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Walking Mummies : Ancient Story of Miracle in Egypt

“All the dead buried in this cemetery leave their tombs all day long, remain motionless and deprived of feelings in the eyes of all and, once solemnity is over, return to their graves. The phenomenon happens again every year and there is no adult in Cairo who is unaware of it. ”

Place and date of miracle vary

Thus in 1483, a European, B. De Breydenbach, reported for the first time the fantastic events that occur each year in a cemetery in Cairo. For three centuries, from the 15th to the 18th century, the miracle was regularly reported by western travelers. According to the times, its location changes. It passes from the right bank of the Nile, where it is located in the early days, to the left bank, where it takes place in the vicinity of the vast Pharaonic necropolises. The resurrected are Muslims, Christians or Egyptians of Antiquity. The date of the miracle varies almost as much as the location. In the 15th century, the resurrection was fixed on Good Friday, the anniversary of the death of Christ. Only the duration of the phenomenon changes. It can extend to the three days before Easter Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection of Christ, and sometimes even extend to the two or three weeks after Good Friday.

The dead visit the living, who do the fair!

According to European travelers, who observe the facts themselves or collect the accounts of Cairotes or compatriots, the bodies appear whole or in pieces: heads, hands, arms, legs, feet ... Body and limbs do not move : they suddenly arise from the ground, remain on the surface without moving for a moment, then are again engulfed by the sands.

To attend this “very admirable and appalling thing”, in the words of a traveler from the end of the 16th century, the public came in droves, all faiths mixed. Christians, Muslims and Jews, all are there to contemplate the miracle. Some pray, while others risk touching the bodies or limbs of the dead. Most, however, just watch.

The rally is not far from reminding that of a gigantic fair. It gives rise to great rejoicings. Part of the assistance stays overnight on site. Street vendors provide food and drink. We spend the evening singing.

God, the devil or ... the boatmen of the Nile?

It is not impossible that at the origin of the events reported for Good Friday, there was another miracle: the appearance of a light, on Holy Saturday, in an old Coptic or Christian cemetery, which foreshadowed the resurrection, Easter Sunday.

In Cairo, it is reported that the dead who leave their burial are skeptics who did not believe in the resurrection. To punish them or to give a warning to the living, God condemned them to indulge in these disturbing apparitions. Western travelers, meanwhile, see the event as a manifestation of the devil rather than an expression of divine will.

Some ill-turned minds or, more simply, rationalists express their doubts and speak of deception: according to these people, bodies and bones always appear when the observer has his back turned ... Some even argue that it was the Egyptian boatmen who stage the resurrections in order to bring the Nile to a large clientele ...

Egypt, homeland of the dead

From 3000 BC, Egypt affirms its belief in a future life. It thinks that the preservation of the human body in its integrity is essential to access this new existence. This is why it invents mummification.

The body, emptied of its viscera and of the brain, which are treated separately, is covered with natron - sodium carbonate -, which dries up the corpse. It is then coated with ointments and stuffed with fabrics before being wrapped in shrouds and linen strips. The poor, who cannot afford sophisticated embalming, are content with the natural mummification of the body due to its burial in the sands of the Egyptian desert.

This tradition, which never ceased to fascinate visitors to Egypt since Herodotus, in the 5th century BC, is probably not unrelated to the accreditation of the myth of the risen from Cairo.

The Corpse Eaters

While the Cairotees marvel at the corpses of their ancestors, Europeans, at the same time, did not hesitate to consume, as a remedy, the more or less dried up bodies of ancient mummies. This remedy, the “mummy”, arrives in apothecaries in three forms: pieces of corpse, blackish paste or powder obtained by consuming the bodies.

Some manufacturers, probably considering that looking for mummies is too tedious, find it much more convenient to use more accessible corpses for their sinister trade. The mummy is considered, at the end of the Middle Ages, as an effective remedy against all kinds of ailments among which the gastric pains and the wounds, and it is soon prescribed on any occasion. Francis I is one of its most famous consumers. He never travels without his mummy.

Trade remained flourishing until the end of the 17th century. At that time, in Egypt, manufacturers find themselves heavily taxed and cease their activity. Ambroise Paré, the great French surgeon of the second half of the 16th century, vehemently denounced the use of mummies in his writings. After trying to make his contemporaries understand that the ancient Egyptians did not embalm relatives and friends to facilitate their digestion problems, he insists that the remedy is worse than the disease and that it causes pain and vomiting.