Despite decades of exhaustive research, the Egyptian civilisation remains an enduring fascination for archaeologists, historians, linguists, scientists, architects, engineers and artists. Visitors to Egypt are as entranced by the pyramids and mummies as they are with the achievements, technological skills and the medical knowledge of the Egyptians.
Based on the belief that they would be resurrected in the next world, the pharaohs wanted their bodies mummified after death. Being powerful, resourceful and wealthy, they wanted everything for their comfort and needs to be buried along with them.
The process of mummification was performed by skillful professionals who, with the passage of time, perfected the technique to an art form. In the early period, also known as the Old Kingdom, the pharaohs were simply buried in a pit of sand. Later, the Egyptians developed the technique of building pyramids. It is said that the pyramid of Khufu, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was built by tens of thousands of skilled workers.
The pharaohs engaged artists to decorate the walls of their tombs, calligraphers to write prayers and passages from The Book of the Dead, which carried instructions about how to go to the next world. Sculptors made statues of the dead rulers; artisans prepared jewellery, wooden and golden coffins.
The pharaohs wanted everything that they might need in the next world to be buried with them, which amounted to nothing less than a treasure of wealth. Naturally where there is wealth there are (grave) robbers, giving rise to security concerns. For this reason, pyramids and tombs were built in a way that the wealth and mummies of the pharaohs could remain safe and untampered with.
This obsession with resurrection was a disaster for the Egyptian economy, as the wealth which could be spent on the welfare of the common people was buried for the benefit of rulers who supposedly needed it in the next world. As the news of this buried treasure spread, villagers began to settle around the pyramids and the royal tomb. Despite all security measures, they managed to pilfer from the buried treasure. Where there’s a will, there is indeed a way.
It is interesting to observe that the common people were robbed of their wealth by the powerful and coercive pharaohs, while in turn robbers took away wealth from the buried pharaohs.
Eventually, the squandering of economic resources led to a social and political crisis. By the end of the Middle Kingdom, a peasants’ rebellion broke out.
Desperate and disillusioned by the rulers, they not only plundered the royal tombs but, in their fury, also disfigured the mummies and threw them out of the tombs. The rebellion was crushed with severity but the rulers learnt a lesson that the mummies of their predecessors were not safe despite all protective measures. The rulers made attempts to repair the disfigured mummies and buried them in secret tombs in the Valley of Kings.
The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed another group of robbers — European and American archaeologists searching for antiquities to be sold in the West.
Equipped with modern technology and skills, the ‘secret’ sites of the royal tombs were no longer hidden to them. They took advantage of the political chaos in Egypt which, at the time, was controlled by different European powers and the natives had no power or authority to check any foreign interference in their internal affairs. The result was that these archaeologists took away what they fancied and sold it to antique dealers and museums.
In one of these archeological expeditions, Howard Carter discovered the famous tomb of Tutan Khaman. When it was opened, they found the treasure intact with a golden chariot, furniture, ornaments, jewellery and other precious items — most of which is displayed in European and American museums.
The mighty pharaohs lay no more in their golden coffins, but were displayed in glass boxes in various museums where visitors can see them to satisfy their curiosity. If they resurrected, they would neither have the royal grandeur, nor their treasures with them. They would be surprised to find themselves reduced to becoming just like the common man that they stole from in the first place.