Sunday 23 September 2012

Omm Sety - The Mysterious Lady of Abydos

The Beginning of the Mystery
The mysterious Omm Sety started her life on 16th January 1904 as a very ordinary Edwardian little girl called Dorothy Louise Eady. Her father was a master tailor by profession and along with her mother they all lived in the prosperous London suburb of Blackheath.
The strange events that would eventually mark her out as a mystery person of history began in 1907, when aged three years old she tumbled down the stairs. Her panicked mother Caroline thought that her child was dead so summoned the doctor and ordered her husband to return home from his place of work. The doctor on examining Dorothy declared her to have died of severe concussion and left to procure a death certificate and a nurse to lay the child out. When he returned about an hour later he was shocked to find the child not only alive, but sitting up eating chocolate and playing with her toys.
It is safe to say, however, that from the moment of her accident Dorothy was not the same child as she had been before. She began to have recurring dreams about a large building. The building had many columns and there was a beautiful garden close by filled with trees, shrubs and flowers. The little girl told her parents about the dreams and they were very distressed when they frequently found her crying under the dining room table and saying ‘I want to go home!’ No amount of reassurance from her family could persuade her that she was already home.

Seti I Temple, Abydos - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Temple of Seti I at Abydos

Troubled Childhood

When she was four years old she was taken on a family outing to the British Museum. She was totally bored as she was dragged around the various rooms by her parents until they entered the Egyptian galleries. Then the young Dorothy suddenly came to life and started running around excitedly, kissing the feet of the statues. When she calmed down and was taken upstairs, she walked straight up to a mummy in a glass case and refused to move. Her exasperated parents left her there and continued on their tour of the museum. When they returned and tried to take her home she turned to her mother and said in a voice more like an old woman’s than her own ‘Leave me....these are my people.’ Needless to say her bewildered parent’s then had to face the embarrassment of forcibly carrying her from the museum, with Dorothy kicking and screaming for all she was worth.
When Dorothy was seven her father brought home a magazine that contained pictures of Seti I’s temple at Abydos in Egypt. Dorothy realised that she was looking at the building in her dreams. She informed her poor, bemused father that this was her home and asked him why it was all broken. Shortly afterwards she came across another photograph that depicted the mummy of Seti I, and was immediately convinced that she knew him.
She had a troubled childhood and managed to get expelled from both Sunday school and regular school for expounding her beliefs in the Ancient Egyptian religion. She would also play truant from school to haunt the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum. Whilst at the museum, she was befriended by Sir E A Wallis Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities and inveigled him into teaching her hieroglyphics.

The Appearance of Pharaoh Seti I

When she was fourteen she woke up one night to the feeling of having hands pressing down on her chest and looked up to see a face looking down at her. It was the same face as in the photograph of the mummy of Seti I. Shortly afterwards she began to have another set of recurrent dreams, where she was a young Egyptian girl in a room full of other women, and then in an underground chamber where she was being questioned by an older man. She also started sleepwalking and her parents had her committed several times for short stays in a mental institution for observation.
Her parents moved to Plymouth, where her father opened a movie cinema, but Dorothy returned to London when she was twenty seven to work for an Egyptian public relations magazine. It was there that she met a young Egyptian man, called Imam Abdel Meguid, who was in England to study. When he returned to Egypt they wrote to each other, and eventually he proposed marriage. She arrived in Egypt in 1933 and married Imam. She swiftly became pregnant and gave birth to a son whom she called Sety, much to the distress of her parents who thought that the child should have been called George.

