploitation of Egypt’s heritage —  with the permission of the Egyptian rulers, it should be added. There was as yet no law governing the transport of antiquities abroad, and museums around the world amassed great collections. 

In 1880, the Abdel-Rasoul family was well-known in Luxor for its members’ ability “to smell out” the location of an ancient Egyptian tomb. Members of the family would go to the west bank and, armed with no more than a hand-held torch, search for treasures. 

They discovered hidden royal mummies in a cache at Deir Al-Bahari, for example, and were the only people who knew its exact location. They would enter the shaft in the dead of night and take small but precious artefacts, which they then sold to antiquities dealers and European consuls in Luxor. 

The head of Egypt’s antiquities at the time, the Frenchman Gaston Maspero, went to Luxor to investigate how such royal artefacts were suddenly appearing on the market. He and the director of police in nearby Qurna soon realised that the secret lay with members of the Abdel-Rasoul family. 

They arrested Ahmed, one of its members, and put him in jail. However, he would not talk and would not reveal any of the family’s secrets. The police had insufficient evidence to hold him, so he was released. Back with his family, he then told them that he deserved a much larger percentage of the profits from the royal cache because he had suffered at the hands of the police and yet had remained true to the family and breathed not a word about what they had found. 

Other members of the family refused his proposal, so Ahmed went to Maspero and told him everything about the discovery, including the secret entrance beneath the hills at Deir Al-Bahari. Maspero was the first to enter the cache and see the 40 coffins as a result. He recognised them as royal and for safety had them moved to Cairo. 

Days were then spent extracting the mummies from the shaft and transporting them to the Nile for shipment. The day of the departure of the mummies was a sad one for everyone in the village of Qurna next to the Valley of the Kings. Women dressed in black stood on the west bank of the Nile in stoic silence, watching ancient Egypt’s kings and queens being carried away. As the boat began to sail, the mourning women trilled in grief, tears spilling down their cheeks. 

Maspero accompanied the royal mummies all the way to Cairo. When the boat arrived, the customs officials did not know how to document the cargo. After all, mummies were not mentioned in their manual. Finally, one of the officials suggested that they should be considered as “salted fish”, because they had rules and regulations concerning such a cargo. 

The mummies were at first displayed in the then museum in Bulaq. They now rest in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in the galleries known as the Mausoleum of the Mummies. 

A film directed by the Egyptian director Shadi Abdel-Salam, The Night of Counting the Years, starring actress Nadia Lotfi, returns to the drama of the discovery of the royal mummies at Deir Al-Bahari. 

The question remains, however, of why so many royal mummies were interred in a single cache.

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