enjoy telling people the Ramesses story,” says University President James W. Wagner who, along with other Atlanta and Emory officials came to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to see the mummy off on October 24. “It typifies Emory, with its unusual blend of research and ethical discourse. When I tell people that research helped determine the identity of the mummy as the grandfather of the Pharaoh in the Bible, they often respond, ‘What a gold mine for Emory.’ But Emory understood it to be a discovery for the world, which allowed us to do the right thing and return it to its homeland and people.”

As the Harmony International Youth Chorus sang, Carlos Museum Director Bonnie Speed signed over the royal mummy to Egyptian authorities.

“This moment will be engraved in history,” said Hawass. “This day, when this Pharaoh was returned home to be by his son and grandson. This is not a small gift from the Carlos Museum, Atlanta, and the people of America. This is a big gift.”

Prior to his journey, the mummy had been carefully packed by conservators to be able to withstand take-offs and landings. Resting on a rigid support board, he was surrounded with foam padding to cradle his head, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles, and placed in a nested crate system.

Carlos curator Betsy Teasley Trope, who accompanied the mummy to Paris and on to Cairo, was called onto the tarmac at Hartsfield to oversee the loading of the crate into the cargo hold of a Delta Air Lines jet. “That’s when I got sort of excited about the fact that we were returning him, and that this was a pretty special thing to be involved with,” Trope says. “The pilot announced on the flight that we were ‘traveling with royalty,’ and passengers were murmuring about it. When we got off in Cairo, the press was everywhere, waiting at the end of the runway, filming the crate as it was unloaded from the plane.”

Hawass flew with Trope and the mummy to Cairo and conducted interviews at the airport with National Geographic, NOVA, CNN, and the Arab media. Trope then joined Hawass’ staff for the drive to the Egyptian Museum. “Traffic was crazy. It was close to gridlock in a few places. The press cars were jockeying for position. Police were cutting off exits along the route.”

When they arrived at the museum, Trope saw a banner hanging over the entrance with Ramesses I’s profile emblazoned over images from his tomb as well as his cartouche (hieroglyphics of his name). The true excitement, she realized upon seeing the elaborate preparations, would be the next day at the press conference when the crate containing Ramesses I would be opened for everyone to see.

Joining Trope in Cairo for the royal mummy’s repatriation ceremony were the chair of the Carlos Museum board, Charles Ackerman, and his wife, Joanne; Carlos donor Jim Miller and his daughter, Lilly; Carlos museum director Speed, director of education Elizabeth Hornor, and curator Lacovara.

The American and Egyptian flags were both flying in front of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square as Emory’s delegation arrived at 9:30 a.m. Sunday. Already, lines of tourists encircled the famed museum, which houses some 120,000 items in its halls, including treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb and a dozen royal mummies.

Many of the well-preserved antiquities date back several thousand years; one of the museum’s oldest artifacts, the famous slate palette of King Narmer, is five thousand years old. The cool, quiet Mummy Room was especially fascinating to the Emory group, who lingered in front of the remains of Seti I and Ramesses II. Photographs of these mummies in profile hung in the Carlos Museum gallery as part of the Ramesses I exhibit for months to demonstrate the uncanny family resemblance.

A table had been set up near the front entrance for the press conference, and a crowd of dignitaries, Egyptologists, international and local reporters and photographers filled the area. Speed and Lacovara took their seats on either side of Hawass. As a military band played and children in traditional Egyptian dress sang, “Welcome Ramesses, the builder of esteemed Egypt,” the crate containing the royal mummy was brought down a carpeted path.

“Children in Atlanta will learn that, once upon a time, there was a king at the museum there,” Hawass said, as the crowd grew silent. “And they gave it back to Egypt, without any conditions. They will learn about love, and peace, and how people should live together.”

Hawass, who has for many years lobbied to have important antiquities returned to Egypt from around the world—especially the bust of Nefertiti in the Berlin Museum and the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum—said he hopes the return of the royal mummy will send a message to other museums to do the same. “These masterpieces should come to Egypt, home of everyone.”

Speaking on behalf of the Carlos Museum, Speed said it was “truly an honor to be here today. We decided the right thing to do was to return the mummy, which we are 95 percent sure is Ramesses I. Thank you to all in Atlanta who made the gift of this mummy possible.”

And then, with a blare of trumpets and a drum roll, the crowd stood—those in the back watching large video screens on either side of the room—and there was a crescendo of clapping and whistling as the top of the box was removed to give the first glimpse of the royal mummy.

Museum officials from both countries looked stricken when a horde of photographers surged around the crate, holding heavy cameras directly over the mummy to get the best shot. But Ramesses I came through unscathed, as he has so many times before.

That evening, the Emory delegation was invited to the American Embassy in Cairo for after-dinner drinks and conversation with Ambassador David Welch (left).

“This is a big deal,” said Welch, in his book-lined office, when asked about the return of Ramesses I. “This story is wonderful. It shows a generosity of spirit and a respect for other cultures that people here assumed was lost. Protecting the history and culture of this place is profoundly important.”

