History of the Egyptian Mummy Part 1

About the history of the Egyptian mummy and tradition of mummification as part of their culture.


The Egyptian pharaohs, who went to such lengths to preserve their bodies and provide possessions for the afterlife (which they thought would be just like life on earth), would be shocked to see how their plans went awry. Their very forethought did them in. Perhaps things would have been different if they had not, in their kingly greed, had entombed with them such great wealth--the gold, the jewelry, the gold leaf-covered furniture, the armies of workmen symbolized by little figures, the chariots, the games, and musical instruments. Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza, even tried to take a large boat with him. The wealth attracted equally greedy, and much poorer, grave robbers, who managed over the centuries to get into every tomb, even that of young King Tutankhamen, who was discovered, however, unscathed in a 2,448-lb. pure gold coffin inside three other nested coffins, which in turn were inside several shrines, arranged like Chinese boxes, one inside the other. His tomb of four rooms may have been modest enough to escape attention, in spite of the great wealth it contained. At any rate, it was not until 1922 that archaeologist Howard Carter unearthed it after a long search.

In the process of grave robbing, which was rife from the beginning, the robbers often desecrated the wrapped mummies of the pharaohs and their families to get at the precious amulets tucked away in the bandagings. The practice was so common that Egyptian royalty took elaborate precautions to prevent it. They were buried in pyramids (later in caves), in rooms reached by trapdoors blocked with rocks weighing as much as 45 tons. But the thieves got in anyway. When in 1200 B.C. a corrupt government was allowing grave robbers to escape punishment, those concerned with the safety of the royal mummies moved several of them to an obscure tomb in Qurneh. The tomb was found accidentally in the 1800s by an Egyptian peasant, who did not report his find to the authorities; instead, he and his confederates slowly and carefully robbed its contents over the years until they were caught by French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero and his detectives in 1889. In the tomb were 30 mummies, among them Seti I, Amenhotep I, Ahmose, and Ramses II. Each in its sarcophagus, they were moved by 300 workmen to a boat which carried them north to Cairo. On the shore as the boat sailed by, fellahin (peasants) put dust on their heads and wailed to mourn the kings 3,000 years dead. Now these pharaohs, along with a group of others, lie in oak coffins, under glass, in the Cairo Museum, without their bejeweled raiment and precious possessions.

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