In the early 2000s, I spent a year working in the musty basement of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library of the American University in Cairo. The library was in an old Khedival villa at the corner of Sheikh Rihan and Mansour streets and its most prized possession was a copy of Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte, one of a handful of complete sets left in the world. In the afternoons I would sit at the library’s front desk, logging book requests and making sure that no one walked out with anything more than a few hundred years old. Those days were dull and monotonous, but they were occasionally brightened by the appearance of a handsome woman of small stature, draped in elaborate scarves of indeterminate origin and exuberant color, who taught a class on ancient Egypt on the second floor. Her name, I discovered, was Salima Ikram, a popular professor of Egyptology and Archaeology of Pakistani origin and extravagant British-inflected English. I would hear stories about her classes — the lengths she would go to transport her charges, imaginatively, to the Bronze Age, or to instruct them in the art of mummifying small animals. “These rabbits were destined to die, but now they will live for eternity,” she consoled her more squeamish students.
Ikram continues to teach courses on ancient Egypt — on its art and architecture, culture and society, and especially its practices of death and burial. While she is legendarily charming, Ikram is also known as a fearless and indefatigable researcher. At any given time, she is involved in investigations at over a dozen archaeological sites across the country, and is the co-founder and co-director of the Animal Mummy Project at the Egyptian Museum. Her list of accolades is long; the equally long list of her publications includes The Tomb in Ancient Egypt, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt, and Divine Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt. With Eden Unger Bowditch, she wrote the children’s book, Fun Things to Do with Dead Animals.
Negar Azimi: Where are you now? And what are you wearing, so I can summon up an image?
Salima Ikram: At this very moment I’m in a car on the West Bank of Luxor. We’ve just dropped off some team members at the ferry and we’re driving back to our hotel via a bookshop, or maktaba, where we’ll buy some plastic sleeves in which I can place my notes on KV10 and KV63. It’s getting late — the palm trees are looking very delightful, very festive, with colored lights wrapped around them, teeny-weeny blinking blue lights. As for what I’m wearing [laughs], I’m sporting a very grubby pair of trousers which are covered in tomb dust and also a sort of drab olive green shirt and my jacket with lots of pockets which has my tape measure, torch, magnifying glass, camera, pens, and all of that stuff. Oh, and my good luck scarf, which is yellow! You need a scarf in this line of work. It can be worn around the neck, on the head — all over really.
NA: How is Luxor these days? It must be a little deserted?
SI: For a very long time tourism completely vanished, but lately we’ve had a great number of Chinese visitors — that’s helped a bit. After the Russian event, the thing with the plane…
NA: I appreciate the euphemism. You mean the Russian passenger plane that went down in the Sinai in 2015?
SI: That one. Things became quite grim. Now things are much, much better. There are proper foreign tourists. Not so many Russians but a bunch of Chinese, as I said, bless them. A few Americans. Germans, Italians, and Swiss, too. People are coming back, so there’s a slight sense of restrained optimism in Luxor and on the West Bank.
NA: So for the uninitiated — what are KV10 and KV63? These are not robots, alas?
SI: KV10 and KV63 are tomb sites in the Valley of the Kings — hence KV. They were directed by the American Egyptologist Dr. Otto Schaden until his death in 2015, and I was his field director. This is the first year I’ve been completely in charge. KV10 — I think you’ll like this story — was built for the Nineteenth Dynasty ruler Amenmesse, who was not a particularly snazzy guy. But no one knows where he is, as there’s no evidence that he ever actually occupied his tomb. During the Twentieth Dynasty, two royal ladies named Takhat and Baketwernel moved in, hacked out his decoration, and painted their own beautiful faces all over the walls. We think those two are buried in there — we’ve found parts of their granite sarcophagi as well as the jars that hold their internal organs. But no trace of Amenmesse himself!
NA: What do we know about this ill-fated Amenmesse?
SI: We don’t know much. He was an inconsequential king who ruled for only three or four years. His name crops up in some texts, and a few images of him exist, but not much else. We aren’t even sure of his parentage. Some have argued that he was a usurper. We were hoping that his tomb would shed some light on all this, but no luck so far.
NA: What kind of style did the ladies bring to the tomb?
SI: Well, their decorations are painted in bright colors. It’s quite beautiful — the women are wearing their sheer linen garments, their cheeks are pink, they’re holding scepters and crowns and you can see little bits of images of gods and texts related to how one gets from this world to the next. Oh, and there’s a representation of the journey of the Sun God and his ultimate triumph over darkness — a parable of death and rebirth.
