I’m not a superstitious man, but it seems that I am suffering from the curse of the mummies. Consider these mysterious “coincidences”:
- Twice, in the space of four months, I have found myself in the presence of mummies.
- Both times, they were exactly the same mummies!
- On both occasions, I wanted to take notes about these mummies so I could tell you about them … but …
- Both times, no notes survived. The first time, I did indeed take the notes, but then they mysteriously disappeared. The second time, I didn’t even get that far—the curse of the mummy struck before I’d even left the hotel, causing me to forget to bring paper or pen. And I’m usually so organized.
It’s that last point that can shake your faith in rational empiricism and cause you to go edging toward superstitious, mystical hogswallop. I mean, I never forget anything. Usually. Sometimes. Except for underwear.
Come to think of it, the second-to-last time I was in Egypt I forgot to bring any underwear whatsoever, and this for a weeklong stay. This kind of thing does, admittedly, happen on rare occasions, in which case I’m forced to wash my shorts (or socks—I forget socks more often than shorts) every night in the sink, with hand soap, then leave them to dry on a towel rack. This can work in Egypt, where the ambient humidity is on the lower side of low, but in more humid settings this often leads to harried work with the hair dryer upon waking and a vaguely damp tush all through the morning. Even in Egypt, though, it’s a pain to have to wash your undies every night, so on my second day there I went to a nice spanking-new shopping mall to look for an underwear shop. I found one rather quickly, much to my surprise, and it was stocked with sensible undies of all types, made from nice, soft, cheap Egyptian cotton. It was also staffed by four veiled women who spoke nothing but Arabic and to whom I had to explain in pantomime that I needed to buy shorts for myself and didn’t know my size in Egypt and what did they think? I firmly believe that if, when he was my age, Donald Rumsfeld had been obliged to go through an experience like that while trying to retain his dignity and not offend anyone else, the world would be a safer place today.
But I digress. This is not about Egyptian undies, it’s about the curse the mummies laid on me, the curse that destroyed or preempted all the notes I was planning on using to write this dispatch. Since I have no notes at all, this will all have to be from memory, which means that my normal astoundingly detailed level of research will be somewhat compromised. (Speaking of which: For those who continue to tell me that I misspelled the Swedish phrase about rats and cookies … I know, I lapsed, I apologize.)
The Egyptian Museum is in the middle of Cairo, which is hardly surprising. It contains all kinds of extremely interesting stuff, all of which is carefully labeled with tiny yellowing scraps of paper containing very little information, marked in Arabic and then a random European language if you’re lucky. It is, therefore, an extremely confusing place, which is a good thing, in my opinion. After all, the 20th century was the era of demystification, a fin de millénaire effort to make everything easily understandable and accessible to all, culminating in the Internet, where the world’s great mysteries throw themselves open like whores to anyone with a computer and a password. It used to be that it was impressive to know some obscure fact. Today, if you let drop the fact that the modern brassiere was not invented by Otto Titzlinger but by Mary Phelps Jacob (in 1913), you’re likely to hear a remark along the lines of “Like, get a life!,” implying that you spend too much of your time on the Net harvesting useless arcana.
OK, you’ll have to excuse that bit. I actually love having all the world’s more plebeian libraries at my fingertips. It does, though, make my point … which I’ve entirely forgotten by now.
As I was saying, the Egyptian Museum is a very confusing place with all kinds of wonderful things that you can learn about in any good guidebook, or, even better, with any good guide, who will lead you around the museum and recite exactly the same sentences as every other guide in front of exactly the same pieces. The guides call themselves Egyptologists, which in this context means “tour guide,” and they know all the right sentences very well but tend to be extremely iffy when you stray into historical domains outside their pre-established routines. (One insisted to me that the Romans arrived in Egypt before Alexander the Great, while another was unaware that Cleopatra had borne children for both Caesar and Mark Antony. All they need to do is look this stuff up on the Net, after all.) So the rest of the museum is worth a good day of rummaging around, and I’ll leave it to you to discover it all. I will, though, tell you about the Royal Mummy Room.
Guides can’t enter. This is a very, very good thing, since it means that you don’t have bulging groups of jostling tourists being shouted at in a smorgasbord of languages. The mummy room couldn’t hold any bulging groups anyway; it’s very small. In it are 11 of Egypt’s most illustrious pharaohs.
If the mummies’ curse hadn’t doomed my notes I would have been able to tell you exactly which 11 mummies are there, but, alas, I can’t. Each of these mummies, the names of all but one lost to the memory-rotting curse, are striking. By striking, I mean that you look at them and you are stricken—whap! On all but two, the wrapping has been removed from their faces, and I dare you to look into the mummified face of a 3,500-year-old king without suffering a moment’s pause. If you can do that—if you can look at the blackened faces of these mummies and then crack a joke and pop out for a quick bag of Fritos and a whiz, none the wiser and without a second thought, then … well, then you’re a shallow jerk and you’d best face up to the fact and live with it. They’re just lying there, sometimes with outstretched hands, their lips drawn back in deathly grins and their noses shriveled into their faces, wrappings hanging from their fragile fingers. Their teeth are white. They have toenails. They ruled one of the greatest nations on earth a thousand years before Rome was even imagined, hundreds of years before Helen caused such a ruckus with her pretty face and her thousand ships, and here they are, lying under glass, reaching up at you.
Of them all, though, the most impressive must be Ramses II; the great builder, the founder of the temple of Abu Simbel, the pharaoh to whom Moses sang “Let my people go” … The Man, in a nutshell. He’s lying in the Royal Mummy Room with his henna-dyed hair, his arm lifted in apparent supplication. He has a lingering look of determination on his face, despite the frogs and the locusts and the red, red blood flowing in the Nile.
You should save Ramses II for last, though. The way to do the mummy room is to turn right once you’ve entered. On the outside lane, check out the mummies along the edges, all of whom are impressive, all of whom shall remain by necessity nameless. Make your way in a counterclockwise direction around the room, examining one king after the other. If there are a lot of people in the museum that day, then there will inevitably be a hum of conversation that rises, rises, rises until a uniformed guard shouts “Hush!” in an attempt to restore some semblance of respect for all the dead kings. This causes the hum to subside (takes a few moments, as people realize he’s an official and he’s hushing them), but then the hum rises again until he shouts again … and so on. Kind of like waves on a beach.
I can tell you that the first mummy is appropriately hideous. If memory serves, he was killed violently, and it shows: a look of agony on his face and holes in his head. The next couple are fully wrapped, with dried plants adorning them yet. Then comes a series of other mummies, each with its own ghastly personality, and this brings you full circuit around the room. In the center, then, are two mummies, the second of which is our beloved Ramses II, his hand stretched out and his neck craning, wisps of light-colored hair around his head and a 3,000-year-old expression on his face. Be forewarned, though—show the utmost respect to these ancient kings, or you may find yourself cursed, forgetting your notes and struck with the insurmountable urge to write long, pointless, even aimless paragraphs that only end when an editor finally takes pity on you (much like a veterinarian kneeling next to a wounded horse) and cuts off your dispatch before you can