Mummies, gold and belief in the afterlife constitute our long-standing impression of ancient Egypt. But how important are they to Egyptians? How long did it affect Egypt after the last Pharaoh?

The exhibition “Meeting the Golden Mummies of Ancient Egypt” held in Beijing recently brought six golden mummies to domestic audiences for the first time, and also presented more than 100 rare treasures of ancient Egypt. As a metal with eternal luster, gold is considered as the body of ancient Egyptian gods. The ancient Egyptians believed that adding gold foil to mummy masks, coffins and even the skin of the deceased could make the appearance of the deceased closer to the gods. Only when the dead get the body of God can they get eternal life and be qualified to be juxtaposed with other gods in the afterlife.

These exhibits are concentrated in the relatively unknown “Greek-Roman” period in Egyptian history, which spans from 300 BC to around 300 AD. During this period, Egypt was first ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty from Greece, and the last Pharaoh was Cleopatra VII, which was later ruled by the Roman Empire and became a province of the latter. If we carefully observe the appearance, decoration and patterns of mummies on wooden pavilions, lids and other items in the exhibition, we will find that ancient Egypt in this period is quite rich and complex, and it is a mixed multicultural society. The wealthy groups in society have made careful preparations for the afterlife and combined the eternal and beautiful ideals of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Most of the collections in this exhibition were excavated during the British rule in Egypt from 1880 to 1910, and were later collected by Manchester Museum in England. At that time, the British archaeologist Flinders petrie was an important host of this archaeological work. In history, generations of people who were curious about ancient Egypt like petrie once dug up and studied mummies in the name of “science” and tried to interpret their history and culture, but they inevitably fell into the imagination of ancient Egypt. As curator Campbell Price said, the owners of these gorgeous mummies were the richest minority in society at that time, which did not reflect the whole picture of ancient Egypt. Now our observation and understanding of these cultural relics is more based on the perspective of modern people than on the people who created and used them.

At the exhibition site, a female golden mummy with fashionable Roman hairstyle was collected by the Manchester Museum in Hawala, Egypt, about the 1st century BC. Image source: Meet the Museum
Ancient Egypt was not as isolated as people thought.
Ancient Egypt, located in the middle and lower reaches of the Nile, has long been regarded as an ancient, closed and mysterious country. In fact, ancient Egypt was not as isolated as people thought. In 1894, British archaeologist Flinders petrie presided over a large-scale archaeological excavation of a pre-dynastic cemetery in ancient Egypt (about 4500 BC-3000 BC). The remains in ancient tombs are usually lying on their sides, usually wrapped in blankets. Occasionally, use linen coated with resin instead of blankets. In addition to the remains, there are stone tools, pottery, agate and crystal ornaments, tools made of flint and obsidian, and minerals such as galena and malachite. From these funerary objects, we can know that the Egyptians at that time had superb textile and pottery-making skills and had extensive trade with the surrounding areas. Obsidian was mainly from Ethiopia, and other ores were produced in the surrounding areas of Egypt. Different tombs have more or less funerary objects, which shows that Egyptians at that time had class consciousness, and different social classes could enjoy different tomb specifications.

There is evidence that by the end of the fourth millennium BC, the ancient Egyptians had established contact with civilizations as far away as Mesopotamia. It can be said that the early settlements in ancient Egypt have already possessed many characteristics of the later Egyptian civilization. Small countries and tribes scattered all over Egypt subsequently annexed and reorganized each other, forming a unified government, a unified system of temples and gods, and gradually centralized control of trade and resources. Under the rule of successive pharaohs, the trade relations between ancient Egypt and Nubia in the south and around the Mediterranean lasted for thousands of years, and many non-Egyptians came to Egypt to do business or settle here.