NA: Who were these ladies, anyway? Was this sort of… occupation… business as usual?
SI: Well, it’s unusual for the Valley of the Kings, to have two women totally take over a tomb and be so completely in charge. But there’s much that remains to be discovered. We know that Takhat was a royal wife and a royal daughter, but not much more about her or her partner in crime, Baketwernel. We’re struggling. There are at least four people with the name Takhat that we know of. I mean, Will the real Tahkat please stand up?
NA: So… were they buried together? Were they friends? Coup-plotters? Lovers?
SI: The speculation is endless. They could have been mother and daughter, sisters, wives of the same king. We have some evidence here and there, but as ever, each bit of evidence raises more questions.
NA: So not lovers. [Laughs] What about KV63?
SI: Well, KV63 was the first tomb to be found in the Valley of the Kings after Tutankhamun, which as you probably know was discovered in 1922 by the English archaeologist Howard Carter. KV63 was discovered in 2006. Except it didn’t turn out to be a burial site, after all. It looked like one — it was built like one. But no one was home…
NA: I read somewhere that a coffin found in KV63 was opened as cameras were rolling. But—
SI: Alas, no one was inside. I think many people were expecting an intact royal burial along the lines of Tutankhamun. You must remember that for almost eighty-five years nothing new had been found there, so there was this great drumroll. When you looked in the doorway, you could just smell the incense — it was an incredibly strong scent — and then you saw all these coffins and you couldn’t help but be struck by the enormity of it all. Oh my God, this is a group burial. But once we managed to get the coffins open all we found were embalming materials.
NA: So it was sort of a… storage unit?
SI: Exactly. We only wish we knew whose it was! Some evidence points to Tutankhamun. But it might also be the mysterious and enigmatic body buried in KV55. We really don’t know. It’s a beautiful mystery. We have 90 percent of the evidence. But the 10 percent we need to solve it is missing.
NA: Like the name of the king.
Si: Like the name of the king! People always ask Egyptologists why we keep digging. Isn’t everything found? Well, no, not at all. Every time you dip into the earth you find something new and amazing. With a turn of the trowel and a flick of the brush, suddenly all our ideas about ancient Egypt can be overturned.
NA: Salima, you seem to be at the center of so many recent discoveries in Egyptology. A cursory Google search of your name finds you equally at home in dense scholarly journals and… British tabloids. So naturally Bidoun’s enquiring mind wants to know about your revisionist theory about King Tut’s penis?
SI: Everyone likes that one because the modern mind is salacious — which tells you about the pathetic nature of the modern mind.
NA: [Blushes] Oh, yes. So… Tutankhamun was mummified with his penis at a ninety-degree angle, right? Can you tell me more about your take on the royal penis?
SI: Penises for the ancient Egyptians were important symbols of fertility. And fertility was literally the difference between life and death — if your land wasn’t fertile, you’d die. King Tut’s father, Akhenaten, had abandoned Egypt’s traditional polytheism in favor of the sun god Aten.
NA: See: Moses and Monotheism.
SI: Well, my theory was that Tutankhamun’s mummification was part of a complex symbolic effort to bring back the old gods. While Tut was alive, he was viewed as the manifestation of the god Horus; when he died, he — like all the other kings of Egypt — turned himself into Osiris. So he was mummified the way Osiris would be mummified. His body was probably blackened, like the black earth, the color of the silt when the Nile floods, and his penis was mummified in the erect position, which is how Osiris was shown — highly potent — the better to impregnate Isis. So Tut’s erect penis did double duty, ensuring the fertility of the Kingdom and restoring Egypt’s traditional mix of deities.
NA: Old school. You were also involved in the unearthing of a three-thousand-year-old statue of Ramses II in Cairo, right?
SI: Yes, in Matariya. Except after a bit of cleaning up it seems not to be Ramses after all.
NA: Oh no?
SI: Yes. We think it is King Psamtik of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. Which would be extraordinary, as we don’t have that many statues of that king, though we have bits of buildings dedicated by him.
NA: What was happening during the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty?
SI: Egypt had gone through a terrible time; there had been violent incursions by the Assyrians and Egypt was more or less a vassal of that empire. Then in 612 BC Nineveh fell, and with it the Assyrian Empire. So this was a period of transition and consolidation, amid harassment from traditional enemies like the Libyans and the Nubians. King Psamtik was keen on reviving the ancient cults and older forms of artistic expression, linking them to things that had happened two thousand years before, to generate national pride.
