Pharaohs Ramses I and Ramses II flying closer to the sun

The travails of two mummies of Pharaohs

Guillaume Deprez
Jun 10, 2019 · 8 min read
Street seller in the 1870’s, when the passing tourist could legally purchase mummies as souvenirs, likely how one of them found its way to the Niagara Falls museum. Eventually it was discovered it was a Pharaoh, probably Ramses I.

The sight of pyramids, tombs and mummies misleads us into thinking that the ancient Egyptians had a morbid fascination with death. The reality is quite the opposite; they loved life and strived to keep on living eternally. It all started six millennia ago, when burying the dead in the dry desert resulted in natural mummification. Realising that, the ancient Egyptians set out to improve the process so the mummy could keep on living in the tomb, the ‘home for eternity’.

For the ancient Egyptians the cycle of life did not just happen once a year with the Nile flood, but every morning, when Ra, the sun, rose from the horizon to bring life to the world. But in its nightly travel it was attacked by a giant snake, the Lord of Chaos, attempting to prevent the continuation of life. To sustain this cosmic order of life, to ensure the Nile would flood each year and regenerate the dry land into a lush and fertile wonder, they created statues, temples and pyramids so life would last for “a million years”. Every sunrise was like a resurrection.

Pharaoh was an essential cog in this eternal movement, whose hope for everlasting life was clear in the hieroglyphs used after his name, “given life” and “eternity”. The gift of life was extended to mummies. Priests did magic spells to “open the mouth” of the mummy, so it would be able to breathe, eat and drink. In the tomb, the ‘home for eternity’, the mummy was surrounded by the means necessary for the long journey towards eternity. While receiving visits from family members it could hear their words and feed on the food they offered.
The “opening of the mouth” was also done to statues. Carved in the hardest stones and sheltered into the temple or tomb, statues were thought to breathe, the reason why cutting off their noses was enough to make them suffocate. The statues of the gods were considered to be alive, and were fed, washed, clothed and entertained so they would in return bring life and eternal order to Egypt.

The names of Pharaohs meant something; for example, Ramses means “Born from Ra”. Ra being the sun god, Ramses means born from the sun, the god who gives life and order to the world, father of Ramses. Ramses was one of the great Pharaohs of a civilisation that lasted 3,500 years but was gradually dying by the time it became a province of the Roman Empire. The ancient religion was replaced by a new one, and the moment hieroglyphs were carved for the very last time on stone is even known with precision, the 24th of August 394 AD.

When the last incantations to the goddess Isis were spoken circa 540 AD the meaning of the hieroglyphs, along with the ancient gods, no longer worshipped and fed, finally died out. The memories of the ancient Egyptians were condemned to the very darkness and chaos they worked so hard to avoid. Three millennia worth of quarrying stone and building immense monuments slowly vanished, the materials dismantled and reused as construction material. It was easier to undo the achievements of the ancient Egyptians than to be as ambitious as they were.

Even mummies were made useful, as bitumen, in Arabic Mumiya, was used as medicine; and since the mummies darkened with the mummification process, dried human flesh was thought to be bitumen. So mummies were ground into powder to use as medicine from the end of Antiquity to the 18th century.
This is how Egyptian mummies were brought to Europe, not as antiquities, but as medicine. Those who were swallowing “mummy” in their desire to be cured were ingesting a foul tasting remedy more likely to speed up their path to the grave than cure them. Egyptian doctors might have been considered amongst the best of the ancient world, they probably did not intend to be eaten to cure others.

Saving Ramses II

Ramses II, whose name means “Born from the sun”, wished to keep on living eternally, and was one of the few Pharaohs who actually managed the feat. The mummy started being badly damaged by fungi and bacteria, and if the process wasn’t stopped, all the efforts made to give Ramses eternal life might have been done in vain.

The preservation of the mummy, an obviously essential condition to succeed at living eternally, was even at a greater risk for Pharaohs. Being buried with incredible treasures only increased the risk that their mummies would be desecrated, or worse, burnt. Ancient Egyptian tomb looting was so pervasive that only about 250 years after his death, Ramses and several other Kings had to be moved from the comfort of their lavish tombs to a deep underground corridor, unceremoniously sharing space with each other.
The cache was so well-chosen that it was only found in the 1870’s, unfortunately by thieves. Egypt was by now a touristic destination for well-heeled visitors who were able to purchase anything they wished, legally or not. To avoid unwanted attention the thieves sold pieces one at a time, to prevent being noticed by the newly created Antiquities of Egypt service, whose first director stated “my functions are to see that no one destroys the monuments of antiquity”.

