Ancient History & Civilisation

15/MUMMIES

The Valley of the Kings is shrouded in darkness, a limbo without history. “We are to imagine a deserted valley,” write Carter, “spirit-haunted doubtless to the Egyptian, its cavernous galleries plundered and empty, the entrances of many of them open, to become the home of the fox, the desert owl, or colonies of bats. Yet, plundered, deserted and desolate as were its tombs, the romance of it was not yet wholly gone. It still remained the sacred Valley of the Kings, and crowds of the sentimental and the curious must still have gone to visit it. Some of its tombs, indeed, were actually re-used in the time of Osorkon I (about 900 B.C.) for the burial of priestesses.”

A thousand years later we find the Valley populated by the first Christian hermits who ensconced themselves in the tomb passages.

“Magnificence and royal pride have been replaced by humble poverty. The ‘precious habitation’ of the king has narrowed to a hermit’s cell.”

This also changed. Tradition had destined the Valley to be the home of kings and robbers. In 1743 the English traveler Richard Pococke gives us the first modern report of the Valley. Led by a sheikh, he was able to inspect fourteen open graves. (Strabo knew, as we have said, forty; today there are sixty-one known graves.) But it was not a safe place to visit. In the hills of Kurna a robber band was encamped. When James Bruce visited the Valley twenty-six years later, he learned of futile efforts to dislodge these gangs. “They are all outlaws, punished with death if elsewhere found. Osman Bey, an ancient governor of Girge, unable to suffer any longer the disorders committed by these people, ordered a quantity of faggots to be brought together, and, with his soldiers, took possession of the face of the mountain, where the greatest number of these wretches were: he then ordered their caves to be filled with this dry brushwood, to which he set fire, so that most of them were destroyed; but they have since recruited their numbers without changing their manners.”

When Bruce tried to stay overnight in the tomb chamber of Ramses III, while he was copying the wall reliefs in it, his native guides were overcome with terror and hurled their torches away, cursing. As the lights flickered and went out “they uttered blood-curdling prophecies of disaster that would befall soon after they had left the cavern!” Later, when Bruce rode down the Valley in the gathering darkness with the only servant left to him, trying to reach his boat on the Nile, the air was rent by shouts, and rocks came hurtling down from the side of the cliff. Bruce used his gun and his servant’s blunderbuss to beat off the attack, but on reaching his boat he cast off at once, and made no attempt to repeat his visit. When Napoleon’s “Egyptian Commission” arrived thirty years later, to survey the Valley and its tombs, they too were attacked and even shot at by Theban robbers.

Today the Valley attracts tourists from all over the world. One of the richest treasures ever lifted from ancient ground was discovered there only forty-odd years ago. Nowadays it is just another site where dragomans beat their donkeys; the tourists come flocking from the Cook’s hostelry in Deir el-Bahri, and Arabs vociferously invite all and sundry, in magnificent English, to come view “de Kingses tombes.” It is both sad and farcical, considering the immense history of the Nile Valley, its kings, and its peoples, to be told by one’s guide that “The most important graves and the tomb of Tutankhamen can be seen by electric light three mornings a week.”

The greatest find made in the Valley—arousing throughout the Western world a suspenseful excitement matched only by one previous archæological discovery, Schliemann’s excavation of Troy—occurred in 1922.

But a few decades previously an almost equally amazing discovery was made in Deir el-Bahri, under far stranger circumstances.

When the American who had succeeded in acquiring a well-preserved papyrus in Luxor submitted it to the experts in Europe for authentication, one of them tried to draw him out. The delighted collector, feeling safe with his booty on European soil, talked freely, without hiding his light under a bushel. The expert then sent a detailed letter to Cairo, and so initiated the exposure of a most extraordinary tomb-robbery.

