This mummy, bearer of very visible traumas, did not arouse disgust or terror in me, but rather a profound tenderness. To be inside this room in the company of the great kings of ancient Egypt, it must be the body of a personality of royal lineage. A king, a god on earth, but also a mortal man who once reigned over this great country and who now tries to find rest in a room where everyone stares at him for his features. Who is this mysterious pharaoh showing signs of a savage attack?
Mummy of Pharaoh Seqenenra Tao, Royal Mummies Hall – Egyptian Museum Cairo
His name is Seqenenra Tao, a pharaoh of the 17th dynasty who lived between 1595-1545 BC. Archaeologists state with certainty that this little-known king reigned over Theban territory for a short time. Unlike other pharaohs who were mentioned in ancient texts or who left imposing monuments to describe their power, we have very few testimonies of Seqenenra. The only clues we have about the mysterious pharaoh are his cartouche on the lid of the sarcophagus, two engravings of his name found in Luxor and his mummy. Precisely from the latter, archaeologists attempted (and are still attempting) to reconstruct his life. His body, together with another fifty real and non-real mummies, was found in an underground tunnel in 1881 by the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero in ”collaboration” with the infamous Rassul brothers, professional grave robbers.
The archaeologist Gaston Maspero
According to testimonies, it was a goat that indicated to the Rassul the place of access to the tunnel: the sheep fell into a crevasse and one of the three brothers, lowering himself to recover it, discovered a passage to what proved to be a burial place of many mummies. The brothers kept the secret so they could have time to check if there was anything to steal and, to mislead the inhabitants of the area, they invented that that fissure in the ground was cursed. The expedient worked with the local Bedouins, but not with the Europeans. The Egyptian Antiquities Department sent a spy to the site and had the brothers arrested to begin a serious and smooth archaeological investigation on those precious finds found in the crevasse. One of the three brothers confessed and told Maspero’s assistant the location where the mummies were found. The Egyptologist wasted no time and immediately began the excavations. This tomb, known as DB320, is located in Deir el-Bahari and is one of the greatest discoveries in ancient Thebes. Here were, among many, also the bodies of Seti I and Ramesses II.
Ahmed Abd wl-Rassul photographed in 1902 at the entrance to tomb DB320, Deir el Bahari – Luxor (photo narmer.pl)
Following that period around 1400 BC, known as the ”Year of the Hyenas”, marked by disastrous events such as the civil war linked to the figure of the priest Amenhotep, the famine and the strike of the workers of the Theban necropolis, many grave robbers definitively plundered the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. For this reason, the priests decided to move the royal mummies from the valley to place them in Deir el-Bahari, a safer place sheltered by the imposing limestone mountains. When Maspero entered the secret tunnel in 1881, he found himself faced with many mummies, but one caught his attention. It was the body of Pharaoh Seqenenra.
On June 9, 1886, when Maspero removed the bandages from the body, he was attacked by a nauseating odor. It was immediately clear that the mummification had taken place hastily and incompletely, given that the mummies usually smelled of resin and spices. Analyzing the skull, he noticed several brutal wounds: a horizontal cut in the frontal bone of approximately 63 mm, an open frontotemporal wound 31 mm long, a violent trauma with fracture of the nasal bones with destruction of the right orbit and another laceration occurred behind the left ear. Furthermore, he noticed that the ribcage had been crushed due to the haste of the embalmers and that, inside the limbs, there were remains of dead larvae. He described his observations of him in these words: «It is not known whether he fell on the battlefield or whether he was the victim of some plot; the appearance of his mummy proves that he died a violent death around the age of forty. Two or three men, assassins or soldiers, must have surrounded him and killed him before anyone could help him. A blow from the ax must have severed part of his left cheek, exposed his teeth, fractured his jaw and made him fall to the ground unconscious; another blow must have seriously damaged the skull, and a dagger or javelin cut and opened the forehead a little above the eye. His body must have remained for some time where he had fallen. Once found, decomposition had already begun and mummification had to be carried out quickly, as best as possible.”
In 1902, the first real autopsy was carried out on the body by the Australian anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith. In his report he revealed that there was a total absence of wounds on the arms or any other part of the king’s body, except the skull. Quite unusually, Smith commented, no attempt had been made to put the body in the traditional royal pose – arms crossed over the chest – and the king’s heart had been removed. Not only. The brain was still present inside the skullcap and his body had not been treated with natron, the hydrated sodium carbonate, traditionally used to dry the body by expelling fluids. All incorrect procedures, given that the brain was considered a secondary organ, while the heart was the seat of emotions and intellect. He too argued that to have received such treatment and to show signs of such violent wounds, the king must necessarily have died on the battlefield. The discovery of a papyrus has helped contemporary archaeologists shed light on the historical events of the time of Seqenenra Tao.
