For most of middle school, I carried around a pencil tin in the shape of an Egyptian sarcophagus. When teachers asked about its provenance, I told the truth: my mother had bought it for me at the British Museum, not as a pencil tin but as a “tin with white chocolate mummy.” I was at that very special age when a girl has only one thing on her mind (not boys, not homicide, but the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians), and I could not have asked for a better souvenir. At last, a piece of Egypt I could sink my teeth into.
Having gorged in the white chocolate mummy, reveled in the satisfying snap of those edible wrappings, I carried the empty sarcophagus as a promise to myself. One day, I would visit the British Museum. I would see a real Egyptian mummy for myself. I would indulge in my dream career as an Egyptologist, just for a few minutes. And then, just for fun, I’d buy another chocolate mummy.
It didn’t quite happen that way.
I did visit the British Museum, in my teens, but the visit was cut so short I could barely snap a photo of the faux Rosetta Stone, nevermind find an Egyptian mummy.
And I did see an Egyptian mummy, but that was later, much later, in Portugal, closer to home, in an exhibit which had nothing to do with the British Museum—and which, tragically, did not sell people-shaped chocolates in sarcophagus-shaped tins.
His name is Pakharu. Or maybe it isn’t, but that’s the name on his sarcophagus, and I have nothing else to go by. I know this name now, but I didn’t when I first saw it, the mummy, the object, the thing in the middle of the small, moody dark room where the University of Porto held an Egyptian exhibit on its 100th anniversary, in 2011.
I didn’t question the name of the exhibit: Coleção Egípcia do Museu de História Natural da Universidade do Porto (literally, “Egyptian Collection of the Natural History Museum of the University of Porto”). I didn’t ask “wait, why does my university own an Egyptian collection?” I was on my second year of undergrad and I visited museums for sport, but I wasn’t particularly critical of them. I was deferential. The exhibit wanted to tell me about ancient Egypt, that abstract land, more concept than place, and so I let it. It wanted to show me shabti figures and canopic jars and ceramic bowls, and it wanted to tell me about mummification without telling me about the actual mummified man in the glass case. I tried to nod along, but there’s only so much abstraction I can muster in the presence of a dead man.
Nestled inside a beautifully decorated sarcophagus, he seemed small and vulnerable, less recognizably human than I’d expected, more cocoon-like. His feet had been snapped clean off his body. The lid of his sarcophagus floated just a few inches above his body, supported by a clear pane of glass. I enjoyed this deconstructed set-up. I could crouch down and look up into the inside of the lid, hold myself shoulder-to-shoulder with the mummified man and pretend to switch places, pretend to see as he saw. Through glass and wrappings and resins, I could find a way to relate to this man. What a tremendous privilege, to be able to experience someone else’s life and death in this way.
And what a rarity, in Portugal, in a country with so few Egyptian mummies on display. (For sarcophagi, I’ve seen the count capped at 10. I expect there will be even fewer mummies.) For this alone, Pakharu is special. He’s been made special. But how, exactly, did he get here, to this place where his death holds so much value?
I couldn’t possibly tell his story from the beginning, so I’ll start in 1914.
World War I is about to blow, and the cogs in the machine that will bring Pakharu to Portugal are just beginning to turn. The SS Cheruskia, a German cargo ship, is on its way back from Basra, in modern-day Iraq, when the war breaks out. As ships scramble to find neutral harbor, the Cheruskia docks in Lisbon, Portugal, and awaits further instructions. For two years, the ship lingers, cradling crates upon crates of Assyrian artifacts originating from the archaeological exploits of one Walter Andrae, German archaeologist.
In 1916, after a gentle nudge from the British, Portugal moves in and seizes all 72 German ships in its harbors. Germany, already at war with Britain, declares war on Portugal. The Assyrian crates are moved into a customs warehouse in Lisbon, and the hostilities progress. The belligerents correspond on the matter of the crates all through the war. It’s a circus. A diplomatic incident of the highest order. The Germans want their crates back, but the British want them temporarily transferred to London, and then sent back home to Mesopotamia. (Which, lest we forget, they have just recently occupied.) As for the Portuguese, well, we’ve got nothing to do with any of this, but we know an opportunity when we see it—we are ready to unpack the crates and start our own Assyrian Museum.
The collection moves north in 1922, to the University of Porto, where it joins the Museu de Arqueologia Histórica (“Museum of Historical Archaeology”) of the Faculty of Letters. The story could have ended here, but Germany doesn’t let up. Walter Andrae himself comes to check on his excavated loot. Finally, in 1926, the two countries strike a deal. Portugal will return the Assyrian items to Germany, and Germany will send back a curated collection of artifacts from all around the world, donated by various departments of the Berlin Museum. (Opinions may vary on whether this collection constitutes a consolation prize, offered by Germany in exchange for the far more valuable Assyrian collection, or a ransom payment, begrudgingly paid so Portugal would finally liberate the seized crates. Either way, it makes it to Portugal and the exchange is completed.)
Among the 689 objects that currently make up the Museus de Berlim (“Museums of Berlin”) collection, over one hundred are Egyptian. Two aren’t objects at all, but people, post-mortem agents of international diplomacy. One is a mummified woman, unwrapped, whose name I don’t know and whose acquaintance I’ve yet to make; the other, of course, is Pakharu.
We’ve met twice now—the first time in 2011, the second in 2020, in a bright new exhibit that had him surrounded not only by familiar Egyptian paraphernalia, but also by the radically heterogenous contents of the Museus de Berlim collection. Of the two exhibits, only the latter made a highlight of the story I am recounting here. Entitled Culturas e Geografias (Cultures and Geographies), it opened with a huge, blown-up photograph of the arrival of Walter Andrae’s second batch of curated treasures.
I expect we will meet again in the future, Pakharu and I, and I expect his surroundings will continue to change. I expect the stories told in his presence—and by virtue of his presence—will continue to change. Maybe we’ll meet on the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Portugal, and he’ll get to be the protagonist. Or maybe we won’t, because the consensus around the display of human bodies may have changed by then.
That’s the truth of our interaction, if I can call it that: try as I might to get close to Pakharu, to recognize him as an equal, to contemplate our shared personhood, we are not the same. I am person. I am visitor. I can walk away, come back whenever I want. I am interpreter. I can take his story, as I am doing here, and build upon it, add layers of meaning, contribute to the narrative that makes him valuable—or worse, invaluable, never to be given up, never to be returned home. Pakharu is object. He has been made object. Consolation prize, or ransom payment. Passed around by countries in a lull between world wars like so many chips under a gambling table, commodified for my and the public’s consumption.
I know that to stand before Pakharu today, in a museum in western Europe, is to participate in—and benefit from—a history that does not recognize him, this Egyptian man from another place and time, as a person. It’s the same history that’s made it possible for me to tell the quirky, subversive, but not exactly macabre tale of my white chocolate mummy; the same history that’s made it possible for Europeans before me to grind up actual Egyptian mummies and call it medicine.
Maybe it’s not enough, as a visitor, to know of this history, to accumulate these factoids as evidence of wrongdoing. Maybe action should follow. But I’m not there yet. I still own that sarcophagus pencil case, even though my days as a budding Egyptologist are long gone. And I still value this relationship, fragile as it may be—this opportunity to connect, fantastically, with people whose lives began and ended so long ago, so many lifetimes before mine.
Rafaela Ferraz is a writer specializing in overlooked chapters of Portuguese history. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, Hyperallergic, The Order of the Good Death, and more. She blogs at rafaelaferraz.com and tweets @RafaelaWrites