Upon receiving the expert’s letter at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Professor Gaston Maspero was taken aback on two counts: first, that his museum should again have lost out on a valuable find. In the preceding six years rare treasures of great scientific value had on several occasions mysteriously appeared in the antique black market. Some of the lucky buyers, once safely out of Egypt, readily described the circumstances of the purchase, but no dealer had ever been tracked down. Usually the dealer was described as a big man. But once he was an Arab, another time a Negro, then again a dilapidated Egyptian peasant or a well-to-do sheikh. Maspero was also made thoughtful by the fact that the latest piece smuggled out of Egypt was a mortuary gift from the tomb of a Pharaoh of the Twenty-first Dynasty, the whereabouts of whose graves were unknown. Who had found those graves?

Reviewing the smuggled pieces that had been brought to his attention, Professor Maspero felt sure that they must have come from the respective graves of several kings. Could modern grave-robbers have discovered several ancient tombs all at once? Maspero was more inclined to believe that the robbers had stumbled on a large common grave.

Maspero was much impressed by the prospects that this theory opened up. Something would have to be done. The Egyptian police had failed. He would have to do his own sleuthing. After several secret consultations he dispatched one of his young assistants to Luxor.

From the moment he stepped ashore from the Nile boat, this assistant acted like anything but an archæologist. He took a room in the hotel where the American who had bought the papyrus had stayed. Day and night he roamed the bazaars, acting the part of a rich European jingling gold coins in his pocket and making occasional purchases, for which he paid top prices. After engaging the dealers in confidential conversations, he gave them good tips, but in such a way as not to arouse their suspicions. Time and again he was offered antiquities of strictly local manufacture, but the young man was not to be fooled, as both licensed concessionaries and illegal dealers soon discovered. Gradually their respect for the stranger increased, and with it their trust in him.

One day a dealer, squatting in the doorway of his store, beckoned the young man to come over. Presently the assistant from the Egyptian Museum was holding a statuette in his hand. He managed to control his emotions; he gave no sign of being deeply impressed. He sat on his haunches beside the dealer and commenced to haggle. Doing so, he turned the statuette over and over in his hand, all the while knowing from the inscription that it was a genuine piece three thousand years old, a mortuary gift from a tomb of the Twenty-first Dynasty.

The bargaining lasted a long time. Eventually the assistant bought the little piece, at the same time pretending dissatisfaction. He let it be known that he was looking for something larger and more valuable. That same day he was introduced to a tall Arab in the prime of life, who called himself Abd-el-Rasul. This Abd-el-Rasul was the head of a large family. After the young assistant had dickered for several days, during which he had been shown other mortuary objects dating from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties, he had the Arab arrested. He was convinced that he had found the tomb-robber.

But had he?

Abd-el-Rasul and several of his family were brought before the Mudir of Keneh, Da’ud Pasha, who personally conducted the hearing. An endless parade of witnesses appeared to exonerate the accused. All the inhabitants of the village where Abd-el-Rasul made his home swore to his innocence—indeed, to the innocence of the whole family, which was declared to be one of the oldest and most respectable in the community. The assistant, positively convinced of the validity of his charge against Abd-el-Rasul, had already telegraphed an optimistic message to Cairo. Now he had to stand helplessly by while Abd-el-Rasul and company were allowed to go free for lack of evidence. He appealed to the authorities; they shrugged their shoulders. He went directly to the mudir, who stared at him in astonishment, and sternly counseled patience.

The assistant waited one day, then another and another. Again he telegraphed Cairo, qualifying his first message. The gnawing of uncertainty wore him down, that and the mudir’s Oriental patience. But the mudir knew his people.

Howard Carter recounts a story originally told him by one of his oldest workers who, as a youth, had been arrested for robbery and brought before this same mudir. The boy was in any case mortally afraid of the strict Da’ud Pasha, but his anxiety was doubled when instead of being taken into the regular courtroom he was brought to the pasha’s private quarters. The day was very hot, and the pasha was lolling in his large earthenware bathtub.

