FOR MORE THAN 100 YEARS, THE QUESTION OF WHY AN EGYPTIAN MUMMY ENDED UP IN AMERICA
In the corner of the Niagara Falls Daredevil Museum lies an empty glass case. Until recently, this was the home of the most mysterious archaeological characters of the last century - the Niagara Falls Mummy.
Naked of all his bandages, with crossed arms denoting his royal status and having been preserved in natron salts, the mummified pharaoh had lain unrecognunrecognizedades. More puzzling still is how the ancient Egyptian king could have been transported from Egypt to the Niagara museum, where, for 138 years, it was one of the main exhibits.
In an attempt to solve the mystery, Atlanta's Michael C. Carlos Museum purchased the mummy last year. Now its scientists are hoping to extract DNA to determine which pharaoh they have in their possession. Yet, if you follow events taking place in Luxor during the second half of the 19th century, it would appear that the Niagara mummy may well be the body of Rameses I, founder of the 19th Dynasty.
Early in 1874, Amelia Edwards, the famous romantic novelist, was undertaking a 1,000-mile journey up the river Nile from Alexandria to Nubia. She reached the little town of Luxor (the site of ancient Thebes) in March and stayed there for several weeks. Within hours of her sailing boat mooring alongside the temple, Edwards sensed the excitement lurking in this otherwise sleepy community.
She wrote: "There were whispers about this time of a tomb that had been discovered on the western side - a wonderful tomb, rich in all kinds of treasures. No one, of course, had seen these things. No one knew where they were hidden. But there was a solemn secrecy about certain Arabs and a conscious look about some of the visitors and an air of awakened vigilance about the government officials, which savoured the mystery".
During her stay in Luxor, she was even offered a papyrus roll complete with its own mummy. Days of protracted negotiations over the sum of backsheesh (money) appropriate for such a trophy ensured before two other English ladies, the Brocklehurst sisters (also doing a Nile cruise), intervened and, as Edwards wryly notes, "bought both mummy and papyrus at an enormous price".
Having purchased this gruesome hoard from certain undisclosed residents of Sheikh Abd el-Gurna village near the Valley of the Kings, the ladies set sail for Cairo. However, before the day was out, the mummy obviously not long from its tomb, began to putrefy in the burning summer heat. The "dearly departed" met its sorry end in the thick black mud at the bottom of the river.
Throughout the 1870s, papyrus scrolls and other funerary artifacts were appearing in "antika" shops of the Middle East. Clearly an important discovery of a royal tomb, or series of tombs, had been surreptitiously made in the mountains of the west bank of Luxor. The Egyptian Antiquities Service implemented a rigorous policy to flush out the culprits. A spy was sent to try to discover who was behind the illicit dealing. In 1881, one family had come under suspicion and one member in particular.
Ahmed Abd er-Rassul was brought to the Antiquities Service steamboat which had come from Cairo carrying director Gaston Maspero and his deputy Emil Brugsch. The interrogation was long and searching but Ahmed was more than a match for Maspero's delving. This "upright citizen" of Gurna continued to deny all knowledge of the tomb, constantly professing his good name. How could an Egyptian with such an exemplary reputation indulge in nefarious activities of this kind?
The Antiquities Service men failed to extract any sort of confession from the wily Ahmed and had to release him, allowing him to return safely across the river back to the safety of Gurna. Maspero and Brugsch headed back to Cairo . Shortly after, Ahmed and his brother Hussein were arrested by the local police and send to be "interviewed" by the governor of the province, Daoud Pasha. This time, the niceties of European scholarly interrogation were not observed. Daoud's men had more direct methods of extracting information.
The Rassuls were subjected to hours of brutal questioning which Daoud set about "with his habitual severity". This included the use of bastinado, a form of torture where the victim's feet are caned. Still the brothers refused to surrender their secret. Ahmed and Hussein (the latter now crippled by the torture) were thrown into prison for two months. They were finally released after the constant petitioning of the elders of their village.
Despite their success in avoiding prosecution, things were not going well in the Rassul household. The need to save face dominated village life, especially among male elders of the tribe. On his triumphant return home to Gurna, Ahmed decided that he and his younger brother should be rewarded for their suffering at the hands of the Kena authorities. Head of the family, Mohamed, had got away scot free so it was only right, in Ahmed's view, that he and Hussein should get a greater share of the loot in recompense for their tribulations. A furious and long-lasting row erupted among the brothers and the entire village was thrown into turmoil.