NA: Sounds familiar…
SI: Yes, we see this today. In fact, we see it all the time. Countries harking back to their ancient past. You know, in 2011, during the revolution, amid all the graffiti art, you’d find images drawn from ancient Egypt, like that one of Tutankhamun and Che Guevara. There was a mural in Tahrir which filled an entire wall with mourners in ancient Egyptian garb.
NA: So how did Psamtik end up in Matariya?
SI: Well, that area is built on the ruins of ancient site of Heliopolis, one of the most important cult centers in Egypt, if not the world. Heliopolis is where the world was created, the so-called mound of creation, where the Earth emerged from the ocean of Nun. The sun god Atum-Re dwells there. It’s quite an extraordinary place …
NA: How did they find the statue?
SI: The normal way. An Egyptian-German team directed by Ayman Ashmawy and Dietrich Raue had been excavating there for some years and they were clearing some stuff away one day and someone said, Look, doctor, the earth seems a bit different here! It was a chunk of quartzite, which turned out to be part of the statue. And they wound up with this extraordinary piece of Egyptian monumental sculpture. The conditions were very difficult but they successfully removed it from this glutinous, goopy, muddy matrix and managed to convey it to the Cairo Museum, where it’s on display. It goes to show how much is still buried — under the sands, in the mud, and so on.
NA: You were there for the exhumation. What was it like?
SI: There were so many people — too many people. I know the media needs to be there, but it was really like vultures descending. It’s very stressful for the archaeologists to do these things with a degree of professionalism. We were dealing with eleven meters of garbage, rising groundwater around one’s ankles — the stench was very strong. The stuff is embedded in this muddy matrix with not very salubrious items buried inside. And then to have all these people clamoring and shouting is not helpful. So there’s the smell, the heat, the flies, the muck, the sound of heavy machinery, the crowds of people. And the Egyptologists getting very stressed out. And you have to remember that this is happening in the middle of a densely populated residential neighborhood. Real people are living there, so there’s that familiar tension between the living and the dead.
NA: How do you mean?
SI: It’s everywhere. The pyramids are encircled by habitations now — completely encircled! Temples are being encircled — and the ground water is rising. The city of Aswan is growing in size and the sites are in danger. Elsewhere, people have been working in ancient quarries and we’re losing precious inscriptions.
NA: It’s interesting, this tension between the past and the present. It’s constitutive of your profession. I imagine it was particularly intense during the revolution, with all the looting…
SI: So much!
NA: Were you in Egypt at the time?
SI: I was. I was working with a Spanish team in Luxor, actually. Friends called and said, We’re going out onto the streets and we didn’t expect so many people to be out here! As things started to heat up, some of my colleagues left the country. I thought, Oh my God, I have to fly back to Cairo to protect my white husband! And it took a while to get back.
NA: You were afraid he might get looted?
SI: [Laughs] Or worse! But then of course the Egyptian Museum came under threat, too. I should say that before I flew back I noticed that ordinary people in Luxor were doing an extraordinary job of protecting the antiquities there. They created village patrols and so on, warned off potential looters. I finally managed to get back to Cairo a few days later.
NA: What was the scene at the museum like? Had the looting begun?
SI: Yeah. This was after the famous break-in. By the time I arrived, the army had managed to encircle the place. I still can’t believe that the break-in was anything but a staged event. I don’t see how protesters in the square would just happen to have had the necessary gear to be able to break in through the roof.
NA: You think it was an inside job?
SI: I don’t know what it was, but I don’t believe it was just random looters, out of control. It must have been a planned attack. Maybe people associated with dealers, or connected to the Powers That Be — you know, Let’s make the protesters look really bad. Or both…
NA: What do we know?
SI: As usual, the story is garbled and reports are contradictory, but… What seems to have happened is that people broke into the museum grounds and then used a back stairway to gain access to the roof. Then they broke through the skylights, lowering themselves using ropes or electrical cables.
NA: Like Spider Man?
SI: Like spider men. I mean, it’s all very weird. It’s 8-10 meters from the skylight to the floor — who has that much rope? Then the looters raced through the museum, sometimes smashing vitrines and at other times removed things only to leave them, intact, right next to the vitrine!
NA: Did they do a lot of damage?