As an influential “superpower”, ancient Egypt exported both goods and culture. As early as the 9th century BC, oriental patterns from Egypt appeared on pottery in Crete, Greece. By the 6th century BC, Egypt had a great influence on Greek architecture and sculpture. Around 620 BC, the communication between Egypt and Greece, which just had a navy, reached a new level-Greek businessmen were allowed to establish trade bases in Egypt. Since then, the Greeks began to travel around Egypt as tourists. They were shocked by what they saw. Some people firmly believe that Greek civilization originated in Egypt.

Hedgehog container, about 7 th century BC, Greece, unknown location, in Manchester Museum. Many Egyptian or Egyptian-style objects were found in Greece. Hedgehog, baboon and lotus patterns are common in Egyptian-style designs. Image source: Meet the Museum
Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for thousands of years, but this land was not peaceful. Kings from Kush, Assyria and Persia all ruled Egypt one after another. In 332 BC, when Alexander the Great led an expedition to Persia and Egypt, Egypt was almost a satellite country of the ancient Persian Empire. The native Egyptians were overjoyed at the arrival of Alexander the Great and joined the Hellenistic Macedonian army in succession to resist the rule of the Persian Empire. Egypt thus entered the Ptolemaic dynasty, which died with Cleopatra’s death, and the Romans turned to Egypt as their sphere of influence. It seems incredible that the cultural memory of ancient Egyptians will last forever after several regime changes. Christina Riggs, a British historian, believes that this is related to the fact that ancient Egyptians recorded their long history in hieroglyphics on porches, stone tablets and walls inside and outside the temple. These works of art, myths and legends and commemorative ceremonies with the theme of pharaohs of past dynasties can help people maintain a common cultural memory.

An interesting phenomenon is that even those “foreign pharaohs” who once ruled Egypt, such as the Ptolemy family, adopted local cultural traditions after ruling Egypt, including funeral customs such as mummifying bodies after death. The Ptolemaic dynasty also advocated the worship of a new multicultural god-Serabis, a “Greek-Egyptian” compound god. Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter regarded Serabis’ sacrifice as a means to rule the Greeks and Egyptians, and people even worshipped this compound god until the reign of Rome. During the “Greek-Roman” period, people worshipped various Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods at home, and many gods’ images and stories were rewritten and reintegrated into different myths of all ethnic groups.

Bust of Isis, circa 1st century AD, marble, unknown location, in Manchester Museum.
The worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis was very popular throughout the Roman Empire. This bust presents the style of ancient Greece. Her hair is a typical spiral curly hair, and the stylized sun disc headdress and horn on her head indicate that she is an Egyptian god. Image source: Meet the Museum
During the “Greek-Roman” period, people’s preparations for death and the afterlife were also influenced by multiculturalism. Greeks and Romans had rather pessimistic expectations for survival after death. However, the Egyptians’ concept of the afterlife provided them with the possibility of being reborn into a bright and perfect world. Egyptians believe that God is immortal. They have an unchangeable golden body and precious lapis lazuli hair. If the dead want to exist forever, they must become one of them in a sense. Therefore, aristocratic mummies who can afford it generally enjoy coffins, masks or other coverings decorated with gold foil, and the hoods are painted blue. For centuries, the upper classes in Egypt were buried in wooden coffins after their death, but in the “Greek-Roman” period, wooden coffins were basically no longer used. Instead, mummies were covered with masks and cover plates and fixed with linen bandages. Although the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt are no longer known to the public at this time, they will still appear on the decorations of aristocratic funerals as a magical “amulet” to ensure the smooth transition of the deceased to the afterlife.

As Riggs said, on the surface, it seems that foreign cultures have entered Egypt’s lair, but from another perspective, the native culture of ancient Egypt has continued itself through the integration and transformation with foreign cultures.

Mummy mask, circa 1st century BC, painted plaster, Egypt, Hawala, Manchester Museum. Image source: Meet the Museum
Mummies can’t reflect the whole picture of ancient Egyptian society
For Egyptians, the purpose of mummification is not only to preserve the remains, but to create a “perfect and eternal version of the dead” for them to enjoy the afterlife. Since ancient times, many people have been obsessed with uncovering the shroud of mummies to see what is hidden inside. In the 17th century, people took off the mummy’s bandage in order to get a black substance called Mumiya, which is said to cure diseases. In modern times, curious researchers untie mummies in the name of “science” and try to explore the ethnic identity, body structure and health problems of ancient Egyptians.

