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Next to Dinosaurs mummies are the museum objects most fascinating to children of all ages.
At the British Museum in London crowds squeeze between show cases to see them. At the Egyptian Museum in Cairo they are, or were when we visited in October 2010 just prior to the Arab Spring, by far the most popular exhibits (follow this link to see my travel notes). Almost every large natural history museum in the world has one or two mummies; or at the very least a sarcophagus in which one was once entombed.
In the 19th century there was something of a 'mummy rush' in Egypt. Wealthy young European men on their Grand Tour, ostensibly discovering the roots of Western Civilisation, became fascinated by all things 'Oriental'. They would pay an Egyptian fortune for a mummy or sarcophagus. The mummy trade quickly became a lucrative commercial opportunity for enterprising Egyptian grave-robbers.
Once at home many well-to-do young men then held mummy unwrapping parties, for the 'edification and delectation' of their friends, effectively destroying their prizes for future generations. But fortunately for us a proportion were also acquired by museums and are preserved to this day.
For example the Australian museum in Sydney has a mummified woman from the Egyptian Late Period (664 - 332 BCE) wrapped in linen bandages and covered in plaster in her original sarcophagus made from painted wood. She was excavated in 1900. There is another at the Melbourne Museum in Victoria, in a stone sarcophagus, but by far Australia's largest collection is at the Nicholson Museum at Sydney University that has several mummies and mummy cases donated to the University by a wealthy benefactor, Sir Charles Nicholson, who picked them up during a trip to Egypt in 1856–57.
In the 19th century many countries had closer associations with Egypt than Australia. Among them were France, Holland, Germany, Russia and the US where private and public collections are both larger and more numerous. The British Museum, for example, has 87 mummies in its collection.
At the moment of writing discerning visitors to the British Museum may be disappointed by a slightly diminished collection, because six of their mummies are in Sydney, along with more than 200 objects that illustrate different aspects of life in ancient Egypt.
Although I've seen many Egyptian exhibitions, here and overseas, Tutankhamun comes to mind, this is the most interesting to date.
I recently became personally familiar with a CT scanner.
While almost every museum has by now employed CT (computerised tomography - three-dimensional x-ray scanning) to look under the bandages of their mummies, this exhibition has gone a step better. The tomography data has been used to build a virtual image at every layer so that visitors can see each body from the inside out: the skeleton and what was placed inside it; then out through the tissues and skin; to the sacred objects placed on the outside of body; finally through the layers of wrapping to the wrapped object we see in the display. The data has also been used to 3D print various objects that have been wrapped inside - like 'pass the parcel'.
A nice circular interface to the digital representation is provided so that visitors themselves can scan back and forth through the layers to concentrate on particular features. Helpful text appears here and there to point out interesting features. In one case plaque deposits in a femoral artery indicate a fatty diet, in turn reminding us that only wealthy or important Egyptians could afford mummification. The mummies are of people who died in Ancient Egypt between 1800 and 3000 years ago: Nestawedjat (a married woman from Thebes); Tamut (a chantress of Amun); Irthorru (a priest from Akhmim); an unnamed temple singer; a young child from Hawara; and a young unnamed man from Roman Egypt.
We are reminded that Ancient Egyptians were obsessed by death and spent their lifetime preparing for the after-life. The most obvious examples are the Pyramids, on which construction had to begin as soon as the new pharaoh was born. Similarly well-to-do families began preparing for the after-life the moment a child was born. To quote from the exhibition:
Potential Mummification was a significant incentive to becoming a priest or priestess and no doubt helped lead to the proliferation of Egyptian gods. There are around 2,000 gods named in Ancient Egyptian writings. In this respect it was similar to other contemporary religions or to the modern Hindu religion, with a god for every occasion.
One pharaoh, Akhenaten, famously called a halt to this and decided that henceforth there would only be one supreme god: Aten represented by the sun - His rays blessing the faithful. Akhenaten built and entire new city in His name. But after Akhenaten's death in 1336 BCE or 1334 BCE he was succeeded by the Child King: Tutankhamun and the old priesthood restored the previous pantheon.
Nevertheless the idea of a single God caught on amongst the wandering Hebrew who may or may not have been enslaved in Egypt at the time. Evidence for this direct association includes Psalm 104 that bears a close resemblance to Akhenaten's Great Hymn to the Atenand. Although nothing in the biblical story of Moses finds any corroboration in the Egyptian records it clearly acknowledges an Egyptian influence. Several scholars have asserted on the grounds of sentiment and style that several other Psalms may also have their roots in Egyptian monotheism.