SI: The most dramatic losses were on the lower floor. Mostly related to Akhenaten, Tut’s dad again, who is usually hailed as the first monotheist although that’s technically not true — he was more of a henotheist.
NA: Right. Wait, what?
SI: Henotheism. The worship of one god as more supreme than others.
NA: Akhenaten was sort of a hermaphrodite, too, right? He is so interesting-looking…
SI: And that is a whole other discussion. [Laughs] So anyway, there was one particularly iconic limestone statue of Akhenaten with his blue crown, holding an offering, which went missing. Though it was returned to the museum eventually, under slightly mysterious circumstances.
NA: Like, left at the door in swaddling clothes?
SI: You heard different things — that it turned up in a garbage can in Tahrir, or next to a lamp post.
NA: So they went after the henotheist. But weren’t there other things? The reporting at the time made it sound like a lot went missing.
SI: You know, the encasements the looters seem to have enjoyed the most were in the cafeteria — the ones with the ice cream.
SI: Yes. Mövenpick. I read somewhere that they yelled, Hey, have you tried this Mövenpick ice cream! It’s amazing!
NA: Having tried most of the ice cream in Cairo, I will confirm that Mövenpick is very good.
SI: It is very good, but not nearly as good as Mandarine Koueider’s zabadi wa toot!
NA: Yes! So wait, has a lot of the looted material been recovered?
SI: Quite a lot of it. But some pieces from the case featuring the Amarna period have vanished completely. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in a private collector’s house in the Gulf or wherever. The Amarna period is very popular, you know.
NA: I did not.
SI: So, yes. During and after the revolution we were spending a lot of time trying to protect dig sites and feeling completely ineffectual, especially at Abusir and Saqqara. Looters would go into storerooms and just break things, looking for treasure. They were expecting to find gold. All of those ancient tropes — literally thousands of years old, the gold of the Pharaohs and all that — are still alive. People don’t understand that archaeological treasures are pots and pans and glue and garbage. They destroyed things because they didn’t know what they were looking at. It was heartbreaking.
NA: Are we living in a new golden age of looting? It seems like it, given all the strife and disintegration in the region in the past decade or so — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Egypt…
SI: Yes, and Egypt is unfortunately a good staging post for illegal antiquities. There are places along the Mediterranean and the Red Sea that can be used to ferry objects to bigger boats. So you’ll find fragments of reliefs from Syria and Iraq and so on — cylinder seals, clay tablets, texts, figurines. Smaller items, which are easier to smuggle. But as for Egyptian antiquities, things are much better now. For a couple of years — from say 2011 to 2013, 2014 — things were just pouring out of the country. There was a huge flow of objects to Europe and North America. It was a dark moment. But I would say that the tide has been stemmed. After the Mallawi Museum was looted in Upper Egypt in 2013, the Sisi government really got on top of the situation and has made significant inroads in stopping this plague. Touch wood, yanni, but I think this current government has made a solid effort.
NA: Has Sisi regime’s been supportive of Egyptology more generally?
SI: Very much so. Sisi’s been pushing the agenda a great deal. Sometimes I think he’s pushing a little too hard, trying to get too much done too quickly. It’s interesting. The situation is not unlike the reign of Psamtik — hearkening back to the great past, emphasizing technological and artistic achievements. And it should be said, kicking out foreigners… After centuries of foreign domination by the Assyrians, the Nubians, and others, they were trying to reconstruct a fragmented country. Hence the appeal of the glorious past — a past that demonstrates that Egypt was once great and potent and strong, nationally and internationally. Sisi is doing what Egyptian rulers have done time and again. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. It’s all the same …
NA: Make Egypt great again! But what do you mean when you say that Sisi’s been pushing too hard?
SI: It’s like, Let’s make a new Suez Canal! Let’s build a new capital! Let’s build a new Egyptian Museum and move everything into it! They’re noble endeavors, but they take time to do correctly. I worry that if one goes too fast, things will be sacrificed. And in regard to the antiquities — these objects are too precious, to all of us. They need to be treated with care. What Sisi ought to be saying is, We can do it, and we could do it quickly, but we choose not to rush and to do it very well.
NA: So how does Sisi’s enthusiasm for things Egyptological manifest? Is there a vogue for gaudy Pharaonic-inflected contemporary architecture? Or…?
