Alex’s toes poke out of his linen shroud. The chamber is dark and cool like a crypt. On the wall above him the unwavering gaze of his wooden sarcophagus glares downwards, its chest emblazoned with a mahogany-hued winged scarab, Khepri, symbol of rebirth.
He lived and died in upper-class obscurity around 2,200 years ago, but Alex’s remains — the only mummy in Israel — star in an Israel Museum exhibit opening Tuesday.
A century before Anthony and Cleopatra, when the Ptolemies ruled the Nile he lived as a priest in the city of Panopolis, modern-day Akhmim, in Upper Egypt. During his lifetime Alex was known as Iret-hor-iru — The Protective Eye of Horus — but got his modern moniker after he was donated to Jerusalem’s Pontifical Biblical Institute by Jesuits in Alexandria.
Iret-hor-iru is “very well preserved” for his age, Israel Museum curator Galit Bennett-Dahan told The Times of Israel as the finishing touches were being put on the exhibit. “You can see that not only were whole bones preserved, but also teeth, ears, eyes, tissues in the thighs and hands.”
After his demise, he underwent the traditional process of embalming and mummification. His internal organs were removed and placed in canopic jars, his brain was pulled out through his nose, his body was packed and covered with natron to dry it out and then wrapped in linen.
In the lead-up to the exhibit, the Israel Museum teamed up with the Carmel Medical Center in Haifa and scientists from Tel Aviv University to get a better understanding of who Iret-hor-iru was, how he lived, and how he died. Contrary to what the priests at the institute thought, he wasn’t a teenage boy, nor did he live in the 4th century BCE, around the time Egypt fell to Alexander the Great.
Radiocarbon dating of his linen wrappings found he died in the 2nd century BCE, and CT scans found he lived into his late 30s or early 40s, no small feat when infant mortality was rampant and a year-old child was expected to live until 40. He stood 5’5″ when he was alive — taller than average — but the desiccating embalming procedure left him a few inches shorter as the centuries passed.
He still has most of his teeth, but suffered from cavities and receding gums, as well as osteoporosis. Like people nowadays, he indulged in too many carbs and spent too much time indoors.
“Maybe he had a convenient life, because he didn’t work so hard,” she said.
Arabic and French newspapers bunched up in the sarcophagus to protect the mummy during its journey to Jerusalem date to 1927 and 1928, confirming it arrived at the institute just after it opened in 1927. Since then it has remained in the institute’s modest and oft-overlooked archaeology museum next door to the King David Hotel.
The one-room display runs parallel to the ongoing Pharaohs in Canaan exhibit that opened in March and explores Egypt’s political and cultural influences upon the Bronze and Iron Age Levant. Through Iret-hor-iru, the curators try to explain the ancient Egyptian perception of death, from embalming and mummification of the dead (both human and animal) to the spirit’s passage through the afterlife.
Although his mummification techniques and burial style follow Egyptian custom, Iret-hor-iru’s Egypt was Hellenized, having been conquered by Alexander the Great’s armies over a century before. The Ptolemies respected local religion, and funerary traditions were preserved, albeit with the inclusion of Greek styles, the Israel Museum’s Bennett-Dahan explained. The painted plaque laid across his chest is distinctive of the Ptolemaic period, and his stylized death mask traditional. Both are relatively modest compared to the gilt grandeur of Tutankhamen, but typical of the more affluent.
Accompanying Iret-hor-iru in his Israel Museum afterlife are an assortment of Hellenistic and Roman-era funerary masks that were placed over the face of the dead. Some, like that of Iret-hor-iru, are stylized, imitating the traditional Egyptian representation of the deceased, with almond eyes and a long wig. Others are realistic and strikingly beautiful portraits.
Amulets in the shape of beasts and birds and crafted out of faience, ivory, gold or semiprecious stones were placed on the body to protect it in the afterlife. Today, they make up a kaleidoscopic menagerie accompanying Iret-hor-iru.
The only other mummy in the room is that of an ibis, the bird considered holy to Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and wisdom. A lifelike sarcophagus with the wading bird’s distinctive curved bill, enclosing the mummified remains of the sacred bird, was a gift to former deputy prime minister Moshe Dayan from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat after the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979. Across the hall, in the Pharaoh in Canaan exhibit, the museum showcases a duplicate of the bent Canaanite scimitar given to Egypt by Israel in the same exchange.