Mummy of Pharaoh Seti I - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Mummy of Pharaoh Seti I

Her Early Life in Egypt

Shortly after her arrival in Egypt the Pharaoh Seti I began appearing to her again in the night, and was witnessed by several other people including her father-in-law and mother. Her husband, who was by this time rather confused and embarrassed by her behaviour, was even more bewildered when she started to get out of her bed in the middle of the night and write down messages in hieroglyphics. After about a year it became clear that the messages, which Dorothy believed were being passed to her by an Ancient Egyptian called Hor-Ra, were actually the story of a previous life that she had lived in nineteenth dynasty Egypt.
According to the messages she had been a young girl of humble origins who had been given to the temple at Abydos to serve the goddess Isis. Her name back then had been Bentreshyt which means ‘Harp of Joy’. She took vows that she would remain chaste and was trained by the High Priest Antef in her role in the dramatisation of the story of Osiris and Isis. One day she met the pharaoh Seti I in the garden, when he was on a tour inspecting the progress of the building of the temple, and they fell in love. They met secretly, as even the Pharaoh was not permitted to romance a priestess vowed to the temple. In time Bentreshyt became pregnant and their secret was out. She was questioned severely by Antef, and she eventually told him who the father of her child was. The punishment for her crime was death, so Bentreshyt decided to commit suicide rather than drag her royal lover into a great scandal.

Her Arrival at Abydos

Dorothy’s husband divorced her, but she stayed on in Egypt and moved to the Giza plateau, where she could live in sight of the pyramids. She got a job as a draughtsman working in the fourth dynasty cemetery at Giza and was also the first woman ever to work for the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. Her husband reclaimed their son when he was five years old, and Dorothy began to build up a menagerie of dogs, cats, donkeys, snakes, geese and other birds.
It was not until 1952 that Dorothy Eady eventually managed to visit Abydos and but it was only for a couple of days. She returned for a couple of weeks in 1954, but was finally offered a job as a draughtsman at Abydos in 1956. During her time in Egypt, Dorothy had continued to receive nocturnal visits from her royal lover and by her account they had a full and passionate physical relationship. When she returned to live at Abydos, she believed that she was once more dedicated to the temple and must return to her vows of chastity. She promised Pharaoh Seti that she would honour the feast days of the temple and perform the rituals of the old religion.

Strange Occurrences at Abydos

Being familiar with the temple at Abydos from her previous existence, she astounded the chief inspector from the Department of Antiquities when he tested her knowledge. He told her to go to various parts of the temple in the dark and each time she found her way without any problems. It was at this time that she started to be called Omm Sety, which in Arabic means Mother of Sety. It was deemed impolite by the local Egyptians to refer to a married woman by her given name, so they instead called them by the name of their eldest child. She bought a house for seventy-five dollars and acquired a donkey.
She also got the chance to prove that the garden that she had always said was attached to the Abydos temple did in fact exist when the excavators found the remains of a garden exactly where she said they would be. They found tree roots, vine roots, water channels and the well, which even still had some water in it. One of the more fascinating experiences that happened to her in the temple occurred in 1958. Omm Sety was suffering from the flu and as she was walking across the roof she slipped and fell. She slid down a long slope and found herself in a passageway. This passage was filled with articles from ancient times, including bales of linen, offering tables, boxes and statues, most of which were covered in gold. She found her way out somehow, and told the Chief Inspector, but could never again find the exact spot where she had fallen or a way into the passage.
Omm Sety was able to live among the villagers in safety as they believed that she had magical powers, and being very superstitious they were afraid of her. She was, however, also admired for her healing powers and she would spend hours talking with the women and learning all their folk remedies, customs and superstitions. In the late 1960s Omm Sety began writing a series of reports and articles for the American Research Centre in Egypt that spoke about the ancient folk traditions still practised in the villages.

