Pierre Loti

Pierre Loti Visits the Mummies

At the turn of the century, the French writer Pierre Loti visited Egypt and recorded his experiences in his book, La mort de Philae. One of his adventures involved a midnight tour of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, led by Gaston Maspero, then head of the Antiquities Service. A lover of unusual atmosphere and drama, Maspero led Loti through the dark halls of the museum by lamplight, and eventually they entered the Hall of Mummies. Loti describes the rows of mummies in terms that would have delighted Poe, and saves his most ghoulish prose for the mummy of Nesitanebetashru, the wife of a Fourth Prophet of Amen in 21'st-22'nd Dynasty Thebes:

"In our passage we have gazed on many other royal mummies, some tranquil and some grimacing. But, to finish, there is one of them (the third coffin there, in the row in front of us), a certain Queen Nsitanebashru, whom I approach with fear, albeit it is mainly on her account that I have ventured to make this fantastical round. Even in the daytime she attains to the maximum of horror that a spectral figure can evoke. What will she be like tonight in the uncertain light of our little lantern?

"There she is indeed, the disheveled vampire, in her place right enough, stretched at full length, but looking always as if she were about to leap up; and straightaway I meet the sidelong glance of her enameled pupils, shining out of half closed eyelids, with lashes that are still almost perfect. Oh! The terrifying person! Not that she is ugly, on the contrary we can see that she was rather pretty and was mummied young. What distinguishes her from the others is her air of thwarted anger, of fury, as it were, at being dead. The embalmers have colored her very religiously, but the pink, under the action of the salts of the skin, has become decomposed here and there and given place to a number of green spots. Her naked shoulders, the height of the arms above the rags which were once her splendid shroud, have still a certain sleek roundness, but they, too, are stained with greenish and black splotches, such as may be seen on the skins of snakes. Assuredly no corpse, either here or elsewhere, has ever preserved such an expression of intense life, of ironical, implacable ferocity. Her mouth is twisted in a little smile of defiance; her nostrils pinched like those of a ghoul on the scent of blood, and her eyes seem to say to each one who approaches: "Yes, I am laid in my coffin; but you will very soon see I can get out of it."

"Now that we are about to retire, what will happen here, with the complicity of silence, in the darkest hours of the night?...As soon as we shall have departed, nay, as soon as our lantern, at the end of the long galleries, shall seem no more than a foolish, vanishing spot of fire, will not the 'forms' of whom the attendants are so afraid, will they not start their nightly rumblings and in their hollow mummy voices, whisper, with difficulty, words?...

"...Heavens! How dark it is! Yet our lantern has not gone out. But it seems to grow darker and darker. And at night, when all is shut up, how one smells the odor of the oils in which the shrouds are saturated, and, more intolerable still, the sickly stealthy stench, almost, of all these dead bodies!...

"As I traverse the obscurity of these endless halls, a vague instinct of self preservation induces me to turn back again, and look behind. And it seems to me that already the woman with the baby [Maatkare] is slowly raising herself, with a thousand precautions and stratagems, her head still completely covered. While farther down, that disheveled hair....Oh! I can see her well, sitting up with a sudden jerk, the ghoul with the enamel eyes, the lady Nsitanebashru!"

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  • Pierre Loti Visits the Mummies


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