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Why Egypt Paraded 22 Ancient Pharaohs Through the Streets of Cairo

Officials organized the lavish, made-for-TV event in hopes of revitalizing the country’s tourism industry

Egyptian officials moved 22 mummies—including 18 kings and 4 queens—to the newly opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. (Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP via Getty Images)
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Last Saturday, 22 Egyptian mummies joined the living for an extravagant celebration in downtown Cairo. Dubbed the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade, the livestreamed procession featured the relocation of 18 ancient kings and 4 queens from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the newly opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC).

Wael Hussein of BBC News reports that the mummies had transportation fit for a king (and, in this case, queen): Each ruler was placed in an oxygen-free, nitrogen-filled container and carried on a boat-like vehicle equipped with shock-absorbing material. As Mostafa Ismail, head of conservation at NMEC’s Mummies Conservation Lab and Storeroom, tells CNN’s Alaa Elassar and Sarah-Grace Mankarious, the specially created capsules protected the fragile mummies “from the effects of humidity, especially … bacteria, fungi and insects.”

The decorated carriages were designed to resemble the boats used to transport ancient Egyptian pharaohs to their tombs upon their deaths. Per the New York Times’ Mona El-Naggar, the 45-minute procession—a “made-for-TV spectacle” organized in hopes of revitalizing the country’s tourism industry—sought to highlight Egypt’s rich history, with hundreds of participants wearing traditional outfits and some performers even riding on horse-drawn chariots.

Archaeologist Nigel Hetherington, who watched the broadcast from Cumbria, England, deemed the event “absolutely amazing.”

“When these mummies were moved to the museum in the first place after their discovery [in the late 1800s], of course we’ve got photographs and the rest of it, but it’s not the same as actually witnessing,” he tells Al Jazeera. “It’s truly a momentous occasion.”

The 22 pharaohs appeared in chronological order, with Seqenenre-Taa-II, a ruler who likely suffered a gruesome death on the battlefield in the 16th century B.C., leading the procession. The golden line-up also included well-known figures like Ramses II, dubbed Rameses the Great for leading Egypt into prosperity during the 13th century B.C., and Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few women to rule ancient Egypt in her own right. The parade closed with 12th-century B.C. pharaoh Ramses IX.

The multimillion-dollar move to the NMEC marked the culmination of months of preparation and promotion. According to CBS News’ Ahmed Shawkat, 20 of the mummies will be displayed at the new museum, while 2 will be placed in storage.

“In a way, people are very proud of what they are seeing,” says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, to Al Jazeera. “So although there was great expense, I think the return may be quite good in the long run.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi inaugurated the museum’s main hall a few hours before the mummies’ arrival. The NMEC, an enormous, state-of-the-art facility established with support from Unesco, opened to visitors the following day.

The rulers themselves will undergo 15 days of laboratory restoration before making their public debut on April 18. Per CNN, the mummies will be displayed in cases with enhanced temperature and humidity control.

The mummies were transported in boat-like vehicles that emulated the vessels used to convey ancient Egyptian pharaohs to their tombs. (Photo by Jonathan Rashad / Getty Images)

Writing on Twitter, Sisi praised the parade as “new evidence of the greatness of this people, the guardian of this unique civilization extending into the depths of history.”

Locals, however, shared a different view of the spectacle: As the Times points out, some Cairo residents who attempted to attend the event were turned away by security. The government also erected barriers throughout the city to prevent virtual viewers from catching a glimpse of impoverished areas along the parade route.

“There is a tendency to try to show a better picture instead of fixing the existing reality,” urban planner Ahmed Zaazaa tells the Times. “The government says they are making reforms, but the vast majority of people in Cairo who live in working-class neighborhoods are excluded.”

Egypt’s tourism industry has shrunk in recent years due to political conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Reuters, the number of tourists who visited the country dropped from 13.1 million in 2019 to 3.5 million in 2020.

In addition to organizing the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade, the Egyptian government has sought to attract visitors by unveiling a spate of archaeological findings. Recently announced discoveries include a 2,000-year-old mummy with a gold tongue, an Egyptian queen’s ornate tomb and traces of an early Christian community.

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