Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Third Intermediate Period of Ancient Egypt

By Anthony Holmes

Note: The dates below are BCE (Before the Common Era)

The history of ancient Egypt is divided into several periods. Some periods were eventful and memorable for their achievements. The Old Kingdom remains famous for its pyramids and sphinx; the New Kingdom is remembered as the time of Tutankhamun and Rameses the Great, when tombs were excavated in the Valley of the Kings and massive stone temples were constructed. The Hellenistic Period was the time of Cleopatra VII, arguably the most famous ruler of the Ptolemy Dynasty. There were other periods that did not enjoy the same fame or notoriety. One of these is the so-called “Third Intermediate Period” that occupied four centuries between the era of the Rameside kings of the New Kingdom and the start of the final throw of the dice for ancient Egypt called The Late Period.

The New Kingdom began when the Hyksos invaders were driven out of Egypt. It was a great period which saw the rise of Tuthmose III and Rameses II, the two great warrior kings, but by the time Rameses VI came to the throne in 1141 the disintegration of the great Egyptian empire had begun. Little of note can be reported about the reigns of the remaining five kings of the New Kingdom who all chose the name Rameses, probably in the hope that the magic of the name would rub off on them. When Rameses XI died the New Kingdom came to an end and Egypt entered the Third Intermediate Period which lasted 400 years from 1064 to 664.

Period and Dynasties Dates

Predynastic Period: Naqada I & II & Dynasty 0 4000 to3000

Early Dynastic Period Dynasties 1 & 2 3150 to 2584

Old Kingdom Dynasties 3 to 6 2584 to 2117

First Intermediate Period Dynasties 7 to 11 part 1 2117 to 2066

Middle Kingdom Dynasties 11 part 2 to 12 2066 to 1650

Second Intermediate Period Dynasties 13 to 17 1650 to 1549

New Kingdom Dynasties 18 to 20 1549 to 1069

Third Intermediate Period Dynasties 21 to 25 1064 to 664

Saite Period Dynasty 26 664 to 525

Late Period Dynasties 26 to 31 525 to 332

Hellenistic Period Macedonians & Ptolemies 332 to 30

Roman Period Egypt ruled by Rome 30 to 395CE

In order to understand the Third Intermediate Period it is necessary to examine the rise and fall of the other kingdoms and empires of Asia and their impact on Egypt. By 1064, the Hittite kingdom, Egypt’s great enemy and the kingdom of Mittani, Egypt’s great ally had both collapsed and from 1020, the kingdom of Israel was the most powerful trading kingdom in Asia under its kings Saul, David and Solomon. After Solomon died the kingdom of Israel split into two; Israel in the north and Judah in the south. These were two kingdoms of similar people sharing a single religion. At times they were allies and at other times they were enemies, but throughout they shared one common enemy; the kingdom of Damascus across the Jordan River.

The Phoenician maritime traders expanded their activities in the Mediterranean Sea, founding colonies along the North African coastline as far as Spain. The most powerful Phoenician colony was Carthage, in modern Tunisia. The trade between the Phoenicians and Egypt prospered, with Egypt exporting fine linen to Tyre, where it was dyed purple. The increasing use of the Aramaic language in preference to Akkadian brought with it an increase in the demand for papyrus rather than clay tablets and Egypt was the sole supplier of papyrus, a scarce commodity at that time.


While Egypt’s trade prospered, the Assyrians (named for the ancient city of Assur, their original capital) became the region’s dominant military power. From their national home between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Assyrians surged forth with their military might. The Assyrian army continued to use heavy chariots with a three man crew, the design of which was pioneered by the Hittites. With the availability of larger breeds of horses they were also able to introduce cavalry, a new concept to middle-eastern warfare. The Assyrians conquered the various tribes of Mesopotamia and then swept westwards, over-running the area. The kingdoms of Israel, Judah and Damascus survived, but under Assyrian overlord-ship. Frequent rebellions in these kingdoms resulted in Assyria reducing two of them to the status of provinces. Only Judah was left as a kingdom. By 720 the Assyrian Empire stretched from the Persian Gulf into Anatolia (Turkey) in the north and to the Egyptian border in the southwest. Conflict with Egypt was inevitable.

