Salima Ikram is an Egyptologist and author. She is Distinguished Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, and has worked as an archaeologist on projects in Turkey, Sudan, Greece, and the USA, as well as throughout Egypt. Dr Ikram founded the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and has also directed the North Kharga Darb Ain Amur Survey and the Valley of the Kings KV10/KV63 Mission, and co-directed the Predynastic Gallery project and the North Kharga Oasis Survey. She has published widely on Egyptology, including the books Divine Creatures, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt, The Tomb in Ancient Egypt, Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt, and, recently, A History of World Egyptology, co-edited with Andrew Bednarski and Aidan Dodson.
Ancient body-wrappings, masks and gold, mystery and discovery, museum displays, horror movies – the word ‘mummy’ conjures up many things. Where does the word come from?
The word ‘mummy’ comes from the Arabic word mum or mumia, which basically means wax or a black bituminous substance originating from the ‘mummy mountain’ in Persia. Because a lot of mummies were covered with a dark substance that the Arabs who first encountered them thought to be mum, the word ‘mummy’ was used to describe them. In fact, most of the mummies that we have analysed are made of resins, oils, and beeswax that has darkened to give them this black colour.
Can you tell us about the relationship between Egyptian religion and mummification?
As the Egyptians believed that you lived forever, they felt that the aspects of your soul needed to have a body to animate, which is why mummification was born, so that the soul could live in a proper body. Of course, images, both two- and three-dimensional, were also available for the soul to animate. The soul had a variety of components: the ka, one’s doppelgänger; the ba, a human-headed bird that was the part of your soul that could fly here and there, and is also the closest we get to a ghost; and the akh, which is the divine spark that can go off and be eternally joined with the stars.
Does the notion that ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife show that life was good, that one would prefer it to continue?
Unlike the Greeks and the Sumerians, the ancient Egyptians had an idea of a wonderful, perfect, joyful afterlife that encompassed all of the best of this life, and none of the bad. Of course, in order to achieve this life, you had to live a good, true, and just existence in this world, an existence filled with maat, or balance and truth. If you lived such a life and then passed your various tests in the halls of Osiris and your heart was as light as a feather of maat or truth, then you could enjoy life in imenti, ‘the West’, or the fields of iaru, the fields of reeds. If you did evil, and your heart was heavy, then Ammit would consume and destroy you, leaving nothing, and then you would not have an eternal life.
This probably is one of the reasons why Christianity took so much imagery from the Egyptian religion, and why it was easier for Egyptians to convert, because it really was a similar idea: with Christ replacing Osiris, Isis and the Virgin Mary were linked, and, of course, Horus can act as the young Christ child.
Who were some of the colourful early figures in the search for mummies?
A lot of doctors had agents who would go out and collect mummies. In Europe, mummies were ground up and eaten as medicine because of the mistaken belief that they were made using this bituminous substance. An enjoyable explorer who also worked with mummies was Giovanni Battista Belzoni [1778-1823], who obtained several mummies and sent them off to Europe for collectors; one of his friends, Thomas Pettigrew [1791-1865] – also known as ‘Mummy Pettigrew’ – staged some of the earliest scientific unwrappings and studies of mummies.
In your book The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity (with Aidan Dodson), you mention that the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BC) could be the pinnacle of mummification. How was this level reached?
During this time, there was a great emphasis on trying to make people look as if they were alive. It was a slight riff on what happened in the Old Kingdom [27th-22nd century BC] where the body was turned into a living image of itself by using linen textiles to create a statue of the deceased. In the Old Kingdom, they would even dress the mummy in clothes and provide, of course, jewellery.
In the 21st Dynasty, there was a lot of stuffing of limbs to make them look plump and alive again, as well as use of make-up to give people a more life-like appearance. The most startling innovation was setting stone into the eye socket, so that it appears as if mummies are actually looking at you, which is most unnerving.
You also mention many superb and damaged mummies in the book, like Thutmose III, Rameses II and III, Tutankhamun, the very-injured King Taa II. Can you tell us about a few of these?