From the end of 18th century to the beginning of 19th century, with the specialization of medicine, autopsy developed as a discipline. At the same time, scientists began to pay attention to the religious diversity of the vast European colonies, and Egypt happened to be at the intersection of Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. At that time, there were still various restrictions on the direct dissection of fresh corpses, but mummies were not within the scope of restrictions. Studying them is of great benefit to western academic circles. After Napoleon’s expedition, it was easier for European scholars to obtain various cultural relics including mummies from Egypt than before. Dismantling and studying mummies once became a common practice for scholars and doctors.

Scientists at that time made different guesses about the origin of ancient Egyptians according to their national characteristics. German scholar Blumenbach thinks that the ancestors of ancient Egyptians may have come from ancient Ethiopia, because they have some similarities with other ancient African peoples who once lived in this area, while French scholar Ju Ye Wei thinks that ancient Egyptians originated from Caucasian race. In fact, all these studies have many conjectures based on objective facts, especially the contour of nose, the thickness of lips, the color of skin and other information that is usually considered to distinguish races are mostly subjective, and the final conclusion often leads to the ranking of races-no matter what basis is adopted, Europeans or Caucasians are always at the top of human civilization.

At the exhibition site, a mummy of a child in the 1st century AD was collected in the Manchester Museum in Hawala, Egypt. Image source: Meet the Museum
However, these racist studies of ancient Egypt had a large number of fans in the 19th century, and even developed a set of standard procedures from dismantling mummies to measuring skulls to determining races. Until the late 19th century, scientists still believed that we could find out the truth of ancient Egypt by strictly following scientific theories. From 1890 to 1910, petrie, a British archaeologist, excavated a large number of cultural relics, including tens of thousands of mummies, in the Hawala site in central Egypt, but he only recorded a few mummies decorated with gold or color, and those bones that seemed to have no research value were buried underground. Finally, he concluded that these mummies were mainly Greek settlers in Egypt.

Now we know that the affluent class in Hawala is much more mixed than petrie said. In fact, there are many problems in the research method of deciphering the ethnic composition of ancient Egyptians according to mummies. The biggest problem is that the ancient Egyptians who were lucky enough to be mummified and preserved often came from the upper class of minority society, and they did not reflect the whole picture of ancient Egyptian society.

Nowadays, with the help of CT scanning and three-dimensional contrast technology, researchers no longer need to disassemble mummies themselves to achieve the same research results. However, it is worth reflecting that the practice of unwrapping the cloth wrapped around the mummy and carefully handling the corpse in the past research seems to be beyond people’s ethical considerations. We almost know more about how to make mummies than the ancient Egyptians-what substances to disinfect and preserve, how to wrap the remains with cloth, and so on. But from the standpoint of the ancient Egyptians, what people do today is unforgivable. Mummies are expensive and labor-intensive, and can only be done by professional priests. The client spends so much money just to get eternal life. Under this premise, mummies must be hidden and protected forever without secular interference, which explains why the producers have never left any records on how to make mummies.

In 1922, the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun was discovered.
Instead of paying attention to the mummies decorated with gold, we should turn to the more ordinary things that existed in ancient Egyptian life. For example, few researchers pay attention to the linen strips taken from mummies, which are often discarded as garbage after the study. However, buying these pieces of cloth is one of the most expensive and important links in ancient Egyptian funerals. In ancient Egypt, flax was not only the most important cash crop, but also regarded as “clean” and “sacred” in culture. In the tradition of ancient Egypt, almost all secrecy, concealment and etiquette behaviors are inseparable from linen packages. Ancient Egyptian society, like other societies, was full of anxiety and fear, but it developed methods to deal with anxiety and accept reality, and skillfully balanced the needs of the living and the dead. This may be the wisdom of the ancient

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