The Third Intermediate Period began in 1064 with the founding of the 21st Dynasty when Nesibanebdjedet, the former governor of the delta city of Tanis acceded to the throne. The political control of Egypt had always been difficult because it was such a long, narrow land. Strong rulers were able to exert their control over the whole land from the Nile Delta to the first cataract at modern day Aswan (about 1,000 kms), but the country was frequently divided in two, with control of the delta region under a northern king and the control of the long southern region under a different king. The 21st Dynasty lasted 124 years and saw Egypt split into two (again!). Lower Egypt (the delta region in the north) was under the rule of the King in the delta city of Tanis, while Upper Egypt (the south) was controlled by the High Priest of the god Amun at Thebes. Fortunately this time the division of the land did not result in conflict. In fact there was a high degree of co-operation between the two areas. During his 53 year reign, the fourth king of the 21st Dynasty Pasebkhanut I ruled from Tanis as King and his brother Menkheperre ruled from Thebes as High Priest. Understandably, researchers find it to be a period of confusion. The sixth king of the 21st Dynasty, Osorkon was of Lybian background. The Lybians were traditional enemies of Egypt, but now their bloodline was infused into in the so-called royal family of Egypt. History records eight kings during the 21st Dynasty.

The 22nd Dynasty commenced in 948 with the accession of Shoshenq 1 and the reunification of Egypt (again!). The hereditary role of High Priest of Thebes as a ruler of Southern Egypt in his own right was abolished and instead it became a position held by the son of the reigning king (a sort of ‘Prince of Wales’ appointment). This consolidation worked for a number of years. Egypt reasserted its military force and at least two military campaigns were recorded under Shoshenq 1, one of which took place in the Levant and is recorded in the Bible.

Regrettably personal ambition prevailed and Harsiese, the High Priest of Amun did not wait for his turn on the throne, but took full kingly status for himself and passed the pontificate of Amun to his own son. So once again Egypt was divided. Royal and priestly titles were taken and conferred prolifically in Tanis, Memphis and Thebes. It was a royal supermarket! At this time several parallel kingships existed. The 23rd Dynasty commenced in 867 and the 24th Dynasty operated from 735, both running in parallel with the existing 22nd Dynasty. A Biblical passage that refers to the ‘kings of Egypt’ was in all probability a reference to this period. My all-time favourite king name for this period is King Takelot.

It was the power of Kush, Egypt’s southern neighbour from Nubia (Sudan) that was to see a change in the traditional line of kings of Egypt. Piye, the king of Kush installed his sister as heir to the position of God’s Wife of Amun, a most influential female appointment, without encountering any opposition.

The 25th Dynasty called ‘Rule of Kush’ began in 752. King Piye moved north from Kush, defeating all in his way, but having succeeded in his mission of subduing Egypt, he left Egypt under the control of his newly appointed vassals and withdrew to his home base in Nubia. His successor Shabaka was less accommodating. He took up residence in Memphis in Egypt and curtailed the power of the vassal lords. Shabaka ruled as King of the lands of Egypt and Kush, but not without some internal resistance from the Egyptian princes of the Delta region who resented the Kushite invasion. With a little patience this period might have seen the resurgence of the power of Egypt, but it was not to be! The next king, Shabataka overreached himself by marching a combined Nubian and Egyptian army into Asia Minor to challenge the Assyrians. The combined forces were soundly beaten by the mighty Assyrian forces. Shabataka’s impetuous challenge awakened the Assyrians to the potential (and the weakness) of Egypt/Kush and although Shabataka’s successor Taharqa followed a strictly domestic strategy, the ultimate fate of the Kushite kings was looming.

The Assyrian king Esarhaddon attacked Egypt twice and on his second incursion he defeated and subdued Egypt as far as Memphis. Taharqa fought back and helped by the unexpected death of Esarhaddon regained a foothold in Lower Egypt. It was not for long. The next Assyrian king, Assurbanipal renewed the Assyrian surge and drove Taharqa all the way back to Napata, beyond the third cataract in Nubia. The Kushites tried one more time to reassert their rule over Egypt and managed to reclaim territory as far as Thebes, but Assurbanipal drove Taharqa’s successor Tanutamun back into Nubia. By 656 the 25th Dynasty had ended. The Nubian royal line continued to rule upper Nubia until the 4th Century AD, but the rule of Egypt passed into the hands of the Delta princes who had supported the Assyrians against the Kushites.