SI: Well, it’s always been gaudy — nothing new there. But a lot of the resonances are metaphorical or analogical. Large-scale building projects, for example. The cult of the leader, is another. There are photos of Sisi everywhere. This apotheosis of the ruler is an ancient phenomenon that has continued to the present day, particularly with military dictators of the Middle East. I guess it’s what works? In the 20th century you have printed images, billboards, and so on, showing respect and love for the ruler who might as well be a divinity.
NA: The Romans, too. I was just reading about the historical Jesus, and how the claim for Christ’s divinity is made at the same time that the Roman Empire is deifying Caesar Augustus. Anyway—
SI: Part of what’s interesting about the Pharaonic era is that it’s expressly non-denominational. The Pharaonic past can be invoked to justify and promote a secular Egyptian national identity. Historically, very different religious groups have flourished here — it’s a big part of why Egypt has been so successful over the millennia, because of this cocktail of humankind, bursting with ideas and creativity, not stultified by religion. All kinds of people were culturally welcome if they could adapt to the Egyptian way — Greeks and Persians, Assyrians, Nubians, Syrians, all living in Egypt and all being acculturated. Members of each group could rise in government, rise in society, intermarry…
NA: So I take it you would agree that ancient Egypt has lessons for Egypt today?
SI: So many! There’s definitely the celebration of the non-denominational — the ability to absorb people from all cultures and religions and to work to make Egypt stronger and better as a result of all this cross-pollination. And… perhaps we could be slightly more elegant? Have a better aesthetic, I mean.
NA: You don’t like the Egyptian fashion sense?
SI: One more thing! Very important! The ancient Egyptians didn’t believe in the word “impossible,” at least when it came to their ambitions. You want to create a mountain? No problem! There was no whingeing about how impossible things might be in ancient Egypt (well, maybe a bit!). There also a sense of social responsibility based on the idea of Maat, or balance. Each individual had a personal duty to contribute to maintaining the balance of the cosmos. When the balance is right, when the world is morally correct, the land will prosper. This was the most important thing, I think. It’s that sense of individual responsibility we’re missing so much today.
NA: And who is Sisi? I mean, who does he remind you of, historically speaking?
SI: All of them, I think — Mubarak and Sisi and so on, are a little bit Ramses II. Sisi might be even be Khufu, in the epic scale of his nationalistic agenda — projects that will showcase Egypt’s greatness to the world.
NA: So if Sisi is Everypharoah… who was Morsi? How did the Brotherhood deal with Egyptology? You’d think that they might have issues with the discipline for all the reasons you were talking about just now — especially its secular subtext or just, text? And which deploys the old gods against God or whatever…
SI: There wasn’t a backlash during the Morsi years. It’s odd. I mean, they had no special interest in it, unlike now, but no bias against it. You might have thought the Brotherhood would have had a special interest in Egypt’s Islamic past — that they would have shifted funding to Islamic antiquities, since there’s an abundance of those, as well. But no. It seemed like they just didn’t care. Though to be fair, they had a lot on their plate at the time…
NA: What is the national mood when it comes to Egyptology today?
SI: What’s really gratifying now, several years after the revolution, is that there’s been a surge in local interest in antiquities. More Egyptians are becoming genuinely interested in their history. It’s as if they suddenly realized that the past matters! These past few months I’ve watched Egyptian tourists come to Luxor and they say, Oh my God, we didn’t realize we had these amazing things. The Egyptians are trying to understand what astonishing people they’ve always been. It might even grow into a real understanding and appreciation of heritage. That’s one of the best things that could happen, because there’s been a disconnect. This interest could link contemporary Egypt in a coherent chain to its own past, and strengthen the country in ways we’re only beginning to imagine.
NA: Why do you think this is happening?
SI: It’s a middle class thing, I think. The wealthy will still go abroad. I have wealthy students who’ve been to the Louvre and the British Museum but have never seen any of the Egyptian sites! Of course when I meet a student who hasn’t been to the Egyptian Museum or the pyramids I drag them there immediately. At any rate, the government is promoting local tourism now. There are all kinds of deals. There’s also more television programs in Arabic — you know, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic — which sensitize people to heritage in general. And I suppose the events of the uprising also highlighted those issues, as well. At any rate, it’s a fabulous development.
NA: I was recently reading about the famous mummy unwrapping parties of Victorian times, which were part of a larger phenomenon of Egyptomania that eventually seeped into literature, visual arts, architecture, politics, and so on. The fascination people had! And continue to have…
SA: Completely. Of course, we have much gentler ways of unwrapping these days, by doing CT scans.
NA: What would one actually see, if one were to unwrap a mummy?
