A hairy tale for Ramses II
After 30 years in France, some stray locks of the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II's hair are back where they belong. Nevine El-Aref attended a press conference marking an extraordinary homecoming
There was excitement at the Egyptian Museum on Tuesday when dozens of Egyptian and foreign journalists and photographers crowded on the first floor to view a small plexi-glass showcase in hall number 39. In the case was a lock of hair from one of the most famous heads of all time -- that of Ramses II.
The hair is now on display along with remains of linen bandages and resin used in the mummification of the great ruler. The case also contains samples from the mummy of Ramses's son and heir, Meneptah .
The objects came to light last November when they were put up for sale on the Internet for 200 euros by a French citizen who claimed he had inherited the relics from his father, a member of the scientific team that examined the mummy of Ramses II in France in 1976.
The French scientists asked if they could take Meneptah's mummy to France for research, but the Egyptian authorities rejected their request. However they allowed samples to be removed from the Egyptian Museum to Paris. It appears that samples of both mummies came into the possession of the Frenchman involved when he concealed and kept them.
No one knew about the objects until early last month when Jean-Michel Diebolt, a 50-year-old postman living in the Alpine region of France, advertised the samples online. This prompted a storm of outrage from Egypt, which is particularly sensitive about any pilfering of its heritage.
Diebolt, who was briefly arrested by the French police, said the samples came into his possession via his late father, one of the team of French scientists charged with analysing the royal mummy 30 years ago. During the analysis the French physician took 41 samples from the mummies of Meneptah and Ramses II.
In collaboration with the Egyptian Embassy in Paris and the French authorities, Egypt succeeded in recovering the hair samples belonging to Ramses II and Meneptah, as well as resin and linen wrappings. Early last week Egyptologist Ahmed Saleh, director of the archaeological site at Mit Rahina, 30km south of the Giza Plateau, travelled to Paris to pick up the objects, which are now back in the possession of the Egyptian Museum.
At the press conference Culture Minister Farouk Hosni expressed his delight at the return of the fragments of Ramses II and Meneptah's hair, which will now be exhibited alongside the mummies in a special display at the Royal Mummies Hall on the Egyptian Museum's second floor. Panels describing the results of the treatment undertaken on the mummy in 1976 in France will also be on display.
Hosni told reporters that the return of the samples reflected the strong relationship between France and Egypt. It also reflected Egypt's strategy and devotion to the return of its heritage, much of which has been illegally smuggled out of the country over the years.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) said he could not tell whether or not the samples were taken out of Egypt legally, but he was sure that keeping any samples in private possession and putting them up for sale on the Internet was illegal.
Hawass said the samples were taken from both mummies for scientific purposes and not for any other reason, and that action would be taken to avoid similar thefts in the future. "From now on all scientific research and studies carried out on ancient Egyptian mummies will be executed by Egyptian Egyptologists or under complete surveillance by Egyptians," he announced.
He claimed that the recovered locks of hair, the linen wrapping and the resin would be examined by Egyptian scientists and Egyptologists.
The mummy of Ramses II, who reigned from 1304 to 1237 BC, was discovered in 1881 among a group of royal mummies that had been removed from their original tombs for fear of theft. Priests of the 21st Dynasty (1081-931 BC) had reburied them in a cache at Deir Al-Bahari on Luxor's west bank. The mummies from this cache are now exhibited at the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Meneptah's mummy was found in 1898 inside the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35) in the Valley of the Kings, also on Luxor's west bank.
Hosni highlighted efforts by the Ministry of Culture and the SCA to pursue ancient objects offered for sale on the Internet until they were returned to their homeland.
"Every Egyptian dreams of recovering all the pieces that have been illegally smuggled out of the country, and today I am very pleased to witness another success on that front," Hosni announced. "Despite its tiny size, Ramses II's hair is priceless and forthcoming generations would never forgive us if we neglect its return."
Referring to the rumour that Ramses II was the pharaoh of the biblical Exodus, Hosni described it as "far fetched". He said that when he was the Egyptian cultural attaché in Paris in 1976 he had attended an exhibition about Ramses II in the Grand Palais entitled "Ramses II, Pharaoh of the Exodus". Such a title, he continued, had triggered the anger of French scientists and Egyptologists, especially the scientist Morris Bokay who carried out the analyses of Ramses II's mummy. Hosni told reporters that Bokay had told him Ramses II could not have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus of Moses for two reasons: first he died of a severe toothache, as he was suffering from an infected tumour in one of his teeth. Second, Ramses II was a 90-year- old king with a bent back, which would have prevented him from chasing after Moses and his followers.
During his tenure as Egypt's cultural attaché Hosni refused to allow the Israeli defence chief Moshe Dayan to visit Ramses II's mummy in Paris.