New Life for the Long Dead: They've Long Been Egyptology's Stepchildren, but Mummies Are Now Attracting Greater Attention

By MacFarquhar, Neil | New York Times Upfront, March 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

New Life for the Long Dead: They've Long Been Egyptology's Stepchildren, but Mummies Are Now Attracting Greater Attention


MacFarquhar, Neil, New York Times Upfront


Nasry Iskander, after dedicating a lifetime to preserving the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, boils his work down to one straightforward thought. "It is much better to work with the dead," he says. "They give you less trouble."

In fact, Iskander, 61, finds a certain paradox working with the shrunken, desiccated bodies of the men and women who ruled Egypt 3,500 years ago. While they are among the biggest draws for tourists, they have traditionally been a kind of tolerated stepchild in Egyptology. Archaeologists tend to be more interested in hieroglyphics, say, or glittering funeral masks, than in skin and bones.

"That is very shortsighted, because the mummy is the center of our civilization," says Iskander, formerly the head of research and conservation in Egypt's Department of Antiquities. "Everything you see was built for the mummies--the coffins, the tombs, the pyramids, the temples."

Many cultures, ranging from ancient China to Peru, mummified their dead, but Egypt remains the most well-known for its mummies. Ancient Egyptians believed in resurrection, but to get to the afterlife, they needed their bodies to remain intact after death.

In ancient Egypt, the more money you had, the more elaborate your mummification process was, according to Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago. The poor were wrapped in mats and buried in the desert to dry out naturally, she says, while the rich and the royal underwent a 70-day-long treatment. First, the organs were removed--the brain was extracted through the nose and internal organs were removed through a slit in the left side of the abdomen. Next, the body was packed in salt and left to dry out. It was then wrapped in yards and yards of linen, and pitch or resin was applied to seal the bandages and waterproof the mummy. (The word mummy comes from the ancient Greek word for wax.) Finally, it was placed in a coffin or a series of coffins.

TAKING ROVER WITH YOU

The ancient Egyptians mummified animals--from dogs to crocodiles because they were either symbols of a god, temple offerings, household pets that the deceased wanted along in the afterlife, or food for the eternal journey. In 2001, scientists excavating a tomb in the Nile Valley found the remains of a mummified lion, strengthening the long-held belief that ancient Egyptians worshipped lions. …

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