religion

Bes, the Egyptian God Who’s Part Dwarf, Part Lion

As unlikely as it might seem, the ugly demon Bes was a much-loved guardian of the home and childbirth. Heck, he could even cure impotence.

Look for this block carving of Bes in the courtyard of Dendera

Look for this block carving of Bes in the courtyard of Dendera

We liked him instantly — perhaps because he’s so unlike all of the other gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt we had seen carved onto temple walls and painted in the dark, narrow tombs. And since most of those deities feature animal heads, that’s saying something.

Even so, Bes is perhaps the most unique character in the Ancient Egyptian pantheon. I’d try to come up with my own colorful description, but once Duke read this to me, I figured why bother? I can’t top Alastair Sooke’s write-up in Frieze, who describes this “grotesque little fellow” so evocatively:

His physique is squat and stocky, with flabby man-boobs, pronounced buttocks and a pot-belly. He crouches as though he is about to defecate, so that his genitals dangle, prominently, between bandy legs. A wild beard frames his gargoyle’s face, along with a lion’s mane. Yet, his ferocious visage also has a playful aspect, since he sticks out his tongue, like a clown pulling a crude face.

I realized part of Bes’ uniqueness among his fellow Egyptian gods is that, aside from cow-eared Hathor, Bes is the only other deity depicted face-on. The rest of the pantheon are always shown in profile. 

Bes was a popular guardian deity, popping up on household items and amulets like this one

Bes was a popular guardian deity, popping up on household items and amulets like this one

The Household Guardian

For some reason, the ugly little bugger became a common household apparition. Artisans and craftsmen carved him onto beds and headrests, mirrors and makeup containers. His likeness is even found in the ruins of Amarna, where Pharaoh Akhenaten forbid all worship besides that of the sun disk, Aten. Bes was so popular that people might have been risking their lives to keep this protective imp in their homes.

Bes guarded households, much like gargoyles on a Catholic church or the hideous monsters outside a Thai temple. The name Bes came later, a logical choice given his role — besa means “to protect.”

A cosmetic jar shaped like Bes. Both sexes wore makeup, in part to protect from the sun and insects, so the connection to a protector god makes sense

A cosmetic jar shaped like Bes. Both sexes wore makeup, in part to protect from the sun and insects, so the connection to a protector god makes sense

His worship goes back at least as far as the 1700s BCE, Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, though some scholars think Bes originated even earlier, in a more lionlike form. 

Bes, a conglomeration of numerous gods and monsters, was a fighter, protector, partier and clown

Bes, a conglomeration of numerous gods and monsters, was a fighter, protector, partier and clown

Bes’ popularity was aided by the fact that he was also a god of humor, music and dancing. He knew how to have a good time. There weren’t any temples to Bes, he had no high priests or priestesses — and yet he was a favorite god across all classes, from the royal family down to the poorest laborer. There is evidence that someone would don a Bes costume during religious ceremonies. 

Priests might have dressed in a lionlike Bes costume during some rituals

Priests might have dressed in a lionlike Bes costume during some rituals

Ten or so deities and demons that shared characteristics with Bes became conflated with him, an ever-evolving leonine dwarf deity. In one of these earlier forms, Bes was known as Aha, or Fighter, and is shown strangling snakes with his bare hands. This explains why his image appears on knives as a protection charm for the wielder.

Aha, the god or demon who later morphed into Bes

Aha, the god or demon who later morphed into Bes

By the New Kingdom, Aha had merged into Bes, when he was sometimes given an elaborate feathered headdress.

Bes developed moobs (man boobs) and a potbelly to evoke characteristics of a pregnant woman

Bes developed moobs (man boobs) and a potbelly to evoke characteristics of a pregnant woman

Protector of Pregnant Women and Childbirth

Bes also shows up on magic wands designed to help infants come into this world, and for the dead to leave it for the afterlife. The dwarf became associated with childbirth, protecting pregnant women. In fact, two magical spells mention a “dwarf of clay” that was placed on the belly of a woman in labor — giving birth was a particularly dangerous process back then, and women and newborns needed all the help they could get. Bes would dance, shout and shake his rattle to scare off evil spirits. 

In these depictions, Bes is shown with a protruding belly and fleshy breasts, probably to connect him to his role as protector of pregnant women. He was sometimes said to be the husband of Taweret, the hippo goddess of childbirth.

If a baby laughed or smiled for no reason, it was said that Bes must be nearby, making funny faces.

Bes mania spread throughout the Mediterranean, where he became, um, quite well endowed, to represent his connection to virility

Bes mania spread throughout the Mediterranean, where he became, um, quite well endowed, to represent his connection to virility

Incubation Chambers to Cure Infertility and Impotence

As a protector of the pregnant, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine why Bes later became associated with fertility and sexuality. The imp was given a nude female companion named Beset during the Ptolemaic Period (332‒30 BCE), and mud plaster images of them decorated “incubation chambers” at Saqqara. Pilgrims would spend the night here, hoping for erotic dreams to cure them of infertility or impotence.

Bes and Beset, his nude female companion, decorated incubation chambers, where pilgrims would sleep, praying to be cured of infertility or impotence

Bes and Beset, his nude female companion, decorated incubation chambers, where pilgrims would sleep, praying to be cured of infertility or impotence

Prostitutes were known to get tattoos of Bes on their thighs in the hope that he’d help prevent them from getting STDs. Other women might have gotten a similar tattoo to increase fertility.

Maybe you should get a tattoo on your thigh of Bes, like this carving at Philae, to protect you from venereal diseases!

Maybe you should get a tattoo on your thigh of Bes, like this carving at Philae, to protect you from venereal diseases!

The god even found his way to Pompeii, where he’s depicted in this fresco

The god even found his way to Pompeii, where he’s depicted in this fresco

Simply the Bes

The Bes craze reached its peak during the Roman era. He became part of the Horus myth, protecting the falcon-headed infant from his murderous uncle Set. Worship of the tiny troll spread all around the Mediterranean. 

In another protector role, the dwarf god adorned mammisi, the birth houses that honored infant deities such as Horus. 

Who’d have known that this ugly squatting dwarf who’s sticking out his tongue would capture the hearts of so many for so long?

Who’d have known that this ugly squatting dwarf who’s sticking out his tongue would capture the hearts of so many for so long?

Bes became a mascot for the military, as well. Roman legionnaires put Bes in armor and gave him a sword and round shield. 

True to his origins as a war god, Bes became a mascot of Roman legionnaires

True to his origins as a war god, Bes became a mascot of Roman legionnaires

It wasn’t until after the advent of Christianity that Bes finally got his own priesthood — oracles at Abydos, where he was said to have guarded the corpse of the death god Osiris. The cult of Bes drew an impressive crowd, until Emperor Constantius II shut down the operation around 359 CE. 

Bes confronts a sphinx in this bas relief from the Ptolemaic era

Bes confronts a sphinx in this bas relief from the Ptolemaic era

While you’re exploring the ancient temples of Egypt, be on the lookout for this merry prankster, the dwarf Bes, with his genitals exposed and his curlicue beard adorning his oversized head. He’ll be sticking his tongue out at you, making you giggle even as he protects you from harm. –Wally

The Mummified Animals of Ancient Egypt

4 reasons Egyptian animal mummies were created — and what the mummification process involved. (Spoiler alert: Think turpentine enemas.)

One wing of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo contains animal mummies like this baboon

One wing of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo contains animal mummies like this baboon

When they hear the word “mummy,” most people think of the bad horror movies of the past that starred a reanimated corpse wrapped in what looks like toilet paper. Those of us who have visited Egypt have been lucky (or perhaps unfortunate) enough to have seen rooms full of the dark-skinned, twisted, desiccated remains of the ancient pharaohs.

But humans weren’t the only ones who were mummified by the Ancient Egyptians: Animal mummies were produced from about 800 BCE to 400 CE. This included all sorts of creatures, from cats and dogs to bulls, crocodiles, birds and more. They even mummified hippos!

The animal’s butt was then plugged with a “linen tampon” until all internal organs had softened and would flow out when uncorked.

There were four types of animal mummies in Ancient Egypt:

1. Food for the deceased in the hereafter

Leg of goat or duck breast, anyone?

Ancient Egyptians expected (or at least hoped for) an afterlife much like their time on Earth. They wanted to play with their toys, ride chariots, go hunting and perform other activities they enjoyed while alive. And that of course included eating. So the mummified remains of animals found in some tombs were there to provide sustenance in the next world. 

Ancient Egyptians wanted their pet kitties to be with them in the afterlife, so they were mummified and put into their tombs (let’s hope they were at least allowed to live out their natural lives)

Ancient Egyptians wanted their pet kitties to be with them in the afterlife, so they were mummified and put into their tombs (let’s hope they were at least allowed to live out their natural lives)

2. Pets of the deceased

It’s not clear if these pets were killed or allowed to live out their natural lives. But who doesn’t want to play with their pet gazelle or dog in the afterlife? I know my version of heaven would include my cats, Co-Co, Norman and Bowzer, all lounging with me while I watch new episodes of Gilmore Girls and Jane the Virgin

Part of Egypt was home to a cult that worshiped (and mummified) bulls

Part of Egypt was home to a cult that worshiped (and mummified) bulls

3. Cult animals

Some animals were thought to house the spirit of a god during its life. Bull cults were particularly popular, but other animals joined the minor pantheon. People could predict the height of the Nile flood based on where crocodiles built their nests. Baboons were associated with Ra, the sun god, because every morning they face the east and raise a racket, which Ancient Egyptians believed helped the sun rise. And ibises, now extinct since the 19th century, with their crescent moon-shaped beaks, were connected to the god of wisdom, Thoth, who bears an ibis head. 