SI: A body! Modern CT machines can pass through each different layer of bandages, undressing the mummy a little at a time, noting amulets, linen packages, and what have you, till you get to the body. And if you want to keep going, you can see through the flesh down to the bone.
NA: Like a striptease. The least sexy striptease imaginable… But this is sort of a game-changer, no? I was reading about that Spanish company Factum Arte, who are working to prepare 3D facsimiles of iconic Egyptological sites, like the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb. A recent New Yorker piece on their work referred to their eerily precise scans as “hypnotically detailed.”
SI: You know I was one of Factum Arte’s Egyptologists eleven years ago — I have a long history with them. One of my former students is in charge of doing the scanning for them — I’m so proud of her! I think if Factum Arte’s technology can be broadly integrated into heritage practices, it could change everything. Don’t forget that a lot of these tombs will be sealed off eventually — the human presence is endangering them. Look at Lascaux or Alta Mira, both of which are closed off now. Visitors can engage with facsimiles. I’ve heard of a new program that allows you to take a picture of something in a museum, bring it to a 3D printer, and make you a copy! Not sure how good it is, yet, but…
NA: Your own private animal mummy!
SI: Coming soon…
NA: So could these new technologies finally resolve the postcolonial debates about heritage and cultural patrimony? If the British Museum could print very good facsimiles of the Elgin Marbles, couldn’t they just get it over with already and send the originals back to Athens?
SI: Well, the question is, do we really need them back? I mean obviously people want them for nationalistic purposes, but you can place facsimiles in their original contexts — temples or tombs and so on. Sometimes, given the kind of world we live in, I think it might be better to spread everybody’s cultural heritage around. With our Egyptian antiquities, in any case, you can make the case that these objects have been our best ambassadors, inspiring people to come here as tourists. Or even to devote their lives to studying them… [Laughs]
NA: Okay… but isn’t there anything you’d really like to see come back to Egypt?
SI: Well, I wouldn’t mind Nefertiti. [Laughs]
NA: How did you come to devote your life to ancient Egypt? Is there a primal scene, a moment that set you on the path to becoming a leading Egyptologist? From Pakistan, no less.
SI: I am the leading Egyptologist from Pakistan. I say that with all modesty, because I am the only Egyptologist from Pakistan. I’m an anomaly. It started with my parents. When I was seven I fell in love with the Minoans. I’d read about Theseus and the Minotaur in a book of ancient Greek tales, and I was very taken by them. Then, for my eighth birthday, I got a Time-Life book on ancient Egypt. I was mesmerized. I still liked the Minoans, but the Egyptians really took hold of my imagination.
NA: And then?
SI: My father was got a job at the World Bank in Washington DC and he said, Where do you want to go, on the way to America — Greece or Egypt? Of course I said, Egypt!
NA: How old were you?
SI: I was nine and a half. Or nine and three quarters, to be exact. So we went to the pyramids and my father and I went inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. I remember the smell as we entered the grand gallery. No matter how many times I’ve gone since, all those images are superseded in my brain by my nine-year-old memory. It smelled of disinfectant. It’s slightly creepy, and then suddenly the gallery opens up and there’s this extraordinary, awesome, soaring shaft and this big room with this big sarcophagus and we’re in the middle of a pyramid! A great king used to be buried here! It’s one of the most magical experiences. It still gives me shivers.
NA: Did you go to the Egyptian Museum on that trip?
SI: Yes we did. That’s where I met my best friends.
NA: Your best friends?
SI: I was going around the museum with my mouth hanging open and I almost bumped into these statues of a man and a woman. They didn’t have a glass case around them at the time, though there was a balustrade. Anyway he was painted reddish and she was painted whitish. I was in shock. In my mind, they were real ancient Egyptians who were still alive, and I apologized for almost running them down. I know! My mother was laughing. That was the moment that sealed my fate. I realized that this was where I wanted to be. This is who I want to be with.
NA: Who were the red and white figures?
SI: They are called Rahotep and Nofret and they’re from Meydum. He was probably the son of King Sneferu and she was not royal but elite. They’re just fantastic. They have these inlaid eyes that shine and look back at you, as if you’re sitting across from each other at a dinner party. They’re behind glass now, but they’re still my favorite people in the world.
NA: And then?