Da’ud Pasha, so the story goes, looked at the prisoner a long time. The young prisoner was terrified by this silent scrutiny. “His eyes went right through me,” he told Carter. “I could feel my knees turning to water. At last he quietly said to me: ‘This is the first time you have ever been before me. You can go free. But take good care not to come here a second time.’ I was so frightened that on the spot I abandoned my calling, and never got into trouble again.”

Da’ud’s authority—backed up, as it was, by cruelties if mere presence did not suffice—bore fruit, which came as a great surprise to the young assistant from Cairo, now lying abed prostrated by fever. A month after the original hearing one of Abd-el-Rasul’s relatives and accomplices came to the pasha and made a complete confession. The mudir informed the young scientist of this development and ordered new hearings. These hearings showed that the whole village of Kurna, Abd-el-Rasul’s home town, was a nest of tomb-robbers. The profession had been handed down from father to son in apparently unbroken line since the thirteenth century. A robber dynasty of such formidable lineage has never been heard of before or since.

The greatest find ever made by the Abd-el-Rasul gang was the common tomb of Deir el-Bahri. Chance and system both played a part in the finding and plundering of this tomb. Six years before, in 1875, Abd-el-Rasul, by merest chance, had discovered a hidden opening in the cliffy massif between the Valley of the Kings and Deir el-Bahri. Getting up and into the opening with great difficulty, Abd-el-Rasul found himself in a roomy mortuary chamber containing a number of mummies. A preliminary examination revealed that here was a treasure that would yield him and his family an income as long as they lived—if the secret could be kept.

None but the leading members of the Abd-el-Rasul family were let into the secret. They were solemnly sworn to leave the treasure where it had been found, that it might serve them all as a sort of mummified bank account on which to draw according to need. Incredibly enough, the secret was kept for six years, during which period the family became rich. On July 5, 1881, however, the representative of the Cairo Museum was conducted by Abd-el-Rasul to the opening in the cliff.

It was one of fate’s little ironies that the museum representative was neither the young assistant who had made the apprehension of the robbers possible nor yet Professor Maspero, who had initiated the investigation. The latest telegram reporting progress had never reached Maspero, as he was away on a trip at the time. Since time was of the essence, a substitute had to go to Luxor. The man chosen was Emil Brugsch-Bey, brother of the famous Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch, at that time conservator of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He arrived at Luxor to find the young assistant, who had played detective so successfully, in bed with a fever. He paid the mudir a diplomatic visit. All interested parties agreed that to prevent further robberies, the tomb should be sequestered by the government. On the morning of July 5, Emil Brugsch-Bey, accompanied by an Arab assistant and Abd-el-Rasul, set out for the tomb. What he was to see soon thereafter put him in mind of Aladdin’s underground surprise, nor would he ever forget the events of the following nine days.

After a stiff climb, Abd-el-Rasul came to a halt and pointed to a hole covered unobtrusively with stones. It was an out-of-the-way spot and hidden from direct view. No wonder it had remained unnoticed for three millennia.

Abd-el-Rasul took a coil of rope from his shoulder, let the rope slide into the hole, and indicated to Brugsch that he should let himself down by it. Brugsch did not hesitate. He left the questionable guide with his trusted Arab assistant at the mouth of the shaft. Down he went, hand over hand, cautiously, not without some apprehensions about being, possibly, the victim of a clever thief’s trickery. Hope of a find must have stirred in his breast, but he certainly had not the least inkling of what actually awaited him below.

The shaft proved to be some thirty-five feet deep. Safely at the bottom, he lighted his torch, moved forward a few steps and around a sharp corner—and before him saw the first gigantic sarcophagi.

