The secrets of King Amenhotep I had been buried and reburied for three millennia beneath layers of linen and a stunningly lifelike mask.
He was the only one of Egypt’s royal mummies whose body was unviewed by modern eyes. Unviewed, that is, until Cairo University professor Sahar Saleem virtually unwrapped and reconstructed his life with 3D, computerized tomography (CT) images.
The Egyptologist – whose training at Western University inspired her career in paleoradiology – has been called the country’s leading “mummy doctor.”
She has outlined her discoveries about Amenhotep I in a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, co-authored with archaeologist and Egyptian antiquities expert Zahi Hawass.
Saleem has CT-scanned or X-rayed more than 40 royal mummies, including Ramses III and Tutankhamen, and hundreds of non-royals.
But Amenhotep I was unique.
“Having a look from my computer at the face of King Amenhotep I, as the first person in 3,000 years to see his face, was really a moment of joy. I considered it a blessing,” she said in an interview with Western News.
Amenhotep I’s mummy was discovered in 1881 but was spared the indignity – and inevitable damage – that befell other pharaohs that were unwrapped for visual examination. Officials at the time left the mummy remains intact because they didn’t want to mar the king’s vibrantly painted death mask or the red, yellow and blue floral garlands that covered his linens from head to toe.
As a result, Amenhotep I, who ruled for 20 years in about 1500 B.C., remained among the most enigmatic of the royal mummies.
His appearance, age, health, possible cause of death, even the cultural and religious accoutrements meant to accompany him into the afterlife: all were cloaked in mystery.
Saleem knew that advanced CT scans – ultra-thin image slices stitched together into three-dimensional images revealing the soft tissue and bone beneath the linen bandages – could virtually unwrap the king.
Saleem hadn’t even thought about becoming a paleoradiologist when she arrived at Western in 2004 on medical and education fellowships.
Her plan was to learn and teach neuroradiology and advanced medical imaging of live humans.
But on her first day at the university, Saleem found anthropology professor and mummy expert Andrew Nelson scanning an Egyptian mummy on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum.
“I said, ‘Oh, she’s a fellow Egyptian. I should be offering my services.’ I thought this was really interesting and I should be doing this because being an Egyptian I should also help preserve my heritage.”
She was hooked.
Saleem joined Nelson’s research group in paleopathology and became active in interdisciplinary workshops, lectures and discussions.
In 2005, in the middle of her stay in Canada, Egypt announced plans to conduct a CT scan of King Tutankhamen.
When she returned to Egypt at the end of her fellowship at Western, she joined the Ministry of Antiquities and became a leading player in the Egyptian Mummy Project of scanning the pharaohs.
Saleem was in charge of conducting CT scans on 22 royal mummies, including Amenhotep I, in preparation for their historic parade to their new home at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in April 2021.
She is also a professor of radiology in the Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University, a pioneer in conducting fetal magnetic resonance imaging, and an award-winning author and public speaker.
Saleem and Nelson continue to collaborate on other mummy projects.
“Going to Western was a pivotal point in my life,” she said.
“I always mention this story when people say, ‘why are you a radiologist and why did you become a doctor of mummies?’ And I always start my answer with, ‘when I was at Western …’”
Not much is known about Amenhotep I, although he was deified as a god and his death inspired a funerary cult.
A 1932 X-ray of Amenhotep I suggested the ruler was between 40 and 50 years old when he died. Other X-rays in 1967 pegged him to be about 25 years old.
But Saleem’s 3D CT imaging reveals the pharaoh’s story in far greater, more accurate detail:
- Amenhotep I was about 35 years old, stood about 5’6” and was in good health before his death.
- He had all his teeth, which were in good condition, albeit with a slight overbite. His chin was narrow, his left ear has a small piercing and he had curly hair.
- There’s no evidence of bone disease or joint degeneration and no apparent cause of death from disease or injury.
- His brain had not been removed during embalming; nor had his heart, which was overlaid with an amulet.
- He had 30 amulets or jewelry pieces wrapped with him.
Equally intriguing to Saleem were what the scans showed, for the first time, of post-mortem injuries inflicted by tomb robbers and lovingly restored by priests 400 years later.
The robbers had detached Amenhotep’s head and neck from his body, dislocated his left arm and detached some fingers. They had stolen some amulets from his abdominal wall but, in their apparent haste, had overlooked some others.
What was more remarkable, Saleem said, was the care that priest-embalmers used a few centuries later to repair the mummy and restore the king’s royal dignity.
They reattached his head to his body with resin-treated linen strips, pinned his left arm back to his shoulder, and replaced the stolen amulets intended to provide Amenhotep I with good fortune in the afterlife.
Saleem’s findings debunk some historians’ hypotheses that priests who rewrapped and reburied royal mummies in the 21st Egyptian dynasty were acting in the interests of later governments or may even have scooped some of the treasure themselves.
“They not only kept the amulets that were there, they added more. It reflects the noble aim of the priests, how they lovingly took care of the older kings,” she said.
Saleem has learned to cross-reference what her scans tell her with other documents and artifacts that shed light on ancient Egypt.
Sometimes, that has led to revelations of 3,000-year-old crime scenes, complex whodunnits that reveal a world of royal intrigue.
Other times, as with Amenhotep I, her work brings new life to a king whose life and death was wrapped in mystery.
Her research is fed by a thirst for historical knowledge as much as it is by technology – part of a mission to unveil, understand and conserve priceless cultural treasure.
“Whether I am scanning mummies or doing fetal MRIs, I’m using modern technology and science to do a good deed for patients and for heritage.”