The Third Intermediate Period ended with the death of Tanutamun and the accession of Psametik I of the 26th Dynasty. This was the beginning of 60 years of rule of the Delta Princes from Sais, called the Saite Period, after which The Late Period commenced.

The four centuries of the Third Intermediate Period presented Egypt and its southern neighbour Kush with every opportunity to consolidate and re-assert the nation’s role as a powerful force in the region. It was a leading manufacturer of linen, papyrus and producer of wheat, but internal fighting for leadership and the lack of a single unifying force on the throne wasted that opportunity. With Assyria in power, Persia to follow and still later Macedonia and ultimately Rome rising up to take over the leadership of the known world, Egypt would never again achieve the heights of the golden age of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


*No, it’s not a misprint! We spend a great deal of study-time examining various aspects of the ancient Egyptian iconography from head to foot, but how often do we consider the importance of the tail? There are several depictions and references to ‘tails’ and they deserve more than a passing glance.

The first and by far the most important tail is the bull’s tail. The gods and the kings wore a bull’s tail as part of their regalia and it may be seen attached to every portrait or statue of a divinity or a king. The tail was hung onto the king’s belt during the coronation ceremony. The symbolism is clearly designed to imbue the king with the power and potency of the bull.

When the king is seated and the back of the chair precludes showing the tail behind him, the artist shows the bull’s tail draped to the front of the chair or throne. Interestingly Akhenaten, the monotheist is often depicted with a bull’s tail attached to his waist-band, showing that he did not totally eschew all the ancient traditions. As a further coronation blessing, the king was anointed with fat obtained from the powerful tail of a crocodile to impart the divine power of Sobek, the crocodile god. The heb-sed, which means ‘the festival of the tail’, usually held after the king had been on the throne for thirty years, was designed to ensure the king still had the strength to rule his people. The heb-sed ceremony renewed the king’s strength and ensured that his ‘bull’s tail’ retained its earlier potency. Included in the king’s list of honours was mut em ef, translated as ‘bull of his mother’, a further reference to the king’s strength and virility.

The cult of the Hap (or Apis bull) can be traced back to the early pharaonic period and it survived for nearly three millennia. A black bull with special markings was considered to be the animal form of Ptah, a creator god who dwelt in the underworld and was the patron of all craftsmen. In his aspect of the bull, Ptah was revered in Saqqara, and it was here that the Hap lived and died in his sacred stall, tended by the priests of Ptah and surrounded by his harem of cows. Upon his death, the Hap was mummified, placed in a huge sarcophagus and lowered into an underground labyrinth. In its many depictions, the Apis bull is shown to be well-endowed with its normal reproductive equipment and additionally to have a great, long tail.

The tail sported by Anubis, the canine god of mummification is probably the most beautiful of the tails of ancient Egypt. The elongated ears, the snout and the huge brush of the canine creature are all exaggerated by the artists. The tail that droops over the side of the shrine found in Tutankhamun’s tomb is wonderful example of Anubis’ rear appendage. The black desert dog-fox that frequents the tombs and the pyramids is supposed to have been the inspiration for the deity, but the live specimens I have seen in Egypt do not compare to Anubis when it comes to the magnificence of their tails.

The tail of the Sphinx, carved in the ancient stone of Giza, can be clearly seen as it curls round the lion’s haunch. Some years ago the suspicion that a chamber of ancient wisdom lay beneath the Sphinx waxed strongly (has it ever waned?). The prospect of entering the world’s most famous sculpture through its rear end presented us with another famous tale of a tail. Regrettably for some, the entrance next to the tail of the Sphinx proved to be shallow and unrewarding, however in 1988 Zahi Hawass reported that he had entered an obscure horizontal tunnel into the Sphinx where he found a pit inundated with water. Perhaps this was one of the taller of the ‘tales’ of ancient Egypt.

The side members of funerary beds or couches used in mummification were invariably crafted in the form of animals and frequently the tails of these animals, whether realistic or not, curved over the bed itself in a stylised arch. In this case the tail represented a form of protection for the body of the deceased.

One tail that presents a puzzle is the one seen attached to the panther or cheetah skin worn by the high priest. The panther skin is normally shown on papyrus and depicted on walls with its spots (actually rosettes) clearly painted by the artist, but the tail is invariably shown with hoops or bands. A leading zoologist I consulted was unable to identify a feline, past or present, whose pelt would be of sufficient size and that had a coat with spots (or rosettes) and a tail with bands. I think we must assume that the artists were taking licence and going for speed rather than accuracy.

