Professor of Radiology, Mummy Expert
Kasr AlAiny • Cairo University
Sahar brings cultural and medical expertise to her exploration of mummies in Egypt and internationally. Her work at the Barnum Museum brought her to Connecticut to work on the mummy now known as Ipy.
Short Documentary about Sahar's work with Ipy at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut
When Sahar was seven, her teacher gave the class an assignment to write a composition about what they wanted to be when they grew up. "Everyone thought about very conventional jobs," says Sahar. "I wanted to write a unique composition, so I wrote that I wanted to be an artist." But the teacher came and asked why she wrote that. "I was disappointed. She did not get it! I thought how narrow-minded my teacher was that she would not realize that an artist was something great."
Sahar and her sisters grew up using a room in their house that was a studio for music and art. "I had my accordion there." Her intention, she says, was to be something different, not an architect or doctor like everyone else.
Looking back, Sahar thinks she herself was narrow-minded when she chose to specialize in pediatrics (children's medicine); it was something she knew. But she couldn't stick with it. "I started crying because I could not tolerate seeing children sick. It wasn't for me. I was very much into the patient and their families, and their relationship with others at home. If a child died. . . After three months I said, 'I don't want to do this.' "
Radiology involved a connection with patients, but the growing technology it represents was also exciting to Sahar. "You deal with films, with exams, and it is a little less in contact with suffering and disaster." For Sahar, with her strong sense of empathy, radiology was a better fit emotionally, and intellectually, too. "I keep growing whenever there is new technology, and radiology is growing faster than any other medical specialty. We throw our textbooks out maybe every five years, because of the new technology. That's why I love this."
Sahar's speciality within radiology is fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). She did pioneering work in studying the fetal heart through MRI. "In relation to the mother, I am looking at her son or daughter to see if there are any abnormalities. I work with people who expect to have congenital (inherited) abnormalities." Again this keeps her close to patients. "Whenever you have to say to a parent that the fetus has something wrong, you have to break it in a very human way." Doing so creates a bond that lasts long after the MRI. "Mothers still call and visit me ten years after I did their fetal MRI."
Sahar says, "I joined my school's band at 10 years old. I played accordion. During my studies in medical school, I joined a private music school to learn to play keyboard and reached the advanced level. In 2017 I had a private music tutor who taught me to play piano. I love playing music every day." What does playing the piano do for her? "Music opens up a whole new world of experience for me that further enhances my mind, senses, physical coordination, and expression. As a music lover, I took lessons to play several instruments: accordion, then keyboard, then piano. Being an amateur music lover, I can practice music while maintaining my regular work as a radiology and mummy expert." How's her playing? See for yourself:
Sahar’s initial work with mummies took place in museums that housed them. Most museums do not have had scanners on site so have to transport the mummies to places with scanners. “For me this is not good,” Sahar says. “For me, I want to do the work to the mummy with the least trouble for the mummy, so it should not to be moved. Cairo Egyptian Museum is one of very few museums in the world that have their own CT scanner onsite. It fulfills my requirements.”
Sahar began going to the excavation sites where mummies were found, sometimes descending as deep as 30 meters (almost 100 feet) underground. Such work has required her to redesign her tools. “I use a light portable digital x-ray machine. I also went to a metal smith to create light equipment in pieces such as a mummy table and film holders. I put it together inside the burial shaft.”
Working in a burial shaft has major difficulties. "There is just a very narrow entry hole. Sometimes I climb in with a ladder, sometimes I go down in a bucket. And there's always a chance of falling down." Rocks can also drop, hit and injure Sahar as she does her work. At first, archaeologists wanted to place her lab at the bottom of the shaft and transport the mummies from different levels of 10 or 15 meters down to her, but she said no, because of the possibility of damaging the mummies. Now she sets her machinery on a scaffold that is hoisted up or down to the level where each mummy lies. "I feel I'm protecting my culture," Sahar insists. "Sometimes it's difficult to do, but I do it."
She also measures the radiation in the shaft, in order to safeguard others working there, as well as herself. As for other perils -- consider the snakes in the Indiana Jones movie! -- Sahar says, "Yes, this could be an opportunity for something to crawl in and hide, but for me this did not happen."
All this adds another requirement -- staying in place. "I have to stay in the shaft for the whole day," Sahar explains. "I don't drink or eat. It's very difficult getting up and down, so even if I want to go to the bathroom, I don't."
Sahar remembers, "As a child, I liked thrilling movies and horror. My information about mummies came from the movies." She mentions the first movie featuring mummies --The Mummy, which came out in 1934, and featured a mummy based on the look of King Ramses III. "But when I was a little bit older I used to go to the Cairo museum and visit the kings and queens. I had this bond with them: Their facial features resemble mine, and how beautiful they were! I'm related to those kings and queens."
Mummies get a bum rap. (Wrap?) The media portrays them as monsters, zombies that emerge from their coffins trailing strips of fabric. But to Sahar, the mummies she studies are her ancestors ,respectable and beloved people seeking immortality -- including royalty. "I feel them as people," she says. "I don't say 'mummy' much; I say, for example, "the mummified King Ramses II." This is why she's not eager to destroy or be invasive to the mummies. "People from other countries or different backgrounds just want to have a sample. They want to open and dissect." Sahar vividly describes the practices of collectors of earlier eras who treated the mummies as objects, turned them into products, or used them as entertainment centerpieces.
Sahar considers such approaches selfish, especially considering the noninvasive technologies (such as hers) that are available now an, even more, those that will be available to future archaeologists and paleoradiologists.
Experts on Egypt (Egyptologists) came to Sahar with the mummy of King Ramses III. "Ancient Egyptians never announced that the king died. They would just say that the court took orders from the king, but who was the king? Was it Ramses III, was he alive? Or was it his successor, Ramses IV? Nobody knew." The body of the mummy in question was totally wrapped, and a glue-like resin had been added to the wrapping to hold everything in place. "From the neck downwards, the wrapping was glued to the body. The embalmers wanted to hide all the injuries from the eyes of the world."
But Sahar's CT scan could slip under the mummy's wrappings, respecting the wishes of those who wanted the body preserved. She revealed the cut in the king's neck, and could also see that his big toe had been chopped off. "There was an attacker in front with a heavy object like an axe, and an attacker from behind with a dagger." Using a combination of radiology and her knowledge of Egyptian history, Sahar began to solve King Ramses III's mystery.
"I consider myself a guardian for this ancient civilization. I'm a science communicator. With tools, with science, I will tell you what happened. That is the difference between telling a fairy story and telling the truth. When I examined Ramses III, I learned how he was killed. Yes, I could put you in the situation. Imagine the horror of that moment! You can 'see' the palace, the bloody scene, the people rushing, running. From science, you can tell a real story that is even more wonderful than a fairy story."