December 15, 2003

Return of the mummy


Mary Loftus, associate editor of Emory Magazine, accompanied the Emory delegation that returned the royal mummy believed to be Ramesses I to Egypt on Oct. 24. Complete coverage will be featured in the magazine's upcoming winter issue.

I'm sitting in a sea of folding chairs in the lobby of the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, which is sweltering in the early afternoon heat.

I've neglected to grab a translator headset, and now they are gone and I'm panicked, because it appears that much of the press conference I'm covering is going to be in Arabic. Pen hovering over my notepad, I ask the young Russian reporter beside me what the Egyptian officials are saying.

"That the museum in Atlanta has given their best effort by sending the mummy to Egypt. That they thought the mummy should be home, and its home is Egypt," he says.

An older English gentleman on the other side of him leans over.

"Are you from America?" he asks.

I nod.

"What are you going to do about George Bush?" he says in a loud whisper.

"Me?" I ask.

"Yes, you," he says impatiently, waiting for a response.

In a timely save, trumpets blare, drums roll, and everyone is suddenly on their feet. A custom-made crate containing the 3,000-year-old mummy believed to be Ramesses I, first king of the 19th Dynasty and patriarch of the legendary Ramesside line, is about to be opened.

The crowd reacts as if we're at a political rally, with cheers and foot stomping and loud clapping. Film crews from "Nova," CNN and almost every Arab state are recording the proceedings.

Emory's delegation--Bonnie Speed, Peter Lacovara, Betsy Teasley Trope and Elizabeth Hornor from the Carlos Museum--stands near the front. The Carlos curators cringe as the horde of photographers surge toward the royal mummy, which has been meticulously packed in multiple layers of foam and handled with extreme care all the way from Atlanta to Cairo.

University photographer Kay Hinton disappears into the media mosh pit with her camera. I settle back into my seat. Times like this, I appreciate being the reporter.

Thankfully the rest of the ceremony is calmer and, fortunately for me, in English.   

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's head archeologist and secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is glowing in his praise of Emory and Atlanta for returning the pharaoh to rest beside his fellow kings, calling it a "great civilized gesture."

Most of Emory knows the story by now: Ramesses I, ruler of Egypt from 1293-91 B.C., had been missing from his homeland for nearly 150 years. Sold by tomb robbers in the mid-19th century to a Canadian doctor and shipped to the Niagara Falls museum, the unwrapped, 5-foot-5-inch mummy lingered in obscurity until Emory purchased the museum's Egyptian collection a few years ago with $2 million donated by the Atlanta community.

Lacovara and other experts confirmed a long-standing hunch that the mummy was royal and, with near certainty, the missing pharaoh. After granting the king his own multimedia exhibition on the third floor of the museum, Emory made preparations to send him back to his homeland.

Which almost explains why, a few months later, I am standing near the largest pyramid in Giza trying to walk briskly around a man who really wants me to get on his camel. "Not to ride, just to sit," he keeps yelling, long after I've turned the corner.

A few days and several tourist destinations later, our group flies south to visit Ramesses I's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Rever-ently, we take in the vivid images and colorful hieroglyphics in the burial chamber, as well as the large, empty sarcophagus.

"It's like coming full circle," says Lilly Miller, whose family's donation made possible in large part the Carlos' purchase of the Niagara collection. Lilly and her father, Jim, chairman of the board of Fidelity Bank, have come on the trip to see Ramesses I returned.

I've never seen so many people so happy to give something away. In this frigid time of fear and isolationism, it warms my chilled soul.

Not that it's actually possible to be chilly in Egypt.

Sweating profusely in my cotton long-sleeved shirt, baggy chinos, ball cap and hiking boots, I can't help but gawk at the next group of tourists ready to descend into the tombs: a twentysomething blond in a tight, leopard-skin dress and heels, a teenage girl in short-shorts and her shirtless boyfriend with their hands in each other's back pockets, and several others who obviously subscribe to the "less is more" philosophy of fashion.

"I don't think everyone took the dress code quite as seriously as we did," Lilly whispers.

This scantily clad band would have attracted attention even at Euro Disney, but at this sacred site, contrary to conventional wisdom, they are hardly raising an eyebrow.

"So what country are the barely dressed people from?" I ask an Egyptian guard.

"Oh, probably somewhere in Scandinavia," he replies matter-of-factly.

This chance encounter did make me brave enough to switch to a short-sleeved T-shirt for the trip's duration. (When it's 97 degrees in late October, you take liberation where you can find it.)

Later in the evening, we dip freshly baked pita bread into hummus and babaganoush, sip sweet hibiscus juice, and look out over the Nile. In celebration of the holy month of Ramadan, strings of red lights are wrapped around the trunks of nearby palm trees, lending a festive mood to the scene.

Ramesses I will soon be at rest in this ancient city where he once ruled.


Back at work the following week, in the midst of my post-adventure doldrums, a co-worker comes to my office door.

"Remember yesterday, when I asked what was up, and you said, nothing much, but that last week you helped return a pharaoh to Egypt?" she says.

I nod.

"Well, I keep thinking about that and laughing. It doesn't even sound real," she says. "It's like something out of mythology."

Or, more likely, the setup to an elaborate joke.

That's the thing about a story that includes George Bush, Niagara Falls, misplaced pharaohs and leopard skin dresses: Who's going to believe it?