This falcon mummy was a cult animal or an offering to a deity like Horus

This falcon mummy was a cult animal or an offering to a deity like Horus

4. Votive offerings 

This is similar to a candle lit in a church — only it’s an offering of something like a desiccated corpse of a crocodile instead.

Votive offerings weren’t considered divine — they were simply offerings to the gods. It strikes me as a bit odd that you’d offer up a dried-up dead cat to honor the feline-headed Bast, for instance. It seems she might take offense, but I’m assuming she didn’t. The Egyptian gods are an odd bunch. 

Animal votive offerings packed prayers with an added punch. The animals were believed to gain access to the realm of the afterlife to carry pleas to the gods.

And they were a big biz. Massive amounts of animal mummies have been unearthed at Saqqara (8 million dog mummies alone!). That was just one of many sites throughout the country where votive animal mummies were discovered. In fact, it’s thought that up to 70 million animals were turned into votive offerings throughout the Egyptian Empire. 

This votive offering contains dog bones

This votive offering contains dog bones

I don’t like this idea, but researchers think that many of the animals were killed to meet the demand of pilgrims seeking favors from the gods. In fact, millions of animals were victims of breeding farms, raised for the sole purpose of being killed and mummified. I suppose it’s not much different from factory farms or what happens to alligators in New Orleans, where their heads are piled high in every souvenir shop. And something tells me the rabbit once attached to the foot I had as a good luck charm as a kid didn’t die of natural causes. 

The ibis is now extinct, but the long-billed bird was associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom

The ibis is now extinct, but the long-billed bird was associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom

Researchers from the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester in England used X-rays and CT scans to examine over 800 Ancient Egyptian animal mummy votive offerings. They found that one-third contained actual mummies of birds, cats, crocodiles and other animals. Another third had only partial remains. And the final third had no animal remains at all: They were linen wrappings stuffed with mud, sticks, eggshells, feathers and herbs.

At first, these offerings were thought to be fakes meant to dupe unsuspecting pilgrims. But the resin and contents found within were different for each type of animal and were actually quite expensive at the time. So the buyers might have been aware that they weren’t getting actual mummies and were OK with that. After all, they still had something of great value — but less expensive than a proper mummy — to offer to the gods.

Below the arches, you can see a variety of animal mummies in this illustration by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a well-known archaeologist

Below the arches, you can see a variety of animal mummies in this illustration by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a well-known archaeologist

How Animals Were Mummified

The discovery of sacred bull remains have allowed scientists to figure out how Ancient Egyptians mummified animals. (It’s gruesome but surprisingly similar to what they did to humans who couldn’t afford the royal treatment.)


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Known as Buchis bulls, the holy animals were the center of a cult in Armant, a town south of Luxor. They were associated with Montu, a falcon-headed god of war, and represented strength and fertility.

Turpentine enemas and linen butt plugs were involved in the time-consuming process to make a bull mummy

Turpentine enemas and linen butt plugs were involved in the time-consuming process to make a bull mummy

To mummify one of these beasts, they probably first inserted turpentine or juniper oil into the anus or, ahem, a nearby orifice. Archaeologists have found enemas, douches and vaginal retractors at the excavation site. The animal’s butt was then plugged with what the sign at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo called a “linen tampon” until all internal organs had softened and would flow out when uncorked.

The animal was then packed in natron (hydrous native sodium carbonate — a fancy way to say that it’s a salt). This naturally occurring preservative worked wonders in drying out corpses. Large animals were laid in natron for 40 days (just like humans).

The Buchis bulls were arranged in the position of a sphinx — not natural for the animals, so they had to cut the leg tendons to avoid breaking any bones. 

Animal mummies were ceremonially wrapped in linen, then coated in a resin to help preserve and protect them from disintegration and bug infiltration. This time-consuming and expensive method resulted in a mummy as good as that of any human. –Wally


mummifiedcrocs.jpg

Pharaoh Hatshepsut

14 ways this powerful Ancient Egyptian woman used genderbending to become a female pharaoh, as revealed in Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King.

Everyone knows all about Cleopatra, the clever seductress of two powerful Roman men who ruled over Ancient Egypt.

But without her forebear Hatshepsut, there might never have been a Cleopatra. Surely Cleopatra looked upon the woman who rose to the upper echelon of power as a true inspiration.

What made Hatshepsut’s success all the more remarkable was how unprecedented it was. Sadly, for the most part, feminism hasn’t progressed beyond the traditional patriarchy over the past few millennia. Case in point, the United States has yet to elect a woman as president.

In the ancient world, having a woman at the top of the political pyramid was practically unheard of. Patriarchal systems ruled the day, and royal wives, sisters, and daughters served as members of the king’s harem or as important priestesses in his temples, not as political leaders. Throughout the Mediterranean and northwest Asia, female leadership was perceived with suspicion, if not outright aversion.

–Kara Cooney, “The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt”


LEARN 9 FASCINATING FACTS about Hatshepsut’s early life here.


In terms of the ancient world, Hatshepset truly was a remarkable woman. As our guide Mamduh mused, “They should make a movie about her — maybe many movies.”

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

Thank Sobek for Jean-François Champollion! He was the first to find references to our remarkable pharaoh in the modern era

“History records only one female ruler who successfully negotiated a systematic rise to power — without assassinations or coups — during a time of peace, who formally labeled herself with the highest position known in government, and who ruled for a significant stretch of time: Hatshepsut,” writes Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King.

During her prosperous reign, gold, cedar, ebony and other goods flowed through Egypt, and the temples, shrines and obelisks raised in her name were so impressive that later pharaohs endeavored to be buried nearby, creating the Valley of the Kings.

Incidentally, we have French archaeologist Jean-François Champollion to thank for rediscovering the first hints of Hatshepset’s existence in 1928 — apparently, deciphering the Rosetta Stone wasn’t enough of a claim to fame. 

Even Hatshepsut must have felt that her cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time.

So how exactly did Hatshepsut move beyond being a queen regent to divine ruler? I do wonder how she viewed herself — could she be the first trans leader in history?


The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

The loss of a nose makes this statue of Egypt’s first female king, Sobeknefru, a bit too creepy

1. There was actually a female king of Egypt before Hatshepsut.

Just like Cleopatra, Hatshepsut had a role model from the past. Sobeknefru, daughter of Pharaoh Amenemhat III of the Twelfth Dynasty, ruled Egypt around 1800 BCE — about three centuries before Hatshepsut was born.

2. There wasn’t even a proper word for queen — so Sobeknefru blended masculine and feminine iconography.

The queens of Ancient Egypt were known as hemt neswt, or wife of the king — “a title with no implications of rule or power in its own right, only a description of a woman’s connection to the king as husband,” Cooney writes. To truly be seen as the ultimate ruler of the country, Sobeknefru had to take on the masculine title of “king.”

“Clothing was more problematic,” Cooney continues, “and Sobeknefru depicted herself wearing not only the masculine headdress of kingship but also the male royal kilt over the dress garments of a royal wife.”


sobek.jpg

THE FIRST FEMALE KING OF EGYPT, Sobeknefru, was named for the crocodile god, Sobek.

Learn more about his worship from our post on the temple of Kom Ombo.


3. A title shift on Hatshepsut’s monuments at Karnak might be the first clue of her massive ambitions.

A few years before she even became king, Hatshepsut dropped the title of God’s Wife, opting instead for the title of King’s Eldest Daughter. While the role of high priestess was one of the most powerful in Ancient Egypt, the adoption of this new title set the stage for a legitimate claim to the throne. 

“Some Egyptologists see this rejiggering of her personal relationships as the crux of her power grab, a shift that moved her from a queen’s role to an heir’s, as the rightful offspring of Thutmose I and one who could make a heritable claim to the throne despite her female gender,” Cooney writes.

4. Like Sobeknefru before her, Hatshepsut reinvented her image as a nonbinary gender. 

Another section at Karnak, the most massive temple complex of the day, in the royal city of Thebes, present-day Luxor, depicts Hatshepsut in men’s garments along with women’s.

The block “shows Hatshepsut wearing the gown of a queen on her body but the crown of a king upon her head,” Cooney writes. “The atef crown — a fabulous and extravagant amalgamation of ram’s horns and tall double plumes — was depicted atop her short masculine wig, probably to the shock of the craftsmen in charge of cutting the decoration. It was a confusing image for the Egyptian viewer to digest: a female king performing royal duties, offering jars of wine directly to the god, and all before any official coronation.”

5. She also took on a throne name, a privilege reserved for kings — again, before she was even crowned.

In the text on the same monument at Karnak, Hatshepsut called herself the One of the Sedge and of the Bee, which is translated as King of Upper and Lower Egypt.

What’s more, she introduced a throne name, Maatkare, The Soul of Re Is Truth. This act was “inconceivable,” according to Cooney. “Hatshepsut was transforming her role into a strange hybrid of rule ordained before it had officially happened,” she writes.

Part of her throne name is the goddess of truth and justice, “implying that at the heart of the sun god’s power was a feminine entity, Ma’at, the source that was believed to keep the cosmos straight and true,” Cooney writes, continuing, “Hatshepsut’s throne name communicated to her people that her kingship was undoubtedly feminine, and that feminine justice was necessary to maintain life with proper order, judgment, and continuance.”

