MUMMIES IN TURKEY*
Mummies and related subjects evoke a cultural tradition mostly belonging to Egyptians, influenced by popular culture. However, countless studies have revealed that mummification is performed as a death practice in many different geographies and cultures. Furthermore, researchers have documented many mummified human and animal remains as a result of various natural mummification processes. Surprisingly, in terms of its historical geography and cultural traditions, Turkey is also among the countries where the mummified remains were found (Figure 1). The first general study we could identify on the subject belongs to Art Historian Muzaffer Doğanbaş.
Figure 1. Infant mummy from the Byzantine Period, displayed at the Nidai (Niğde) Museum
Studies conducted so far demonstrate that there are remains with well-preserved soft tissues in several museums and tombs in Turkey. Some of these remains are exhibited in museums and attract a great deal of attention from visitors. However, we know that these remains are not subjected to large-scale academic research, except for the careful consideration of museum officials, archaeologists, and conservation experts in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey. For this reason, Ali Metin Büyükkarakaya has started to work with researchers from various disciplines upon getting permission from the ministry to carry out up-to-date studies on mummies in museums affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Considering the mummified remains reserved in various units of a few institutions in Turkey, we understand that they belong to different geographies and archaeological periods. One example could be, as mentioned earlier, Egyptian mummies that were brought to Istanbul during the excavations in Egypt during the Ottoman period. Another example is the mummies that have been preserved up to the present with the mummification techniques applied mainly in the period of Principalities (Beyliks). Yet another type of mummies are remains unearthed from caves used as churches and cemeteries in the Byzantine period. The main objectives of the above-mentioned study are to examine these mummies with up-to-date technological equipment, to discover mummification techniques and individual histories of mummies by revealing their preservation status, and to transfer these valuable remains to future generations in the light of scientific knowledge. As such, we believe that the production of real scientific knowledge with the support of contemporary technology, rather than relying on misinformation based on legends, is essential in preserving our cultural heritage to the extent it deserves.
Studies in Turkey indicate that there are at least 24 mummified human remains in the museums, dating back to the centuries from the 13th century BC to the 15th century AD. At this point, we consider it necessary to give brief information about the mummies in those museums. In his study, Doğanbaş (2001) showed that the Turks had been carrying out mummification in the period before they adopted Islam and came to Anatolia, through the examples of Pazırık, Şibe, and Oğlaktı. Herein, he points out from various written sources that there are such death practices in both Huns and Göktürks. In the following part, he mentions some mummification cases belonging to different periods, including the First Principalities, Seljuk Empire, Principalities, and the Ottoman Period, under the title of 'Anatolian Period.' Whether these mummies of the Early Principalities period were natural or artificial is not exact due to the lack of scientific examination of the samples; however, we can undoubtedly say that they are mummified remains. Having come to the conclusion that the material evidence belonging to the Seljuk Period unfortunately disappeared due to various reasons, Doğanbaş states that many emperors such as II. Kılıçarslan and I. Gıyaseddin Keyhüsrev were embalmed in that period. Claiming that the embalming practices became more common in the period of the Principalities, the researcher gave examples from The Travels of Ibn Battuta to support his argument. Ibn Battuta had noted that Saruhan, who was the son of the governor of Manisa, was embalmed and put in a coffin after passing away, in order to be hunged on a dome with an uncovered roof. Another researcher Osman Turan (1947) states that he obtained the information about the continuity of mummification in the period starting from the Huns and continuing with the Seljuks, in his book titled ‘Şemseddin Altun Aba, Vakfiyesi ve Hayatı’ [Şemseddin Altun Aba, his foundation and life]. According to Doğanbaş (2001), mummification practices went on during the Ottoman period but were mostly applied to the sultans who died in lands far from their palaces. The researcher added that the mummification practice might have occurred, including the first Ottoman sultan Osman Gazi. He also stated that I. Murat Hüdavendigar, who was killed in the Kosovo War, was mummified after passing away, and brought to his eternal tomb in Bursa. Researchers report that during this period, those various mummification processes were last applied to Suleiman the Magnificent.
On the other hand, we should note that most mummies kept in museums are mummified remains from various churches and caves. These remains have been generally dated to the Byzantine period, especially between the 10th and 15th centuries. The question of whether these mummies have been preserved artificially
through particular techniques or as a result of the natural mummification processes has remained unanswered until now due to the lack of research.
Doğanbaş, M. (2001). Mumyalama Sanatı ve Anadolu Mumyaları. Ankara.
Lynnerup, N. (2007). Mummies. American Journal of Physical Anthropology: The Official Publication of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, 134(S45), 162-190.
Lynnerup, N. (2010). Medical imaging of mummies and bog bodies–a mini-review. Gerontology, 56(5), 441-448.
Özdemir, K. & Büyükkarakaya, A.M. (2019). Mumyalar: Sen kimdin? Nasıl bir hayatın oldu?. Memento Mori, Ölüm ve Ölüm Uygulamaları içinde, Ali Metin Büyükkarakaya & Elif Başak Aksoy (Ed.), Ege Yayınları, İstanbul, ss. 537-564
*The text was excerpted from the 'Memento Mori, Ölüm ve Ölüm Uygulamaları' book, from the chapter 'Mumyalar: Sen kimdin? Nasıl bir hayatın oldu?'.