Papyrus Sallier I (photo egiptologia.com)
At that time, Egypt was in the grip of invading foreign peoples, known as Hyksos. Hyksos, the Greek version of the ancient Egyptian hekau khasut, ”princes of foreign countries”, was the name used to designate the Asian leaders, of Mesopotamian origin, who took power in the Nile Delta and on the coasts of the Mediterranean during the period between 1650 and 1550 BC. The invaders, led by King Apopi, had established their capital in the north of the country, in Avaris, while from the south other peoples threatened Thebes, the only city remaining under the control of Seqenenra Tao. According to what was written in the Sallier I papyrus, Egypt had fallen province by province under the control of Apopi, king of the Hyksos, to whom each provincial leader was obliged to pay a monetary contribution, thus creating huge economic losses and political fractures that were difficult to heal . The superiority of the Hyksos was evident, not only from a political and strategic point of view, but also at the level of war technologies. It has been ascertained that the Hyksos outclassed the Egyptians in terms of technology and military capacity: they had the chariot and the composite bow made of wood and buffalo horn, much more powerful in terms of range, violence of the blow and speed of the simple Egyptian bow model . Seqenenra found himself faced with a choice: let himself be overwhelmed by invaders from the Middle East or attempt a desperate war of liberation? It was after choosing the second option that Seqenenra earned the nickname ”courageous”. Ancient texts reveal that the pharaoh used a bizarre and curious expedient to declare war on his enemies: hippos. It seems, in fact, that the Hyksos ambassador sent Seqenenra a letter in which he complained about the noises emitted by the pharaoh’s hippos in a small lake near Thebes, very far from ancient Avaris. Seqenera, exploited this banal diatribe to unleash the war of liberation. Although perhaps there was a mistranslation of the word ”hippopotamus”, it is certain that Seqenenra developed a naval fleet ready to counter the enemy on the Nile and built a fortress with an observation tower at Deir el-Ballas, about forty kilometers from Thebes. To instill strength and courage, the pharaoh himself went into battle and began a long series of wars which led, many years after his death, to the liberation of Egypt. It was during the battle that the most interesting part of Seqenenra’s life emerged: the dynamics that preceded and led to his death. There are many theories about it.
Egyptian Museum, Cairo
As previously mentioned, the opinion of the finder of the mummy Maspero and of Smith, author of the first autopsy, was that Seqenenra died due to the blows received during the clashes with the Hyksos and that he was most presumably hastily mummified on the battlefield. Today, more than a hundred years after the first autopsy, new hypotheses have been advanced supported by the forensic pathologist Richard Shepherd, an expert in mysterious deaths, who during his long career has examined more than 23,000 corpses, including that of Lady Diana. Using photographic material from the first autopsy and reconstructing a virtual model of the mummy, Professor Shepherd revealed details that had also been missed during examinations conducted on the mummy in the 1960s and 1970s. First of all, he wanted to point out that each wound on Seqenenra’s body corresponded to the use of different weapons. There are traces of three different weapons used on the pharaoh’s body. The first wound inflicted on Seqenenra was caused by a Hyksos axe, characterized by a curved bronze blade that easily penetrated flesh and bone. Another wound was inflicted by an Egyptian-style axe, with a simpler blade, but with a very large cutting surface. The noticeable fracture of the nasal bones and the destruction of the right orbit were caused by the handle of an ax thrown with force and violence. The last type of wound was caused by a bronze spear that pierced the neck below the left ear. Professor Shepherd hypothesized that these deep wounds, in conjunction with the blow from the ax handle, were inflicted while Seqenenra was kneeling or bowing so that the executioner could direct the ax directly at his head.
The wounds on the face of Pharaoh Seqenenra Tao
All this recalled in the minds of scholars the engravings present at the temple of Medinet Habu, located in Luxor West Bank, which depict the great pharaohs in the act of taking the lives of the Hyksos, leading them to think that these wounds were the consequence of a ceremony of public execution. Most likely Seqenenra was captured alive by the Hyksos and killed in front of his defeated people. This explanation could solve the problem of the lack of so-called ”defensive wounds”, i.e. those injuries that a subject inflicts on his hands or arms in a desperate attempt to defend himself. In fact, on Seqenenra’s body, there are only brutal wounds to the skull, a sign that perhaps the Hyksos leader wanted to imitate the style of the execution of Egyptian prisoners, which involved the immobilization of the victim using the hair.
Execution of Hyksos soldiers, Medinet Habu – Luxor
However, pathologist Shepherd is not convinced that Seqenenra died on the battlefield. Firstly he stated that if the pharaoh had died at the end of the battle, he would have had to show the effects of animal predation, signs of the attack of small or large animals such as vultures which usually fly onto the battlefields to feed on the corpses of soldiers. In addition, other important evidence must be taken into consideration: the wounds on the face, despite having left serious damage, have healed and therefore date back to long before his death, and, furthermore, the position of the pharaoh’s hands is very singular .
The hands of Seqenenra Tao (photo 1.bp.blogspot.com)
Thus another hypothesis seems to emerge that relies on the neck wound. This lesion, very close to the spine, could have caused paralysis. The foramen magnum photographed during the 1912 autopsy shows that the base of the skull was damaged, leaving the pharaoh alive but paralyzed from the neck down. Seqenenra’s hands show the typical twitch distortion indicating that the nerve damage occurred long before his death. Following these findings, scholars have formulated a hypothesis according to which Seqenenra Tao would have been the protagonist of a public execution following the victory of the Hyksos, but that he would have survived to be murdered later during his slow agony, probably at the hands of an assassin sent by the court’s enemies. A tragic death if we think that the pharaoh, despite being conscious, was unable to move and therefore to defend himself. The case of the only mummified pharaoh with such violent injuries is still open. And with so many doubts still to be dispelled and answers to be sought, archaeologists continue to hypothesize, scientists to ascertain, us to keep ourselves informed and Seqenenra Tao to wait for someone to report the truth about his death, without ever forgetting that despite his mutilated face , was a great ruler who fully earned the nickname ”Seqenenra the brave”.