One of the largest of the sarcophagi standing just beyond the outer entrance to the tunnel had an inscription showing that it contained the mummy of Sethos I, the same mummy vainly sought by Belzoni in October 1817 in the Pharaoh’s original resting-place in the Valley of the Kings. The torch’s wavering light revealed more coffins, and innumerable treasures of the Egyptian death cult thoughtlessly scattered about the floor and the coffins. Brugsch went farther in, clearing a way for himself as he moved along. Finally the main mortuary chamber came into view, seemingly endless in the dim light. The coffins lay any which way; some of them had been rudely pried open, others were still closed. About the mummies was a profusion of implements and decorative articles. The sight took Brugsch’s breath away; for he was standing amid the bodies of the mightiest rulers of the ancient Egyptian world.

Sometimes creeping along on hands and knees, sometimes proceeding upright, Brugsch found the mummy, among many others, of Amosis I (1580–1555 B.C.), the Pharaoh who achieved fame by driving out the last of the barbaric Hyksos, the “shepherd kings.” Brugsch also discovered the mummy of the first Amenophis (1555–1545 B.C.), who was later to become the guardian spirit of the Theban necropolis. Among innumerable coffins containing lesser-known Egyptian rulers he found at last the mummies of the two greatest Pharaohs, whose names had reverberated through the centuries without the aid of archæologist or historian. At this point he had to sit down, torch in hand, overwhelmed by his discovery. He had found the bodies of Thotmes III (1501–1447 B.C.) and of Ramses II (1298–1232 B.C.), at whose court Moses, the lawgiver of the Jews and of the Western world, was then thought to have grown up. These two Pharaohs had ruled for fifty-four and sixty-six years respectively, over empires they had not only created but had known how to keep intact for a long time.

As Brugsch, still overcome and hardly knowing where to begin, scanned the inscriptions on the coffins, his eye chanced to fall immediately upon a history of these “wandering mummies.” He began to visualize those countless nights when the priests labored in the Valley of the Kings to preserve the dead Pharaohs from robbery and desecration. He pictured them at work removing the coffins from their original tombs, and transporting them, often through several way-stations, to Deir el-Bahri, where they placed them in new sarcophagi, one next to another. He saw at a glance how fear and desperate haste had swung the whiplash, for some of the coffins remained rudely tipped against the chamber wall in the position where they had chanced to land. Later, in Cairo, with deep emotion he read the messages that the priests had inscribed on the coffin sides—the odysseys of dead Egyptian kings.

A count showed that the assembled rulers numbered no less than forty. Forty mummies! Forty coffins containing the mortal remains of those who once had ruled the Egyptian world like gods, and who for three thousand years had rested in peace until first a robber, then he, Emil Brugsch-Bey, had again laid eyes on them.

Despite all the care they lavished on preparations for their death and immortality, the Egyptian rulers were often pessimistic: “They who built with granite, who set a hall inside their pyramid, and wrought beauty with their fine work … their altar stones also are empty as are those of the weary ones, the ones who die upon the embankment leaving no mourners.”

Such fears did not prevent them from taking ever more precautions for the proper preservation of their bodies. Herodotus describes the rites for the dead as practiced, according to his informants, in the time of his own travels in Egypt (the quotation is from Howard Carter):

“On the death in any house of a man of consequence, forthwith the women of the family beplaster their heads, and sometimes even their faces, with mud; and then, leaving the body indoors, sally forth and wander through the city, with their dress fastened by a band, and their bosoms bare, beating themselves as they walk. All the female relations join them and do the same. The men too, similarly begirt, beat their breasts separately. When the ceremonies are over, the body is carried away to be embalmed.”

