From a royal family to religious figures and a cat, the diverse mummies within the borders of modern-day Turkiye have a story to tell.

Although it is Ancient Egypt that dominates general mummy discourse, mummification was a widespread practice in several parts of the world. 

Often a result of the belief in an afterlife, mummification is the act of embalming the bodies of the dead, with techniques and customs varying among cultures.

Anatolia, a land that's been home to countless civilisations throughout history, is unsurprisingly also home to mummies from these different cultures that have called it home. 

“There are two groups of mummies that have so far been found on Turkish land, the mummies of Christian individuals, and the mummies of Turks, or Muslim individuals,” Muzaffer Doganbas, an art historian who works with Turkiye’s Amasya Museum, told TRT World.

“Both cultures mummified their dead because it was customary at some time and place. However, it is important to note that those who were mummified were not ordinary people – they were important people like statesmen, generals, or religious figures,” Doganbas added.

In Turkiye, mummies can be found in museums and mausoleums, with those in museums preserved in special conditions that will further delay their decay, with special attention paid to temperature and humidity.

A third group of mummies one can find in Turkiye are those that have been brought to the country from abroad, such as the Egyptian mummy of a crocodile from the Nile River at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Mummies of Christian babies from the Byzantine era on display at Turkiye's Aksaray Museum, one of them with clothes depicting Anatolian motifs and crosses.
Mummies of Christian babies from the Byzantine era on display at Turkiye's Aksaray Museum, one of them with clothes depicting Anatolian motifs and crosses. (AA)

Byzantine Mummies

Aksaray, a province in Turkiye’s renowned Cappadocia region, is home to the Ihlara Valley which some refer to as the “Valley of Mummies”.

Once a prominent settlement for Byzantine Christians, stone houses and graves as well as dozens of ancient churches can be spotted along the 14 kilometre (8.5 miles) long valley.

Some 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) away from the Ihlara Valley is another Byzantine era church, namely the Canli (Bell) Church. 

Aside from its significance as an excellent example of Byzantine architecture and faith, the Canli Church, much like most churches in Ihlara Valley, was once the eternal resting place of mummified religious figures and children.

“Mummifying the dead was a widespread ancient practice in the lands we now call Aksaray. Mummification can even be considered a well-known artform,” Esra Cetin, an archaeologist from the Aksaray Museum, told TRT World.

Currently, there are eight mummies recorded in the Aksaray Museum’s inventory, extracted from the ancient Byzantine churches and rock graves of the city, predominantly the ancient Canli Church.

The mummies, which include babies and even a cat, are believed to be around 10 centuries old. They were mostly recovered after illegal excavations, and were consequently deformed, impeding a complete archaeological analysis.

A cat mummy from the Aksaray Museum, with its mouth, teeth, paws and claws preserved in excellent condition.
A cat mummy from the Aksaray Museum, with its mouth, teeth, paws and claws preserved in excellent condition. (Courtesy of: Aksaray Museum)

“There are no traces of their internal organs. It is customary for the organs to be removed and preserved separately next to the body during mummifications, but we currently have no evidence of that for this case due to the illegal excavations,” Cetin said.

These mummies also do not seem to be bandaged like their Egyptian counterparts. It might be the case that the cloth they used decayed faster than the bandages used in Egypt, or that the bandages were lost when the graves were excavated, according to Cetin.

The Christian mummies from the Cappadocia region were likely anointed with a substance that would delay decay, then wrapped in clothes and left to their eternal rest, as the earth-coloured clothes of some mummies have persisted through time.

“It was also observed that the mummies which date back to the 10th to 13th centuries AD were buried on their backs with their hands tied,” Cetin said. The exact reason as to why such a custom emerged is unknown.

The Aksaray Museum also hosts personal belongings of the mummies. An example is the mummy of a baby which was found alongside shoes, jewellery, and other ornaments, which were likely placed next to the baby as funerary offerings.

Turkic and Muslim mummies

“Many tribes and civilisations of the Turkic world had their mummification customs,” Doganbas said, adding that Herodotus had documented the mummification of Saka rulers.

“The bodies of deceased rulers would be carried around the settlements in their borders for six months, to have the subjects bear witness to the death of their ruler. So, they had to mummify the body in order to preserve it,” he explained.

Mummification rites in the Turkic world are not as well-known and researched as the Egyptian custom. However, there are certain known differences.

For one, the bandaging of embalmed individuals was not part of the custom for Turks. Moreover, when the internal organs were removed during mummification, Turkic peoples buried these organs instead of preserving them in canopic jars as in Ancient Egypt.

The mummy of a vizier which dates back to the Seljuk or Ilkhanate rule of Amasya, on display at the Amasya Museum.
The mummy of a vizier which dates back to the Seljuk or Ilkhanate rule of Amasya, on display at the Amasya Museum. (Courtesy of: Amasya Museum)

But how does mummification fit in with Islamic practice? 

“Traditions sometimes persist despite contradictory religious beliefs. And mummification was an exclusive practice that remained in the higher ranks of society. People were mummified and buried in crypts. No one was meant to know that they had been mummified except those who buried them,” said Doganbas.

Indeed, some sources had claimed that the practice of mummification ended when Turks adopted Islam, but this has been proven wrong by the discovery of mummified bodies at several tombs and mosques.

“Mummification existed as a tradition in Anatolia, just as parts of the Middle East such that there are accounts of mummification of religious figures in both the Torah and the Bible. But the tradition did not exist in the region around today’s Saudi Arabia,” Doganbas added as to why the artform, which has long been abandoned, is not well known among Muslims.

Examples of mummified Turk and Muslim individuals can be found at the local museum in Turkiye’s Amasya province, which had been respectively ruled by the Danishmendids, Seljuks, Ilkhanids, and Ottomans.

Thought to have lived during the Ilkhanate period around the occupation of the Seljuk Empire, mummies on display at the museum are of three adult men, one adult woman, and four children – a girl and two boys, and a fourth whose sex could not be determined.

The mummies were brought to the museum from the Cumudar Tomb and Fethiye Mosque in Amasya and were identified by referring to these locations as well as written sources.

They are assumed to be an Ilkhanate ruler’s lineage and minister of Anatolia Cumudar, the Ilkhanate khan of Amasya Isbuga Nuyin, vizier Izzettin Mehmet Pervane Bey who ruled in Amasya, and his family.

The museum even took on a project to depict what they used to look like when they were alive by having experts examine historic sources and the mummies’ features.

Giving visitors an idea of what the individuals mummified before them looked like, the project is mostly a creative effort.
Giving visitors an idea of what the individuals mummified before them looked like, the project is mostly a creative effort. (Courtesy of: Amasya Museum)

Experts also have an idea of how these individuals died from examinations of their bodies, revealing a dark truth about the royal family. “They were likely victims of murder,” in the words of Doganbas.

For example, the broken neck and open mouth of the mummy which is thought to be Cumudar Bey hint that the individual was strangled or hanged.

In fact, onlookers can see his painful facial expression at the moment of death, as the body was most likely left untouched until the onset of rigor mortis and mummified later on.

The feet of the mummy that is thought to be the son of Izzettin Mehmet Pervane Bey also indicates the same form of execution as the cause of death.

Written sources from that period are reported to confirm that these individuals had been executed, and while it is impossible to confirm who they are, or who mummified them, their embalming was an attempt to immortalise their bodies to match their immortal souls.

The mummy of Cumudar Bey, with his preserved facial expression.
The mummy of Cumudar Bey, with his preserved facial expression. (Courtesy of: Amasya Museum)
Source: TRT World