The last tail to which I would like to refer is that of Seth, the murderer of his brother Osiris. When Seth is depicted in his animal form he appears to be a combination of the features of several creatures. He has the body of a grey hound, an elongated snout, pricked up ears with flat tips, almond-shaped eyes and a long, fork-ended tail standing up from its body. The fork-ended tail has come down through the ages as a sign of evil, as has the name of the evil deity Seth that transmutes into Satan in modern language.

There may be other tails that carry a tale, so to speak. Perhaps stories lurk in the tail of Bastet the cat or in that of Sekhmet the lioness and if you discover them, be sure to let me know.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Pharaoh of the Exodus

By Anthony Holmes

The Biblical story of the trials and tribulations of the children of Israel that eventually led to their departure from Egypt is documented in Jewish history, but singularly uncorroborated in Egyptian records. This situation is not entirely surprising because the Egyptians seldom made any reference to their defeats or misfortunes. Some students of ancient history accept that a migration did take place basically as described in the Bible despite the absence of Egyptian reports, while some commentators suggest that the Exodus never took place. They suggest the story is merely an allegory for the escape from physical torment through religious practice. Other writers have proposed that the story of the Exodus was subsequently contaminated by accounts of the Jewish experience of bondage in Babylon many centuries later and that it should not be considered to be a realistic account of events in the Nile delta.

The reference in the Bible to the interaction between Moses and the Pharaoh does not specify which Pharaoh was on the throne at the time of the Exodus and this has led to considerable speculation. In this article we will do a little chronological sleuthing, and using the Biblical report as a baseline, we will try to place the events described in the Book of Exodus against a possible time frame that takes account of events in Egypt.

We have very few clues to guide us, but we are told the following:

Exodus 12.40

Now the sojourning of the children of Israel who dwelt in Egypt was 430 years.

In order to make use of this statement we need to deduce when the period of 430 years began. We know that the title “children of Israel” can only have started after Jacob had received the name “Israel”, and that the sojourn may have commenced when Jacob came to Egypt with his family of 76 persons or sometime later (but not before). The saga of the Exodus of the Israelites therefore has to begin with Jacob (called Israel) and his favourite son Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. Joseph was 17 when he was sold to the Midianites by his jealous brothers and taken to Egypt. He was sold on to Potiphar an Egyptian officer of the pharaoh. Joseph did well and was made overseer of the house of Potiphar. When Potiphar’s wife’s advances were spurned by Joseph, she framed him for rape and he was imprisoned.

Joseph was a model prisoner and developed a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. When the pharaoh wanted his own dream interpreted he was advised of Joseph’s talent. The pharaoh called for Joseph.

Joseph gave the seven years of plenty/seven years of famine interpretation and advised the pharaoh to place a wise man over the land to ensure the collection and storage of the surplus grain during the good years. The pharaoh appointed Joseph, the 30 year old Hebrew ex-convict to the highest position in the land other than the king.

Seven years of plenty came as predicted. Joseph arranged for the accumulation of the surplus grain. Seven years of famine began and Joseph was in charge of selling the accumulated grain reserve. Joseph was about 40 years of age.

Joseph’s brothers came from drought-stricken Canaan to buy grain. Joseph made himself known to his brothers and it was sometime later that Jacob came to Egypt with his family. The pharaoh told Joseph to give his father and brethren the best land in the country in the land of Goshen.

Genesis 47.11

And Joseph placed his father and his brethren, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Ram’-e-ses as Pharaoh had commanded.

This verse indicates that the land of Ram-e-ses existed at the time of Joseph, centuries before the accession of Rameses I (the first pharaoh to carry that name). Jacob lived for 17 years in Egypt before he died, at which time Joseph would have been +/- 60 years of age. Joseph lived on to 110 years of age.


1.8 Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

1.9 And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

1.10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

1.11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for the Pharaoh treasure cities, Pi-thom and Ra-am-ses.

It is this reference to Ra-am-ses that many commentators use to state that the exodus cannot have taken place before the reign of Pharaoh Rameses, ignoring the previous, much earlier references to the ‘land of Rameses’.

To limit the population growth of the Israelites, the pharaoh gave instructions to the Hebrew midwives to kill all new born sons, but to let the daughters live. The midwives ignored his instruction, using the excuse that by the time they came to deliver, the babies had already been born and smuggled away. The Pharaoh then gave the order that all new born sons should be cast into the river.

