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Culture : MUMMIES : * The prized remains of Egyptian pharaohs will return to public display in Cairo, aided by the Getty Institute.


CAIRO — For years they have slumbered in silent twilight, stretched out in splendid repose in a storeroom of the Egyptian Museum. Here in this cluttered mausoleum, the same sun that once gave life to Egypt's pharaohs peeks each morning through small, dusty windows near the ceiling and creeps noiselessly across their grinning teeth and shrunken eyes.

Egypt has always welcomed outsiders to the painted tombs of its pharaohs and the magnificent temples erected to ancient gods. But for years the royal mummies have been hidden from public view--shielded by the conviction, dating from the heyday of the Islamic revolution in Iran, that it would be unseemly to display bodies of dead kings.

But political realities change, and so, it seems, does the fate of these 3,500-year-old relics. It started in 1980, when former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat criticized Iran for displaying on television the bodies of American servicemen killed during an abortive hostage-rescue mission near Tehran. Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini responded angrily: What was Egypt doing displaying the bodies of its pharaohs to tourists? Sadat swiftly banished the mummies to the basement.

Now, both Sadat and Khomeini are dead. And the royal mummies are once again going on public display--thanks not only to new politics, but to new technology that will allow their ancient corpses to be protected from the modern-day hazards that lay outside their quiet tombs.

"You can see all the objects in the pictures, you can go to any square in the world and see the monuments created by these people--the obelisks in New York, or Paris, or Istanbul or Rome. But this does not compare with looking face to face with the men that did these works--that man who made all this empire!" said Nasry Iskander, who for 20 years has studied Egypt's mummies and who is now heading the project to reopen the mummy room at the Egyptian Museum next month.

A total of 11 royal mummies will go on display during the first phase, including Seti I, Ramesses II, Ramesses V, Tuthmosis IV and Queen Henttawi, the lovely, full-bosomed queen, only about 22 when she died, who was the wife of Pinejem I and the only mummy to be successfully restored.

These are the rulers who presided over the greatest years of Egyptian civilization and who created the cult of priests whose mysterious ceremonies, documented in hieroglyphic inscriptions and ancient papyri, preserved the bodies of the pharaohs and nobles in the belief that a new and eternal life was to come after the pharaoh's death barge sailed through the stars of the night.

For the new exhibit, the Egyptian Museum is gathering together all the materials which accompanied this ancient rite of death: The fox-like hood worn by the priest during his prayers over the dead king, the ankhs (small crosses with an arched oval joining the two arms) held aloft to symbolize eternal life and the wedge used to help breathe the spirit of life into the pharaoh's mouth.

The museum even has the tools used in the mummification process, which wasn't fully understood and duplicated until the 1940s. On display will be the sloped embalming table, with a basin at one end used to collect bodily fluids; tiny pricks and knives, used to remove the viscera from a small hole in the lower abdomen and suck the brain out through the nose.

The rest of the body was then packed in natural salts to extract the remaining fluids from the tissues, and it was then wrapped in resin-coated linen and draped in a garland of lotus flowers, some of which survive today.

During the fabled expeditions of the 19th Century when most of Egypt's burial treasures were uncovered, the pharaohs themselves eluded a generation of French, Italian and British adventurers and were presumed to have been long ago plundered. Then, in 1881, Sir Gaston Maspero, a professor at the College de France, arrived in Egypt and opened an expedition to find out for sure.

Maspero had returned briefly to Paris when his assistant, Emile Brugsch, prevailed upon local villagers to lead him along a long and winding path through the Deir al Bahari line of cliffs near the ancient city of Thebes (now Luxor). They descended into a deep shaft, from which they entered a chamber filled with coffins. On their lids they read names that could only have been dreamed of before: Amosis, founder of the New Kingdom; Tuthmosis I,II and III; Ahmose Nefertari, patron of necropolis workers; Ramesses I and II; Seti I. All the major pharaohs dating from as far back as the 17th Dynasty, about 1580 B.C.

In all, there were 39 mummies, 19 of them royals. (A second cache discovered in 1898 boosted the total of unearthed royals to 27.)

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