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Introducing Egypt's Living Dead

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Here in Cairo, the Egyptians don't celebrate Halloween. But then again, they don't have to! Every day thousands of people flock to see the living dead! Their eyes still stare out at you, their faces, black and desiccated, can still be recognized. It's really freaky. Cairo is an ancient necropolis, a city of the dead!

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Fortunately for us all, the dead aren't just wandering around in the streets, they're kept locked away in the Egyptian Museum. They say it's to protect these mummies of the pharaohs and queens (some of which are over 4,000 years old) from sand, air and light, and from the living, like us. I wonder, though, if it's really not to protect us from them! I mean, to the ancient Egyptians, these were the bodies of gods who had eternal life, and needed to be worshiped and have offerings made to them for eternity. I don't think that laying behind glass in a dark room full of gawking tourists was exactly what they had in mind! I sure don't want any powerful gods mad at me!

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Lost and found. These carved heads of gods were recovered from grave robbers trying to sell them or smuggle them out of the country. Because of this, Egyptologists don't know anything about their history or where they are from.

The first thing Kavitha and I did in Cairo was go to visit the ancient pharaohs at the museum. They were wrapped up in linen bandages from their ankles to their wrists to their necks, but their hands, feet, and faces had been exposed by professional mummy un-wrappers. We weren't allowed to take pictures, so all I can do is tell you that it's amazing to look at the faces of kings and queens who lived thousands of years ago! Some had precious stones laid in their eyes, but on others I could see straight down into the empty eye sockets! But the skin was all there, and some had eyebrows and other details painted on their black faces.

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Can you decipher this? These hieroglyphs are carved into the side of a black stone coffin.

To the ancient Egyptians, their pharaoh was a god, and the life force that emanates from all gods, called 'kas,' had to be protected. Therefore, the pharaoh's body needed to be preserved. In pre-dynastic times, before the pharaohs, people were buried in shallow graves in the sand. Because it was so dry, their bodies were naturally preserved, kind of like beef jerky. But when the pharaohs came along they started to build mastabas-large mud "tombstones"-to put over their graves and elaborate sarcophaguses in which to bury their sacred bodies. The idea was probably to venerate and protect them, but they discovered that the bodies, once protected from the heat, sand, and sun, began to rot and decompose. Yuck. I'd hate to have been the poor priest to discover that!

So as the ancient Egyptians were creating more and more elaborate ways to bury their dead pharaohs, with fancy tombs and pyramids, they also developed a way to preserve their bodies artificially. The started using a chemical called natron, found in an oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, to dry them out quickly.

Mummification 101: How to Make a Mummy

Because the hieroglyphs have been deciphered, Egyptologists know in great detail how the mummification process was done. WARNING: Do not try this at home! Only professional priests of the cult of Anubus, the dog-headed god of mummification, are certified to mummify bodies. And besides, the process takes about 70 days, so your little sister wouldn't be ready for Halloween anyway.

Step 1: First, the brain was broken up and removed through the nose.

Step 2: Next, the intestines, liver, stomach, and lungs were removed through an incision in the lower left abdomen. They were dried with natron, treated with resin, and placed in four separate carved stone vases, called canopic jars. The jars were placed under the protection of the four sons of Horus, the god of the Sky. The liver was under the protection of Amest, and the jar was carved with a human head. The lungs were in a baboon-headed jar that represented Hapi, the stomach in the jackal-headed jar of Duamutef, and the intestines were guarded by the falcon head of Kabehsenuef. These were all placed in an elaborate box and buried with the mummy, just in case they needed their guts in the next world, I suppose.

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Step 3: The body was sterilized and packed with natron and fragrant resins, to make it smell pretty. Mmmm.

Step 4: The body was then pickled in natron for about 35 days, which artificially dried and preserved them.

Step 5: After that, the natron was removed and clay was packed under the skin of the limbs. The body cavities were stuffed with linen soaked in resin, bags of cinnamon and myrrh, and sawdust. (It's like making a giant Christmas-tree ornament!)

Step 6: The body was treated with fragrant oils, the abdominal incision was closed and covered with an amulet of the eye of Horus, and the skin was treated with molten resin.

Step 7: Finally, the body was wrapped in bandages. These didn't really help preserve the body, since the natron already did that. Maybe it was like wrapping them in newspaper for shipment to eternity. Little bits of magical amulets were placed between the layers of linen to aid in the transition, and a fancy mask, called a cartoonage mask, was placed over the head. The face of the mask was made in the likeness of the person, so that the soul could recognize the body, since the face was all wrapped in linen.

Click here to see some pictures to go along with these steps!

After leaving the mummies, we walked around the museum, looking at all the loot the archeologists have uncovered in the tombs of the pharaohs. Best of all were the treasures from the grave of the youngking, Tut Ankh Amun (we call him Tatankhamun or King Tut), which was found in 1922. He was only 19 years old when he died in 1327 bc. , but he was still a god, deserving of a sacred tomb. King Tut is famous because his tomb was found still intact, whereas most of the Pharaohs' tombs were first found by grave robbers instead of archeologists and Egyptologists, so their treasures have been spread out around the world, along with, of course, whatever curse or spell they had!

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All the pharaohs were buried with things they would need in the afterlife. In addition to huge amounts of gold jewelry and masks, the tombs had thrones, clothing, huge wooden ships to take them to the afterworld, and, sometimes, the mummified bodies of favorite pets like monkeys, cats, falcons, or crocodiles. We saw them, too! The tombs also held statues of servants that had spells placed on them by the priests, so that they would come to life when needed. There were farmers, bread makers, fishermen, men making beer and wine, women grinding grain, and many others. Along with the hieroglyphs, these statues provide insight into the lives of average Egyptians.

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In the tomb, the mummies were placed inside carved wooden or gold coffins shaped sort of like their bodies. Then those were placed in intricately carved huge stone sarcophagus' with hieroglyphs and images of Egyptian gods and goddesses. All of this is on display and can still be seen and read. The hieroglyphs have been deciphered, and Egyptologists can read about daily life and rituals and letters sent between Pharaohs and their ministers.

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What made this trip to the museum so amazing was not just the beauty and intricacy of all the artwork, it was not the glitter of the gold, or even the creepiness of the mummies. It was the awareness that all of this stuff was created in the 30 centuries before Christian times, long before the great civilizations of Europe and the Americas had even begun to form. Some people even believe that the ancient Egyptians must have had contact with space aliens to be so advanced so early. I don't know about that, but I do know that my mind was blown away! I can't wait to learn more about this amazing and mysterious period in history.

Want to know more about hieroglyphics? Check out this website to translate your name into ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


The Team - Memphis: The Ancient Capital of Egypt
Jasmine - One Step at a Time: Egypt's First Pyramid
Kavitha - Many Streams, One River
Monica - Learning How To "Walk Like An EgyptianŠ"
The Team - Poltics as Usual in Algeria
The Team - U.S.-Libya: A History of Tense Relations
Making a Difference - Just Do It
Making a Difference - The Parthenon

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