The Modern (Pakistani) Queen of Ancient Egypt

In the land of the great Pharaohs’, under the shadow of the mighty pyramids, there lives a woman who seems to know every intricate details of every conspiracy that went on in the ruins of the magnificent palaces. You will see her on your TV screen, if you are a history buff, detailing the customs and routines of Ancient Egypt’s daily life…and death. Right from their traditions and scandals, she will explain the fine details of mummy making. She’s always intrigued me. Her accent was non Arabic. So I googled her and Lo and Behold, she is a Pakistani and from Lahore. Dr. Salima Ikram is an expert of mummification or Egyptian
funerary archaeology; she can speak on hours about the ancient Egyptian techniques of mummifying animals and humans. In her own words “It fascinates me as one learns not only of how they died and were buried, but also of how they lived and what they valued in their life”

Her command over her subject is fascinating. It is safe to say that if we have to somehow recreate this ancient civilization today, she would be one of the major architects.

I emailed her on behalf of ATP and she very graciously agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to talk to us. And when I am saying busy schedule, in her own words I am working on 12 excavations with other scholars and my own project that I direct in the North Kharga Oasis, as well as on 2 books. My most recent book, Ancient Egypt: An Introduction just came out today In addition she also teaches Egyptology and archaeology at the American University in Cairo. She is the correspondent for KMT, a popular Egyptological journal, a frequent contributor to Egypt Today, and the co-director of the North Kharga Oasis Survey. At the American University of Cairo, Ikram also teaches courses on ancient Egyptian history, culture and society, food and drink, and art and architecture, as well as archaeological methods and theories. “Ancient Egypt is part of our common heritage,” she says. “We need to present Egyptian history and culture in a way that is easily understandable to everyone, focusing on their humanity.”

I asked her about her childhood and how she became interested in this subject.  “I was born in Lahore, in the shadow of the Badshahi Mosque. I became interested in ancient Egypt when my parents gave the Time-Life book of Ancient Egypt as an 8th Birthday present. When I was 9 I visited Egypt. I fell in love with the place and the subject after I saw the twin statues of Rahotep
and Nofret, and Tutankhamun’s treasures. As my father was working on the
Egyptian economy we visited Egypt frequently and I got to see more and more of
the country and its treasures. When I chose to follow the path of Egyptology, my parents were very concerned as they feared that I would not be employed ever. However, they were delighted when I found a job. It is worth mentioning over here that her father Khalid Ikram was a renowned Pakistani Economist who advised the Egyptian government on economic issues.

She pursued Egyptology and Archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, USA, where she earned an A.B. in Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology and History. She went on to earn her M.Phil. and Ph.D. from Cambridge University in Egyptology and Museum Studies. During the course of her Ph.D. she also trained in faunal analysis.
A woman working in a traditional Arab society in a field
dominated by male must have been a big challenge. On this she says “As a Pakistani woman it is in some ways easier to work in Egypt than if I were otherwise. There is some challenge being a woman in what was a male dominated field, but on the whole it is not too difficult. In Egypt many women work in Egyptology and are not stopped in this path.

She is also the founder and co-director of the Animal Mummyproject at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; she has emerged as one of the leading scholars in Egyptian funerary archaeology.
Combining an interest in and understanding of the past with a passion of preserving it for the future, she has brought the little known world of animal mummies to light. Her series of books include a line of children’s books and three authoritative works – “Divine Creatures,” “The Mummy in Ancient Egypt,” and “Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt.” Her TV credits include “Da Vinci Code: Decoded” (Channel 4 UK), “Tomb Raiders: Robbing the Dead” (History Channel) and “The Real Scorpion King” (History Channel). However her animal mummy project is worth a special mention. She raised funds for safeguarding and analysing these animal
mummies by encouraging Egyptians to a mummy. She has been delighted by the response “I raised a good amount of money from the adopt-a-mummy project for the animal mummies. It helped fund the project which has now reached completion

In all, says Dr. Ikram, there were four kinds of animal mummies: “sacred animals, which were
worshiped; votive animals, given as offerings to the gods, sort of like votive candles; pets; and food offerings to provide food for eternity.” Common household pets included cats, dogs, monkeys, gazelles and birds. X rays will help determine whether most pets were killed when their owners died or placed in their owners’ tombs after a natural death.

X rays will also help determine the religious beliefs of ancient Egyptians. For example, there is
considerable debate about the god Anubis, and whether ancient Egyptians most closely identified him with a dog, wolf, jackal or fox; X-raying Anubis’s votive mummies will reveal which animal the ancient Egyptians offered to him most often. Ikram also hopes that the Animal Mummy Project will shed light on the veterinary practices and mummification techniques of ancient Egyptians.

Ikram says controlled tourism and the education of tourists are key to “preserving the heritage of ancient Egypt for posterity, as the increase in tourism, together with the rising population and its associated pollutants, are very destructive to antiquities all over the world.”

So what to expect next, what are the secrets they are trying to uncover now. “We are working on a variety of projects that will help us learn about the Egyptian royal family and its interrelations, how technology was used in mummification where the Egyptians traded to obtain the materials for mummifying the dead, trying to find out routes that were being explored by the Egyptians as they plotted the continent of Africa, even details of daily life of the ancient Egyptians”.

On the state of archaeology in Pakistan, her opinion wasArchaeology in Pakistan is varied. Unfortunately there is less emphasis on excavations of the pre-Islamic period right now. Pakistan has an extremely rich cultural heritage from the Prehistoric (Neolithic and earlier)
period onward. We need to work in a clear and scientific way to document all parts of our past so that we can trace our history to the present day. Unfortunately the temper of the times means that it is difficult to work in certain places and also that we cannot use our history not only to inform our citizens of our rich and varied past, but also cannot exploit it for tourism.
In the future it would be wonderful if we could do both

She is among a few Pakistani women who has gone far and beyond our traditional definitions and has made the country proud. She provides the following words to her fellow country women. “If a Pakistani woman wants to do something, then she should. There is really nothing to stop her. From the time of my grandmother onward, women in my family have been following their very independent paths. One needs to be sure of what one wants and the way of pursuing that goal with the highest degree of professionalism.”


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