Mohamed Abd er-Rassul then went secretly to Daoud Pasha and confessed. To restore his authority at home and, as a face-saving measure, he secured a promise that no prosecutions would ensure if he agreed to lead the authorities to the hidden tomb.
At last the truth, or at least part of the truth, was revealed, first to the authorities in Upper Egypt and then by telegram to Brugsch in Cairo. The latter once again set out for Luxor arriving on June 4. Two days later, Mohamend took Brugsch to the lonely spot south of Deir el-Bahri where revealed the location of the secret tomb. Brugsch was lowered by rope down to the bottom of the shaft. "Finding Pharaoh was an exciting experience for me. It is true I was armed to the teeth and my faithful rifle, full of shell, hung over my shoulder; but my assistant from Cairo, Ahmed Effendi Kamal, was the only person with me whom I trust", he wrote. "Any one of the native would have killed me willingly had we been alone, for every one of them knew better than I did that I was about to deprive them of a great source of revenue. But I exposed no sign of fear and proceeded with the work. The well cleared out. I descended and began the exploration of the underground passage."
Brugsch and Ahmed Kamal pressed on into the depths of the tomb, where an extraordinary sight awaited them in a small chamber next to the stairwell.
"Soon we came upon cases of porcelain funeral offerings, metal and alabaster vessels, draperies and trinkets, until, reaching the turn in the passage, a cluster of mummy cases came to view in such number as to stagger me," continues Brugsch. "Collecting my senses, I made the best examination of them I could by the light of my torch and at once saw that they contained the mummies of royal personages of both sexes; and yet that was not all. Plunging on ahead of my guide, I came to see the chamber and there, standing against the walls or lying on the floor, I found an even greater number of mummy cases of stupendous size and weight. Their gold coverings and their polished surfaces so plainly reflected my own excited visage that it seemed as though I was looking into the faces of my own ancestors".
The tomb held in its protection some of the most powerful kings and queens of the ancient world. Over the next 48 hours, the coffins were hauled up the tomb shaft, logged and wrapped in sailcloth before being raised on to the shoulders of a scripted workforce for transportation to the Nile. Some of the coffins were so large and heavy that it required a dozen more to lift them.
By June 15, the Antiquities Service river boat, fully laden with its royal cargo, set sail for Cairo. As the paddle steamer made its steady progress northwards, the banks of the great river bristled with shadowy figures in black, the women wailing and tearing their hair, the men discharging their rifles into the air in a final farewell to the kings and queens who had ruled over Egypt generations ago.
The years following 1881 were spent examining and identifying the mummies. The coffins and wrappings had ink dockets on them which gave the names of the kinds whose bodies lay within - Ahmose I, Amenhotp I, Thutmose III, Seti I, Ramese II and Rameses III.
The discovery in 1898 of a second royal cache in the Valley of the Kings produced 10 more pharaohs but this still left Egyptologists with six missing kings - Horemheb, Rameses I, Setnakht, Rameses VII, Rameses X and Rameses XI. In the original royal cache a docket from one coffin detailed the reburial there of Ramese I, Seti I and Rameses II. Seti I and Rameses II had been identified among the mummies - but where was Rameses I?.
The evidence points to the likelihood that Ahmed Abd er-Rassul and his brothers had found the royal cache a full decade before they had admitted to discovering it and 20 years before handing it over to the authorities. In one of their earliest clandestine visits to the secret hiding place of the pharaohs, they had removed the mummy of Rameses I and taken it to their home.
Soon after, they sold the "artefact" to adventurer and explorer James Douglas on his visit to Luxor in 1860. He transported King Rameses' body to America and sold it to Colonel Sidney Barnett, son of the Niagara Falls Daredevil Museum's founder, in 1861. There the Great Pharaoh lay neglected and unidentified for 138 years before making his journey to the Michael C. Carlos Museum.
It is hoped that DNA tests will soon determine if the royal remains are closely related to those of Seti I (Rameses I's son) and Rameses II (his grandson). If these tests prove positive, then the mystery of the Niagara Falls Mummy will at last be solved. If this is the case, then maybe King Rameses should be allowed to make one final journey back to the Land of the Pharaohs where he belongs. There he can be reunited with the rest of his family in their new resting place in the Mummy Room of the Cairo Museum.