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Curse or no curse, Cairo's mummy parade goes smoothly

Cairo's procession of royal mummies roused national pride among Egyptians, though observers warned that disturbing the dead may have unleashed the "curse of the pharaohs."
The carriages carrying 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies depart from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo's Tahrir Square on April 3, 2021, during a parade on their way to their new resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Old Cairo.

All was pomp and pageantry as 22 royal mummies — 18 kings and four queens — paraded through the streets of Cairo on the evening of April 3 to their final resting place at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, located where the ancient capital of El Fustat once stood in Old Cairo overlooking Ain El Seera Lake.

The remains of the pharaohs had been showcased in a gallery at the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square, transported there from the Valley of the Kings on the Nile's West Bank near Luxor more than a century ago.

Excitement had been building for months ahead of the lavish multi-million-dollar relocation ceremony. When the day finally came, families huddled around their TV sets to watch the live broadcast and were not disappointed. To many Egyptians, the fanfare was a reminder of their glorious ancient heritage and a distraction from the harsh realities of their daily lives.

Watching their royal ancestors make the theatrical five-kilometer (three-mile) 40-minute journey from downtown Cairo to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in nitrogen-filled glass capsules, many enthralled Egyptians proudly shared images of the royal procession on social media using the Arabic hashtag #egypt_dazzles_the_world.

The extravaganza featured artists in Pharaonic costume, an orchestra and a host of celebrities including some of the country's top musicians. But even they could not steal the limelight from the real stars: the kings and queens who reigned more than 3,000 years ago. 

Among them was Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few and by far the most successful women pharaohs to rule Egypt (1479 to 1458); Seti the First of the New Kingdom (19th Dynasty) and one of Egypt's best preserved mummies; and his son Ramses the Second (also known as Ramses the Great), who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BC and is best known for the buildings he commissioned and the new capital he constructed in the Nile Delta.

Ironically, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who received the mummies on arrival to their new resting place, himself has constructed a new capital 45 kilometers (28 miles) east of Cairo. A few minutes after the gala procession started, Sisi tweeted, “This majestic scene is new evidence of the greatness of the [Egyptian] people, the guardians of this unique civilization that dates back to the depths of history."

He added, "I Invite all Egyptians and the whole world to follow this unique event, inspired by the spirit of our great ancestors, who preserved the homeland and created a civilization of which mankind is proud, to continue the path of construction and humanity that we started."

Cairo hopes the bedazzling spectacle will lure tourists back to Egypt after the harsh blow to the tourism industry dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism, Egypt's main foreign currency earner, had been thriving when the pandemic hit, causing the number of visitors to plummet to 3.5 million last year from the previous year's 13.1 million. 

In a video message posted to Facebook April 2, former Minister of Antiquities and egyptologist Zahi Hawas exhorted Egyptians to watch the parade, promising them it would be filled with "magic" and "thrills." Hawas told CNN that the procession was meant to send a message to the world that "Egypt is safe" and that "we need people to come back." 

But some were concerned that disturbing the dead may have unleashed the "curse of the pharaohs." Cracking morbid jokes on social media, some superstitious Egyptians linked the parade to a string of disasters that have struck Egypt in recent weeks including a deadly train crash March 26 in the southern Egyptian governorate of Sohag that claimed the lives of at least 19 people and a building collapse in Cairo's Gesr El Suez district the following day that left 18 people dead. Investigations into the tragic incidents are underway. Train accidents are not uncommon in Egypt, given the country's dilapidated railway system, nor are building collapses, thanks to illegal construction and developers who fail to comply with building regulations.

There was a third calamity: a rare blockage of the Suez Canal, one of the world's busiest waterways, the shipping artery connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean has been blocked five times since its opening in 1869, when Egypt was under Ottoman rule.

A giant container ship, the Ever Given, bound for the Netherlands from China and sailing under a Panamanian flag, ran aground March 23, reportedly due to high winds. The vessel remained wedged across the waterway for six days, blocking the passage of other ships from both directions and bringing trade to a standstill. The blockage cost Egypt between $12 and $15 million a day, according to head of the Suez Canal Authority Osama Rabei, in addition to the cost of the salvage operation, prompting Cairo to seek $1 billion in compensation for the losses the country incurred.

The myth surrounding the curse of the pharaohs dates back to the 1923 death of Lord Carnarvon, who funded the excavation led by British archaeologist Howard Carter in the burial chamber of King Tutankhamen and died a few weeks after ceremoniously opening the tomb with Carter. The tomb, which had been intact when Carter discovered it, reportedly bore a warning on its walls. 

"Death will come on quick wings for those who disturb the king's peace," the warning read, according to some reports that skeptics have described as "sensational."

While Carnarvon's death was in fact caused by an infected mosquito bite, speculation that a curse ended his life was fueled by the premature deaths of other members in Carter's expedition due to accidents and other causes.

Egyptian archaeologists, however, insisted there was no truth to the myth. "There is no such curse," Hawas said in a telephone interview with TV talk show host Lamis Al Hadidi on her ON TV show "The Final Word" on the eve of the parade. Hawas argued that some of the archaeologists' deaths may have been caused by exposure to harmful bacteria that often builds up on the walls of the tombs.

Historian Bassam El Shamaa also rejected the rumor as "simply untrue." He told Al-Monitor that inscriptions and drawings on the walls of Pharaonic tombs and temples often reflect ideas and like all art, combine reality and the imaginary world. 

He added, "It was Hussein Abdel Rasool, a young water bearer from Luxor’s west bank, who first stumbled upon an opening to King Tut's burial chamber. He lived to a ripe old age. If the rumors were true, he would have instantly died."

Egyptologist Monica Hanna agreed.

"What curse?" she asked, laughing. "I have excavated dozens of tombs and it hasn't harmed me in any way," she told Al-Monitor. 

"The pharaohs are a blessing; they make us proud every day," Hanna said. 

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