photo of Salima Ikram

Through death, ancient Egypt lives

The first rabbit exploded, and the second rottedóbut Rabbits 4, 5 and 6 sailed smoothly into the afterlife.

The students in Salima Ikram's Death in Ancient Egypt class at the American University in Cairo learned the "nuts and bolts of preparing a body for eternity," says Ikram '86, when they mummified rabbits purchased from local butchers. Ikram says the exercise showed "practical problems related to mummification, how to get and prepare materials, and ancient mistakes and what they might reveal about the original mummification procedure." The students experimented with exsanguinating, eviscerating and finally burying the rabbit corpses in natron, a mineral salt used by ancient Egyptians to dehydrate mummified bodies. "Some students were squeamish," says Ikram, "but no one really objected. The rabbits were intended to be killed, and they now live for eternity, if one follows the ancient Egyptians' belief."

Ikram, an Egyptologist who holds a PhD in archaeology from Cambridge University, specializes in ancient Egyptians' relationships with animals, commonly mummified to accompany a person in eternity. She directs the Animal Mummy Project at the Cairo Museum, where she X-rays, photographs and catalogues animal mummies, reinstalling them in climate-controlled cases and "presenting them in a manner that will make them and the ancient Egyptians more accessible to tourists and scholars."

In all, says Ikram, there were four kinds of animal mummies: "sacred animals, which were worshiped; votive animals, given as offerings to the gods, sort of like votive candles; pets; and food offerings to provide food for eternity." Common household pets included cats, dogs, monkeys, gazelles and birds. X rays will help determine whether most pets were killed when their owners died or placed in their owners' tombs after a natural death.

X rays will also help determine the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians. For example, there is considerable debate about the god Anubis, and whether ancient Egyptians most closely identified him with a dog, wolf, jackal or fox; X-raying Anubis's votive mummies will reveal which animal the ancient Egyptians offered to him most often. Ikram also hopes that the Animal Mummy Project will shed light on the veterinary practices and mummification techniques of ancient Egyptians.

Ikram says controlled tourism and the education of tourists are key to "preserving the heritage of ancient Egypt for posterity, as the increase in tourism, together with the rising population and its associated pollutants, are very destructive to antiquities all over the world."

At the American University of Cairo, Ikram also teaches courses on ancient Egyptian history, culture and society, food and drink, and art and architecture, as well as archaeological methods and theories. "Ancient Egypt is part of our common heritage," she says. "We need to present Egyptian history and culture in a way that is easily understandable to everyone, focusing on their humanity."

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