Eritrea´s rich and unparalleled heritage resources embrace a multitude of features peculiar to the segments of human history.The presence of mummies in some of the earliest monasteries in Eritrea, for instance, represents one of the most intriguing components of the country´s patrimony. Mummies have been found in several places such as Debre Hawaryat of Ham, Metera, Bara’knaha and Bek’ar. The nature of these finds from the monastic complexes of Eritrea is explained here in this article together with the description of the art of mummification elsewhere.
The word mummy came from the Persian word “Mumia,” meaning “pitch” or “bitumen” – a substance that was believed to flow from mountains in the Near East and had a curing power for diseases. The bitumen from the famous “Mummy Mountain” in Persia was believed to cure diseases. People eventually adopted the term to refer to the preserved bodies of ancient Egyptians, whose blackened appearance was believed to indicate that they had the same medical powers as the mumia, (David, 1997). The word Mummy, thus, came to be used for these bodies. According to its contemporary usage, therefore, a mummy is the preserved body of an organism either via natural or artificial process. Mummies can be preserved in many ways. Some mummies are preserved by natural circumstances depending on the type of climate, the dryness of the sand surrounding the body, and the absence of air in the burial ground, etc. Several mummies have also been preserved by the intervention of human activity that includes exclusion of air and provision of a sealed environment in the burial place, using additional heat sources to dry out the body tissues, and chemicals such as natron (a mixture of substances like sodium carbonate and bicarbonate) to prevent decomposition. The process involving human intervention may vary conditionally and yet the basic principle of mummification can happen if a dead body dries out quickly (in order to discourage bacteria from growing) after death. The artificial process includes two procedures, namely evisceration of the body (i.e. removal of internal organs) and dehydration.
Of all the traditions and civilizations that practised mummification, the ancient Egyptian mummification is surely the distinctive one. As a matter of fact, the word “mummy” often connotes Egypt and Egyptian invention. While the Egyptian ones are the most famous, mummies have been found in many parts of the world. The fact that there are more elaborate sources about the process of mummification in Egypt than in any other parts of the world where even mummies have been found may, thus, suggest the practice originated in Egypt. The tendency to see the process of mummification in the realm of Egyptian civilization is, thus, not surprising to infuse much of the narratives and consequently it is not a coincidence that people in their first insight would think of diffusion from ancient Egypt when surmising about the mummies found in the monastic complexes of Eritrea.
In Eritrea,although no scientific investigation has been done, the discovery of mummies have been reported from the Cultural landscape of Qohaito, the Orthodox Christian Monastery of Debre-Libanos of Ham, Baraknaha and recently from Bekaár in the Soira mountains. Little is known about the mummies from Qohaito, which were taken by George Schwainfurth and Max Schoeller in 1894 to Germany and are believed to be in the Anthropological Institute of Humboldt University, Berlin. Mummies have also been recovered from the Monastery of Debre-Libanos of Ham in the 1980s and much has been speculated about these mummies ever since. According to oral tradition, the mummified skeletal remains that are found in the monastic complex of Debre Libanos (Ham) included the body of Abba Libanos himself who is believed to have founded the first monastic complex in Eritrea. This monk is believed to have come from the Middle East through Alexandria (Egypt). There is a possibility that he might have had brought the practice with him. According to the priests of the monastery, the number of the mummified skeletons in the monastery are about 120.
A recent survey around the localities of Bek’ar and Baraknaha, east and south of the town of Senafe respectively, has enhanced our knowledge of the presence of mummies in Eritrea. The areas believed to have housed monastic communities in antiquity have witnessed that mummies are situated in caves of the chains of the mountain.
There are contradictory sources for the origin of mummification in Eritrea. The fact that Abba Libanos came from Egypt where the practice is mostly known may imply that he might have brought the practice with him. Yet, there is no doubt that the Eritrean people had the concept of preservation a long time ago. The concept of preserving dead bodies of organisms has a long history in Eritrea. People used to eviscerate dead bodies in order to prevent decomposition until the very recent past. Preserving animal flesh, skin and tail and also plants is common. But the fact that mummies are found only in the monasteries prevents us from safely concluding that the practice of mummification originated independently in Eritrea. According to oral tradition, the mummified skeletal remains that are found in the monasteries of Eritrea are bodies of the religious individuals and the ‘saints’ that inhabited them. Confinement of the preserved skeletal remains to restricted areas of monasteries may suggest that the practice was reserved for the religious elites. The reasons for mummification in Eritrea are still unclear. However, according to oral tradition, bodies of some religious leaders were preserved because they were ‘saints’. The exact time for the introduction of the practice of mummification in Eritrea also remains obscure. But according to oral tradition, the practice might have been introduced by about c 5th to 8th c .A.D., by monks who came to Eritrea from the Middle East via Alexandria.
The question whether these mummies were a result of human intervention or natural circumstances is only to be determined by detailed scientific studies. An indication for human intervention in the mummies has come from the presence of this knowledge in the hands of certain monks. The late Abba Teweldebrhan Andemeskel (a monk and the key informant in the preliminary study of the mummies of the monastery of Ham), for instance, had the skill of embalming through evisceration and use of local shrub Mebti’e, whose leaves were boiled to extract a liquid component. The late monk stated in the preliminary study of the mummies that the extraction of the internal organs (the heart, kidneys, intestine, liver, stomach, and lungs) through evisceration (mqshar – in Tigrignia) and painting the body a liquid substance to help in drying the body of the organism are central to the traditional practice. This information, however, is still fragmentary to provide conclusive remarks on the nature of the practice and, particularly the debate of natural versus artificial procedures. The need to conduct in-depth scientific studies into the art of mummification in Eritrea in the future is, therefore, significant in order to sketch out clearly why and how the practice was executed and whether the practice of mummification was an indigenous or a diffused tradition as has been often suggested.