The ancient Egyptians believed that part of the human spirit was permanently linked to the viability of the body. Therefore, it was necessary to preserve the body if one wanted to achieve immortality in the Egyptian religion's afterlife. Allowing the body to rot effectively meant destroying the person's soul. Unlike people of many other religions and cultures, the Egyptians believed that the body needed to be intact to serve as a host for the soul.
It appears as if they came upon the idea of drying the body by accident -- and as a matter of geography and climate. The sand and dry air of Egypt's climate preserved bodies buried in shallow pits and drying the body from the inside made sense. The ancient Egyptians went about finding ways to make it work with the natural materials available to them.
The average life of an ancient Egyptian was only 40 years long, so preparing for a long and happy eternity was important [source: Ikram]. Of course, complete mummification and all of the concerns about immortality applied mostly to those who could afford to pay for the practice. This meant that nearly all pharaohs were mummified, and many members of the nobility and upper classes had the full mummification treatment. People in the middle classes may have been able to pay for mummification, but generally there were fewer and less elaborate mummies among this group and even fewer in the lower classes. Sacred animals, however, were mummified at times [source: Smithsonian].
At least 70 million mummies were made in Egypt over a 3,000-year period [source: Ikram]. In addition to the fact that many were found and destroyed by plunderers or discovered by archaeologists and placed in museums, many of the mummies were later destroyed for medicinal purposes. The word "mummy" comes from the Persian and Arabic words that describe bitumen, a black substance that comes from the Mumya Mountain in Persia. Arabs who first saw mummies named them for bitumen when they saw the black waxy looking substance on mummies and the name held through European translations. Even though most mummies were not made using bitumen, many medieval recipes listed "mummy as an ingredient and countless mummies were destroyed to be used as medicine. Others were burned as kindling; there was not a lot of vegetation in Egypt to use as firewood.
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