On April 3, 2021 a spectacular event took place. A parade of 18 kings and 4 queens – all mummies, were paraded through the streets of Cairo, from the Egyptian Museum to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. There they all were, Ramses II, Hatshepsut, Amenhoteph the Magnificent, and others, transported in the order of their reign, on newly paved streets, in nitrogen filled coffins, and surrounded by a motorcade of security. The specially designed chariots, golden beasts, like a cross between a military vehicle and a boat and decorated with architectural shapes and Egyptian patterns, floated along the streets, one for each ruler, with their name clearly marked in Roman script, Arabic, and hieroglyphs, on the front, on the back and on the sides. The live streamed event also included performances by the United Philharmonic Orchestra, highly staged and produced parades by people in spectacular costumes, chants in ancient Egyptian language, readings form old inscriptions and from the Book of the Dead, and videos streamed of famous actors visiting important and restored Egyptian archaeological sites. At their final destination, the mummies were welcomed by president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a gun salute by the National Guard.
Theses mummies have all traveled before. They all come from two locations: The Royal Cache in Deir El Bahari and The Tomb of Amenhotep II in Luxor, where they were excavated in 1881 and 1898, respectively. Back in the day they reached Cairo by boat on the Nile and in some cases by first class train. Since then they have been on display for both Egyptians and tourists to see. Now they will take up court in the newly built Royal Hall of Mummies which opens for visitors on April 18.
The display of mummies is not uncontroversial in Egypt. While it is one of the few categories of human remains that are regularly on display in the United States where otherwise such exhibits are considered controversial (see article by Liv Nilsson Stutz in Archaeologists and the Dead), many muslim scholars argue that the dead should be treated with dignity and not be put on display. In 1980 the president Anwar Sadat ordered that the the royal mummies should be reburied. Allegedly the position grew out of a dispute he had with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Sadat criticized Khomieni for displaying the bodies of dead American servicemen on TV to which Khomeini retorted with questioning why Egypt displays mummies. Sadat did not get his wish, and the mummies remained in the care of the museum.
In this light – bringing together history, geopolitics, and religion, it is interesting to reflect over what the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade really means today. It is hard to miss the message of nationalism connecting the prestigeous past with the contemporary state, its president and military. It goes without saying that this is problematic. It is also likely that the live streaming and publicity surrounding this elaborate and costly event is an investment in the future tourist revenue streams which will be crucial for the economic post-covid recovery. The bread and circus aspect of the event is also hard to miss, and we are right to call it out. Finally, International media has taken the bite and in an expected and orientalist way brought to the fore “the curse of the mummies angle” as the days leading up to the event coincided with the stranding of an enormous ship in the Suez Canal.
But beyond all that we can see something else in the treatment of the royal mummies. The parade demonstrates how these human remains are treated, not only as invaluable antiquites, but also as the remains of important people, as individual named rulers with a public history, and personal dignity. We can reflect on what it says about us as we marvel and snicker at a performance like this, while we at the same time mine the graves of European royalty to extract DNA and other organic samples.