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Mummies of the Southern Region of Eritrea

Many civilizations like the Egyptian, Incan, Australian aboriginal, Aztec, African, ancient European and others have practiced some type of mummification for thousands of years to honor and preserve the bodies of the dead.

Mummification is a way or a process of preserving the dead body of an organism by treating it with oil and wrapping the body with cloths. Mummy also means a preserved dead body of an organism for eternity through natural or artificial mechanism. Embalming or eviscerating the internal organ was applied, as in the case of ancient Egyptians, to protect the body from bacteria.

The Egyptians were well-known for their system of mummification, which was exclusively applied on the dead bodies of pharaohs, particularly in the old kingdom. Mummification was not practiced merely to protect the dead body from decay and decomposition. Most ancient Egyptians, both the rich and the poor, practised it to ensure a successful passage into the next life. After mummifying the body and placing it in decorated sarcophagus, they built up magnificent tombs (pyramids) and filled it with all the necessities, including sacrificed slaves so that everything in the tomb could move to the next life physically intact.

In Eritrea, mummified bodies were found in many monasteries which testify to the fact that mummification was practiced in ancient Eritrea. People say that mummification was introduced to Eritrea from the Middle East via Egypt with the advent of the Christian missionary, Aba Libanos, around 4th-8th century A.D.

Although no scientific investigation has yet been done, mummies have been discovered in Qohaito, the Orthodox Christian Monastery of Debre-Libanos of Ham, Baraknaha and recently in Bekaár at the Soira mountains. Most of them have been found in the southern region (Ham, Barknaha, Guna-guna enda meskel, Ba’aker, Guh’chea… etc.), areas believed to have housed monastic communities in ancient times. The mummies are situated in snuggling on hidden steep slope cliffs and in dark tunnel-like caves in the chains of the mountain. There are contradictory sources pointing to the origin of mummification in Eritrea. According to oral tradition, the mummified skeletal remains that are found in the monastic complex of Debre Libanos (Ham) include 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 brought the practice with him. To understand why this occurred, it is necessary to explore the Catholic and Orthodox Christians’ practice of mummification. This is rarely discussed even though it is an important aspect of the people’s faith that was performed for hundreds of years. Especially when it comes to members of the clergy, individuals deemed holy or saints and venerable individuals, mummification was an important rite, and elaborate procedures were often used. Even today, popes are mummified using New Kingdom Egyptian mummification techniques before being entombed. Though there still is not sufficient scientific research done on the mummies, the possibility of their perpetual existence relies on both the mummifying technique (anthropogenic) and the vital role of nature (spontaneous).

The intensity of temperature, humidity and precipitation can ensure the sustainable continuation of things. Things live, reproduce and develop in agreement with favorable climatic situations or acquired ability of adaptation to a given climate. The climate of a dry tropical zone is only suitable for things which possess or have developed favorable adaptation with the climate.

The highlands of Eritrea, particularly the elevated and mountainous places in the south eastern region (Adi kieh and Senafe), have seasons that are mostly dry and cold. In such a climatic condition, things are not easily decomposed and life does not simply develop, which is ideal for the preservation of dead bodies.

The mountainous areas of Senafe, in particular, and the southern part of Eritrea, in general, are endowed with gorgeous geographic features of light soil and sand stone rocks. Sand stone is a kind of sedimentary rock, textured from fine to coarse grained. The sand particles of the rock are basically quartz cemented with other particles by mica and calcium carbonate or silicate. Such rocks provide protection for organic things laying over them; their chemical makeup and component is not that much destructive. Besides, if they are hard and fine, they have no space for ambush development of parasitic animals that can cause destruction. In association with the nature of rocks, the nature of soil, too, plays a vital role in preservation. The nature of the soil where the mummies are found is light and yellowish which is typically associated with dry and cold climate that lack in organic material humus and is alkaline. The soil lacks organic material like humus because the climate is not supportive of breaking down and decomposing things. The possibility for the rapid deterioration of the mummies becoming humus is hindered by the nature of soil. The place where the mummies lie and reside for thousands of years is comparatively unexposed to both natural and cultural catastrophes of decomposition. The mummies were protected from direct exposition of wind, rainfall, sunlight, heat, humidity and both parasitic and scavenging animals.

The tunnel-like cave shelter protects the mummies from excessive and multi directional wind and air. A deep cave with only one opening helps to minimize excessive air and wind that can cause crack and breakdown. The cave shelter is also a good protection from rain fall and sun light. The rock cave shelter of the mummies became a home for their existence and a shield against all rounded catastrophes. In most of the monasteries, the mummies were either recovered buried under cave shelter or hanged on steep cave cliffs. Even if the nature of soil influences the rate and degree of decomposition, very little cover soil has smaller impact than the heavy and sticky soil cover. Heavy and sticky soil has a bigger possibility of holding saturation that becomes convenient for the development of parasitic animals.

The culture of the monks during a burial ceremony supported their dead by provisions for the next life, just like the ancient Egyptians, and buried their dead within their home stead like Enda hawaryat. The distinction between the monks’ residence and burial site is difficult to see. Such a culture can safeguard and guarantee the eternal life of the mummies. The dead bodies are always placed in direct view of the living. As a result, there is no possibility of the mummies getting exposed to scavenging animals.

The existence of mummies in our context before the coming of missionaries is controversial but the fact that mummies are found only in the monasteries prevents us from concluding that the practice of mummification originated independently in Eritrea. Hence, the hypothesis that mummies appeared in the region with the advent of missionaries holds an upper hand since the existence of mummies is confined to monasteries.

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