6. About nine years into Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh — meaning there were two kings simultaneously on the throne.

When Hatshepsut was about 24 years old, in 1478 BCE, “the impossible happened,” as Cooney states. Thutmose III might have been a child, but he was still officially the king. Yet Hatshepsut, that wonderful feminist icon, decided to stop being the queen regent and that she would share the throne with her young nephew.

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

In this carving from her funerary temple, Hatshepsut is shown as a male, wearing the false beard and crown of the pharaoh

7. Hatshepsut’s coronation was an elaborate affair that was, apparently, attended by the gods themselves.

The coronation took place in the temple complex of Karnak over the course of several days. If we’re to believe Hatshepsut, her dead-but-deified father, Thutmose I, was the first to place the crown upon her head. The cow-headed goddess Hathor was also present, shouting a greeting and giving her a big hug. And the chief god, Amen-Re (also spelled Amun-Ra), “personally placed the double crown upon Hatshepsut’s head and invested her with the crook and flail of kingship, saying that he created her specifically to rule over his holy lands, to rebuild his temples and to perform ritual activity for him,” Cooney writes.

What better way for Hatshepsut to be seen as a legitimate monarch than by having received the blessings of the gods? She really wanted to hammer home the supposed events of her coronation day — she had images of the gods crowning her chiseled into the major house of worship of the time, Karnak, as well as her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari.


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SEE THE WONDROUS ARCHITECTURE of Hatshepsut’s funerary temple — and learn more about this surprisingly modern-looking structure.


8. Upon being crowned, Hatshepsut changed her birth name — yet another instance of gender ambiguity.

Hatshepsut added Khenemetenamen to the front of her name, “which, although unpronounceable for most of us,” Cooney writes, “essentially meant ‘Hatshepsut, United with Amen,’ communicating that her spirit had mingled with the very mind of the god Amen through a divine communion.” 

Interestingly, she kept a feminine ending as part of the construction of that mouthful of a name. “There was no subterfuge about her femininity in her new royal names, but her womanly core was now linked with a masculine god through her kingship,” Cooney adds.

9. Hatshepsut’s royal names didn’t hide the fact that she was a woman. She was out to change the very perception of a king.

Egyptian kings liked to prove how macho they were, choosing names like Ka-ankht, Strong Bull. Hatshepsut’s Horus name was Useret-kau, Powerful of Ka Spirits, tying herself not to physical (and sexual) prowess, but to the mysterious might of the spirits of the dead. 

Like her new birth name, Hatshepsut used the feminine -t ending. “She and her priests knew her limitations as a woman and seemed interested in flexibility rather than deceit,” Cooney explains. “She became king in name and title, but she knew that she could not transform into a king’s masculine body. She couldn’t impregnate a harem of women with any divine seed. There was no need for her royal names to point out those deficiencies or to lie about her true nature. Instead, she and her priests focused on how her femininity could coalesce with and complement masculine powers.”

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

Only kings wore these long false beards — though only Amun knows why!

10. Hatshepsut immediately upgraded her existing iconography once she became pharaoh.

All of the images of her as queen under Thutmose III were altered to show her as the senior king of a co-regency. “No longer would she be depicted as subordinate to Thutmose III,” Cooney writes. “Every sacred space in Egypt was changed, especially in the cultic centers of power, where an image translated into reality and to write or depict something was to make it come into existence.”

11. The color of Hatshepsut’s skin in her statuary demonstrated her progression from female to male. 

Females in Ancient Egyptian art were shown with yellow skin, while males were red ochre. It’s thought that women were inside more often (weaving in the harem, one supposes) and didn’t get as tanned as the manly men out on military expeditions and the like. While Hatshepsut’s early statues stuck with the traditional yellow skin tone, later depictions, such as the ones showing her as Osiris, the god of rebirth at her funerary temple, are of an orange hue — a strangely androgynous colorization that must have baffled people at the time. By the end of her reign, Hatshepsut had adopted the red skin associated with males.

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

Statue after statue of Hatshepsut in a mummy pose like the god Osiris lines her funeral temple. The color has long since faded, but these carvings once had orange skin — in-between the yellow used for women and the red used for men

12. In addition to skin color, Hatshepsut’s statues started taking on more and more male characteristics.

Early on, Hatshepsut’s genderbending positioned her as truly androgynous. On a lifesize statue from her funerary temple, she has a woman’s facial features, graceful shoulders and small, pert breasts — but she’s shirtless and wearing a king’s kilt. Even Hatshepsut must have felt that this cross-dressing image was a bit too shocking for the time. It was placed in the innermost chambers of her temple, away from the public, where only the most elite would ever see it. This drastic hybrid sexuality was never replicated.

Eventually, Hatshepsut’s statues had broader shoulders, and her breasts became the firm pecs of an idealized young man.

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

Because Hatshepsut presented herself as a male, Egyptologists can’t tell whether this is a statue of her or of her co-king, Thutmose III

13. Hieroglyphic text went back and forth between referring to Hatshepsut as a female and as a male.

Sometimes she was “she;” sometimes she was “he.” On occasion, she was the Son of Ra, the sun god; more often she was referred to as the Daughter of Ra. Once in a while, she was called the “good god,” but most of the time — even accompanying a masculinized image of her — she was the “good goddess.”

14. Like many a pharaoh, Hatshepsut told a story of her divine birth.

The combo god Amun-Ra is said to have visited her mother in her bedchamber. “She awoke because of the fragrance of the god,” the text reads. I’m sure a bit more happened than this, but Hatshepsut chose to depict the moment as her mom and Amun-Ra sitting across from each other, hands touching, gazing sweetly into each other’s eyes.

This avant-garde woman rose to the highest political rank in a society over 3,000 years ago. So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that after her death, her successor tried his very best to wipe all references to his aunt being king from the face of the planet. –Wally

The Tomb of Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings

KV2 is a particularly fine example of these once-hidden burial chambers, where magic spells helped guide the pharaoh through the afterlife.

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

A glimpse into burial chamber of Ramesses IV

Arid, desolate and dusty, the colorless desert landscape of the Valley of the Kings belies the magic and mysticism hidden beneath in the tombs of the pharaohs. 

Our early morning arrival allowed us to avoid some of the crowds, a welcome reprieve, as we’d travelled halfway around the world and didn’t want to share our trip with throngs of other tourists. And though the entrances to Egypt’s New Kingdom pharaohs’ burial chambers were intended to remain secret, they now dot the barren tract of land in every direction you look.

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the Valley of the KIngs.
Wally near the tomb’s entrance

Wally near the tomb’s entrance

While visiting the site, your ticket includes admission for three tombs. Our guide, Mamduh, chose the tombs of Ramesses III, IV and IX — each of which is beautiful and unique in its own way.

We refer to many Egyptian pharaohs with Roman numerals like those of the kings of Europe. But, as Barbara Mertz points out in Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs, “such designations were never used by the Egyptians. (It’s easier to keep track of these fellows by such means than by trying to remember their distinctive throne names, which are often annoyingly similar and which were sometimes changed midreign.)”

The pharaoh with the god Horus

The pharaoh with the god Horus

Heqamaatre Ramesses, otherwise known as Ramesses IV, was the fifth and youngest son of Pharaoh Ramesses III. He was appointed crown prince by the 22nd year of his father’s reign, after his brothers had died — it wasn’t uncommon for people to die young in Ancient Egypt. With the assasination of his father in 1156 BCE, Ramesses IV, who was at this time middle-aged, inherited the throne. He died a mere six years into his reign. 

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Magic spells line the walls of the tomb to guide Ramesses through the dangers of the afterlife

Passage to the Underworld

Each site in the Valley of the Kings now has a designator that begins with KV, for Kings’ Valley. Ramessess IV’s tomb is known as KV2 and has been open since antiquity. The area in front of the entranceway to the tomb was excavated by Edward Ayrton in 1905, and later by Howard Carter in 1920 (of King Tut fame). The archeological dig yielded a few relics, including shabti figures (which would act as servants in the afterlife) and glass and glazed earthenware pottery known as faience. 

Early explorers, such as Jean-François Champollion (who deciphered hieroglyphics using the Rosetta Stone), Ippolito Rosellini and Theodore David, among others, used the tomb as lodging during their time excavating the valley. 

The entryway has a staircase divided by a sloping central ramp that descends into a linear 292-foot-long passageway representing the symbolic journey of the sun god Ra (or Re). The tomb’s design is comprised of three corridors, an antechamber and a burial chamber with small annex chambers beyond.  A large number of Coptic Christian and Roman graffiti can be seen scattered throughout the tomb, including prayers, drawings of crosses and saints. A particularly large inscription in red paint can be seen near the entrance to the tomb.

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Those naughty Coptics defaced the walls near the entrance

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Look for the red graffiti left by early Christians

Unlike other tombs from this era, KV2’s original design was modified: The chamber intended to be a pillared hall was converted to a burial chamber when the king died sooner than expected. Ramesses IV had doubled the workforce on the project to speed it along, but no one can stop death from coming — even a deified ruler.

A pair of rectangular niches set high into the walls at the front of the second corridor are decorated with manifestations of Ra. These figures continue as a register above the texts of the Litany of Re, which cover both walls of this corridor. The detailed carvings remain vibrant, despite the age of the tomb. 

