Monthly Archives: October 2014

Irtieru and the Woman in Black Garments: A Story told by Miguel Molinero Polo

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-03 a la(s) 00.05.30Forty-five years ago, Shadi Abdelsalam premiered The Mummy, The Night of Counting the Years. Since then, the film began a career of awards and recognitions that still show it as one of the most admired works of Egyptian cinema.

The director based the story on an event of extraordinary importance for archaeology, the discovery of the Deir el-Bahari royal cachette. Despite the positive assessment of film critics, Western Egyptology censored some of the “freedoms” that Abdessalam had taken regarding the historical events. This judgment did not consider the intentions of the work, which are not those of a documentary that describes more or less faithfully the events of the spring of 1881. The Mummy is a parable about the identity of contemporary Egypt, shot in a difficult decade for the country, through the queries of a young man faced with a terrible secret: his family survives on the systematic looting of a group of coffins, those of their ancestors –of themselves– hidden in the Theban mountains. The gurnaui main character has a fictitious name, Uanis -his relatives are just “mother”, “brother” or “uncles” – while the names of the archaeologists are real (Gaston Maspero, Ahmed Kamal) as well as that of his community, the Hurubat. These, indeed, included the Abd el-Rasul family –not mentioned as such in the film– the historical discoverers of the royal mummies’ cachette.

Here begins the relationship –completely accidental, as is well understood– between the film and the activities of the SACP. The Abd el-Rasul family lived until 2007 in Rasayla, the house built around Irtieru’s courtyard. In fact, this was its central feature, a sun court with porticos on the north and south sides still concealed by the remains of the mud brick houses. Its rear rooms reached Karakhamun’s pillared halls. I do not have reliable information on the location of this family’s residence in 1881. Perhaps some of the readers of the SACP blog could provide consistent data on this particular. They may have lived already where they were known, in Rasayla, or very near, since twenty years after the actual events related in the movie, Robert Mond’s report on his archaeological activities in 1902 called TT 209, which is very close in the wadi Khatasum, as the tomb “near the house of the Abd el-Rasul”.

After the burial of Uanís’ father, at the beginning of the film, the uncles present their condolences to the family. The conversation turns to the obligation of the deceased’s children to respect the way of life of the family and keep the secret about the looting of the coffins. The scene takes place in the home of the fictitious Abd el-Rasul. The setting represents a tomb whose access is a ramp with a flight of central stairs and side ramps as in most late tombs. It is most intriguing that even if it is a Theban tomb, the walls do not appear decorated with the colourful scenes that characterize those of the New Kingdom. They are covered with carved columns of hieroglyphic texts without colour, a specific feature, again, of Late Period tombs, even if in those the signs could be filled with coloured pigments. This wall decoration is austere and therefore closest to the spirit of the film. But, at the same time, the similarity with Karakhamun’s tomb (and others of the Late Period) is evident. Did Shadi Abdel Salam ever get inside the house of the real Abd el-Rasuls? A part of the movie’s scenes were shot in the West Bank, therefore it is not impossible: this family’s ancestors were the main characters of the film and he was a person with a deep interest in history. Did he ever see Karakhamun’s tomb, at the back of Rasayla, and still accessible in the 1960s, when the director was preparing and shooting the movie? Was it the inspiration for the aforementioned setting? The similarities between both of them are evident.

In the aforementioned scene, the condolences are presented to Uanis’ mother, a woman dressed in the black garments of a widow, sitting with dignity on a dikka, and surrounded by respect for her figure and her words. Mixing reality, film and my own imagination, every time I enter tomb TT 390, that of Irtieru, accessed through the ruins of the Abd el-Rasuls’ courtyard, I cannot stop thinking about this scene. And we enter this tomb many times during the campaigns of the SACP. The underground part of the tomb is fully excavated and now hosts pottery, bones and the fragments of decoration from Karakhamun’s Burial Chamber being studied by SACP team members. The actual Irtieru was a female scribe, as stated by the titles in her tomb. And at each entrance to her tomb, I imagine Irtieru the Wise, completely dressed in black –it is anachronic, I know– sitting with total dignity on a carpet, with a similar gesture to that of the movie character on her dikka. She leans slightly at my entrance and tries to whisper her advice in my ear: where to place again each block of decoration that has dropped from the ceiling and walls.

The film can be seen on Youtube. There are several versions, some include English subtitles.

The short films by Shadi Abdelsalam, most of them with an Egyptian subject, are also accessible through Youtube. For example, The Eloquent Peasant.

A commentary on the film The Mummy, written by the author of these lines is accessible through (in Spanish).

The last stories of the 2014 season written by Kenneth Griffin and Marion Brew will be featured in the next blog entry.