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Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

Unlike most scholars of the ancient world, Salima Ikram knows her subjects on an intimate, face-to-face basis. In this interview, Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, sheds light on why mummification was practiced in ancient Egypt, what the ancients thought the afterlife would be like, and why—of some 70 million mummies made—very few remain intact today.


wife of pharaoh

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Like most ancient Egyptians, this wife of a pharaoh died young. But her body was prepared for a glorious afterlife.
Courtesy University of Chicago Library. Please note: Black-and-white images of the mummies from the University of Chicago have been color-enhanced.

The allure of mummies

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NOVA: Why do you think people are so fascinated by mummies?

Salima Ikram: Part of it is, of course, all that horror movie business. The idea of the supernatural, which is very linked with ancient Egypt, attracts a lot of attention. And children love going to mummy galleries because they think, "Oooh, it's really creepy. They might jump up and get us!"

What's the allure of mummies for Egyptologists?

Well, I think one reason is very basic: here we are, studying Tuthmosis III, reading his words on temple walls, and you can actually look at him! You can see the man himself—his hair, his arms. It's quite amazing to look at the face of someone who lived so many thousands of years ago. It's quite thrilling.

There's also a lot that we can learn from mummies about ancient disease, medical practices, technology, health, diet, as well as religious beliefs. So we are filling in a huge amount of cultural and social history.

Rameses V
Rameses V reigned for only five years during the 20th Dynasty (c. 1196-1070 B.C.). He died in his early 30s, and a possible reason for his premature death is evident on his mummy, which is scarred on the face, neck, and chest by smallpox.
Courtesy University of Chicago Library

Is it fair to say that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death?

No. I think they were obsessed with life! They knew that the life they had on Earth was going to be of limited duration. Most Egyptians died by the time they were 40. So they wanted to have a better afterlife. What you see in the tombs is a really careful preparation for eternity, so that everyone would have a very good time.

What did they think the afterlife would be like?

It varied depending on whether you were royal or nonroyal. If you were nonroyal, you would have all the best things available in the Egypt that you lived in, with none of the nastiness. And if you were poor, you could come back much wealthier.

For kings, though, while they could enjoy all the best food and drink and entertainment, they also became one with the gods. They would sail across the sky with the sun god, Re, fighting against the powers of evil and darkness, trying to make the world safe for mankind and making sure that Egypt continued on forever.

What did they want in their tombs to take with them to the afterlife?

In both royal and nonroyal tombs, you get a lot of everyday items—all kinds of furniture, beds, chairs. There'd be jewelry, clothes, makeup, and lots and lots of food and wine and beer. In Tutankhamun's tomb, there's even one of his camping beds that folds up so he could take it when he was going out into the desert.

"Everyone wanted to be mummified as elaborately as possible. Of course, not everyone could afford an equal kind of afterworld."

Did they bury pets in their tombs?

Sometimes. Sometimes a dog is buried with a person, even in the same coffin. At other times, the animals outlived their owners, and so they were buried outside the tomb. We have baboons and other monkeys and even horses buried in the courtyard of their owners' tombs.

Did they also bury—even sacrifice—servants?

During the First Dynasty of Egypt [c. 2920-2900 B.C.*], you actually have servant burials. This was only done for kings. Some of the chosen servants would be put to death and buried around the king's tomb. These people were supposed to be very privileged, because they would have a super afterlife with the king and the sun god. After the First Dynasty, instead of killing off people, they would have images—statues of their servants. Or they would write down the names of the people who were to come join them in the afterlife.

Mummy feet
In high-end mummifications, toes were wrapped individually and sometimes even capped by gold sheaths to ensure they wouldn't break off. Here, the feet of the mummy thought to be Rameses I.
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation

Saving body and soul

Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify bodies?

According to their religion, when you died, your soul continued. But unlike in a lot of modern religions, your soul was not just a formless thing. It actually could animate a statue of the dead person, or much better, the body of the dead person. And that's why mummification took place, so that the body would be preserved to host the soul.

How do we know about the techniques they used?

People always talk about "the secret of mummification." And in a way, it's true, because the Egyptians never left behind an instruction manual telling us the step-by-step method of how you go about embalming someone.

Some of what we know about how people and animals were mummified comes from the fifth-century B.C. historian Herodotus, who wrote in detail about mummification. And, of course, you can learn a lot by looking at mummies themselves, and by doing chemical analyses on resins and other materials used in the embalming process.

Did the techniques vary over time?

Mummification lasted over 3,000 years, and over time, there were several developments. Also, during some periods, you could have two or three different kinds of mummification; it just depended on what style you chose or how much you wanted to spend. Sometimes people would be completely eviscerated, sometimes they wouldn't. In some instances, instead of making an evisceration cut and removing organs by hand, embalmers used an enema of juniper oil to dissolve the internal organs. So there was a vast variety of ways of mummifying people. [For details on how mummies were fashioned, see Making Mummies.]