SI: [Laughs] Well, then there was Tutankhamun, upstairs. My parents told me he had been nine and a half when he became King and I was nine and three quarters and I thought we could have been best friends. He had this little chair and sandals and underwear from when he was a little boy. I mean, these are real people. They had lives and good things and bad things about them — there’s something so intimate about studying the ancient Egyptians.
NA: So then you studied Egyptology at university?
SI: Then I applied to colleges. I was interested in Bryn Mawr because they had a very good archaeological program. So I went, and my parents said, What will you major in? I said Egyptology and that’s when they said, No, no, no! We didn’t mean it. Can’t you be a doctor or a lawyer or study economics or something? My father kept saying, You’re Pakistani, you’ll have to be better than anyone else. No one will help you.
NA: You seem to have done all right for yourself! You did your graduate work at Cambridge in the UK, right? What was your dissertation about?
SI: Well, the title of my dissertation was, “Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt.”
NA: No! [Laughs] Although come to think of it, you did seem extra gleeful — and perhaps disturbingly knowledgeable — in one of your YouTube videos. The one where you demonstrate how to disembowel a sheep…?
SI: Oh yes. I mean, if all else fails, I’ll always have butchery. Or I guess I could work in a funeral home.
NA: Speaking of which, would you want to be mummified, yourself?
SI: Not particularly, although some of my students have graciously offered to do it for me. But if I were to be mummified, I would want a nice funerary stele, and I’d like to go down with my teddy bear, my stuffed bunny rabbit, lots of things to read, and possibly a good chunk of jewelry.
NA: When you say “stuffed bunny rabbit,” are you referring to a bunny mummy? You are the queen of the animal mummies, after all. I love that plaque in the Egyptian Museum — The Animal Mummies Would Like to Thank […] Salima Ikram.
SI: Not just me!
NA: But it’s fair to say that you have a special place in their hearts. Aren’t you a pioneering figure in animal-mummy studies?
SI: Well, I kind of had the field to myself. The last time anyone paid serious attention to animal mummies was 1902! So I guess you could say that I have lavished attention on them.
NA: Didn’t you also launch an international adoption agency for animal mummies?
SI: [Laughs] Yes. I mean, it was a fundraising and awareness campaign. Elementary school classes from all over the world adopted mummies.
NA: How did it work?
SI: When someone adopted one of our friends, we would send a certificate with a picture of their mummy and information about it. And a thank you card! The students got to learn about Egypt and death and mummification, and we used the money on conservation and study.
NA: So it’s like adopting penguins. Or impoverished children. But different, too. Do you think the ancient Egyptians had more respect for animals than we do now?
SI: That’s impossible to say, I think. I mean, look at the way some Americans treat their pets — the pooch is so spoiled. And the cat! Don’t get me started about the cat. The Egyptians were similar, to an extent, but they were also pragmatic people.
NA: What were animal mummies used for? Did they have a religious significance?
SI: Yes. For example, dogs often served as votive offerings. Instead of lighting a candle at a church, you would offer a dog mummy. Not just dogs. But this was typical of a particular moment in Egyptian history — say, 600 BC to around 200, 300 AD, into the Roman period — when common people had greater access to the divine and there was a sort of democratization of religion. There was greater intimacy between humans and gods, and animals acted as intermediaries between the two. This was also the time that the gods took on the forms of animals. It was a way of connecting the two worlds.
NA: Do you like live animals? Did you have pets growing up?
SI: I love looking at live animals. I had a pet snake in my youth …
NA: A snake!
SI: It was in college. I kept saying I would like to have a snake as a pet, and, I think during my sophomore year, my friend Ken said I have a present for you. He handed me this empty Tropicana juice bottle with a little mesh top and there was this snake inside. It was an Eastern Ribbon Garter snake. I named her Djet after the hieroglyph of a snake, meaning eternity, and my mother suggested Adolpha, after a snake in a Cary Grant film. She was so adorable; she had two red stripes along her side. She used to come with me to class — I would wrap her around my wrist and we would go to Greek Vase Painting.
NA: Would you say that snakes are your favorite animal?
SI: One of them! The other animal I really, really love is the elephant. I’m a big fan. During my senior year, on May Day, a friend and I hired a young elephant from New Jersey and rode into the parade on its back. It was as if I were at home, back in Pakistan…
NA: This was all at Bryn Mawr?
SI: Yeah. We were all a bit mad. Oh! I very much like crocodiles. As you might have noticed from my flat, I have a slight crocodile fetish. Baboons and monkeys of all kinds are also fascinating because they’re so close to humans, and yet at the same time they’re not. I found a baboon finger in the Valley of the Kings recently. I’ve found parts of another baboon since, so I think there might be more baboons buried in the Valley of the Kings yet to be found. I am thrilled! I think animals are extraordinary creatures.