Inseparable from the subject of royal entombment and robbery is the process of mummification. The word mummy has several meanings, as suggested by the observation of the twelfth-century Arab traveler Abd al-Latif that “mummies” were sold cheap for medicinal purposes. Mumiya, or mumiyai, is an Arabic word, and in the sense used by Abd al-Latif means bitumen, or “Jew’s pitch.” In places this pitch oozed out of the rocks, as at Mummy Mountain, at Derabgerd, in Persia. When Abd al-Latif referred to mummy he meant a mixture of pitch and myrrh. As late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—indeed, even as recently as a hundred years ago—there was a lively sale of what the apothecaries called “mummy,” a substance used as a remedy for fractures and wounds. Mummy also meant the hair and fingernails cut off living people. These parts, in so far as they magically stood for the whole, were useful in exorcism and hexing. Today the word mummy almost always means embalmed cadavers, particularly the well-preserved bodies of ancient Egyptians. A distinction is made between natural and artificial mummies. Natural mummies are those which have been kept from decomposition by virtue of favorable natural conditions rather than by special chemical treatment. The bodies in the Capuchin cloister in Palermo, in the cloister on the Great St. Bernard, in the lead cellar at the Bremen Cathedral, and in the castle of Quedlinburg are all natural mummies. The distinction between natural and artificial still holds to this day, but extensive research by Elliot Smith, and the analysis of the mummy of Tutankhamen by Douglas E. Derry, have established the qualifying fact that the unusually dry climate of the land of the Nile, and the absence of bacteria in the sand and air, account mostly for the Egyptian mummies’ marvelous state of preservation, rather than the materials used in the embalming process. Mummies have been dug up intact from sandy graves, though uncoffined and uneviscerated. The cadavers from the sand, it was found, had resisted the ravages of time as well as the carefully treated corpses or even better. Some of these latter have rotted away, or jelled together into formless masses, despite lavish application of resin, bitumen, and balsamic oils, not to mention—as described in the Rhind Papyrus—“water from Elephantine, natron from Eileithyiaspolis, and milk from the city of Kim.”

During the nineteenth century it was widely assumed that the Egyptians were in possession of secret chemical knowledge. Even to this day no absolutely authentic and complete account of the mummification process has been found. But now we know, at least, that the chemical treatment had about as little preservative effect as the religious and mystical adjurations. Also, we must take into consideration the fact that during the course of millennia the art of mummification underwent many changes. Mariette noticed that the mummies of Memphis, which belonged to the older period, were almost black, desiccated, and very fragile. Later specimens from Thebes, however, were yellowish in color, had a mat sheen, and were often flexible, exhibiting discrepancies that could not be explained by difference in age alone.

Herodotus reports that there were three methods of mummification, the first being three times as expensive as the second, the third—the kind available to officials of minor rank—being cheapest. (The ordinary peasant was not embalmed at all. He simply left his dead body to the good offices of the dry Egyptian climate.)

In the oldest era the Egyptian embalmers were able to preserve only the external form of the body. Later means were found to prevent the shrinkage of the skin, which discovery made it possible for moderns to find mummies with a recognizably individual cast of features.

Corpses were usually handled in the following manner: The brain was first pulled out through the nostrils with a metal hook. The visceral cavity was then laid open with a stone knife, and the soft guts removed. An alternative method was to drag the viscera out through the anal aperture. In either method they were preserved in the so-called “canopic jars,” or large vases. The heart was removed and replaced by a stone scarab. After this the remains were thoroughly washed and soaked for more than a month in brine. Finally the cadaver was dried out—a process that, some sources say, lasted for seventy days.

The pickled corpse was then interred in several nested wooden coffins, of human shape, and the coffins deposited in a stone sarcophagus. The body was placed in the innermost coffin in a reclining position. The hands were arranged in a crossed position over the chest or lap or even allowed to hang by the sides. The hair was usually cut short, though with female cadavers it was often allowed to remain at full length, after being beautifully waved. The hair about the genitals was shaved off.

To protect the cadaver from the entrance of destructive agents, the orifices of the body were plugged with lime, sand, resin, sawdust, balls of linen, and the like, with aromatic substances sometimes being added to the plugs. Sometimes, oddly enough, onions wereused to perfume the stoppers. The breasts of the women were padded out. Thereafter came the tedious process of swaddling the body in linen winding cloths and bandages. These, with the passage of time, became so thoroughly impregnated with the sticky bituminous material poured over them in great quantity that the archæologist frequently has had trouble unwinding them. The robbers, whose aim was solely to get at the costly ornaments secreted within the wrappings, simply cut diagonally through the cloths, then ripped them off.

