|Mummies, Pharaohs and the First Sit-In: Salima Ikram
Salima Ikram, born in Pakistan, first became interested in Egyptology when, as a child, she took a trip with her family to Egypt. I met her after her lecture on mummies at Montclair State University’s Classics Department. The interview was done by email in March 2011.
She is a world-renowned expert on mummies who has combined her interest in ancient Egypt and the mysteries of the dead with modern science. She is the founder of the Animal Mummy project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo, a scholar and a frequent lecturer. She has a doctorate in Egyptology and Museum Studies from Cambridge University. Along with a series of children’s books, she has written Divine Creatures, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt and Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt. She has also spent time as a visiting scholar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and been a consultant at Giza, Saqqara, Abu Sir, Valley of the Kings, as well as co-director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey. Her TV credits include Da Vinci Code: Decoded, Tomb Raiders: Robbing the Dead and The Real Scorpion King.
What’s the movie that best depicts ancient Egypt, or at least is the most fun?
My favorite remains ‘The Mummy’ with Boris Karloff. Beautifully shot and extremely potent.
Were you surprised by the recent uprising in Egypt?
Yes I was, but pleased. Of course, one should not be too surprised. The ancient Egyptians had a ritual to test the ability/acceptability of the king to continue ruling after he had been on the throne for 30 years—the heb sed. The king had to run a race, and if he won it was an indication that he was strong and a good ruler, backed by the gods. He then had to be acclaimed by the gods of Egypt as well as, presumably, the higher level officials, and finally the people (to a lesser extent). If he faltered or had enough people against him, he was replaced. Also, the first sit-in in history took place in Egypt during the reign of King Ramses III. The workers who were constructing and decorating his tomb had not been paid so they put down their tools and went to the temple that issued their pay and sat down until they got it!
Who’s your favorite mummy and why?
Very hard to say. With the pharaohs, they are quite interesting as we know so much about them, and it is wonderful to see them ‘in the flesh’. Animals—well, I am very fond of the 17-foot-long crocodile from Kom Ombo that was mummified with baby crocodiles in its mouth (to protect them, and also to symbolize regeneration), and the dog and baboon ensemble found in the valley of the kings—they have so much personality!
During your fascinating presentation at Montclair State University, you explained the mummification process. Can you describe it?
Mummification was carried out in Egypt for over 3000 years, and it evolved over time. It also varied, depending not only on time period, but also on region. The goal of mummification was to desiccate and preserve the body. The most perfect process is as follows: as much as possible of the brain is removed via the nostrils with a hooked tool, and the cranium is then washed out with palm wine or salt water. It is later filled with molten resin and linen plugs inserted in the nose to keep the resin in and help retain the shape of the nose. Then, an incision is made in the left side, above the iliac crest, and the stomach, lungs, liver, and intestines are removed and mummified separately. The thorax is then thoroughly washed with palm wine and spices. The body is desiccated and defatted by burying it (and filling the interior cavities with) in natron, a combination of salt and baking soda. This procedure lasts for 40 days after which the body is dusted off, anointed with oils and unguents, and against a background of prayers, is wrapped in linen bandages. The second procedure lasts for 30 days. After this the body is ready for burial.
What does mummification say about Egyptian religion?
The Egyptians had a strong belief in the afterlife and wanted to preserve the body as it was a vessel for the soul.
In Divine Creatures you mention a man named Hapy-Min who had his dog buried with him. That shows a great love of animals. Were animals close to both gods and humans?
You also mentioned that Herodotus gave one of the few descriptions of the process of mummification. Do you think he witnessed it, or did priests divulge the secrets?
Probably priests described it to him. He might have visited an embalming house to carry out his research—the equivalent to going to a funeral home.
So Ramses had red hair and hardening of the arteries and problems with his teeth?
The hair might be due to discoloration (bleaching) associated with the natron. Also, in this part of the world, I have seen people with dark hair that, as they age, turns reddish, then blonde, and then finally white.
Have you studied mummies from the Andes or other places around the world, and were you impressed with them?
I have seen them, but never had the opportunity to study them. The Peruvian ones are most intriguing.
Can you say a few things about the new technology and techniques being used in paleopathology?
All sorts of interesting new technologies that have been used on the living are being tried on the dead, as well as special technologies that can safely be used on the dead. There is some work being carried out on DNA research, also, imaging technologies are improving by leaps and bounds, as are scientists abilities to test ancient bone and tissue in order to identify diseases.
What intrigues you most about ancient Egyptian religion?
One of the things that is most curious is the upsurge of animal cults in the late period. Egyptologists have various ideas about why this might have happened, but we are still unsure of this and I think that a great deal remains to be understood.
Was the afterlife an ideal portrait of life on earth?
Yes, the best of this world…
In the Book of the Dead, one’s heart is weighed against a feather. That sets a high standard for human ethics, do you think?
Indeed, every individual was called upon to help uphold Maat, or the order of the universe by acting correctly and with integrity. it did not always work, but the ideal was in place.
Were the people who practiced philosophy mainly interested in ethics and common sense stuff? I’m thinking of Ptah-hotep.
We only have a fraction of Egyptian texts, so we do not know the full range of their philosophy.
Is Akhenaten the first monotheist? He wanted to be worshipped too. It seems confusing. No, it is a misnomer. He made the aten the chief god and himself as the Aten’s manifestation on earth. Other deities, such as Hathor, seem to have continued to be worshipped, but the Aten (and Akhenaten) reigned supreme.