NA: Are there snake mummies?
SI: Oh yes. I have to tell you about one of the nicest things that happened this year, at the end of the season. I was working with my Spanish colleagues in Luxor — this is the Proyecto Djehuty, directed by José Galán. It’s this huge complex of tombs from earlier periods that were repurposed in the Ptolemaic era. And there are all these different kinds of animals — raptors and other birds of prey, ibises. And among them were fifty-six gorgeous little snakes! It was like Christmas morning. They were wrapped in these cute egg-shaped bundles, ready to be hatched out and born again — forever.
NA: Did you name them all? I’ve heard rumors that you name your mummies?
SI: [Laughs] You know, if I were a good scientist I would follow protocol and give everything a number… but I am numerically dyslexic. Plus… I find the idea of giving the ancient Egyptians names like MUMMY 722A very dehumanizing — or shall we say, de-animalizing! I do name a lot of my animals. Recently I found a very well-preserved ibis mummy. I called him Handsome Herman.
NA: Do you find ancient Egypt more interesting than contemporary Egypt?
SI: [Laughs] A friend of mine always says, You think you live in the Bronze Age. I guess it’s because I spend so much time with the ancients. Eating and breathing and being with them. But I like contemporary Egypt, too.
NA: You don’t sound entirely convincing.
SI: Well, maybe I like rural Egypt more than urban Egypt? But I do like modern Egypt. I like most of post-Pharaonic Egypt. Although I have to admit — I do regret monotheism.
NA: [Laughs] That’s a lot to regret.
SI: I can see how it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it hasn’t really worked out, has it? It’s vastly more destructive than the alternatives —polytheism or what-have-you. It’s more conducive to wars…
NA: If you could go back to any historical period, when would it be? Who would you be?
SI: [Laughs] I know exactly where I would go. The Old Kingdom, circa 2500 BC. I would either like to be a fly on the wall or a member of the elite. Let’s be honest, being a peasant would be tough.
NA: What would your life be like?
SI: If I were an elite woman in the Old Kingdom, I would be looked after, the food would be good, the air would be good. I could probably read and write to some extent and interact with the leading minds of my time. I could see how the pyramids were built! And finally learn how many chambers were built into Khufu’s pyramid. Of course, I might die young, in childbirth.
NA: Would you rather be a man? Back then, I mean?
SI: I would have no problem being a man. Or even a sacred animal, as long as it’s a very large and attractive sacred animal. But then again — ideally? I’d be a fly on the wall. I could see everything.
NA: Why do you think people love the ancient Egyptians so much?
SI: You know, that’s a hard one. You can try to be rational about it and talk about the aesthetic appeal of the monumental architecture, the complicated religious belief system, and so on. But for some of us, it’s just a chemical thing. It’s like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Titania falls in love with Bottom, with his ass’s head. It’s powerful and compelling and inexplicable. There’s the mystery, the sense of eternity. I mean, I’m standing right now in front of the Colossi of Memnon and all of the tombs of Thebes are lit up and I feel that my heart and belly are connected to all of this.
NA: That’s amazing. Are there — speaking of mysteries — are there things that keep you up at night, as an Egyptologist? Things you’re dying to know?
SI: Well, I don’t sleep much, generally, so nothing really keeps me up. Or everything does? Anyway, one of the things that very much interests me is the question of how literally we should take what we see depicted on tomb walls. We rely on these depictions so much when we go about reconstructing how people went about living their lives. But what if they’re examples of a style or convention that we don’t know to recognize?
NA: What if these are idealized or exalted images of life?
NA: How would you even know? So wait, do you ever think about how people will look back on this period that we’re living through? How we will be remembered by the future Egyptologists or the robo-anthropologists or whomever — will they totally misinterpret our visual record?
SI: I think about it a lot. I worry about the digitization of culture — as a historian, I’m concerned about the lack of material history. Our records, visual and otherwise, all of our letters, our photographs, they’re all in digital space now. I fear that the main thing we will remembered for is our plastic bags.
SI. Exactly. Future anthropologists will distinguish between the different types of these People of the Bags — one-handled bag people and the two-handled; the people of the bags with writing on them; the flimsy bag people, and so on. What’ll be left of our entire culture is plastic.