For example it is more than possible that the priest's blessing, that is very ancient and one of the oldest Hebrew texts ever discovered:
The Lord bless you and protect you;
The Lord make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.
is drawn directly from Atenism.
Monotheism certainly arose around this period in human history and obviously had its roots somewhere. The brilliant Israel Museum in Jerusalem, also with its own mummy (a high-ranking priest from the city of Akhmim), has wonderful exhibits illustrating that the monotheistic process was a gradual one and that the Jewish religion was not entirely codified until after the establishment of the monarchy and the first temple.
The first clear statement of Abrahamic monotheism occurs in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). This is thought to have been written during or soon after the Babylonian Exile (597 - 538 BCE), as several of its stories are based on earlier Mesopotamian myths, some borrowed directly from the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Akkadian (Sumerian) poem. Further, Biblical events recorded during and after this period have at least some support in the archaeological record, unlike those mythic tales before this time.
Gilgamesh was written over a period of 750 years (c. 2150-1400 BCE), predating the earliest evidence of monotheism by several hundred years, and is thought to be the origin of the creation myth; the Garden of Eden; the flood myth; and the Tower of Babel. The Israel Museum points to corresponding passages between Gilgamesh and Ecclesiastes.
The Egyptian concerns about death were mirrored by the Mesopotamian culture that clearly influenced the Biblical authors. Thus some of these concerns have been passed down, together with a belief in an after-life. Yet each modern Abrahamic religion has a slightly different spin and emphasis on what happens when we die ranging from: nothingness (dust to dust) in Ecclesiastes; to acquiring a phalanx of virgins (is that the right collective noun?).
In the Egyptian model, after death the body was reinhabited by the soul to be reborn on a different plane, accompanied by the grave-goods and sacred objects placed around the body such as scarab beetles crafted in precious stone or metal. In order to make this journey to the next world one needed one's heart: the source of intellect and humanity. Other organs, like that pesky brain, that was inclined to putrefy, were removed from the body as it was prepared for travel. This was generally done via a hook through the nose or a small opening in the skull.
Whenever I see a mummy it occurs to me that, like those knights transported to America, the dead person would be profoundly disappointed had they somehow successfully cheated death and become aware of what actually happened to their remains after dying. Instead of patiently waiting in their multiple layers of coffin cases and tombs, here they are in a museum in a country they had never imagined, being gawked at by thousands of peculiar humans speaking strange languages and recording their images with unimaginable technologies. And they're the lucky ones. Many of their relations have long been unwrapped and their travel good's and amulets stolen. Others have been swapped, by some enterprising crook, into the wrong sarcophagi, like one of those in Sydney.
Yet the laugh is still on them because the common heard in Ancient Egypt often ended in mass graves; and they thought they were better off.
In this exhibition I was struck once again by a culture that had such confidence in an afterlife that it dominated the only life that their religion's adherents did have. In thinking their lives futile I have the support of modern theology. According to our modern religions the Ancient Egyptians were profoundly in error: with their many false gods; and their ill-informed rituals that were both ludicrously melodramatic and pointless. Thus, by the measure of modern religious beliefs, the Ancient Egyptians spent their entire lives worshiping false gods and engaging in worthless rituals in a futile attempt to ensure their erroneous conception of the life after death.
And the final irony is that, according to modern physiology, they even set off on their final journey with the wrong organs.
Isn't their belief in the importance of the heart bizarre? Even to an ancient it must have been obvious that a knock on the head can change one's personality and outlook in a way that a stab to the chest cannot. Yet there is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians carried out primitive brain surgery, so their misguided religion must have overruled science and common sense.
Today, as I well know having just had mine repaired, the heart is nothing but a muscle, albeit one that thanks to the autonomic nervous system is constantly contracting and relaxing. It can be repaired or even replaced with another without making any difference to a person's personality or essential being. Whereas the slightest damage to our brain has the potential to change everything.
But the Ancient Egyptians weren't the only ones who held this strange belief. Until quite recently Europeans believed this too, thanks to an ancient text dating back to Egyptian times.
That the heart is the centre of a person's emotional-intellectual-moral being and the source of our feelings is central to this ancient document's representation of the 'self'. Although the kidneys and bowels also get a mention, there is no mention of the brain whatsoever nor is there any suggestion that it is important to morality, being or decision making. Yet despite this omission, the word 'heart' occurs 963 times in the King James version of the Bible.
Thus one religion misinforms the next.
For my own recent heartless brush with death follow this link. Those who have already read it might want to look again - I've changed it slightly.