Was he a mystic or visionary?
Maybe both as well as a politician who wanted to rein in the power of the priests of Amun.
King Tut was young when he died. Would he have been a great or special pharaoh? How did he die?
No one knows for sure how he died. He might have had malaria that was reactivated, or it could have been poison or it could have been the flu. As with any young person who dies in an untimely manner, it is difficult to predict if they would have been great had they lived.
Why did that genius sculptor leave that masterpiece of Nefertiti on the table in Amarna, which waited 3,500 years to be discovered?
Good question. It was left in the sand. Maybe he figured that as the royal family did not have any power or funding, he would not be paid for the piece and no one else would want it, so he abandoned it. Also, it separated him from the regime.
As for the pyramid construction, do you like that internal ramp theory from that computer expert Jean Pierre Houdin (with some assistance from Bob Brier)?
It might be possible.
How would Egypt look in ancient times? After all, you mention in books and lectures that many of the animals, such as elephants and lions, are extinct in Egypt now. Was there more rainfall, more greenery in ancient times?
Prior to 3500 BC Egypt was much greener with a vast array of fauna. This decreased by 3000 BC, and then continued to do so until 2000 BC when most of Egypt looked similar to what it is today, although there probably were more microclimates about in the eastern and western deserts.
What was the diet in ancient Egypt?
This depended on rank. Wealthy people ate more meat—cattle was preferred, while poorer people depended more on vegetables, fish, and maybe poultry, and pigs, all easy to catch or rear in confined spaces. There were obviously no potatoes, tomatoes, maize or chilies in ancient Egypt; neither were there oranges or other citrus fruit.
What kind of beer and wine did they like?
What might have been nice for them might not be so well received now. Beer was weaker than its modern equivalent, and was probably a bit like gruel. Wine was supposed to be good….Some jars are labeled with the vintner’s name, the date of production, the domain name, and also the quality of wine. It ranged from very very very good, to very very good, to very good, to good, to wine to make you merry (quickly).
The love poems from the New Kingdom are so natural and passionate. The students mention that the poems seem like they were written yesterday. What do the poems say about the Egyptians?
I think they are a moment when we can see that there was little difference in essentials between the ancient Egyptians and people today.
What would music (lyre and other instruments) sound like in ancient Egypt?
Probably fairly screechy to the modern western ear.
Did women in ancient Egypt have it better than in other places in the ancient world?
Much better! More equitable rights in terms of property ownership, divorce, inheritance, etc. Still not equal to men, but better than in other places.
Students are often surprised to learn that Egypt had at least two female pharaohs, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. Were they among the most extraordinary?
They were certainly remarkable women, but they were not the only female rulers of Egypt. Quite possibly a woman called Neithhotep ruled/regented in the early dynastic period, Nitokris and Sobeknefru also ruled, and Queen Aahotep might even have led troops in battle.
Did many women really wear see-through linen?
Yes, and so did men. The ancient Egyptian were not hung up about their bodies—everyone had one so there was no real reason to be coy about it.
What’s your favorite restaurant and meal in Cairo?
Hard one. Probably the Korean restaurant Hanna. The food is good, fairly affordable, and the staff is great.
Did you enjoy your time as a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
It was magnificent. The department is filled with amazing scholars and everyone was most helpful; discussions were stimulating, the library and the collections were a joy to work with and in, and access to the material was facilitated to an astonishing extent. Dr. Dorothea Arnold, the head of the department, is a truly astonishing and wonderful person.
You have many books out for both children and adults. How do you find the time to write?
It is very difficult and I wish I had less administrative work to do at the university and slightly less teaching, so that I could write! It means that I have no life outside of my work, but I guess for an Eyptologist that is not all bad.
What classes are you teaching at American University in Cairo this semester?
Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt;
Culture and Society of Ancient Egypt;
An Introduction to Egyptian Architecture.
You’ve written books for children. Do you also get the chance to teach children?
I give talks to children and have run workshops for them. They get a huge kick out of learning about mummification.
What’s it like for students of Egyptology?
Long course involving language, art, archaeology, history, etc.
Did your love of Egypt begin when you were a child?
Yes, I was interested when i was 8, and totally hooked when I was 9. I saw the statues of Rahotep and Nofret in the Cairo Museum, and they, together with Tutankhamun’s treasures, and the grand gallery of the great pyramid were a real turning point in my life.
What was one of the biggest surprises in your research? What happened that gave you a “wow” or “eureka” response? Is your work still as exciting as when you first began?
The biggest thrill is often going into a tomb or seeing something that has been hidden for thousands of years. But there are other eureka moments: when suddenly one gets an idea that one can prove and that makes sense of some aspect of ancient Egypt or when doing experimental archaeology it suddenly becomes clear why the Egyptians did things a certain way. Ancient Egypt and the Egyptians remain compelling, despite all the time that I have spent with them already.
Of all the things to be discovered anywhere in Egypt, what do you think would be the most exciting?
This is a very difficult question. Intact burials, both royal and elite are always exciting. Texts from the time of Akhenaten dealing with politics and religion would be great. In fact, any court archive would be a spectacular find as it would shed so much light on ancient Egypt. New discoveries of Pharaonic activity in the western and eastern desert would also be terrific. And of course, finding embalming houses with their materials intact would be great fun for me.
The scholar Camille Paglia said that ancient Egyptian paintings appear “cinematic.” I think she means that they are stunningly visual with excellent composition. How would you describe them?
I think stunningly visual with excellent composition and a touch of whimsy would do.