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In Chapter 7 of The Deadliest Lie, Miriam explains why the Jewish quarter of Alexandria is the finest residential district in the city: “We’re on the coast and farthest from the main necropolis... [so] we can inhale the scent of the sea instead of the stench of the embalming workshops.”

Mummification was the embalming method practiced most notably in Ancient Egypt. Although unintentional mummification occurred as early as prehistoric times in Egypt’s dry climate and sandy soil, deliberate mummification, the process of embalming the dead in an extensive ritualistic practice, began three thousand years before Miriam’s time, reached its peak of refinement by 1000 B.C.E., and continued well into the Roman Period.

The process began with the removal of the lungs, stomach, intestines, and liver. Each organ was then stored in one of four canopic jars that would accompany the body in the coffin. The heart, the organ where the soul was believed to reside, was kept intact.

The brain was usually removed as well. The embalmers would insert a sharp object into the nostrils to break into the cranium and draw out pieces of the brain with an iron hook. Then the skull was filled with plant-based resins to prevent decay.

Next the body was left for about forty days covered with natural salts and the salt-like substance natron. This process dehydrated the body and prevented decomposition. Finally the body was rubbed with unguents and resins and wrapped first in strips of white linen and then in sheets of canvas.

The purpose of mummification among the Egyptians was to preserve the body for the afterlife. Only then would the spirit have a home and be spared from having to wander throughout eternity. Fortunately for Miriam, living at the opposite end of the city, she and her Aunt Hannah could step into the brilliant afternoon light, hear the clack of their sandals against the cobblestones, and enjoy the scent of the sea.

[Note: To see a demonstration of deliberate mummification, watch this two-minute video]

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