CIRCA 1350 BC
Wearing the mask of the jackal-headed god Anubis, Darius entered the ‘ibu’ tent with a heavier step than usual. The woman whose body lay naked and thoroughly cleaned before him on the embalming table was not just anyone. For a few seconds he caught his breath, half-expecting Zara who’d been a close family friend, to rise up and tease him about his big feet like she’d done when he was a boy.
Darius had never minded her teasing. Having lost his own mother at a young age and with a father who was engrossed in important work, Zara had taken on a motherly role, letting him into her home, fussing over him and treating him like one of her own children. That was how he remembered her in life.
In life… what a thought. If only she were alive!
Now in death, she must undergo the trial all humans ultimately face. Before long, she would start the journey into the after-life and it was Darius’s job as priest and chief embalmer to help make the transition from the earthly life to the next one as smooth as possible. It was his duty to prepare the body properly and follow the correct rituals. Only by doing that, would Zara’s soul be free to re-join her body so that it could be carried to the sublime paradise that was a continuation of the present life in the Field of Reeds beyond the sky.
In life, Zara had been a lovely woman inside and out. She was always laughing and often had a kind word for others. She had been the wife of a mason who, alongside their sons and later one daughter, had worked for many years on a project building the Great Pyramid for the mighty Pharaoh. For a while, the family had lived on the edge of the desert in a compound with other Pyramid workers where Khufu had been eventually been promoted to chief mason.
When the project was over and Khufu retired, the family settled in Zara’s childhood village a few miles outside of Egypt’s capital. They were able to do this after being given a plot of land by a senior official as an acknowledgement for years of service. Darius, now a priest and chief embalmer, was one of the first people to visit the family when they returned. Zara had welcomed him into their completed new house with open arms.
Darius’s hand went up to his mouth at the memory. It was hard to believe he would never see Zara again – at least not in the present life.
It was evening and the hot air was starting to cool. As a prelude to embalming, Darius had thoroughly washed and shaved. It ensured he was ritually clean to perform the task that lay ahead. He also hoped it would put him in the right frame of mind to undertake this most sacred of earthly rites.
He was used to being surrounded by the paraphernalia of death, but the scene that hit him was stark. There were sharp metal instruments which included scalpels, hooks and blades, china bowls, pots of fluid, bottles containing essential oils such as cedarwood and myrrh, boxes of a special desert salt called natron, carefully stored layers of of wrapping, along with stone jars of varying sizes that would store human organs and eventually be sealed and placed inside the burial chamber. All these rose up before him. It was as if he was seeing them for the first time.
But they were the tools of his trade and he intended to use them well.
Rallying, he inhaled deeply, and picked up one of the sharp scalpels from a makeshift shelf. Without hesitation, he made an incision into the left side of the abdomen and opened up it up. He squeezed a tube that was attached to a drain in the floor so the blood and other fluids could be collected.
For the moment, he was determined to think of Zara as nothing more than a lifeless corpse. In one sense, that was exactly what she was, but he had the power to make her so much more. Either way, he forced himself to think of her in purely detached terms, otherwise he would never do what needed to be done.
Normally the correct procedure would have been to remove the deceased person’s brain first, but it was a job he’d always disliked so he decided to leave it for his son. Fearful of making a mistake, he hoped the slight departure from tradition would not be viewed unfavourably by the gods. He kept telling himself he was only doing what Zara and her family would have wanted. He could not make a mistake.
Darius laid his hand on Zara’s still heart, more aware than he’d ever been of his burden of responsibility. He remembered hearing it once as she had gathered him to her chest when he’d hurt himself as a boy. The rhythmic beat had been a comforting sound to his young ears. He clasped it now with the utmost care, respectfully wrapping it in a special cloth that contained preserving fluids.
He turned to the huge cavity he had created, working quickly and cleaning it out with palm wine. After filling up the space with crushed myrrh and other aromatic substances, he returned the heart to its rightful owner. The liver, lungs and other organs were placed in large bowls and covered in salt. Later, they would be added to canopic jars and permanently sealed.
It took care and attention to sew up the entire incision with neat stitches. All the time Darius was thinking of Zara’s heart. He hoped he’d returned it quickly enough to the body. It would have been a desecration to have permanently cast aside an organ that was considered to be a vital part of the nine components that made up a person’s soul and was regarded as the source of wisdom, emotions and memory.
The heart, now in abeyance, was where Zara’s true personality resided.
Darius’s son Adel entered the tent cautiously. Like many sons, he was expected to carry on the family traditions and he was certainly a dutiful young man. He was also aware that the lifeless woman laid out on the table had held a special place in his father’s affections.
“Do you want me now, father?”
“Yes, come in. Don’t hang about.”
Adel held out a pair of smooth, perfectly proportioned hands. “I’m ready. Anything I can do to help?”
“I want you to deal with the brain. Whatever you do, try to avoid damaging her nose. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to keep her intact. There must be no obstacles when it comes to her soul being able to recognise the body when she enters the afterlife.” Darius had no doubt Zara would enter the afterlife as she had been a good person. He also had every faith in his son’s abilities.