It was into these circumstances that Moses was born. His story of being placed in a basket on the river and being found and raised as the son of the pharaoh’s daughter is well known. Moses grew up as an Egyptian and probably only spoke Egyptian. (Later, when instructed by God to speak to the Israelites, Moses tells God in Exodus 4.10 of his lack of eloquence – presumably in the Hebrew language). After slaying an Egyptian and being in fear of his life he hid from the pharaoh in Midian. He fathered a son with Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. He then heard that the pharaoh had died.

Exodus 2.23

And it came to pass in process of time that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage,…

Moses returned to Egypt with Aaron by his side and after the ten plagues had been visited on Egypt he eventually persuaded the newly enthroned pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses died at the age of 120 years after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. By subtraction he had been a man of about 80 when he led the Exodus out of Egypt.

Another piece of information that might help us in our quest relates to the number of people involved.

Exodus 12.37

And the children of Israel journeyed from Ram-e-ses to Suc-coth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, besides children.

Check the arithmetic:

Start with 76 persons at a birth rate of 2% after 430 years there would be 380,000. It would take 455 years for the population to reach approx. 600,000. With all the assumptions I think we might as well accept this number (455 years from the time Jacob came to Egypt).

We know of a single reference to the Israelites in ancient Egyptian records, dating to the fifth year of the ten year reign of Pharaoh Merenptah, the successor to Rameses the Great. On a stone stele Merenptah records the victories of his campaigns against Libya to the west and Canaan and other countries to the east. This would have been about 1210BC. Merenptah claims

“Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more”.

Two interesting notions arise from the hieroglyphic inscription.

The first is that, unlike the Bible, the Egyptians did not use the term ‘seed’ to refer to the seed or progeny of man. The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is often used of defeated nations. It implies that the store of grain of the nation in question has been destroyed, which would result in a famine the following year, incapacitating them as a military threat to Egypt.

The second interesting point is the way in which the Israelites are described in the hieroglyphs. While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed beside the Israelites in this stele such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam were given the determinative for a city-state—the hieroglyphs that refer to the Israelites employ the determinative sign used for a foreign people (not a foreign land). It appears that the Israelites at this stage were a semi-nomadic people still seeking their home land. This most likely took place in the time of Joshua.

Joshua battled with the many nations that resented the arrival of the Israelites and it was only after his leadership that the Israelites became a landed nation. Joshua’s activities as the leader of the tribe may have lasted at least 40 years. (He was 110 years old when he died). Add this 40 years of fighting to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and deduct the total of 80 years from 1210BC (the date of Merenptah’s stele) one comes to a date for the Exodus of 1290BC.

Who was on the throne at that time? Let us assume the margin for error is plus or minus 10 years (i.e 1300 to 1280BC). On that basis we can not get any closer than one of the following:-

Horemheb 1319 to 1292BC

Rameses I 1292 to 1290BC

Seti I 1290 to 1279BC

A further consideration might help our search. It is clear from the Biblical account that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a vacillator. On several occasions he agreed to the departure of the Israelites, only to renege on the deal when “his heart was hardened”. Looking at the three candidates above we know from records that Horemheb was a hard pharaoh who brought Egypt back from the disasters of the Amarna Period. We also know that Seti 1 fought and won many battles and must have been a decisive ruler. What do we know of Rameses I? He was an old man of 60 when he ascended the throne. He may have been of poor health because he only reigned for 17 months. He was named as Horemheb’s successor because Horemheb had no children, but Rameses I (called Paramessu before his coronation) had several sons and grandsons. If anyone is a candidate for being described as a vacillator it is more likely to be Rameses I than the other two.

We have another reference to the date of the Exodus in the Bible:

1 Kings 6.1

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.

According to secular historians, Solomon’s Temple would have been started 971BC. Traditional rabbinic sources however state that construction started in 843BC. The two dates differ by 128 years. One places the Exodus in 1451BC, while the rabbinic source places the Exodus in 1323BC, close to our deduced date of 1290BC. The date of 1290BC would put Joseph’s intervention (in the 7 plenty and 7 famine years) in the time of the 12th Dynasty.

Is there any indication of this?