Can you date a mummy by looking at it?

To some extent, it is possible. Obviously one can't always be 100 percent sure. But there are stylistic clues. Arm positions, where the embalming incision is, the size of the incision, what's used inside the body, if they stuff the body, if they don't stuff the body, if they gild the face, and details like that do tip one off.

"In the Victorian era, when anything neo-Gothic was cool, unwrapping mummies became very stylish."

Was everyone in ancient Egypt mummified?

Everyone wanted to be mummified as elaborately as possible and be put in nice tombs, so they could go to the afterworld. Now, of course, not everyone could afford an equal kind of afterworld. The elite got to have a very plush existence. And poorer people would probably compensate by having prayers and incantations said at the funeral that would speed them to a wonderful afterlife.

How many human mummies were made in ancient Egypt?

Some people estimate 70 million mummies, but I think that's an underestimate. Mummification was carried out in Egypt, as I mentioned, for over 3,000 years. I'm sure more human mummies were made during this time period. If you look at animal mummies, several hundred thousand mummies have been found even in one cemetery.

Raided mummies
Countless mummies have been destroyed by tomb raiders seeking treasures within their linen wrappings.
Courtesy University of Chicago Library

Where have all the mummies gone?

Where does the word "mummy" come from?

It comes from the Persian and Arabic words "mum" and "mumya," which describe wax or bitumen. Bitumen is this black substance that comes from the Mumya mountain in Persia. When Arabs saw mummies for the first time, they assumed that the black goo that covered them was mumya or mum, and so they called them "mumya." And that word then passed into European languages.

Were mummies actually made with bitumen?

Occasionally, from about 1100 B.C. onward, they were made using bitumen from the Red Sea coast. But most mummies are not made using bitumen; they're made using resins and oils.

However, unfortunately, bitumen was regarded as a medicine. And from the 12th century onwards, both in the Middle East and especially in Europe, mummies were ground up for the bitumen that they were supposedly made with and sold as medicine. There are a lot of Materia Medica books listing mummy as an important treatment for when you have problems with your joints, blood flow, and, indeed, longevity.

Mummies were used as medicine?

Medical recipes list "mummy" as an ingredient. It was even taken straight. King Francis I of France, in fact, took a pinch of mummy every day with rhubarb. And who says what's worse, rhubarb or mummy? He believed that it would make him stronger and invincible, and would stop assassins from killing him.

Did this notion that mummies made good medicine lead to a lot of them being destroyed?

Hundreds and thousands of mummies were destroyed for medicine. Others were burned as kindling or wood, because there aren't that many trees in Egypt. There are 19th-century accounts of travelers who say, "Oh, it's unseasonably cold and we've run out of wood, so we have to throw a mummy on the fire."

Amazing. And the Victorians also had "unwrapping" parties, didn't they?

Mummies were considered very Gothic. And in the Victorian era, when anything neo-Gothic was cool, unwrapping mummies became very stylish. So people would bring back or buy mummies from Egypt and have unwrapping parties. We have invitations saying, "Come to Lord Longsberry's at 2 p.m., Piccadilly, for the unwrapping of a mummy from Thebes. Champagne and canapés to follow." A lot of mummies were destroyed in that way.

"The whole point of an afterlife is to be remembered."

However, there were some people, such as a man called Thomas Pettigrew, who was later called Mummy Pettigrew. He was a trained medical doctor, and he did a lot of unwrappings to understand how mummies were made. In the 19th century, he published one of the first scholarly works on how mummies were produced.

Were many mummies destroyed in the search for amulets in their wrappings?

Yes. Lots of mummies were destroyed by robbers looking for gold and jewels on the bodies, and also the amulets. Heart scarabs attracted particular attention because a lot of tourists collected them, and tomb robbers knew where they would be located. So we often have mummies with big holes in their chests where the robbers took away the heart scarabs.

A great many mummies were lost because people didn't really think of them as artifacts, or even as human beings deserving of respect. They were regarded as merely the carriers of objects such as jewelry and amulets, and then later on they were seen as medicines or kindling or what have you. It's only very recently—in the past 40 years—that people have started to look at mummies in a different way and to treat them with respect.

Do you think we are now giving mummies, particularly the royal mummies, an afterlife of sorts?

Taking mummies out of tombs is disturbing their rest. On the other hand, if you put them in museums, take care of them, and remember to recite the name of the deceased, then they are, in fact, having the kind of afterlife they wanted, because the whole point of an afterlife is to be remembered. And they are now being remembered by everyone.

Salima Ikram
For Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo, mummies are a source of both information and inspiration: "It is quite remarkable to be able to touch the hand of a mummy, whether it's a king or not, and to try to envision the kind of life he or she led 3,000 or 4,000 years ago."
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation

Editor's Notes

*Editor's note: Dates are taken from the Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Mí¡lek. This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Mummy Who Would Be King.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.