Everyone knew the worst punishment a person could receive was being burnt because it prevented entry into the Field of Reeds. It was a place which was a continuation of the life lived on earth after death, albeit in a more ideal form. The Egyptians believed the earthly life was so precious, it should carry on in the next one. That was why they went to so much trouble to give the soul every chance of succeeding. The deeds in the present life would be judged by Osiris, the god of the underworld, aided by the goddess Maat. In the Hall of Truth, the heart would be put on a scale and weighed against Maat’s feather of truth and justice. If it was heavier than the feather, the soul would be devoured by a crocodile god and cease to exist, a truly dreadful fate. Aside from good deeds, for a person to gain eternal life, the body and soul must be reunited at burial, hence all the preparation and care taken with mummification.
“I’ll do my best not to harm her.”
Adel deftly picked up something that resembled a crochet hook.
“Not a job for the squeamish,” Darius said, averting his eyes. “It’s a comfort to know the brain is a useless organ, of little value, but the least damage we do the better.”
“Perhaps not entirely useless.” Adel was interested in medical matters and would have liked to have been a doctor and helped cure the sick if he’d had the opportunity. “We know the brain plays a role in various ailments such as epilepsy. We know it has hemispheres and a membrane and is encased in mucous. And there have been reports of successful brain surgery in some cases.”
“That may be true, but for our purposes we need to remove it quickly before it decays.”
“Yes, that’s always a good reason.” Adel took a deep breath and inserted the metal hook into the corpse’s nose. It wasn’t the first brain he’d removed, but even without emotional involvement, it was a taxing procedure. Whatever the current debate on the brain’s importance in the body, it had to be done in stages and therefore required a strong stomach, as well as a steady hand.
His father was sweating profusely and it wasn’t just from the heat. He took off his mask and handed it to Adel.
“If you can manage without me, I think I’ll leave you to it for a bit, son,” Darius said. “I’m popping home, but call me if you need me.”
“I should be fine, but before you go, do you want me to cover her over with natron, or shall I leave you to do that?”
Darius swallowed. “If you don’t mind doing it yourself, that would be helpful.”
Darius walked the short distance from the tent to his house where he was met by his wife on the rooftop, the coolest part of the house.
“You look a little pale. Can I get you anything?” she asked.
“A beer would be good.”
The beer which came from a nearby brewery was surprisingly nutritious. It was also a necessity in a land where getting hold of clean water could sometimes be a problem. Unless you were poor, it was advisable to use the Nile for fishing and washing clothes rather than drinking its water.
“Ah, that tastes good,” Darius said, supping thirstily.
His wife’s eyes rested on him. They were kind - like Zara’s had once been.
“What you are doing can’t be easy. Not when you’ve known her. She was such a nice lady,” she said.
“She was and it isn’t.” Darius examined his feet. They didn’t seem so large now he was a grown man. “I just want to do my best for her. Make sure she’s given every chance.”
“You will. You’re the finest embalmer in the area. The only person of merit you haven’t worked on is the Pharaoh.”
“I think that particular honour will have to fall on our son. This is going to be my last embalming.”
“Are you sure? You have a great reputation and there are so many grateful families; you are respected far and wide.”
“I’m getting old, love.” He examined hands that were becoming arthritic. “My joints are starting to hurt. I don’t want to slip up.” Darius sighed. “It’s time for our son to take up my mantle. He’s more than capable.”
Later, when Darius returned to the embalming tent, the entire body had been covered with natron salt to dry it out. Zara was barely recognisable as the woman Darius had known and loved. He looked forward to making her appear more human by stuffing her with sand and pieces of linen.
His son bore an air of satisfaction. “Now, we just have to wait seventy days for the salt and everything else to work its magic.”
“I will personally perform each stage of wrapping the body before the funeral,” Darius said earnestly. The process of bandaging could take a week or longer as resin was added between each layer to give strength.
By the time Zara was ready to be placed in a sarcophagus and make her way to her final resting place on the other side of the Nile, Darius had every reason to feel proud. He didn’t know it, but his dear friend was wrapped well enough to be preserved for thousands of years. Not only had her shell of a body been soaked in the finest oils making her smell divine, he had also tucked in various amulets between the wrappings to offer extra protection during her final journey. Throughout every stage of the ritual, he had added spells and incantations from the Book of the Dead to reawaken her in the afterlife.
Satisfied there was nothing more to be done, the embalmer allowed himself to cast one last professional eye over the corpse. To his mind, Zara’s face radiated the same contentment she had worn in life. She lay motionless, a seamless work of art, without flaw. Only now did Darius allow himself to feel the first simmering of peace. He had done everything he could to prepare Zara’s body for the final stage of her journey into the afterlife. By doing so, he had freed her very soul.
She, who had once been like a mother to him was now the perfect mummy.
He could ask for no more.