Egypt’s royal mummies are on the move, and it’s not their first road trip

A gala parade in Cairo celebrates the golden age of the pharaohs, including one who flew to Paris for a makeover in 1976.

Pharaoh Seti I ruled Egypt for more than a decade beginning around 1290 B.C. His mummy is one of 22 being moved to a new museum in Cairo.
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

Escorted by Egyptian film stars, singers, dancers, and guards on high-stepping horses, the mummies of 22 pharaohs and other ancient royalty will be paraded through the streets of Cairo on Saturday, moving from the historic Museum of Egyptian Antiquities to their new home in the recently inaugurated National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC).

Dubbed “The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade,” this made-for-TV extravaganza along the Nile is designed to celebrate Egypt’s rich heritage and lure visitors back in the wake of a pandemic that has brought global travel to a standstill.

“This parade will make all Egyptians proud of their country,” says archaeologist Zahi Hawass, the nation’s former minister of antiquities. “In a time of COVID, they want to be happy, to feel proud of their ancestors. They will be waiting in the streets to say hello to their kings.” 

Most of the mummies date from the New Kingdom (about 1539 B.C. to 1075 B.C.), a golden age of Egyptian civilization. They include 18 pharaohs and four other royals ranging in stature from some of Egypt’s most storied leaders to little-known figures.

The royal celebrities include Ramses II—often styled “the Great” and portrayed as the pharaoh mentioned in the biblical Book of Exodus—as well as Hatshepsut, an accomplished builder, forceful leader, and one of ancient Egypt’s few female pharaohs. (Discover the truth behind Egypt’s female pharaohs and their power.)

Less fortunate rulers among the mummies include Siptah Akhenre, who died in his teens and may have suffered from polio, and Seqenenre Ta, whose savage wounds were made by a battle axe, a dagger, a staff, and a spear, according to scholars who CT scanned his mummy.

Other pharaohs had different charms. "Seti I is probably my favorite,” says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University of Cairo. “He had great taste—and he was dashingly handsome.”

The procession will begin around sunset with a 21-gun salute as the royals take to the road at Tahrir Square. Proceeding along a five-mile route that parallels the Nile, the mummies will pass murals of pharaonic scenes against a backdrop of fireworks and sound-and-light shows.

“The mummies will be transported in protective cases nested one inside the other, like ancient coffins or Chinese boxes,” says Ikram, who was consulted on the move because of her expertise in mummies and the mummification process. “They should travel in complete security.”

The hermetically sealed, climate-controlled cases will be loaded onto military flatbed trucks decorated to look like the funerary barges that once carried deceased pharaohs to their tombs. On their arrival at the NMEC, they will be greeted by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and other dignitaries. (See 25 captivating photos of Egypt.)

Mummies on the move

This is hardly the mummies’ first road trip, however. Soon after they were laid to rest in lavish tombs in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor some 3,000 years ago, most of the mummies were transferred to secret caches to protect them from tomb robbers. The caches were rediscovered in the late 1800s—sometimes with help from local looters —and the mummies continued their peregrinations, sailing up the Nile on steam ships to take up residence in Cairo museums.

In 1881, a journalist evoked the atmosphere of one such river cruise, as local villagers lined the riverbanks to mourn the departure of their illustrious dead: “Women with disheveled hair running along the banks and shrieking the death wail.  Men ranged in solemn silence and firing their guns in the air, greeted the Pharaohs as they passed.”

(On arrival in Cairo, the royals encountered a roadblock when customs officials failed to find “mummy” on the list of goods allowed to enter the city. The officials eventually changed their labels from “mummy” to “salted fish” and let the pharaohs pass.)

Since that eerie river journey, the 22 mummies have occupied four different museums, some displayed in glass cases, others in locked storerooms out of the public eye. Ramses II even flew to Paris in 1976 for restoration.

It was Ramses’ trip to France, in fact, that inspired the current Minister of Antiquities, Khaled el-Anani, to stage a gala parade. As a child in a French language school in Cairo, El-Anani watched a film of Ramses’ arrival in Paris.

“I was amazed to see the crowd of reporters and television cameras at the Paris airport who welcomed Ramses as a president or a king,” El-Anani says. So when he became minister, he decided to “do something big, to organize an unrivaled parade to show the respect for our ancestors, who are also part of mankind’s cultural heritage.”

Modern-day mummy’s curse?

Many Egyptians look forward to the parade as a moment of festivity during the trials of the pandemic. But others worry that this mummy migration has brought bad luck.

A recent fatal train wreck in central Egypt, a building collapse in Cairo, and the bizarre blockage of the Suez Canal all have been blamed on a modern-day mummy’s curse connected to the parade. Hawass, the archaeologist, dismisses the notion. “There is no such thing as a curse,” he laughs, “just a lot of superstitious people.” (Judicial power flowed from pharaohs—even after death.)

More seriously, the evening pageant comes amid a global discussion over the ethics of exhibiting human remains. Many museum curators are pushing to cover up mummies or remove human remains from display entirely.

Egyptian authorities have debated the matter for decades. In 1974, when Hawass accompanied Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, on a tour of the Egyptian Museum, she flinched and covered her eyes on seeing the grim, desiccated form of Ramses II. “It was as if she was thinking, ‘Man, why are you doing this? I can’t stand looking at the face of a human being like this!’” Hawass remembers.

But now the Egyptian royals will receive the respectful burial they deserve in their new exhibit at the NMEC, Minister El-Anani says.

“You descend a ramp as if you are going to the nether world. The walls are black, with very low lighting. Each room is like a burial chamber, where the mummies lie in their coffins, surrounded by their grave goods.”

Before enjoying their eternal repose in the NMEC, however, the 22 mummies are starring in a larger-than-life production worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. What might they have to say about taking part in such an event?

“Rulers wished to be remembered, for their names to live forever,” says Gregory Mumford, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Thus a state and public acknowledgement of their names, reigns, and identities would, I assume, have appealed to many if not all.”

Reporting contributed by Andrew Curry.

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