It has been established [refer Bell, Barbara (1975) - "Climate and the History of Egypt: The Middle Kingdom"] that the mid-12th Dynasty suffered erratic (high and low) Nile River levels which caused crop failure and the resultant social disruption. It is understandable that low floods would be detrimental to crops, but one might ask why an unusually high flood would hurt crops; Bell's answer is that under such conditions it would take longer for the water to drain off the fields, and would thus impede the year's planting.

In conclusion I suggest the following:

Joseph came to Egypt in 1745BC in the 12th Dynasty

Jacob (Israel) arrived in Egypt in 1715BC (Second Intermediate Period)

Moses was born about 1370BC in the reign of Amunhotep III

The Exodus took place in 1290BC in the reign of Rameses I

who is therefore The Pharaoh of the Exodus

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Observations on the topic of mummification

in ancient Egypt

By Anthony Holmes

Mummification, the art of preserving a body, is a defining element of ancient Egyptian civilization. Mummification differs from the science of embalming. The latter is defined as delaying decomposition to keep the corpse looking natural. The traditional Egyptian mummy, swathed in bandages, is a far cry from an embalmed lifelike body such as that of Vladimir Lenin. However the two terms have become intertwined and are used interchangeably, even by experts.

We have learnt that the word ‘mummy’ is derived from ‘mummia’, a bituminous resin found in ancient Persia; however ‘mummy’ is a relatively modern term. Apparently “mummia” was not used in mummification, but when mummies were discovered covered with dark plant resin it was assumed “mummia” played a role and the term mummification was coined.

There are two elements to mummification, the physical process and the religious symbolism. The physical process was a secretive art. Our knowledge is derived from ‘reverse engineering’ of the mummies that survived. Information has been derived from the experiment in modern mummification conducted by Robert Brier. The recent discovery by Otto Schaden of KV63, the “embalmers’ cache”, has also helped to shed light on the subject. It is thought that shortly after death the body was taken to a place of purification (ibw), probably a tent on hill where the wind would blow the smell away. The brain was ‘liquefied’ by using a hook inserted through the nostrils and rotated like a whisk. The body was turned upside down and the brain matter drained out and discarded. The cranium was cleaned by inserting strips of linen through the nasal cavity and swabbing the inside of the cranium. The body was washed in a natron solution. Natron is a naturally occurring salt of sodium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate. A 10cm incision was made in the side of the corpse using an obsidian knife (sharper than modern day steel scalpels!). The internal organs were removed through the incision. The organs were cleaned, dried, wrapped and placed in four canopic jars. Four deities were assigned for the protection of the organs: Qebehsenuf (intestines); Hapy (lungs); Duamutef (stomach) and Imseti (liver). The clean cranial space was filled with resin. The eviscerated body cavity was cleaned with palm wine and packed with small bags of natron crystals and of wheat chaff. The body was covered in natron salt crystals above and below until it was desiccated. About 250 kilograms of natron were used for a single body.

After 35 days the body was dry, but still slightly flexible. The natron was removed and the body was moved to the house of beauty (pr nfr) where it was placed on blocks and carefully bandaged with linen strips and coated with resin. Particular care was taken with the fingers and toes. Amulets and spells were bound into the wrapping to give the body magical protection. The mummy was placed in its coffin, sometimes with a mask and garlands of flowers and herbs. The entire process of mummification took seventy days.

The religious symbolism may have stemmed from the mythological story of Osiris who was murdered by his brother Seth. In a depraved act Seth cut his brother’s body into several parts and distributed them over Egypt. Osiris’s sister/wife Isis searched until she found the pieces of her husband’s body and had the body reassembled and bound together using strips of linen. Using an act of powerful magic, Osiris was resurrected and granted the power to impregnate his wife Isis. She bore a son named Horus and Osiris returned to the state of death. He entered the afterlife and became Lord of the Dead. The myth describing Osiris’s re-assembly and resurrection is believed to be the foundation for the practice of mummification. Osiris was allocated the star constellation of Orion and his wife Isis was identified with the bright star Sirius. Sirius is absent from the night sky for precisely seventy days every year as it dips below the Egyptian horizon. The bright star’s reappearance coincided with the start of the Nile flood and the period of the rebirth of the seasons. Perhaps Isis’s seventy day absence was the basis for the time allocated to mummification.

