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The mummy returns

How did the ancient Egyptians preserve the bodies of the deceased for thousands of years, and why was it so important for them to do so? And who is Dai's lady? Everything is connected

A mummy from the ancient Inca culture in Peru. Illustration:
A mummy from the ancient Inca culture in Peru. Illustration:

Written by: Zvi Atzmon, Young Galileo

Embalming is a method of preserving deceased bodies for a long time, even thousands of years. The mummified body is called a mummy. Many ancient peoples used to embalm their dead, including the Incas and other peoples of South America, the Aztecs and Mayans of Central America, Aborigines born in Australia, residents of certain regions of ancient China, and of course - the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians also embalmed two Hebrews from the forefathers of the nation: Jacob our father (Genesis XNUMX-XNUMX) and his son Joseph (Genesis XNUMX).

The soul continues to exist

The ancient Egyptians believed that a person's soul continues to exist as long as his body is preserved, and thus as long as the body is preserved the soul can continue to exist. That is why they made an effort to preserve the bodies of the deceased over time, in quantities. It was important to them to embalm the dead body so that his soul could gain eternal life, they believed in the afterlife.

Next to the embalmed mummy they buried pottery (and in the case of the pharaoh and other dignitaries also silver and gold) and filled them with food and drink, as well as jewelry or ship models intended to serve the soul on its long journey to eternity.

A tradition of 2,000 years

The work of embalming was done by Egyptian clerics who specialized in it. The methods of embalming and the degree of complexity of the process changed from period to period, for hundreds of years, and also depended on the wealth of the embalmed person. The Egyptian embalming tradition began about 2,600 years BC, that is, about 4,600 years ago, and it developed for more than 2,000 years.

The most prestigious and successful embalmings were done between 1570 and 1075 BC. One of the most famous Egyptian mummies is the mummy of Pharaoh Tut Anhamon, who lived a total of 19 years (1323-1342 BC), but was buried in an amazingly rich tomb, where his mummified body was kept in excellent condition. His tomb was discovered in Egypt in 1922.

Another famous mummy is that of Ramses II, who some think is an interruption in the story of the Exodus. Ramses II died in his 90s (!) of his life, suffering from many diseases. His impressive mummy is currently on display in the Cairo Museum (and see "Ramses Brings Peace" on page 20).

How do you mummify?

The embalming process during the time of Tut Anach Amon lasted 70 days. The first stage was the removal of the internal organs from the body: the brain was removed from the skull and discarded, while the internal organs in the abdominal and chest cavity, except for the heart, were removed and embalmed separately and kept in special vessels next to the body. In the generations that followed, these organs were returned to the body at a later stage of embalming. The Egyptians made sure to leave the heart in the chest of the corpse out of their belief that the heart is the center of a person, the source of his thoughts and intellect.

From this it is possible to understand how different the concept of the ancient Egyptians is from our current understanding of the organs of the body. We know that the source of thoughts, memories and emotions is the activity of the brain, and that the other internal organs, including the heart, are essential and allow us to live, but are not related to our "I", the thinker and the feeler, to our inner essence. The heart is "all in all" the body's blood pump (and see the "Wonders of the Body" section on page 12).

The Egyptians also attached enormous importance to the exact appearance of the face: when removing the brain, they made sure that nothing changed in the appearance of the face. In their view, as long as the person can be recognized by the appearance of the face, the soul can find its place and continue to exist.

In certain periods, at this stage, the body would be washed with a solution of wine, herbs and spices.

The next step was to absorb all the water from the embalmed body. In conditions of lack of moisture, bacteria and fungi cannot develop and cause the body to rot. The Egyptians did this by covering the body with a substance called natron. Natron (and see: "Everything that touches it will turn to stone", issue 198 - July 2020) is a natural mineral that consists of four sodium compounds: sodium carbonate, sodium hydrogen carbonate, sodium chloride (table salt) and sodium sulfate. This mineral has a high water absorption capacity. Cloth bags containing netron were placed inside the corpse, and 40 days later, after all the moisture had been absorbed from the corpse, the netron bags were removed from it, the outer netron was washed off and the body was filled with linen cloth as well as amulets.

At certain times in the embalming process bee dung was also used (it is possible that the word "mummy" was derived from the ancient Egyptian term for bee dung) as well as asphalt brought from the Dead Sea.

At this point, the process of wrapping the body in many layers of linen fabric began. They would wrap each finger separately, then the palm and the foot. Between layer after layer, hot glue was poured from plants (resin). Tie the outer fabric layer with linen strips.

A surprising Chinese mummy

In 1972, an archaeological dig in China uncovered three mummies of high-class people, mummies that are more than 2,200 years old. It seems that these were a couple and their son. The state of preservation of the woman's mummy amazed the archaeologists and the pathologists (a pathologist is a doctor who investigates the circumstances of death) who examined them. After 2,200 years, the skin of the woman's mummy remained soft and flexible, and it was possible to move her joints! Blood was found in her mummified arteries, and it was even possible to determine its type - A (A). The mummy's hair is excellently preserved.

The Chinese embalmers did not remove the body's internal organs during the embalming process, yet the state of preservation of this mummy is better than any other mummy ever discovered. In the analysis conducted by the pathologists on the mummy, they were able to diagnose what diseases the woman suffered from 2,200 years ago (arteriosclerosis and kidney stones) and even determine the cause of her death at the age of 50 - a heart attack. The woman's name is Xin Joy, and she is also called "the lady of Dai".

fly to the sky after death

It is not clear how the mummy of Xin Joy was preserved in such an excellent and unusual condition. It is known that the body was immersed in liquid, but its exact composition is unknown. It is only known that it is an acidic liquid and that the netron used by the Egyptian embalmers is basic. More than 1,000 different objects were buried with the body, including make-up tools and musical instruments, and it was wrapped in 20 layers of silk fabrics tied with silk ribbons.

The Chinese mummy was kept in a system of four coffins, one inside the other, made of cedar trees and covered with a thick layer of charcoal and on top of that a layer of clay. Feathers were attached to the inner coffin. The Chinese believed that in order to fly to the sky, the soul of the mummy needed feathers.

Perhaps the four coffins helped in the unusual preservation of the mummy, which continues to amaze researchers. Dai's lady may not have reached heaven, but her wealth, state of health, lifestyle and even the foods she ate are known to us to this day.

Today we make sure to preserve the memory of a person who passed away and to remember his actions, his contribution and his words, and not the exterior of his body. Some people are willing to donate organs from their loved one's body after they have passed away, organs that can save lives. And there are even people who pledge to donate their organs (Einstein donated his brilliant brain during his lifetime) and their body for study and research purposes - to help medical and scientific knowledge.

From Young Galileo - the monthly for curious children, issue 206 March 2021

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