The Mystery of the Egyptian Pharaoh at Niagara Falls Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Mystery of the Egyptian Pharaoh at Niagara Falls

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Most people have heard of Egyptian Pharaohs even if they're not interested in history, thanks to events like the discovery of Tutankamun's tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. The incomparable and priceless gold death mask of the 'boy king' has come to represent the ancient Egyptian culture in our society today.

For all their wealth, one thing the ancient Egyptians didn't do was venture very far from Egypt, unless it was to make war on their neighbours. They were staycationers, the package holiday to the world's beauty spots was several millennia away. There is, however, one travelling Pharaoh who visited one of the most beautiful places on Earth, Niagara Falls, albeit as a mummy, so he couldn't really enjoy the experience. He managed to remain there incognito for 140 years.

Ancient Egypt - Politics and Tomb Robbing

Our story begins in 1292 BC when Pharaoh Horemheb, whose reign ended the 18th Dynasty, died without offspring. He was not of noble birth, having originally been an army officer who wrested the throne from Pharaoh Ay in a military coup. Pharaoh Horemheb had named his Vizier (prime minister), Paramessu, as his heir. In 1292 BC this heir, the future Ramses1 I, was already an old man and a grandfather2, so the line of succession (for his family) was secure. Pharaoh Ramses didn't have much time to make an impact while he was alive, but he did found the 19th Dynasty. He ruled for less than two years before succumbing to old age. His son SetiĀ I performed his first duty as Pharaoh by ordering his late father's mummification to ensure eternal life, and burial in the Valley of the Kings.

The story of Ramses I might have ended there but for the archaeologist and tomb raider Giovanni Belzoni who located Pharaoh Ramses' resting place in 1817. Because the tomb had been robbed of its gold in antiquity the grave was of no use to Belzoni. He was still searching Egypt for that elusive goal, an intact tomb that would immortalise his name along with that of the undiscovered Pharaoh. Belzoni laid no claim to the human remains and Pharaoh Ramses' mummy was left in situ.

Traversing the Ocean

Treasure is in the eye of the beholder and what was worthless to Belzoni was worth good money to the Abu-Rassul family, early souvenir suppliers who happily sold off their country's heritage to the highest bidder. Someone looking for a decent/good condition mummy was businessman James Douglas, who was seeking curiosities to sell on to museums back home in Canada. Douglas obviously knew what he was looking for, liked what he was offered and paid the asking price. The anonymous, unwrapped mummy with the regal pose3 was shipped across the Atlantic, then sold to and displayed in the Niagara Falls Museum run by Sydney Barnett, son of the museum's founder Thomas Barnett (1799 - 1890).

Tourists Traipsing Through

Over the next 140 years thousands of tourists must have gawped (unbeknown to them) at the earthly remains of one of the richest and most powerful men of his time. Some were probably more interested in the humpback whale skeleton exhibition or the egg collection and just passing through, barely giving the mummy with the regal pose a second glance. A few Egyptologists must have stopped, stared, scratched their heads, probably thinking: 'Arms crossed across the chest? Could this be a Royal mummy? Nah...' before moving on. One person who did know what he was looking at was Canadian businessman William Jamieson, a friend of the current museum owner who in 1999 was about to retire. Jamieson proceeded to buy the whole collection, and promptly resold the Egyptian artefacts, including the suspected-Royal mummy, to the Michael Carlos Museum at the Emory University of Atlanta for the princely sum of $2million.

New Technology for Old Bones

Researchers at the Emory University had plenty of technology at their fingertips to perform all kinds of tests on the well-preserved mummified remains. CT scans and x-rays provided a wealth of information and a sample of his DNA was extracted from one of his teeth. Radiocarbon dating was performed. The only 'missing' king of that era was Ramses I. As the mummies of his son (Seti I) and grandson (Ramses II) were themselves intact and on display, the Niagara Falls mummy could be measured and compared to them. By no means totally conclusive, nevertheless, the investigators were sure enough of their findings to invite famous Egyptologist and Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Dr Zahi Hawass to view the body and hear his opinion. Although he would not be drawn on its identity as he does not believe in Radiocarbon dating, Dr Hawass declared the mummy 'one hundred percent a king'.


When the owners of the mummy offered to repatriate the remains of the king to Egypt, Dr Hawass was delighted, calling it a 'civilised gesture'. On 24 October, 2003, the Royal mummy, accompanied by Dr Hawass, was shipped back to Egypt in a box draped with the flag of Egypt, where it was received by dignitaries, a military band and singing schoolchildren. Dr Hawass used the occasion to issue a request for the return of some of Egypt's treasures, including the Dendera Zodiac on display in the Louvre, Paris, the Rosetta Stone4 in the British Museum, London, and the bust of Queen Nefertiti residing in the Egypt Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Rest in Perspex

Ramses I is on display in his own see-through cabinet at the Luxor Museum, where no doubt many more tourists gawp at him annually, but now they're aware of his true identity. At least he didn't end up under a car park, like one unfortunate English king. Ramses' name lives on for eternity, which is all a long-dead Pharaoh could ever wish for.

1Also known as Ramesses, his name meant 'Ra fashioned him'.2His grandson was Ramses II, whose ego knew no bounds.3Its arms were crossed across its chest. Only Pharaohs were mummified in this way, as any Egyptologist worth their salt would know.4Which was unearthed in 1799, providing us with a pleasing cosmic link to Niagara Falls Museum founder Thomas Barnett, who happened to be born in that year.

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