crescent moon hangs over the Nile, signaling the start of the holy month of Ramadan, as a slow-moving caravan inches along the chaotic Saturday evening streets of Cairo. The night is warm and hazy; smoke from cooking fires hangs over the streets. Egyptian Muslims, about 94 percent of the country’s population, are preparing for a month of fasting, prayer, and reflection.

This ancient city, the largest on the African continent, is a study in contrasts. A McDonald’s is decorated with Ramadan lanterns, minarets of grand mosques appear next to high-rise office buildings, and satellite dishes sprout from the roofs of crumbling apartment buildings.

On the streets, slaughtered cows, goats, and oxen hang by hooks outside shops, and public buses are filled to bursting. Businessmen sport keffiyehs, the traditional checkered Arabian male headdress; women in tunics walk home with purchases balanced on their heads. Most drivers in Cairo pay little heed to traffic signs and rights-of-way—accidents are so common that almost every vehicle has dents and paint patches as evidence of previous collisions.

Making its way through this frenetic mass of beeping cars, donkey carts, and bicycles, is a flatbed truck flanked by police cars and trailed by local media as well as crews from NOVA and CNN. The heavily guarded truck carries a large wooden crate stamped “FRAGILE.” Bystanders watch the curious procession, wondering what precious treasure is being escorted through the city.

Finally, the truck pulls up to the front of the stately Egyptian Museum, where an oversized banner reads, “Return of the Royal Mummy.” The cargo is carefully unloaded and carried through the back doors. Within the crate, shrouded in layers of polyester foam, lies the three-thousand-year-old mummy believed to be Ramesses I, first king of the Nineteenth Dynasty.

Ramesses’ son, Seti I, and grandson, Ramesses II, are on display in the museum’s famed Mummy Room upstairs, but the patriarch of the legendary Ramesside line has been gone from Egypt for more than one hundred and forty years.

Tonight, he rests in his homeland.

>>> The voyage begins



© 2004 Emory University