Poor King Taa II has so many wounds on his head, and his hands are all tensed and cramped, suggesting that he died and was mummified in a way where they could not straighten out his fingers. He has wounds from battles that might have started to heal when assassins came and finished him off.
The mummy of Rameses III is really interesting because CT scans have been carried out and it seems that there is a cut on his neck. He might have been or, in fact, he probably was assassinated. This is very interesting because there is actually a court case recorded about an attempted assassination of that king.
Of course, Rameses II has lots of great stories associated with him. He’s the only pharaoh to have a passport from the modern Egyptian state. He was greeted by the French president and afforded all the honours of a live ruler!
Do you have any favourite human or animal mummies?
I still am a big fan of shrew mummies and crocodile mummies, in terms of animal mummies.
With human mummies, I really do have a soft spot for the Old Kingdom ones, and for the ones from the Royal Cache, discovered by Ahmed Abd el-Rassul near Deir el-Bahari in 1871. The cache includes New Kingdom mummies as well as the ones from the 21st Dynasty. I think my favourite New Kingdom mummies [16th-11th century BC] are those of Yuya and Tjuyu, because they are beautiful and life-like. One has a greater sense of intimacy with them than one does with the kings.
Some readers may have seen you on the 2020 documentary Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb. What did your work at Saqqara involve?
I had graciously been invited to examine a small group of the animal mummies by Dr Mostafa Waziri. That was the day when I identified the lion mummy. It actually all happened live on camera.
Why is this such an exciting find?
The 1st-century geographer Strabo mentions lion mummies at Saqqara and I have been questing for these for over 20 years. Finding a lion is extraordinary, as it opens up questions about the types of animals in Egypt at the time, issues of breeding them, and the question of royal and temple menageries, as well as the Egyptians’ relationship with the animal world.
There are many animal mummies at Saqqara. Why is that?
Saqqara was a key centre for animal cults (and many other cults) due to its proximity to the city of Memphis (which was an administratively and religiously important city, and frequently the capital of Egypt) and its association with the kings of Egypt as well as the sage Imhotep, who was revered in the Late Period [from the 7th century BC] and particularly in the Graeco-Roman era [from the 4th century BC].
What other projects have you been working on lately?
Due to COVID-19, a lot of fieldwork has been constrained, but I have had the pleasure of working at the South Asasif Conservation Project directed by Dr Elena Pischikova. There I had the opportunity to examine an embalming deposit, possibly of the 25th Dynasty.
I am continuing to work on the final analyses of the finds and decoration of the tomb of Amenmesses in the Valley of the Kings (KV10) that was usurped by two royal women, and the contents of the amazing embalming cache (KV63) that might be associated with Tutankhamun.
I also have been slowly working on studying the rock art material from the North Kharga Darb Ain Amur Survey that I direct, and I am finding images of more boats, crocodiles, and other aquatic creatures, which is fascinating, as this is in the Sahara Desert.
Who was making these aquatic images? Were they travellers recording things they’d seen elsewhere? Or was the environment different at the time?
The earlier work was probably made by people who were camping here – for how long is hard to establish. They could be seasonal camps. The fish are likely made by people who had settled (perhaps seasonally?) at the site and were fishing there. Later work was probably by people en route, but we cannot be sure. When the fish were made, there was a lake there. The environment has changed over the millennia – initially it was a verdant area with lakes and rainfall. This changed, though occasional lakes were known throughout the Holocene, and indeed into the Predynastic and probably Old Kingdom.
What other images have you found in the area? When were they made?
The petroglyphs were made at different times, from c.6000 BC or earlier until the recent past, as we have found graffiti from the 1970s.
They are mainly animals (like giraffes, elephants, oryx, gazelle, ostrich, storks, cattle, dogs), a few boats, hieroglyphic texts, and a curious depiction of what I have identified as spiders. There are some humans too, and a plethora of feet made by people for whom these were a prayer for safety prior to entering the desert, or a testament to their safe return from the perils of desert travel.