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Look up to see stars painted on the ceiling

Seeing Stars 

The third corridor contains a vaulted ceiling decorated with scenes from the funerary text the Book of Caverns. Although no well shaft was ever cut, a descending ramp passes through the antechamber and ends at the burial chamber’s entrance. Surrounded by golden stars on a blue background, the king’s names follow the path of the sun — the pharaoh and Ra had become one. 

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The paint is surprisingly bright, considering it’s millennia old

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

The massive stone sarcophagus would have housed at least two coffins like nesting dolls

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

In the burial chamber, scenes from the Book of Gates show towering gateways that separate the divisions of the underworld guarded by fire-spitting serpents. Illustrations from other funerary texts, including the Amduat and the Book of Heavens, were inscribed on the ceiling of the sarcophagus chamber, depicting Ra’s nightly journey through the underworld. 

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Watch out for snakes! A depiction of what we can expect in death

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Scenes from funerary texts were carved onto the walls of the tomb

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Cobras and Anubis, a jackal-headed god of death

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

Ancient Egyptians believed that paintings could come to life — no need to bury servants alive; just draw them on the wall!

The burial chamber is almost filled by the massive quartzite sarcophagus. Twin figures of the sky goddess Nut are depicted on the ceiling, her elastic, naked body held aloft by her father Shu, the god of air and sunlight. Nut’s arms and legs extend downward to touch the horizon. Each night she swallows the sun disk, which travels through her body and emerges in the form of a winged scarab from her womb in the morning. 

Ramesses IV’s tomb is an impressive example of New Kingdom burial chambers — though I’m not sure I’d want to have a slumber party in there like all those archaeologists. –Duke

 
You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

You get to choose three tombs to visit with your pass

The Tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings

Explore KV11, one of the largest tombs in Luxor, and learn why it takes a strange and sudden turn.

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Most tombs have a long, straight corridor — but this one takes a slight turn because it ran into a neighboring burial site!

Egypt is a country steeped in myth and history, and one of the most interesting places to see this can be found on the West Bank of the Nile River — the direction of the setting sun and the underworld of ancient Egypt. Known as the Valley of the Kings, it was part of the capital city of Thebes and was where the tombs of the deceased New Kingdom pharaohs were built. 

As mentioned in an earlier post on the Valley of the Kings, the admission price (160 Egyptian pounds, or about $9) includes three tombs. We had read about the richly decorated tombs filled with spells and scenes from the Book of the Dead and couldn’t wait to see them with our own eyes. 

Ramesses III’s mummy was so unappealing that it became the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film “The Mummy.”

Rasha from Egypt Sunset Tours arranged our itinerary, including our guide and driver, and could not have been more accommodating and flexible. One of the tombs included on our visit  was KV11, that of Ramesses III. (These kings are sometimes spelled Ramses or Rameses, though we’ve gone with the most widely used by Egyptologists, Ramesses.)

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

The pharaoh is welcomed to the afterlife by the falcon-headed god Horus

Ramesses III, the Great Bull

Usermaatre-Meryamun, or Ramesses III, was the second Twentieth Dynasty ruler and considered to be one of the last great pharaohs of the New Kingdom, before Egypt plunged into chaos. Being king meant that he had five royal names. His Horus name, which he adopted upon taking the throne, was something along the lines of Kanakht Asnesyt, which translates to the Great Bull, Great of Kingship. (Names typically have multiple spelling variants after transliteration which aims to preserve sound, given differences in the languages’ sounds and writing systems.) 

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the  Book of the Dead

The walls of the tomb is covered with spells from the Book of the Dead

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Ramesses III chose to finish the tomb his father abandoned

Although Ramesses III’s reign was fraught with conflicts, his troops secured the empire's borders against foreign invasion attempts by Libya and the mysterious Sea Peoples of the Mediterranean (depicted on the walls of his mortuary temple and royal palace, Medinet Habu), earning him the reputation as a mighty warrior king. 

Using Ramesses II as his model, he took a harem of many wives — though they would ultimately lead to his demise. The god-king’s 31-year reign ended when he fell victim to an elaborate assasination plot known as the Harem Conspiracy. A minor wife, Tiye, hatched a plan to have the monarch killed and seize the throne from Ramesses’ designated heir for her son, Prince Pentaware. 

The assailants succeeded in killing Ramesses III — the throat of his mummified remains reveals that his throat was slit — but failed in its goal of crowning Pentaware. Queen Tiye, Prince Pentawere and dozens of others were caught and put on trial.

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

The mummy of Ramesses III. The wrappings hid the fact that the pharaoh’s throat was slit when he was assassinated during a massive coup

Fragmentary documentation known as the Judicial Papyrus of Turin details the court trial that followed, including the accusations and punishment against its multiple conspirators. How the law dealt with Queen Tiye is unknown, but Pentawere was found guilty and forced to commit suicide. 

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

The four-pillared hall leads into the burial chamber

Repurposing His Father’s Abandoned Tomb

The plan of KV11, the designation of the royal tomb of Ramesses III, is comprised of an inclined entrance passage with steps cut into the floor, a descending central corridor, pillared hall and burial chamber. Its first three corridors were started by his father, Setnakhte, the last king of the Nineteenth Dynasty, but abandoned when it collided with KV10, the earlier tomb of the deposed pharaoh Amenmesse while excavating the fourth corridor. The cartouches of Setnakhte were later plastered over and reinscribed with the name of Ramesses III.

Not wanting to waste the resources already put into excavation, Ramesses III resumed work on the abandoned tomb, realigning the axis to the right and extending the corridor. The tomb is one of the longest in the valley, measuring a total of 180 meters, or 262 feet. The relatively straight axis represented the sun god Ra’s western descent into the tomb and his ascension in the east. 

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series  Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Scottish explorer James Bruce took some artistic license in his drawing of a scene from Ramesses III’s tomb in his series Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

Tomb of the Harpers

This tomb contains colorful well-preserved relief scenes, with the first two corridors depicting the 74 manifestations of Ra. Ramesses III added small side alcoves to the second corridor, one of which contains a relief of two blind harpists. Scottish explorer James Bruce drew attention to it with the publication of his illustrated five-volume Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, which features a beautiful but inaccurate take on the scene. Worried for his safety, Bruce quickly sketched one of the harpists and later drew it from memory, giving it a Victorian flourish and for a time, KV11 was referred to as the Tomb of the Harpers.

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

Just some of the 74 depictions of the sun god Ra seen in the tomb

A narrow yellow ribbon runs through the center of the ceiling and contains additional spells and funerary texts from the Litany of Re

On the doorframe between the second and third corridors are symbols of a different kind: two knots of Isis with djed-pillars (the symbolic backbone of Osiris, meaning stability) and ankhs (symbolizing life) holding animal-headed was-sceptres (power). 

The fourth corridor rises to clear the underlying chamber of KV10, descends to a shallow well shaft and continues on to a pillared hall with another passage leading to a pair of anterooms and the burial chamber. 

On the wall here, Ramesses III offers incense before the seated god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. He holds three vessels, their contents spilling onto the platform on which the god sits. Behind the triple deity stands the goddess Isis. The pharaoh’s titles are listed in front of him: Ramesses the ruler of Heliopolis and his coronation name, which translates to the Justice of Ra, Beloved by Amun. 

The identification of Rameses III with the greatest of gods, Amun, ensured that he would experience endless regeneration, a necessity for his eternal well-being in the afterlife. 

In the fourth corridor is a scene from another funerary text, the Amduat, depicting a goddess with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, standing in front of a guardian serpent with four legs and a human head. The narrative illustrates the nocturnal voyage of the sun god Ra-Horakhty, who travels through the underworld from the time when the sun sets in the west to when it rises again in the east. The underworld, as the Ancient Egyptians saw it, is divided into 12 hours of the night, each representing different allies and enemies for the pharaoh/sun god to encounter. The iconography and symbolism here is wonderful.

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Some of the carvings depict the monsters and deities of the underworld

Adding elements of temple architecture, Ramesses commissioned a four-pillared hall decorated with scenes and texts from the Book of Gates that depict him and various deities on their nightly journey through the netherworld — the fifth hour on the left side and the sixth hour on the right side. Also on the right is a side chamber with scenes where Ramesses III is led by the gods Thoth and Horus and offers ma’at (the concept of justice and balance) to Osiris. A double scene on the rear wall immediately before the burial chamber shows the king making offerings to Osiris. 

In the burial chamber, the name of the king was inscribed within a disc formed by the entwined bodies of two serpents. By placing his name within this device, the king identified himself directly with the solar deity and joined his cyclical daily journey. 

Sadly, the quartz sarcophagus was removed by Italian explorer and former circus performer Giovanni Batista Belzoni and currently resides in the Louvre in Paris. Its lid is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. Prior to the establishment of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, it wasn’t uncommon for unregulated foreign excavators digging in the valley to ship statuary and crates filled with tomb friezes back to Europe, where they found their way into collections such as that of the Louvre or the British Museum. The empty burial chamber ends with an anticlimactic darkened hallway and gate.

themummykarloff.jpg

The Inspiration for Karloff’s Mummy

French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero is credited with finding a cachette of royal mummies, including that of Ramesses III. But it was actually discovered by accident, when a straying goat fell into a concealed tomb shaft in Deir el-Bahari. The unwrapped mummy is now on display in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, and its features were considered so unappealing that they found fame as the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film The Mummy. –Duke

 

9 Fascinating Facts About the Early Life of Hatshepsut

From her role as queen to Thutmose II, God’s Wife, God’s Hand and queen regent to Thutmose III, here’s how Hatshepsut started her legendary career.

