In 1976, the mummy of Ramses the Great was taken to France to undergo a series of studies and conservation work using the most advanced techniques. The pharaoh was received in France as if he was an active Head of State.
On September 26, 1976, Ramses II, one of most famous pharaoh (he reigned no less than 67 years), became the first king of ancient Egypt to get on a plane.
The 3,000-year-old mummy of the monarch was loaded onto a Transall-type military propeller plane inside a specially made, shock-, fire- and unsinkable oak wood sarcophagus.
The limbs of Ramses were padded between paper, cotton and foam rubber to protect them from the turbulence of the trip.
The pharaoh was going to France, to the Le Bourget airport, where he would be honored as Head of State and later transferred to Paris, where the king’s mummy was to undergo a meticulous study and restoration process, that would last eight months.
Head of State honors
Ramses was accompanied at all times by the French ambassador to Egypt and by the famous Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt (then curator of the department of Egyptian antiquities in the Louvre Museum ), who would not abandon him at any time.
After take off, the trip from Cairo was made at low altitude to avoid turbulence. It is said that the pilot, before leaving the capital’s airspace, circled the city to offer the old pharaoh one last glimpse of the land he ruled.
When the plane entered French airspace, it was escorted by two military jets. Upon his arrival, Ramses was received by the Secretary of State for Universities Alice Saunier-Seité, the ambassador of the Arab Republic of Egypt in France, the general-in-chief of the air base and a brigade of the National Guard.
The Secretary of State pronounced these emotional words: “France salutes the mortal remains of one of the greatest Kings of all antiquity.”
But the Pharaoh’s departure abroad was not without difficulties. It was subjected to lengthy negotiations between the two countries.
French law required that “any person, living or dead” who entered its territory had to carry a valid identification document to legally enter the country, so the Egyptian authorities had to issue the relevant immigration documents so that the old pharaoh could travel smoothly. Thus, Ramses also became the first pharaoh to obtain a “passport.”
But what happened to the mummy of Ramses II?
The reason was its delicate condition. The incision through which ancient embalmers had removed the monarch’s organs was getting wider and wider, and that deterioration alarmed scientists who had studied it in the early 1970s.
In addition, a series of small “indentations” “It also pierced the linen wrapping that covered arms and legs of Ramses. It also had a 16-inch cut across the hip.
And, most worryingly, when the researchers opened the glass box where the mummy was exhibited in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, they noticed a strong smell that disclosed the presence of bacteria and fungi.
If the mummy of Ramses was to be saved, it was necessary to intervene immediately.
France at that time had scientific facilities that allowed it to carry out the most appropriate studies and conservation work, and the French country made forty laboratories and the most advanced diagnostic instruments of the moment available to scientists.
Thus would begin what was named as “Project Ramses II”. The pharaoh was transferred to Paris and lodged on the third floor of the Museum of Man in the capital, where two rooms were set up to “accommodate” him, with air conditioning to maintain the appropriate temperature and humidity. The windows were also bricked up to block out sunlight.
To proceed with the study of the mummy of Ramses, it was carefully placed on a Plexiglas table to facilitate its transfer. Scientists weren’t allowed to remove tissue from the mummy, but they were allowed to examine any loose material stuck to it.
From here they were able to identify 60 different types of fungi (one of them, the Daedalea biennis , particularly destructive), especially on the back.
When they studied the cavity from which the viscera were extracted, they found a total of 379 more fungal colonies, divided into 89 species.
The researchers explored the interior of the mummy of Ramses to know the state of health of the pharaoh during his last days of life. To do this, they studied the abdominal cavity with an endoscope and used an electron scanning microscope to examine the hair (they found that the pharaoh was dyed with henna ).
The most advanced radiological techniques of the time were also used. Xeroradiography, a technique that allows recording of both hard and soft tissue, determined that the pharaoh had suffered from arthritis, as well as a stiffening of the carotid artery (arteriosclerosis).
They were also able to verify the terrible state of his teeth: the old monarch was missing the first lower molar and suffered a very serious dental abscess, which possibly caused his death.
Chromodensitography (a system by which researchers can transfer grays, light and dark from an X-ray to different color gamuts) revealed that the pharaoh had a broken neck, possibly due to manipulation of the body during embalming.
But perhaps one of the most surprising discoveries was the presence in the abdominal cavity of tobacco leaves ( Nicotiana tabacum) .
The find raised more questions than answers: Was this a special case or did this plant play a specific role in the mummification process?
The final set-up
After studying the mummy, the conservatives took over. They proceeded to clean and fix the bandages that still covered part of the pharaoh’s body, especially hands and feet.
They were cleaned of sand and dust, and the loose pieces of fabric were stitched together with linen threads before the mummy was wrapped again.
A linen shroud from the 19th dynasty was also recovered from the Louvre Museum, washed with distilled water several times, and covered the pharaoh’s mummy. The coffin was also carefully restored.
In the end, the pharaoh was deposited back in his coffin and subjected to an intense “shower” of cobalt gamma rays to completely eliminate the fungi and bacteria. The process took place at a nuclear facility outside Paris, specifically at the Grenoble Nuclear Energy Center.
In May 1977, the royal mummy was put back on a plane with all the precautions to return to its country and honored by the French authorities with the same formal ceremony as when it arrived.
Once back in Egypt, the pharaoh was removed from his packaging and those present were enthusiastic about the work done by the experts.
Since then Ramses II rests in the room of the royal mummies of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.