One archeologist had to pretend being a wealthy collector, unmasking the thieves and leading to the discovery of two caches of mummies, that had to be emptied in a rush due to the worries of their safety, as there was those still dreaming of the gold. The treasure was in fact not made of precious metals, it was forty sarcophagi, and amongst them, over twenty mummies of Kings, the only Pharaohs of ancient Egypt -with Tutankhamun- who were on their way to eternity.
Sailing down the Nile to Cairo’s museum was for the ancient Kings the last opportunity to survey their kingdom and for the villagers, on both sides of the river the last time “to show respect for the mighty dead. Women with dishevelled hair ran along the banks shrieking the death-wail ; while men stood in solemn silence, and fired guns into the air to greet the mighty Pharaohs as they passed”.

But it wasn’t to be Ramses II last journey. Three millennia previously, after a reign of 67 years, the inevitable occurred, and Ramses died. The decomposition of the royal flesh was prevented by the mummification; but after having been unwrapped, the process started again. Ramses was being slowly eaten by fungi, and it seemed nothing could be done. All the efforts made to give Ramses eternal life risked having been done in vain, until the great Egyptologist Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, who organised in 1976 a major Ramses exhibition in Paris, helped convince the Egyptian government that France could try saving the mummy.

Ramses was issued a passport, and together with Desroches Noblecourt, flew by military plane to Paris, where he was greeted as a Head of State by the Republican Guard and a state minister. On the way to the museum where the mummy was to be studied, the archeologist made sure to drive through Place de la Concorde, since in its centre is an obelisk very familiar to Ramses, as he had had it carved 3200 years earlier.

After several months of study, the solution to kill the fungi was, fittingly for the “son of the sun”, to spend 12 hours in a nuclear reactor. Gamma rays, one of the rays emitted by the sun, gave a new lease of life to Pharaoh while definitely getting rid of the fungi about to deny him eternity. For the second time, Ramses was truly “born from the sun”.

Saving Ramses I

If we contemplate the number of pyramids and royal tombs and the fact that all had been looted (with four exceptions), we then realise the odds of a Pharaoh’s mummy surviving. And beyond being swallowed as medicine, mummies were also displayed as entertainment, purchased as souvenirs and stripped of their bandages for the thrill of looking at the dry and distorted faces so the public could contemplate the mystery of the afterlife.

In the 19th century a batch of mummies somehow made it to Canada, to the Niagara Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame, one of them with arms crossed, a gesture usually only allowed to Pharaohs. But as in late antiquity many copied the Pharaoh’s pose, it was thought unlikely and forgotten. The mummies were displayed with “Freaks of Nature”, curiosities including the bones of a whale, and the barrels in which daredevils went down the Falls.

This is how Ramses, first of the name, grandfather of Ramses II, found himself, of all places, near Niagara Falls. Having crossed the Atlantic by boat, and being housed close to a great body of water fortunately did not create fungi or bacteria problems; the mummy remained in good condition. The Niagara Museum Egyptian antiquities, including ten mummies, were then eventually purchased by the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University, Georgia. Once properly studied, one of those mummies appeared to be a genuine Pharaoh, probably Ramses I.

It was clear to the curators that the mummy of a Pharaoh was not like any archaeological artefact. According to both the curator and the director of the museum, “there was never any question about whether the mummy would be returned to Egypt if it proved to be a royal. It was simply the right thing to do”. Emory University’s generous decision to offer Ramses’ mummy to Egypt was acknowledged by the then director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, who called it a “a great, civilised gesture”. No military plane this time. Instead, Ramses I flew on a regular commercial flight, but the captain announced to the passengers that they were “traveling with royalty”.

Arriving at Cairo’s museum in a casket inscribed with his name in hieroglyphs and covered with the Egyptian flag, Ramses was greeted with honour by a military band and children singing “we are the sons of the Nile. Welcome Ramses, the builder of esteemed Egypt”.
Zahi Hawass declared “children in Atlanta will learn that, once upon a time, there was a king at the museum there. And they gave it back to Egypt, without any conditions. They will learn about love, and peace, and how people should live together”.

When Ramses I and Ramses II flew in the blue sky, they were not only closer to their father Ra, the Sun, but were granted, if only for a few hours, their wish to join him in his daily travel.

This is an extract of the chapter “Memories of Egypt return to dust — destruction and survival of a civilisation” where there the reader can discover more about the destruction and survival of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. From the forthcoming book “Lost Treasures, the destruction of works of human genius by intolerance and greed”.

Guillaume Deprez

Written by

Art Historian author of a book about the destruction of cultural heritage by intolerance and greed, Lost Treasures

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