Hatshepsut isn’t a household name, but she should be! This wildly successful woman rose through the ranks of power in Ancient Egypt

Hatshepsut isn’t a household name, but she should be! This wildly successful woman rose through the ranks of power in Ancient Egypt

It’s a shame more people don’t know about Hatshepsut, one of the greatest rulers of Ancient Egypt. She was born around 1500 BCE, a princess destined to marry the next pharaoh.

“Hatshepsut has the misfortune to be antiquity’s female leader who did everything right,” quips Kara Cooney in The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Every morning, Hatshepsut, as the God’s Hand, would rub the statue’s phallus until she felt it orgasm.

Here are some fascinating facts I learned about this proto-feminist from Cooney’s book:


1. The role of the God’s Wife was one of the most powerful roles in Ancient Egypt.

As high priestess and “spouse” of the creator god Amun (aka Amen), Hatshepsut would have access to the most holy part of the Karnak Temple in Thebes (modern-day Luxor). Inside the sanctuary, where the god’s statue was kept, Hatshepsut would strip off her linen robe while the high priest offered milk (for Amun was reborn as an infant each day) and then bloody strips of meat as the deity grew in strength.

The chief god at the time, Amun, here seen merged with the one-armed, one-legged deity Min, needed to be given “a helping hand” every morning, and this was one of Hatshepsut’s duties

The chief god at the time, Amun, here seen merged with the one-armed, one-legged deity Min, needed to be given “a helping hand” every morning, and this was one of Hatshepsut’s duties

2. The high priestess was also the God’s Hand — meaning she had to jerk off the statue every morning. 

God’s Hand, indeed! Hatshepsut was responsible for the rebirth of Amun each dawn. “Reverently, she took his phallus into her palm, allowing him to re-create himself through his own release,” Cooney writes.

While the sacred instrument called the sistrum rattled, the God’s Hand would rub the statue’s phallus until she felt it orgasm.

The Nile flooding, as seen in this photo from the 1890s

The Nile flooding, as seen in this photo from the 1890s

3. If the God’s Hand didn’t give a daily handjob to Amun, Ancient Egyptians believed the world would end.

What exactly did they think would happen? “The Nile would cease to flood its banks every year,” Cooney writes, “leaving no life-giving silt and mud in which to farm. The sun would fail to rise in the east every morning, depriving the crops of life-giving rays.”

Amun was often depicted as having the head of a ram

Amun was often depicted as having the head of a ram

4. Hatshepsut might have been as young as 9 when she played the role of sexual consort to the god Amun.

While that makes us cringe in the modern day, Ancient Egyptians didn’t shield their children from sex. 

“There were no religious strictures about the sinful nature of sex in the ancient world,” Cooney writes. “With no societal qualms about premarital sex or images of gods masturbating, and with many extended Egyptian families living in one-room homes with no protection of privacy, sex was simply more visible, even to a young child of the royal nursery.”

With the average person only living into their 30s, people started procreating once they hit puberty. “A short life expectancy meant that people grew up faster and started sexual activity younger than we would think appropriate or even ethical,” Cooney adds.

Thutmose II, Hatshepsut’s half-brother and husband, suffered from lesions, pustules and an enlarged heart

Thutmose II, Hatshepsut’s half-brother and husband, suffered from lesions, pustules and an enlarged heart

5. Hatshepsut married her younger brother, Thutmose II — incest was no big deal in Ancient Egypt. 

In fact, the first gods themselves were pairs of brothers and sisters who procreated down the generations to Osiris and his sister Isis, who gave birth to Horus, embodied by the pharaoh.

And so, at the age of 12 or 13, Hatshepsut became the King’s Great Wife to her half-brother. By keeping it all in the family, fathers avoided having to pay dowries, they could keep a dynasty tightly knit, and the royal family would be emulating the very gods themselves.

6. Thutmose II was a sickly young man.

In fact, the king was a complete mess: “If the identification of the mummy of Thutmose II is to be believed,” Cooney writes, “the boy was never in good health. His skin was covered with lesions and raised pustules. He had an enlarged heart, which meant he probably suffered with arrhythmias and shortness of breath.”

Thutmose III was only a toddler when he became pharaoh, so Hatshepsut reigned as his regent

Thutmose III was only a toddler when he became pharaoh, so Hatshepsut reigned as his regent

7. When a pharaoh died but his successor was too young, the queen stepped in as regent to rule until the king came of age.

In this case, Thutmose III, who was born of a secondary wife, Isis, was only 2 years old when his father passed away, a toddler drooling and pooping his days away in the royal palace. And so Hatshepsut, widow of the previous pharaoh, stepped into the power vacuum.

It might seem strange to give so much power to a woman in an ancient kingdom — especially given that Hatshepsut would have only been 16 after her husband’s short reign. But, as Cooney points out, “It was a wise and safe practice, as even the most narcissistic mother was unlikely to betray her own son, cause his murder, or otherwise conspire against him.”

The role of queen regent was enacted often during the Eighteenth Dynasty: “Young kings were so common during this time period that, according to the calculations of one Egyptologist, women had ruled Egypt informally and unrecognized for almost half of the seventy years before the reign of Thutmose III, an astounding feat given Egypt’s patriarchal systems of power,” Cooney writes.

8. There’s a good chance that Hatshepsut had numerous lovers, though she never again married.

We know not only how open Ancient Egyptians were when it came to sex but also how tied up sex was with their religion. So it’s fair to assume that Hatshepsut could and probably did find her pleasure wherever she desired. 

“Given her position of power and her lack of a husband, she could have had relationships with any number of officials, young or old, male or female,” Cooney argues. “Why would we expect Hatshepsut to have embraced celibacy when she was the person to whom all looked for favor?”

A carving on an obelisk at Karnak shows Hatshepsut kneeling below the great god Amun

A carving on an obelisk at Karnak shows Hatshepsut kneeling below the great god Amun

9. Within five years of her regency, Hatshepsut no longer held the position of God’s Wife.

We’re not sure why she gave up the position as high priestess (and lover of the great god Amun) or who succeeded her in the role — though it’s thought that she bequeathed it to her daughter, in the hopes that she would follow Hatshepsut’s ambitious career trajectory.

“Hatshepsut was in her early twenties,” Cooney says, “and strange as it may seem to us, she was probably too old to act as the sexual exciter of the god anymore.”

The loss of this powerful title could very well be what spurred the queen regent to grab more authority — and eventually become king. –Wally

The Singing Colossi of Memnon

The crumbling giants in Luxor are all that’s left of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. 

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

These decaying statues were once guardians of one of the most impressive temples in Egypt

There’s not much left to see, but that doesn’t stop most visitors to Luxor from making a quick pit stop at the Colossi of Memnon. 

Ravaged by earthquakes, looters and time itself, the crumbling statues you see today are nothing compared to their past glory. When they were first built, they were painted with bright white, red, brown, blue and even some golden gilding to set off key areas. 

At dawn, people would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its prophetic whispering.
Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation  by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Statues of Memnon at Thebes, During the Inundation by David Roberts, 1846-1849

Amenhotep III’s Mortuary Temple

Amenhotep III (who ruled during the 18th Dynasty, from 1386-1353 BCE) sits on his throne, while smaller statues of his chief wife, Tiye, and his mother stand between his legs. Carved from single pieces of sandstone, the statues rise 60 feet into the air and weigh 720 tons. Situated on the West Bank of the Nile, they guarded the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple. 

The giants weren’t alone, though. Just beyond was another pair of colossi, and then another pair through the next pylon. Each pair got smaller than its predecessors, as you moved into the depths of the temple. 

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

One of the statues was thought to sing and prophesize back in Roman times

This colossi were not only there to instill awe in viewers — they were also representations of fertility and the life-giving abundance of the River Nile. During the annual flood, the water would rush past the giants, flowing along the avenue of sphinxes and into the temple itself. Only the innermost sanctuary was protected, having been built on a slight elevation. 

After months of being partially submerged, the colossi would re-emerge as symbols of rebirth. 

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

Wally does one of his jumping pics in front of the 60-foot statue

While Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple is in much better shape today, Amenhotep’s was originally much larger and more impressive. It was even said to rival the massive Karnak complex. 

Archaeological evidence shows that there were once hundreds of stone statues within the temple. These depicted not only the pharaoh but various gods that would protect him in the afterlife: Osiris, the lord of the underworld, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess with healing powers, and sphinxes bearing the jackal head of Anubis, who oversaw the mummification process. (Learn how — and why — Ancient Egyptians created mummies.)

The temple would have been filled with priests worshipping the statues and offering food, drink and some of the finer luxury items the king was used to in this life and would want to enjoy in death as well.

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

A nice stranger offered to take our picture

The Singing Statue

For a while, the northern giant had been damaged in such a way that when the wind blew through, it made a whistling noise that some mistook for singing. People believed that it happened every morning at dawn and they would visit the statue to ask a question of it, trying to decipher an answer in its supposedly prophetic whispering. (Popular thought now is that it was dew drying in the cracks of the porous stone.) 

The Roman Emperor Septimus Severus visited the site but didn’t hear the singing. In a misguided attempt to curry favor with the oracle, he repaired the colossus in 196 or 199 CE. It’s a total bummer, but after the renovation, the colossus never again sang its quiet soothsaying song.

The Vocal Memnon  by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

The Vocal Memnon by Harry Fenn, 1881-1884

A Case of Mistaken Identity

If these colossi depict Pharaoh Amenhotep III, why are they now called Memnon? During the Trojan War, Ethiopia’s King Memnon joined the side of Troy to battle the Greeks. He was killed by the famous demigod hero Achilles but was admired for his courage and fighting prowess. When Greek tourists visited this site, they mistook Amenhotep for Memnon — in part because they thought the singing might be that of Memnon’s mother, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, lamenting the loss of her son. The name stuck. 

An illustration from  Description de l'Égypte , 1809-1828

An illustration from Description de l'Égypte, 1809-1828

Sadly, all that remains of this once-stunning temple are the crumbling, now-silent colossi that stood guard out front. –Wally

 

Kom Ombo: The Dual Temple of Horus and Sobek

Who is the Egyptian crocodile god? Explore a symmetrical ruin and see reptilian mummies at the Crocodile Museum.

Kom Ombo’s distinctive floral flourishes at the top of the columns are what first appealed to Wally

Kom Ombo’s distinctive floral flourishes at the top of the columns are what first appealed to Wally

There was something about Kom Ombo that instantly called to me. Perhaps I could sense its Greco-Roman influence. My whole life, I’ve been downright obsessed with Greek myths, and poor Duke has had to watch way too many shows about Ancient Rome.

But, for some reason, I wasn’t that interested in Egypt. That is, not until we decided to visit. Since then, I’ve been devouring books on its vast history and reading its insane mythology. (Case in point: a young god getting buggered by the uncle who killed his father, and then sneakily feeding him his sperm on lettuce leaves — aww, you just have to read it to believe it.)

Sobek is known as “the raging one” who “takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes, according to his desires.”
These twin temples have been around for a couple of thousands of years

These twin temples have been around for a couple of thousands of years

Horus, the falcon-headed god, shares the temple with Sobek, the crocodile god

Horus, the falcon-headed god, shares the temple with Sobek, the crocodile god

Duke peeks from behind a column in the forecourt of Kom Ombo

Duke peeks from behind a column in the forecourt of Kom Ombo

Wally loved exploring this off-the-beaten-path temple

Wally loved exploring this off-the-beaten-path temple

We hired a driver and guide from Egypt Sunset Tours to travel by car from Aswan up to Luxor, stopping at Kom Ombo and Edfu along the way.

Admission to Kom Ombo costs 100 Egyptian pounds, or about $6, and includes the Crocodile Museum next door.

Crocodile-headed Sobek, seen in the middle, is a complicated god of water and fertility

Crocodile-headed Sobek, seen in the middle, is a complicated god of water and fertility

Meet Sobek, the Crocodile God

Part of the appeal of Kom Ombo is its unique setup: It’s actually two temples, divided right down the middle, each a symmetrical mirror of the other. The north side honors Horus, the falcon-headed youthful god of the sun that so many pharaohs associated themselves with; the south is devoted to another figure we didn’t see much in hieroglyphs: Sobek, the local crocodile-headed deity. (His name, in fact, was simply the Ancient Egyptian word for crocodile.)

This part of the Nile, about an hour north of Aswan, was once home to larger numbers of crocodiles. And if there was one thing Nile boaters hated more than hippos, it was crocodiles. Both of these animals made navigating a craft on the river a dangerous prospect. You’ll see quite a few sites with relief carvings of these dangers, though Kom Ombo was the only one we visited that depicted Sobek himself.

Sobek was often depicted as having a crocodile head, ram’s horns and an elaborate crown, as seen on this statue in the Crocodile Museum next to Kom Ombo

Sobek was often depicted as having a crocodile head, ram’s horns and an elaborate crown, as seen on this statue in the Crocodile Museum next to Kom Ombo

Sobek was a complicated figure, swinging back and forth between good and evil.

Sometimes he was associated with Set, the god of chaos whom Horus battled over the rulership of Egypt. Set’s allies turned themselves into crocodiles to escape. In the Pyramid Texts, Sobek is known as “the raging one” who “takes women from their husbands whenever he wishes, according to his desires.”

Then again, some sects believed it was Sobek who created the world, rising out of the dark primordial water to shape the universe. Because he was associated with the River Nile — which flowed from his sweat — and all its life-giving power, Sobek was also a god of fertility.

Pharaohs wanted to imbue themselves with the strength and speed of crocodiles; the hieroglyphic for “sovereign” was a crocodile.

A votive offering from the reign of Amenhotep III

A votive offering from the reign of Amenhotep III

Locals at Kom Ombo believed (hoped?) that if they worshipped crocodiles, treating them as sacred, they would be protected from these ferocious beasts. Many an ancient tomb included a mummified crocodile corpse to extend that protection into the afterlife.

From a safety standpoint, I’m happy to report that nowadays the crocs are long gone. The closest you’ll get to one today are the mummified corpses at the adjacent Crocodile Museum.

Be sure to see the mummified crocs after wandering the ruins of Kom Ombo. Mummies like these were put into tombs so the ferocious beasts could protect the dead in the afterlife

Be sure to see the mummified crocs after wandering the ruins of Kom Ombo. Mummies like these were put into tombs so the ferocious beasts could protect the dead in the afterlife

Construction of the temple at Kom Ombo began early during the reign of Ptolemy VI Philometor, about 186 BCE. The hypostyle halls of columns are credited to Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator, who ruled from 51-47 BCE. And during the Roman period, the Emperor Augustus added the entrance pylon around 30 BCE.

The inner part of the temple is filled with crypts and hidden passageways

The inner part of the temple is filled with crypts and hidden passageways

With the construction of the Aswan Dam, many Nubians and Sudanese were relocated to the Kom Ombo area

With the construction of the Aswan Dam, many Nubians and Sudanese were relocated to the Kom Ombo area

Rocks taken from the temple in 1955 were used to build a local sugar factory!

Rocks taken from the temple in 1955 were used to build a local sugar factory!

A temple guard in one of Kom Ombo’s galleries

A temple guard in one of Kom Ombo’s galleries

On one side of the temple’s exterior, a lion bites a hand

On one side of the temple’s exterior, a lion bites a hand

Kom Ombo: What’s in a Name?

The name of this temple is undeniably fun to say; it sort of bounces right out of the mouth. It’s interesting in that it’s a mishmash of Arabic and Ancient Egyptian: Kom is Arabic for hill, while Ombo is a corruption of the Egyptian word meaning gold. So Kom Ombo was known as the Hill of Gold.

The site was a popular commercial hub, including, one imagines, for the gold mined down in Nubia to the south.

The Ancient Egyptians were the first to create a 365-day calendar

The Ancient Egyptians were the first to create a 365-day calendar

The Ancient Egyptian Calendar: A Date With Destiny

Those Ancient Egyptians were undeniably clever. In addition to all the architectural marvels you can still tour, they also devised the first 365-day calendar (granted, it started with 360 days, but eventually they figured out they needed to add on five days). There were 12 months of 30 days throughout the three seasons (flooding, growing and harvest, all tied to the annual Nile inundation), with the extra days added to the end of harvest to provide a time for feasting. Of course, the 365-day calendar, which we still use, is flawed, and eventually seasons get off schedule. So Ptolemy III added a day every four years — the beginning of our leap year.

Ancient Egyptians only had three seasons, all tied to the Nile’s flooding and the nutrient-rich soil it left in its wake

Ancient Egyptians only had three seasons, all tied to the Nile’s flooding and the nutrient-rich soil it left in its wake

Off to the right, as you walk through the temple, there’s a wall of hieroglyphics that show the Egyptian calendar. Our guide, Mamduh (pronounced “Mom-doo”), made a great teacher. He’d show us what certain symbols meant, had us decipher some and would quiz us when the glyph appeared at another location, proud when we got the answer right.

Various rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty depicted themselves at Kom Ombo

Various rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty depicted themselves at Kom Ombo

Roman Emperors on Parade

The temple is a bit of a who’s who of Roman emperors. The pylon wall out front shows Domitian wearing the crown of Upper Egypt, while the forecourt colonnade depicts Tiberius making an offering to the local gods. Elsewhere, Horus and the ibis-headed Thoth are pouring holy water over Ptolemy XII, while Sobek looks on. On the other side of the temple, the relief swaps the positions of Sobek and Horus.

Behind this family, you can see Ptolemy XII anointed with holy water by the gods Thoth and Horus

Behind this family, you can see Ptolemy XII anointed with holy water by the gods Thoth and Horus

Kom Ombo also houses clinics. A sample treatment was to squeeze onion juice into the eye to treat irritations

Kom Ombo also houses clinics. A sample treatment was to squeeze onion juice into the eye to treat irritations

Priests would hide in a subterranean tunnel behind the sanctuaries and act as oracles to pilgrims

Priests would hide in a subterranean tunnel behind the sanctuaries and act as oracles to pilgrims

Notice the dripping penises: Mamduh told us this was a symbol of STDs, which were treated here

Notice the dripping penises: Mamduh told us this was a symbol of STDs, which were treated here

Out back, walls rise up in a narrow passageway, depicting not only Emperor Trajan making offerings to the gods but an array of surgical instruments as well.

The temple stands on the banks of the Nile, and teams are now working to protect it from erosion

The temple stands on the banks of the Nile, and teams are now working to protect it from erosion

This well is known as a nilometer and was used to predict Nile floods

This well is known as a nilometer and was used to predict Nile floods

Kom Ombo’s Nilometer

Off to the left, if you’re facing the entrance, are the remains of a nilometer, a structure somewhat reminiscent of the stepwells of India, used to predict the flooding of the Nile. I peeked my head over the edge, but even with my feet firmly planted and my body secure on the stone edge, vertigo made my head spin.

Decades of irrigation in what was once the desert have eroded the foundation of Kom Ombo. A U.S.-funded team is working to create a 30-foot-deep trench around the site to divert groundwater back into the Nile.

A large part of Kom Ombo’s appeal is its remoteness. Situated right on the bank of the Nile in a small town miles from Aswan, the site is surrounded by sugarcane fields. In fact, about 50 years ago, before the site was under preservation, a sugarcane magnate pillaged stones from Kom Ombo to build his sugar factory nearby. Can you imagine ancient hieroglyphics mixed in with modern materials to build a factory?! Thank Sobek that Kom Ombo is now under protection, its importance once again realized and respected. –Wally

The symmetry of the temple, half devoted to Sobek, half to Horus, is a large part of Kom Ombo’s appeal

The symmetry of the temple, half devoted to Sobek, half to Horus, is a large part of Kom Ombo’s appeal

 

Temple of Kom Ombo
Nagoa Ash Shatb
Markaz Deraw
Aswan Governorate
Egypt

Dendera Temple of Hathor: One of the Best Temples in Egypt

Walk up to see the Dendera Zodiac and descend into a secret passage to see the Dendera light bulb.

Dendera’s Temple of Hathor has stood for 2,000 years

Dendera’s Temple of Hathor has stood for 2,000 years

A mammisi, or birth house, honored the birth of a god or goddess

A mammisi, or birth house, honored the birth of a god or goddess

This headless sphinx would have been part of a long line of identical statues

This headless sphinx would have been part of a long line of identical statues

Egypt has a storied history, filled with monuments and temples that are all amazing in their own way. But some were much more astonishing than others — and Dendera (also spelled Dandarah) just might be my favorite of the bunch. Its massive columns covered in hieroglyphics utterly dwarf you, and zodialogical creatures romp on the turquoise ceiling. Then there’s the secret passage below the temple.

All of these aspects make Dendera majestic, but there’s something else to it. Duke and I quickly realized that the temples we liked best were those not swarming with tourists. Yes, Abu Simbel is jaw-droppingly awesome, but while visiting there, I felt like a tourist. At Dendera, which we had mostly to ourselves, wandering the quiet, cool colonnade, looking up in awe, I felt like a pilgrim. I truly understood that this was a holy site, a sacred space.

The site includes a couple of birth houses, a large temple, smaller chapels and a pylon gateway

The site includes a couple of birth houses, a large temple, smaller chapels and a pylon gateway

The Dendera Complex

The oldest structure at Dendera is the mammisi of Nectanebo II, the last of the native pharaohs, from 360-343 BCE. Mammisis are translated as “birth houses” and were small chapels at the entrance of temples to honor the nativity of a deity.

Another mammisi stands on the Dendera grounds. It’s generally thought that Nero (Roman emperor from 54-68 CE) began construction, which was then completed by Trajan (who reigned from 98-117 CE), as both are represented in carvings here.

The exterior of the Temple of Hathor glows in the bright sunlight

The exterior of the Temple of Hathor glows in the bright sunlight

The temple, originally known as Iunet, or Tentyris in Greek, was commissioned by Ptolemy XII. The Greek ruler set about building temples all over Egypt — not only to win the favor of the natives, who would appreciate a foreign king honoring their time-honored traditions, but also to reap the financial benefits. Temples were landowners, storehouses and centers of economic activity. Queen Cleopatra VII (yes, that Cleopatra) wrapped up construction. She had bas-reliefs carved of her and Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. Construction took place around 54-20 BCE.

How cool is it to think that you’re walking around a temple that Cleopatra herself helped build and worshipped in?

It’s sad to see that every single image of Hathor atop the columns has been vandalized

It’s sad to see that every single image of Hathor atop the columns has been vandalized

The Much-Loved, Multifaceted Hathor

Hathor was one of the most popular goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, her roles shifting through the ages. Her hieroglyphics literally translate to “House of Horus,” referring to her protective role as a mother figure and/or wife of the falcon god Horus. As such, she was also a sky goddess, ruling over the realm where Horus flew.

You’ll often see Hathor bearing a cow head or just the ears, as depicted atop Hathor columns like those at Dendera. This refers to her role as a nurturing royal nurse; she’s said to suckle the pharaohs of Egypt — even as adults.

A rare non-mutilated top of a Hathor column at the site. Check out Hathor’s cute little cow ears

A rare non-mutilated top of a Hathor column at the site. Check out Hathor’s cute little cow ears

She was also called Mistress of the Vagina and was associated with fertility and female sexuality. (No surprise that the Greeks connected her with Aphrodite.)

And, among other attributes, Hathor was the goddess of drunkenness and music. A rattle-like instrument called a sistrum was used in her worship.

Hathor’s dominions are pretty all-encompassing and were tied to the monarchy. Her worship took place all over Egypt — but it was centered at Dendera.

Hathor, seen at the top of these columns, was a popular goddess, her domains covering everything from motherhood to sexuality, from healing to drunkenness

Hathor, seen at the top of these columns, was a popular goddess, her domains covering everything from motherhood to sexuality, from healing to drunkenness

The highlight of the year for the worship of Hathor was the festival of her marriage to Horus. During the summer, her sacred statue would travel by boat along the Nile to the Temple of Horus at Edfu. There it would unite with that of Horus, and a raucous celebration would take place over the next two weeks.

Duke admires the giant scale of the temple

Duke admires the giant scale of the temple

Exploring the Temple of Hathor

The Temple of Hathor remains — in fact, with Philae, it’s one of the best-preserved temples of the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. Temples to her consort Horus and their child, Ihy or Harsomptus, once stood nearby but have been destroyed.

Policemen and guards in robes are common sights at Egypt’s temples

Policemen and guards in robes are common sights at Egypt’s temples

Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors played their part in the construction of Dendera over the centuries

Egyptian pharaohs and Roman emperors played their part in the construction of Dendera over the centuries

The walls and columns of Dendera’s Temple of Hathor are covered with carvings

The walls and columns of Dendera’s Temple of Hathor are covered with carvings

The massive colonnade is what really makes Dendera a marvel to explore

The massive colonnade is what really makes Dendera a marvel to explore

Imagine the temple as it originally stood — gleaming white in the desert sun, the carvings that cover the façade painted in bright colors. Now, though, thousands of years of sand and wind erosion have reduced the exterior to the same color as the sand it stands upon.

The gateway in front was constructed during the reigns of the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan, and fit within the surrounding mud-brick wall that enclosed the complex.

During the 1st century, Emperor Tiberius added the gorgeous hypostyle hall, featuring 24 soaring columns bearing the cow-eared head of Hathor, each face vandalized in antiquity. The ceiling retains its original paint, and you’ll get a sore neck craning to look up at it — but it’s worth it. After the empire fell, the temple was half-buried in sand, and locals used the structure as shelter, lighting fires for cooking and warmth. There are still swaths of the ceiling that remain covered in soot, but the scenes that have been revealed after meticulous restoration are nothing short of incredible.

The sky goddess Nut frames this part of the ceiling, swallowing the sun at twilight and giving birth to it in the morning. You can also see signs of the zodiac, including Taurus the Bull and Sagittarius the Archer

The sky goddess Nut frames this part of the ceiling, swallowing the sun at twilight and giving birth to it in the morning. You can also see signs of the zodiac, including Taurus the Bull and Sagittarius the Archer

It features a chart of the heavens, including signs of the zodiac, which the Romans introduced. You’ll also see the goddess Nut in her typical position: straight-armed and straight-legged, forming three sides of a square to represent the sky. Every evening she swallows the sun, which then passes through her body, until she gives birth to it the next day at dawn.

You’ll see this vulture motif on a lot of temple ceilings — it depicts Nekhbet, the protector of Upper Egypt (in the south part of the country) and the pharaoh. The serpents are a reference to Wadjet, goddess of Lower Egypt. Together, they show the unification of the realm

You’ll see this vulture motif on a lot of temple ceilings — it depicts Nekhbet, the protector of Upper Egypt (in the south part of the country) and the pharaoh. The serpents are a reference to Wadjet, goddess of Lower Egypt. Together, they show the unification of the realm

Crane your neck to look up at Dendera — the blue ceiling is one of the coolest parts of this temple

Crane your neck to look up at Dendera — the blue ceiling is one of the coolest parts of this temple

Duke and Wally kept oohing and ahhing at Dendera

Duke and Wally kept oohing and ahhing at Dendera

The inner hypostyle hall is where the statue of the goddess Hathor and her solar barque would be brought from her sanctuary during festivals.

Inside the sanctuary, there’s a false door, usually built to allow the soul’s passage in and out of the underworld. This one is unusual in that it’s high up. You can climb a ladder into this loft, where the statue of Hathor was usually kept.

A lot of carvings in Ancient Egyptian temples show pharaohs making offerings to the various gods

A lot of carvings in Ancient Egyptian temples show pharaohs making offerings to the various gods

Around back of the sanctuary, a passage slopes down to a sunken chamber. our guide Mamduh (pronounced Mom-doo) explained that due to a marvel of acoustics, supplicants could whisper prayers to the goddess, and her priestess could respond mysteriously from below.

The Dendera Light Bulb From Ancient Aliens

Secret passageways lead to subterranean crypts, where treasure was hidden away. Duke and I of course opted to take the makeshift ladder down and squeeze into the narrow space to explore them. The walls are covered with the most bizarre hieroglyphics we have seen on this trip. We were down there with another couple from the United States, and as we headed back up, we heard the man excitedly call out, “It’s the lightbulb from Ancient Aliens!”

Wally and Duke crept down into this secret passageway, where treasures were once hidden away. It’s now more famous as housing “the Dendera light bulb” carving

Wally and Duke crept down into this secret passageway, where treasures were once hidden away. It’s now more famous as housing “the Dendera light bulb” carving

He was referring to a strange carving of long, tapering ovals with squiggles inside. The crackpot TV show Ancient Aliens insists that this represents a light bulb, 4,000 years before Thomas Edison “invented” it. How did the Ancient Egyptians have electricity to light the temple? Why, alien technology, of course.

Here it is: the legendary Dendera light bulb. Is it a depiction of the creation of the world — or evidence that aliens shared their technology with Ancient Egyptians?

Here it is: the legendary Dendera light bulb. Is it a depiction of the creation of the world — or evidence that aliens shared their technology with Ancient Egyptians?

When we met up with our guide Mamduh and told him what we had heard, he smiled and nodded, familiar with that particular conspiracy theory. He told us that those bas-reliefs were actually how Ancient Egyptians depicted the moment of creation; the “light bulb” is actually a representation of the womb of the goddess Nut, and the so-called filament inside the bulb is obviously a snake.


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The oldest complete sky map of the ancient world, the famous Dendera Zodiac, now in Paris’ Louvre museum

The oldest complete sky map of the ancient world, the famous Dendera Zodiac, now in Paris’ Louvre museum

The Chapel of Osiris and Dendera Zodiac

After descending into the secret passageway, we took a corridor up to the top of the temple. It spiraled up gradually as a tribute to the falcon-headed god Horus, mimicking the circling pattern of the birds of prey when rising into the sky. (Another staircase for descent is short and straight, like the plunging dive a falcon takes when attacking prey.)

Our guide Mamduh explains how the statue of the goddess Hathor was brought to the solar chapel to rejuvenate in the sunshine

Our guide Mamduh explains how the statue of the goddess Hathor was brought to the solar chapel to rejuvenate in the sunshine

At the top of the structure is a small temple that was used for rituals to greet the rising sun.

There’s also the Chapel of Osiris, a small dark room, depicting the death and resurrection of the god.

The Osiris Chapel shows scenes of the god’s death and resurrection

The Osiris Chapel shows scenes of the god’s death and resurrection

The portico at the entrance features a blackened ceiling relief known as the Dendera Zodiac. It’s said to be the only complete map we have of an ancient sky. Most of the zodiac representations are the same as today, though Aquarius is shown as the Nile god Hapy.

Mamduh explained that the one we were looking at was actually a replica. In 1821, the Egyptian ruler, Mohamed Ali Pasha, allowed the original to be transported to Paris, France, where it remains, on display at the Louvre.

The ruins of a sanatorium are also on the grounds, for Hathor, that goddess of all trades, was also a healer. Pilgrims would come here to bathe in the sacred pool and bring home containers of holy water. There were also sleeping quarters here where supplicants would hope to dream of the goddess and receive her wisdom.

Admission to the temple costs 100 Egyptian pounds. Even without the secret passage that has launched a thousand conspiracy theories, the aqua blue ceiling covered with zodialogical signs and massive columns in the Temple of Hathor make Dendera a must-see. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Luxor and can be paired with Abydos. –Wally

Dendera Temple Complex
Qism Qena
Dandarah
Qena Governorate
Egypt

Ancient Egypt’s Mummification Process Explained

What went into canopic jars, how was the body dried out, what organs were the most important — and what got thrown away?

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I as seen in the Luxor Museum. (You can’t take photos of the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo)

The mummy of Pharaoh Ramesses I as seen in the Luxor Museum. (You can’t take photos of the mummies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo)

As a kid, I was fascinated with Ancient Egypt. I grew up in the state of New York, and my dad would take me to the Buffalo Museum of Science to visit the room that held a few mummies and artifacts. It was the late 1970s, and treasures of the boy-king Tutankhamun had captured the imagination of the American public as they traveled to museums across the United States. I would check out as many books on the subject as I could from our local library, and when my elementary school library received the book Mummies Made in Egypt by Aliki Brandenberg, I begged my mother to ask if they could order an extra copy for me. I was lucky enough to have parents who indulged my creative side, and a kind librarian who agreed to this request.

Recently, memories of this richly illustrated book came flooding back to me as Wally and I wandered the second-floor galleries of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. The hall contains wood and glass display cabinets filled with a dizzying collection of elaborately decorated ancient coffins, mummies, amulets to protect the dead, and shabti, magical statuettes of servants that would come alive to perform duties for the deceased in the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptians believed that death was a temporary transition — a concept deeply embedded in their daily lives. Every night, the sun god Ra made his passage to the underworld, disappearing with the setting sun in the west, and emerging reborn the following morning in the east. The goddess Isis wept for her dead husband Osiris, and new life sprouted from the fertile banks along the River Nile. To Egyptians, as long as this natural order existed, a smooth passage beyond the trials of the underworld could be attained.

The creepy, dried-up feet of Ramesses I. The mummy was part of a small museum collection in Niagara Falls, Canada before being returned to Egypt in 2003

The creepy, dried-up feet of Ramesses I. The mummy was part of a small museum collection in Niagara Falls, Canada before being returned to Egypt in 2003

Mummy Dearest

However, eternal life was only possible if the individual’s corpse remained intact. Great care was taken to preserve the appearance of the physical body, which was essential to ensure that the deceased’s soul would recognize and return to it in the next plane of existence. If the body decayed, the soul would, too. The most costly method to ensure this was a multi-stage process known as mummification, typically reserved for royalty and nobles.

Priests wore masks of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, during the mummification process

Priests wore masks of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death, during the mummification process

First, the body was moved to a temporary funeral pavilion, undressed, ritually cleansed and anointed with myrrh. After this had been completed, mortuary priests wearing jackal masks to evoke Anubis, the god of mummification, removed all internal organs — with the exception of the heart — through a small incision in the left side of the abdomen. The brain was thought to be useless; it was pulverized and extracted through the nose using a long metal hook. But the heart was considered to be the key to the afterlife and revealed evidence of the deceased’s true character.

Various organs were kept in canopic jars like these

Various organs were kept in canopic jars like these

Canopic Jars

Organs considered vital in the afterlife by the Ancient Egyptians were reserved, washed, desiccated, wrapped in linen and placed inside four containers known as canopic jars. Each vessel held a different organ and were shaped to represent the four children of Horus, a deity connected to the pharaohs:

  • Falcon-headed Qebehsenuef held the intestines.

  • Human-headed Imsety held the liver.

  • Baboon-headed Hapy held the lungs.

  • Jackal-headed Duamutef held the stomach.

To turn a corpse into a mummy, it was packed with salt and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanted bed so all the fluids would drain

To turn a corpse into a mummy, it was packed with salt and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanted bed so all the fluids would drain

The Mummification Process

One of the most important materials required for mummification was natron salt, a mixture that occurred naturally in Egypt. It was packed over and inside the body’s internal cavities and left to dehydrate for 40 days on a slanting bed. This removed any remaining bodily liquid and saponified fatty tissues, meaning they were essentially turned into soap. After this process was complete, the natron was removed, and the shrunken, desiccated body was once again bathed and dried. A coniferous resin was applied to the deceased’s skin, preventing bacterial growth and decay.

The body was then wrapped in linen, and various amulets were placed about the body to protect and sustain it in the life beyond. A scarab amulet inscribed with a spell from the funerary text the Book of the Dead was asked not to testify against the deceased. It was placed between the layers of linen wrappings over the heart. The neck and chest were important areas and played a specific protective and strengthening role. The wrapping process itself lasted approximately 15 days. The linen strips were soaked in balm and resin, which gave the skin a blackened appearance resembling pitch.

The sheathed, mummified body of the pharaoh was placed within a set of coffins, shaped to resemble the human form, and nested like Russian matryoshka dolls. The innermost coffin was considered the most sacred and represented the deceased in their divine form.

During the New Kingdom period, a procession took place where the bereaved, coffin, canopic jars and an assemblage of funerary furnishings were placed on a sled and pulled by oxen to the necropolis. Once these items arrived outside the tomb entrance, a ritual called the opening of the mouth ceremony was performed to allow the deceased to see, hear, breathe, eat and speak in the afterlife.

A group of wailing women from the tomb of the royal vizier Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes (modern-day Luxor)

A group of wailing women from the tomb of the royal vizier Ramose in the Valley of the Nobles in Thebes (modern-day Luxor)

The innermost coffin had a depiction of the dead so their soul would know what body to return to

The innermost coffin had a depiction of the dead so their soul would know what body to return to

The coffin was brought to the burial chamber and enclosed within a large rectangular sarcophagus made of stone, with protective deities and hieroglyphics pertaining to its inhabitant chiseled into its surface.

Finally, the outer door of the tomb was sealed and imprinted with royal insignia. The finality of this action was mitigated by the belief that the king had now entered the realm of the underworld and could begin his (or her) journey beyond death. –Duke