"What's there to see? All these dead people's things!"
Dragged to the museum by her son to catch a new exhibition on the quest for life eternal, a lady who clearly has a distaste for the deceased would probably have magnified her disapproval at the sight of cadavers in cloth in the last leg of the crypt chamber. Entombed in the basement by a hill that harbours its own secrets, the gods, beasts and bodies of ancient Egyptians will endure a season of frowns from children who hope to see a flicker of life in their eyes and groans from parents who pray not.
Some of the mummies on display are likely to be mommies too. Nes-Khons is the name of a Theban dame who dozes beneath a painted wrap of cartonnage. Scans have found two infants nestled between her legs, probably twins who grew tired of growing up and killed their mother with grief. Alas, there is only a clinical depiction of what lies within the wood, as this era of superior technologies and fragile dispositions has done away with the glorious tradition of unwrapping dry corpses layer by layer in public view to unveil the flesh of forgotten faces.
Not content to disturb sensitive souls with bodies pickled with salt and stuffed with resin, the gallery also features a menagerie of painstakingly preserved animals that served as avatars of beastly gods. A shrew sleeps in a coffin the size of a cigarette box, while a beetle that the mammal would have loved to devour occupies a case of deep azure. The snout of a skinny cat pokes out of a stick of tight linen. Perhaps too ungainly for upright repose, an ibis has been stuffed into a pot. And a foot-long crocodilet grins at the thought of outliving its congeners who no longer prowl the lower reaches of the Nile.
Mumiya, or mumiyai, is Arabic for bitumen, an organic wax that oozed out of sedimentary rocks in the Levant. The Persians called it mūm, and in one region, so much of the substance was said to have leaked out that the place was named 'Mummy Mountain'. The tar-like balsam was widely (and wrongly) believed by both Arabs and Romans to have been an essential ingredient for embalming, thanks in part to its use by medieval forgers who sought to pass off recent knock-offs as the real McCoy. Having no pithier term for 'preserved corpses', barbaric Westerners begged, borrowed or stole the word, applying it to remains rendered resistant to decay by sand, salt or the skill of shirtless craftsmen.
For centuries, 'mummy' in its geological guise was prized as a "remedy for fractures and wounds." The word was also used to describe "the hair and fingernails cut off living people" for nefarious purposes that rhyme with sex. Mummies in the necrotic sense, too, enjoyed a second life of fame, for in the days before museums hoarded the bodies of kings, merchants stockpiled grave pickings to meet a demand for royal jelly.
Undiscerning buyers saw little difference between medicinal resins and morbid goods, and as the former was not infrequently extracted from raided tombs, came to favour the latter. Thus, a ritual consumed with death led to centuries of mass consumption, as the rulers of ancient Egypt found themselves dug up, pound into powder and served as treacles of tonic. "Witches' mummy" joined the brew that beguiled Macbeth, and a 17th century wit thought it cruel that the vanity of immortal souls who outlasted vanished dynasties survived only to succumb to the greed of apothecaries. "Mummy is become merchandize, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams," he wrote.
Once, they commanded awe and offerings. Now, the pantheon of Memphis command a king's ransom in insurance for museums that dare expose their public to the serene beauty of false and friendly gods. Perhaps as an oblique warning to my duck which has trouble resisting the temptation to poke every pussy he sees, we were told that a cat-headed lady who guards the end of a dim passage is valued at about one million euros and at 1.4 tonnes, is no pushover but a war goddess who delights in the blood of both men and menses.
Sitting even further beyond the reach of modern hoi polloi is King Horemheb, who made it a point to show that he was an especially good pal of a god with a bawdy bent. Isis and Osiris, the parents of Horus, also merit their own statuary, and as siblings who became spouses, inspired many a Pharaoh to introduce his little brother to his sister. A deity sadly sidelined in this age of ceiling cats is Bastet, whose totem was revered and fed primitive cheeseburgers by a population that recognised a superior species. Suffering similar neglect is the god of wisdom and science, whose calling and creature of choice are threatened by a foxy cheerleader for humble lies.
Despite their feline obsessions, the ancient Egyptians were no pussyfooters who took life lying down. Between hunting and harvesting, much humping took place on the sand and those who could afford it fancied themselves as animals in bed. Beer was the lubricant of all this sociality, and barleywine was deemed so vital to the empire that the chore of brewing was reason enough for one to be given a day off work. It's a far cry from the puritan progress of the present day as well as the primitive farmers who lived millennia before the pyramids and carved comely figurines of ivory that greet the follies of later days with wide-eyed bemusement.