Volume II, Number 6 June 1st, 2001
Mummies Have Souls Too:
Egyptian Intellectuals Debate
the Issue of Displaying Mummies
A debate is going on amongst Egyptian writers and archaeologists about mummies. Should mummies be unearthed, displayed, poked at and unwrapped, or should they be left alone in dignity in their final resting places? While it is hard to gauge Egyptian public opinion on the matter, in the absence of any studies or opinion polls, the view of treating mummies with the utmost respect seems to be the accepted notion.
For years, mummies have been desecrated and violated, mostly by foreigners who use the idea of a preserved ancient human body for profit, either in films or in trade. As recent as the first half of the 20th century, so called adventurers were said to "goose-pimple their guests by having a mummy unwrapped after dinner". An American entrepreneur, responding to a shortage of rags, bought mummies at less than three cents a pound, and sold their bandages to make meat-wrapping paper for butchers. Mark Twain said he saw stokers shoveling mummies into the furnace of a steam engine.
There is no record of the mummies smuggled out of Egypt over the centuries. It is not unusual to find the odd mummy in mini-museums at mansions over Europe and North America. They are treated like private property and regarded as ancient relics.
After a history of mistreatment, most Egyptians would not entrust ancient mummies to be exported for any purpose, even as objects for scientific research.
In fact, recent published views attacked the idea of displaying the so called "golden mummies" of the Western desert. These mummies were discovered in the early 1990's, in the Bahariya Oases, 380 km south of Giza, and belong to Greek and Roman eras in Egypt two millennia ago. At the time of discovery, the prevailing view was to re-bury the mummies. That was granted for several reasons. First, the mummies, several thousands in total, were of ordinary Egyptians. Second, the mummification process of that time was of low quality, and most of the bodies were decomposed. Third, there were no records of any historical significance, and no gold to display. The custom of the time was to portray the mummy's face on a gypsum or cloth mask.
The Western desert mummies have recently been declared as a tourist attraction in the area, and tours are organized to the sites. The mummies, however, are not disturbed and the visits are said by some to be awe-inspiring.
There is a need for more knowledge about mummies in order to "humanize" them and build a bond of respect and admiration for them. They can even help modern medical science. DNA and tissue samples from mummies can help identify ancient diseases and their evolution, and can assist in developing modern medicines.
Most Egyptians know that it is inevitable that some mummies would be displayed outside their burial places. They accept that some should indeed be displayed. Royal Mummies or mummies of historical value should be on display. Those mummies are a silent witness to the greatness of ancient Egyptian civilization and vast reservoir of knowledge. But ordinary mummies of ancient Egyptians should be kept in situ, preserved and dignified, as befit deceased members of Egyptian extended families. They should not be looked upon as objects of curiosity. With yet another mummy movie on the market, most Egyptians feel that mummies are not given due respect and dignity. Far from being a source of horror and evil, mummies are the ancient Egyptian way of conquering decay and mortality. For a period of more than 7,000 years, mummies were buried as bodies in perfect condition, awaiting the return of the souls.
One mummy in the British Museum (At case 22 in room 62) carries its own epitaph in ancient Greek: "Farewell Artemidorus". The man lived in Greek Egypt two thousand years ago, and was obviously missed by those he left behind. The length of time passed since his death does not make him any less human, and does not diminish his soul.
** "The Return of the Mummy", the latest film to hit the international block-busters screen will be shown in Egypt. This is the sequel to the "The Mummy" which was banned because of its negative portrayal of Egyptians of the early 20th century. The opinion of the censorship board, this time round, is that banning will not stop the film being viewed by other means. There are still reservations about the historical facts, the image of Egyptians, ancient and modern, and the stereotyping of some racial groups.
To be Content is a lasting Treasure.
Mr. Mohamed Arabi: The "Bird Man" of Aswan By Dr. Susan L. Wilson
A Brief Look at the Sinai By Jimmy Dunn
Mummies of Ancient Egypt: The Process and Beyond By Catherine C. Harris
The Lost Feeling, Or Was It a Mummy? By Arnvid Aakre
Breaking the Color Code By Anita Stratos
Alabaster: Egypt's Rock of the Ages By Sonny Stengle
Wreck Diving in the Egyptian Red Sea By Ned Middleton
The Animals of Ancient Egypt By Caroline Seawright
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Hotel Reviews By Jimmy Dunn & Juergen Stryjak
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
The Month in Review By John Applegate
Egyptian Exhibitions By Staff
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Nightlife Various Editors
Egypt On Screen By Carolyn Patricia Scott
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around Various Editors
Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek