Asharq Al-Awsat, Cairo—Having spent over 25 years as a tour guide in Egypt, archaeologist and Egyptologist Bassam Al-Shamaa believes ancient Egyptian mummies should not be exhibited in museums and is calling for them to be returned to their tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, where they were originally discovered.
In his online campaign named “Back to Eternity”, which was launched in 2013, Shamaa demands that the mummy chamber in the Egyptian Museum be closed, as it was under King Fuad I of Egypt (1917–1936) and President Anwar Sadat (1970–1981).
The chamber contains the mummies of Ahmos I, commonly known as the expeller of the Hyksos (ruled Egypt from 1550–1525 BCE), and King Thutmose III (ruled Egypt from 1479–1425 BCE) who is known as the Legendary Pharaoh in view of his numerous invasions and his establishment of the first systematic army in history. The chamber also contains the mummies of King Thutmose IV, King Seti I, King Merneptah and King Ramsis II who is considered to be the Pharaoh who ruled Egypt from 1279–1213 BCE during the time of Moses.
Museum visitors are required to buy a second, more expensive, ticket to enter the mummies’ chamber, a separate area where photography is prohibited.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat about the reasons for launching the campaign, despite his career as a tour guide and lecturer in Egyptian antiquities across the world, Shamaa says: “Throughout my work with tourists, I found that exhibiting our mummies was not beneficial to our civilization or our tourists. While some tourists may take photos, others mock them or even hurl insults at them. Some are indifferent about entering the chamber, while others are disgusted at seeing the corpses of people who died thousands of years ago.”
“I am demanding that these mummies are returned because of what I have witnessed over the past ten years,” he says, “Would you allow your body to be exhibited in a display cabinet after your death? Would you allow your body to be displayed to whoever purchases a ticket?”
Shamaa, who has authored a large number of books about ancient Egyptian civilization in Arabic and English, said: “I took the necessary measures and tried for more than a year and a half to have a fatwa [religious edict] issued to make it clear as to whether it is permissible to exhibit the mummies to the public. I had to go to the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, the Senior Muslim Scholar Authority, the Egyptian Dar Al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar Fatwa Commission, yet I failed to have a single fatwa issued governing the issue of exhibiting the corpses of dead people.”
“This issue is new and still under debate,” was the answer Shamaa received from the aforementioned official bodies, he said. He added sorrowfully: “There is no benefit to exhibiting the mummies, and there is no point in subjugating a dead body that died thousands of years ago to a DNA test. There is no point in scientists inserting a speculum into a mummy to take out a sample to tell us that, for example, Akhenaten was the brother of Tutankhamun. The entire world is well aware of this because it was written in history books dozens of years ago. In fact, had all these efforts been exerted into Egypt’s medical or engineering research, we would have come up with more useful information.”
Although he has been through the British education system—he graduated from the British Victoria College in Egypt—Shamaa demands that the UK apologize in the same manner it apologized to other countries for the cultural damage it caused during World Wars I and II. “The UK must apologize to Egypt for what the criminal archeologist Howard Carter did when removing the golden musk from Tutankhamun’s face using heated knives, causing serious damage to the mummy,” he said.
In his campaign, Shamaa also demands that the mummy of the Gebelein Man—an Egyptian who died in the pre-embalming, pre-dynastic period and was found naturally preserved by hot sand—is returned to Egypt from the British Museum in London. He said “This should under no circumstances happen to our forefathers. Shouldn’t we hold our great kings in respect? How can their sanctity be breached in this manner? Particularly as ‘burial is the way to honor the dead’ according to Islamic teachings.”
He added “Regarding the claim that mummies attest to our civilization’s greatness and [them being on display] generates income, let me say that this is incorrect because if we studied the period we spent under the late President Anwar Sadat, we would find that tourism thrived at the time when the Egyptian Museum’s mummy chamber was closed. That chamber does not generate much income despite its expensive entrance fee (100 Egyptian pounds, equivalent to 14 US dollars). This is because several tourist agencies do not include the visit to the chamber in their programs either because of the expense or because most tourists prefer not to see mummified corpses.”
Recalling a situation during one of his tours, Shamaa said: “[I was with] British tourists, one woman refused to enter the mummy chamber and was crying. I asked her why and she said she had lost her son when he was nineteen and that if she entered the room it would remind her of the event.”
Shamaa suggests that the mummies of Pharaohic kings be returned to their tombs in the Valley of the Kings as part of a major international event that could generate huge income for the country if marketed properly. He added that this event could also revive the tourist industry, which has been largely destroyed following the January 25, 2011 revolution.