The return of Ramesses, unbidden and without expectation, Welch said, “has probably done more in the past two days for Egyptian-American relationships than has been done in the past several years.”

Giving antiquities back to their homeland is a controversial topic, and one that is heavily debated in museum circles. Edward H. Able Jr. ’67C, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums, based in Washington D.C., says an important factor in this case is that the artifact is a mummy.

“Human remains, whether Egyptian or Native American, are a class of objects all to themselves and have special significance both in law and in ethics,” he says. “There have been times when a museum has voluntarily chosen to return other types of objects to a country of origin, but that is handled on a case-by-case basis, whereas it is generally accepted in the museum community today that human remains deserve a more aggressive posture in repatriation.”

According to an agreement signed at an international world heritage convention in 1972, all artifacts illegally taken out of countries after that date must be returned. “Before that, things were very iffy,” says Susanne Thomas, associate director of the American Research Council of Egypt (ARCE), whose U.S. operations are based at Emory. “Quite a bit was removed in the late 1800s, pieces that are now in the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Louvre. Egyptian authorities see the Carlos Museum’s actions as an example of cooperation in helping to restore the country’s legacy to its original context.”

The Carlos Museum’s partnership with Egypt first made international news in May 2003, when it returned four painted limestone relief fragments also discovered in the Niagara Falls collection. The four fragments, recognized by Lacovara as part of Seti I’s tomb, were replaced as part of that tomb’s restoration. “That was one of the best moments we have ever had,” said Hawass. “To put back pieces that had been taken—that has never happened before.”

These gifts, Hawass said, have earned the Carlos Museum the opportunity to do more research in the country, cooperation in developing new exhibits and, perhaps in the future, a chance to host the treasures of King Tut when they again tour the United States.

Both Lacovara and Speed maintain that such favors didn’t factor into their decision to return Ramesses. “We did this because it was the right thing to do,” said Speed. “But repatriation is a very complex issue, and we decide what to do on a case-by-case basis.”

The royal mummy, Hawass announced, will be kept in Cairo until it is moved to its permanent home in Luxor, where it will be the centerpiece of a Luxor Museum exhibit on Egypt’s military history.

The Emory delegation was able to tour the Luxor Museum, as well as Ramesses I’s tomb, after flying up the Nile to what was once the thriving city of Thebes, where generations of pharaohs held court and kings’ statues, temples, and tombs are plentiful.

To pass through the Theban Hills on the way to the Valley of the Kings is to go back centuries in time, as donkeys pull carts along dirt paths and water buffalo graze beside irrigation canals watering sugar-cane fields. Low, flat houses made of baked mud bricks line the roadside.

The red hills are backlit by a cloudless sky so blue and clear that the contrast is startling, and the whole landscape—which brings to mind Utah or Arizona in its barren beauty—seems bleached by the fierce Egyptian sun. The sandy paths to the tombs are well marked, and bus loads of tourists pull up one after another.

As the Emory group stood in front of Ramesses I’s tomb (left), there was a palpable anticipation. Lacovara explained that due to his brief reign, the Pharaoh’s tomb is relatively small compared to the more elaborate, multi-chambered tombs such as Seti I’s. To this group, however, Ramesses I’s tomb is the motherlode, and they descended reverently into his original burial site.

“Does it look familiar?” asked Lacovara, standing in the dim burial chamber. Many of the wall paintings in the tomb were reproduced and placed on panels surrounding Ramesses I’s body while it was displayed at the Carlos Museum. One stunning section portrays the regal Pharaoh between the gods Anubis and Hariesis, leading the king into the presence of Osiris, god of the underworld.

Twenty-five-year-old Lilly Miller, whose family’s donation in large part made the purchase of the Niagara collection possible, was awed to be able to see the royal mummy’s tomb. Struck by the vivid shades of blue on the walls, she was amazed that such vibrancy had lasted thousands of years.

“But seeing the monumental sarcophagus with its beautiful stonework was what made made me realize the gravity of our trip,” Miller said later, reflecting on the experience from her home in Manhattan. “Ramesses I started out from that very spot, ended up in the Carlos Museum in Atlanta, and now had come full circle back to Egypt. I really felt honored to be part of an experience with such a profound purpose, and to be able to share it with my dad made it even better.”

New sites are being explored and uncovered by archeologists in Egypt almost daily, says Shaaban Abd El-Gowad, an Egyptologist who works with Hawass to preserve the country’s monuments and artifacts. What has been found, he says, is only a fraction of the treasures still buried in the sands.

On their last night in Luxor, El-Gowad and the Emory delegation gathered in the Howard Carter bar—named for the archeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb—at the Old Winter Palace Hotel. Toasts are made, impressions shared.

No one has had much rest, but there is a feeling of general contentment in the room. Across oceans and millennia, a Pharaoh has been returned. Good nights are exchanged. Softly, someone murmurs, “Sleep well.”



© 2004 Emory University