CAIRO—In a grand ceremonial parade on Saturday, Egyptian authorities moved 22 ancient royal mummies in specially designed capsules across the capital from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, in central Cairo, to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat, about 7 kilometers to the southeast.
“The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade” took around an hour to transfer the mummies under tight security. However, this was preceded by months of diligent work by an Egyptian research team that examined the mummies using computerized tomography, or CT scans, anthropological sciences, and molecular genetics in order to ensure that they could be safely conveyed to their new dwelling and be displayed properly.
“Our work is focused on better understanding our ancestors’ past and history in a scientific way,” Zahi Hawass, an Egyptian archaeologist and one of the founders of the Egyptian Mummy Project, said in a telephone interview. He added that “the project team examined the mummy of Tutankhamun, in addition to 21 royal mummies, including that of Ramses II,” also known as Ramses the Great.
Hawass, who once served as minister of state for Egyptian antiquities, explained that his team had succeeded in rediscovering details about the lives and deaths of most of these mummies, especially the Pharaohs Seqenenre-Taa-II and Ramses III.
CT studies indicated that Seqenenre was captured and executed in battle in the sixteenth century B.C., and that Ramses III was killed by multiple assassins in the tenth century B.C., probably as a result of a conspiracy between one of his wives and a son.
A Voluntary Effort
Led by Hawass, a number of Egyptian researchers founded the Egyptian Mummy Project about 16 years ago. The project, self-funded by its members, has presented scientific studies on dozens of mummies that were published in many scientific periodicals and had a role in uncovering family relations between mummies, their genetic sequencing, and the real causes of death for some of them.
“We aim to achieve three main goals upon examining any mummy,” Hawass said. “Those are: discovering the circumstances of death, the method of embalming, and its strength and weaknesses.”
In May 2019, Sahar Saleem, a professor of diagnostic radiology at Cairo University and a member of the team, managed to identify the circumstances of the murder of Seqenenre after she took more than 2,000 pictures of the mummy in a CT study.
“We aim to achieve three main goals upon examining any mummy, Those are: discovering the circumstances of death, the method of embalming, and its strength and weaknesses.”Zahi Hawass
An Egyptian archaeologist and one of the founders of the Egyptian Mummy Project
A graduate of Cairo University’s School of Medicine, Saleem joined the Egyptian Mummy Project one year after it was launched upon returning to Egypt from Canada, where she specialized in CT technology at the University of Western Ontario.
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One of Saleem’s latest discoveries in the project showed that the death of “the screaming mummy,” a princess known as Meritamun, the daughter of Seqenenre, was caused by a heart attack more than 3,000 years ago.
“The examination of CT scans revealed that severe atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries led to the sudden death of the Egyptian princess of a heart attack,” Saleem said. The study also indicated that the woman was in her 50s, she added.
‘Limited Funds and Capabilities’
Over the coming years, Saleem seeks to improve the project’s working conditions.
“We are working with limited funds and capabilities,” she said. “The only CT device I use in screening techniques dates back to 2005. We want to replace it with a newer device and better technologies that will help us accomplish our tasks.”
In turn, Yehia Zakaria Gad, a molecular geneticist and a researcher at Egypt’s National Research Center, is working on extracting RNA from the Egyptian mummies and examining the genetic material preserved from the remains of ancient living creatures.
Being one of the first researchers in molecular genetics in Egyptology and the founder of the first ancient DNA laboratory in the Egyptian Museum in the 2000s, Gad analyzed DNA from the teeth of an infant mummy and determined that the child had died of diphtheria.
“We usually extract DNA samples from the bones, teeth, and soft tissues of the mummies,” he said in a telephone interview. “DNA sequences and markers help us discover family relationships and diseases that affected some organs in the mummies. However, the scarcity of genetic data published on ancient Egyptians is unfortunate.”
The mummies were moved to the new museum to be displayed in more modern cases “for better control of temperature and humidity compared to the old museum,” Hawass said. He and his colleagues hope to take their project to a large institution that can be a pioneer in the process of examining antiquities around the world and publishing advanced studies that help decipher the mysteries of ancient civilizations.
Editor’s Note: The new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization opens to the public on April 4. The mummies will be on display from April 18 on.