Mummification was initially reserved for royalty, but over the centuries nobles and common folk who could afford it were also mummified. Some of the mummies that survived are incredibly well preserved and are providing a source of DNA for scientists engaged in unravelling the complex relationships of the royal families.

Let us now ask the obvious questions: Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead? Was it because they believed in the resurrection of the dead? Regrettably we only have theory and supposition to guide us. There is as yet no documentation that satisfactorily answers the questions. The most quoted answer is:

“Bodies buried in the hot dry sand of the Egyptian desert were naturally desiccated but when burials began to take place in tombs, the bodies decomposed. Mummification was introduced to replace what had occurred naturally in the past.”

In a recent article in the excellent journal ‘Ancient Egypt’ (Jan 2010), the editor Bob Partridge, makes a compelling case for the theory that mummification was essentially used to gain sufficient time for the deceased’s tomb to be completed. Mummification was instituted in order to preserve the body in an acceptable state for interment once the tomb was complete. One has to ask why the process was so complex if it was merely used for keeping the corpse from decomposing too soon. Partridge also questions the traditional view of the cause/effect relationship between the necessary practice of delaying decomposition in order to complete the tomb and the religious associations with mummification that may only have come about subsequently.

I have researched mummification from the religious perspective and conventional wisdom states the following as the religious reason for mummification:

Preservation of the body was essential. Without the body, the "Ka" could not return to find sustenance, and if the body decayed and was unrecognisable the “Ka” would go hungry and the afterlife of the deceased would be jeopardised. Mummification was therefore dedicated to the prevention of decay.”

There is a second theory containing a similar explanation:

“The Ka, Ba and Akh, elements of the soul, were believed to be perishable and at great risk. The tomb, the whole process of mummification, the rituals and magic spells ensured the preservation of the dead body and its Ka, Ba and Akh. The purpose of mummification was implemented to keep the soul alive and ensure a clear path to the afterlife.”

These answers have become accepted without much debate, but they deserve further scrutiny. It appears (with certain variations) the ancient Egyptians believed humans comprised seven elements:

Kha The mortal body that eventually died.

Ka The Immortal Spiritual Double, born at the same time and spiritually associated with the placenta. The Ka was separated from the Kha at death.

Ib The Heart, portrayed as a vessel that held the deeds of a lifetime.

Sah The Spirit-body of the deceased destined to become the glorified spirit (the Akh).

Ba The Immortal Spirit of Intelligence, portrayed as a bird with a human head. At death it moved to a new-born infant and thereby accumulated the wisdom of several lifetimes.

Ren The Name of the deceased. The Ka was invigorated when the name was spoken favourably by a living person.

Khaibit The Shadow. Once the mummy was entombed the Khaibit ceased to exist.

The mystical element called the Akh, closely allied to the concept of a soul, appeared after the successful trial of the deceased.

Akh The immortal spirit (soul) created when the deceased received favourable judgement. The Sah was transformed into the Akh and took the heart (Ib) to eternity. In the reign of Pharaoh Djoser (approx 2600BC) the Akh was believed to join the stars around the North Celestial Pole, (the imperishable ones). In the New Kingdom about 1200 years later, the Akh was destined to ride with Ra in the solar barque. 1400 years later with the advent of Christianity came the belief that a pure soul entered Heaven. The introduction of Islam about 600AD brought with it the concept of an afterlife spent in Paradise.

So what were the ancient Egyptians trying to achieve with mummification? Of the seven elements of the body, three remained after death; the name (Ren), the body (Kha) and the immortal double (Ka). The physical heart was often left in the dead body, but the mystical heart vessel, the Ib, was taken to judgement. The name (Ren) of the deceased was protected by being inscribed in a mortuary temple. Providing its name was spoken, the Ka could use spells to transform any painting, model or sculpture into the “real” thing and to enjoy the pleasures of it forever. The Ka could pass through the false door in the tomb to enjoy the afterlife, an existence much like normal life but free from its imperfections. This description does not however, explain the reason for the elaborate process of mummification of the body (Kha).

I have read treatises and listened to lectures on this subject by Egyptologists and read papers, articles and blogs by well-qualified individuals, but I have not come across a well-founded archaeological or Egyptological substantiation for the notion that the Ka needed the mummy in order to survive. The conventional wisdom may well be correct, but it lacks the incontrovertible authority of proof. I have come to the conclusion that the actual reasons for the practice of mummification in ancient Egypt have yet to be revealed.