Mummy magic

The lid of the mummy’s coffin sports characteristic ancient Egyptian stylized facial features and informative hieroglyphics (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
The lid of the mummy’s coffin sports characteristic ancient Egyptian stylized facial features and informative hieroglyphics
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
You can learn a lot from a mummy. For those for whom “mummy” is an appellation of one’s maternal parent, let me point out that the mummy in question is, in fact, of the male persuasion and has been deceased for well over two millennia.
The ancient Egyptian gent is currently lying in state, as it were, at the Israel Museum as the centerpiece of the “A Mummy in Jerusalem – Secrets of the Afterlife” exhibition, which opened a couple of weeks ago.
The exhibit is a fine specimen of an embalmed body and is decked out in some gorgeous burial paraphernalia, including a mask and cartonage boards with images of jewelry and figures of various deities and other beings associated with the Egyptian funerary cult. The veteran deceased came in an impressive- looking anthropoid wooden coffin, the lid of which is displayed vertically behind the prostrate mummy. The lid is awash with symbols and hieroglyphics that intimate that the departed was a priest by the name of Iret-hor-r-u.
The star of the exhibition came to this part of the world from Egypt, around 1930, as a gift to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem, to mark the institute’s creation. As the benefactors were Jesuits located in Alexandria, the mummy was affectionately nicknamed Alex, who was believed to have died at the age of 17. However, the priest’s true age came to light in the run-up to the Israel Museum show, when CT scans were performed at the Department of Radiology of the Carmel Medical Center in Haifa.
They disclosed that the person in question had actually survived to his 30s, which was then considered a ripe old age.
It was high time the mummy got an airing.
“Not many people saw it over the years,” notes curator Galit Bennett-Dahan. “It wasn’t on general display.
It was in a small room, covered with a cloth, and from time to time people would ask to see it. They were normally tour guides and such like. The institute has studies on various topics, like the archeology of the Land of Israel.”
It appears that the Egyptian embalmers of the second century BCE did a good job on preserving Irethor- r-u for posterity. The CT scan indicated that the priest was originally 1.67 meters tall, although his remains are down 13 centimeters on that height, following the removal of the internal organs.
“The scan showed that the skeleton was whole, in the classic burial pose,” says Bennett-Dahan. A more surprising remnant provided the curators and various other experts, including doctors and anthropologists, with some fascinating insight into life in Egypt during the Ptolemaic Era.
“The scan also showed body tissue, and you can learn a lot about the lifestyle of the period from tissue,” Bennett-Dahan continues. “We learned it was a man who was aged somewhere between 30 and 40, which was quite old. [Pharaoh] Tutankhamun, for example, only lived to the age of 18. Back then any disease, basically, was fatal.”
The CT also revealed that nails, muscles and even veins, arteries and some teeth had survived the passing of the millennia.
“We saw that the lower teeth were in better shape and the upper ones were worn down,” says the curator.
“It was probably the diet he kept that resulted in the damage to the upper teeth.”
The deceased was not from the working masses.
“He was a temple priest in the city of Akhmim, 480 km. south of present-day Cairo,” says Bennett-Dahan.
“The inscriptions on the coffin state that his name was Iret-hor-r-u, which means Horus’s Protecting Eye, and his title was Priest of Akhmim, Keeper of Secrets of the God’s Mother.”
The priest’s relatively lofty social status meant that he didn’t have to worry about where his next meal was coming from. “He probably ate a lot of millet, and he didn’t brush his teeth,” the curator adds with a chuckle.
There was a highly illuminating revelation in store for the researchers.
“We discovered that he suffered from osteoporosis.
We thought that was a modern ailment. You know, today people hardly move. They watch television, sit in front of a computer and are generally less active.
This man was a priest who had a comfortable life. He probably wasn’t too active either. He was also clearly a man of means, so he could afford top-notch embalming treatment.”
The embalming process is explained in some detail for our viewing edification in a video, and we can get a pretty good idea how the ancient Egyptians removed various organs and placed them in various clay canisters, or canopic jars.
“A Mummy in Jerusalem” features four of the aforementioned containers, each of which has a lid in the shape of a human or animal head. The jars correspond to the four sons of the Egyptian sky god Horus, with a different organ placed inside each one – the liver, intestines, stomach and lungs. As the ancient Egyptians believed that the departed progressed to a state of eternal life, in the domain of the dead, he or she would need their vital organs “on the other side,” along with various necessities of existence, such as jewelry and all kinds of domestic utensils and artifacts.
The exhibition incorporates various other archeological finds relating to Egyptian funereal matters, including some fine specimens of heart scarabs dating from the 15th to 20th centuries BCE. Heart scarabs were amulets that were believed to protect the deceased on their journey to eternal life. They were often found sewn into shrouds or decoratively arranged inside them.
There are a number of coffin masks along one wall, from different eras, covering a range of aesthetic approaches, from the highly stylized to the far more realistic, and you can’t help but be drawn to the striking ornithological item, an embalmed ibis. There were all kinds of animal cults and deities throughout the history of ancient Egypt. The long-billed bird was an object of religious veneration in ancient Egypt, and was particularly associated with the deity Djehuty, or Thoth as he was known to the Greeks. He was responsible for writing, mathematics, measurement and time, as well as the moon and magic. In artworks of the Late Period of Ancient Egypt, roughly the 7th to 4th centuries BCE, Thoth is popularly depicted as an ibis-headed man in the act of writing.
The specific bird in the “A Mummy in Jerusalem” exhibition is, in fact, a coffin containing the embalmed remains of the said creature. It is also of regional political import as it was a gift from then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Yigael Yadin who, at the time, in 1979, was deputy prime minister. Yadin was possibly best known for his archeological exploits and, particularly, for the excavations at Masada.
“A Mummy in Jerusalem” also neatly dovetails with the highly popular ongoing “Pharaoh in Canaan” exhibition on show just across the corridor.
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