In 1898 Loret, general director for the administration of antiquities, opened the tomb of Amenophis II among others. He too found “wandering mummies,” namely, the thirteen royal mummies that had also been laboriously collected for safekeeping by priests under the Twenty-first Dynasty, working during the hours of darkness. But Loret found no treasures to compare with those that Brugsch had discovered only a few years previously. While the mummies themselves were untouched—Amenophis lay in his sarcophagus—everything else had been stolen. But only one or two years after Sir William Garstin had the tomb walled up again, to let the dead kings rest in peace, modern tomb-robbers broke in, tore Amenophis from his coffin, and severely damaged the mummy. They had probably worked in collusion with the guards, like almost all the thieves for thousands of years. It was a further proof that Brugsch had done well to clear out the common grave he had found; to have refrained from doing so out of piety would have been, and was always likely to be, a mistake as matters stood in Egypt.

To return to Emil Brugsch-Bey, when he climbed back up that narrow shaft, leaving the forty dead kings behind, he was already thinking busily about ways and means to make sure of their safety. To leave the burial place as he found it was to leave it open to further plunderings. But to clear it and transport its contents to Cairo meant taking on a great many workers—and there was nowhere to get them from but Kurna, the home of Abd-el-Rasul, the original nest of thieves! By the time Brugsch appeared for another audience at the mudir’s, he had decided to do this, regardless of the risks involved. The next morning he was already back at the shaft, with three hundred fellahin. He ordered the area closed. With his Arab aide he selected a small group of men who seemed more trustworthy than the rest. While this group did heavy labor—it turned out that lifting some of the heaviest pieces took sixteen men—sending up the valuable finds one by one to the surface, Brugsch and his aide stood ready to receive each one, register it, and have it lined up with the rest at the foot of the hill. This was done in forty-eight hours. Howard Carter has commented laconically: “We do not work so fast nowadays!” This haste turned out to be excessive in more than the archæological sense, for the steamer for Cairo was several days late. Brugsch-Bey ordered the mummies to be packed up, the coffins covered, and sent to Luxor. It took until July 14 for them to be taken aboard.

But then Brugsch saw something that impressed the seasoned scientist even more than the discovery of the treasures. For the scene he witnessed as the steamer slowly made its way down the Nile affected not only the scientist but the man still capable of veneration.

The news of what kind of cargo the steamer was carrying had spread like wildfire through all the villages along the Nile and farther inland. And it became apparent that the ancient Egypt which had regarded its rulers as gods was not yet dead. Standing on deck, Brugsch saw hundreds of fellahin with their wives escorting the steamer along the banks from Luxor down, new contingents taking the place of those who dropped off as they moved along as far as Qift and Qena, at the great bend in the Nile. The men fired rifle shots in honor of their dead Pharaohs, while the women threw clay and dust upon their faces and bodies and rubbed their breasts with sand. The ship’s course was accompanied by lamentations heard from afar. It was a fantastic procession, spontaneous, unadorned, deeply moving in its mournfulness.

Brugsch found the sight hard to bear and turned away. Was he doing the right thing? Could it be that in the eyes of those who were uttering their plaintive cries and beating their breasts he himself was no better than a grave-robber, one of those who had been desecrating the holy sepulchres over thousands of years? Was it enough to claim that he was serving the cause of science?

Many years afterward, Howard Carter gave a clear answer to this vexing question. Of the events around the grave of Amenophis, he remarked:

“One moral we can draw from this episode, and we commend it to the critics who call us Vandals for taking objects from the tombs. By removing antiquities to museums we are really assuring their safety: left in situ they would inevitably, sooner or later, became the prey of thieves, and that, for all practical purposes, would be the end of them.”

When Brugsch landed in Cairo, he enriched not only one museum but the entire world with evidence of an irrecoverable greatness and splendor that had once been a part of it.

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