Old Age and the Mystery of Omm Sety

She was retired from the Antiquities service in 1969 and had to try to survive on a small pension. She took up needle-point embroidery and created scenes from the temple to sell to visiting tourists and she also did some part-time tour guiding for the Antiquities Department. She became very frail in her later years and suffered a heart attack, a broken knee, chronic appendicitis, phlebitis, dysentery and eye problems. She built a tomb for herself in her garden, but when she died in April 1981 the local health department refused to allow her to be buried there. She was interred on the very edge of the Coptic cemetery instead, but there is still no gravestone to mark her burial.
So what do you make of this Mystery Person of History? Omm Sety was a remarkable woman anyway in that she became a fine draughtsman, Egyptologist, expert in hieroglyphics and folk lore and medicine. She also showed great courage and determination in pursuing her dreams and ambitions. But do you believe that she had lived before in Ancient Egypt and was visited in this life by her royal lover, the pharaoh Seti I? The thing that we can be sure of is that Omm Sety herself sincerely believed it to be true. She followed the old Egyptian religion and never wavered from her beliefs. She was also reticent about talking about her experiences, only confiding in trusted friends and colleagues. The answer is that we will probably never know. The truth is lost in the swirling sands of Egypt and in the dark passages and long shadows of the temple at Abydos.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Have They Found the Lost Burial of King Richard III?

You would expect to find a medieval king of England buried in an elaborate marble tomb in an important ecclesiastical building such as Westminster Abbey or St George’s Chapel in Windsor. But for the last Plantagenet King of England, Richard III, there was no such impressive memorial to commemorate his life and reign and the location of his grave was an unsolved mystery for hundreds of years.  So you can imagine the excitement when a team from the University of Leicester started to search for the grave of the lost king, especially as the king in question was the notorious and controversial Richard III.  For he is the infamous English monarch who was accused of murdering his own nephews to gain his crown and was portrayed by the famous bard William Shakespeare as an evil, deformed hunchback with a withered arm.

King Richard III - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
King Richard III

However, it must be remembered that history is written by the victors and descriptions of Richard’s appearance penned by the likes of Shakespeare, Thomas Moore and Raphael Holinshed were Tudor propaganda designed to shore up the legitimacy and power of the new royal dynasty and smear the Yorkist king’s reputation in order to justify leading a rebellion against him and usurping his throne. Inconveniently for Henry Tudor’s supporters, until the unexpected death of his elder brother King Edward IV, Richard’s reputation had been blameless.  Unusually in the chaos that was the War of the Roses, Richard had remained totally loyal to his older brother, even when his other brother George, Duke of Clarence sided with the Earl of Warwick and joined with the Lancastrian forces headed by Margaret of Anjou.  He was richly rewarded by a grateful Edward IV, who gave him the title of Duke of Gloucester and allowed his marriage to the traitorous Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville.  Richard spent little time at the court in London, and based himself mainly in the north, where he led several successful campaigns against the Scots and recaptured Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1482.

After Edward’s unexpected death in 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector and marched down from Yorkshire to meet up with his nephew the twelve year old new King Edward V.  Edward V was travelling to London in the company of his maternal uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, who Richard arrested and subsequently executed along with Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan in Pontefract Castle. Once he arrived in London with the new King, Richard lodged him in the Tower of London, which was the traditional place where English monarchs stayed before their coronation and persuaded Edward’s mother, Elizabeth Woodville, to allow his younger brother Richard, Duke of York to join him.  The arrangements for Edward’s coronation were going ahead when Richard suddenly changed tack and seized the crown for himself, citing as the reason that his nephews were illegitimate because his brother Edward IV has already made a contract to marry another woman, Lady Eleanor Butler, before he secretly married Elizabeth Woodville.

After Richard’s coronation sightings of the two young princes playing in the grounds of the Tower of London dwindled and rumours started to fly that the boys had been murdered by their uncle. However, there is still no real evidence that King Richard murdered his nephews and what really happened to the Princes in the Tower is still just conjecture.  His short reign held much personal tragedy for the new English king, as his only son and heir Edward of Middleham died tragically in 1484 and his wife Anne Neville also died of tuberculosis a few short months later in March 1485.  But during his reign Richard proved to be a popular monarch with his people and he introduced laws that allowed poorer people to have their grievances heard and he also stopped restrictions being placed on the printing and sale of books.

Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle, and he was slain at the Battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485 defending his kingdom against the forces of Henry Tudor.  This decisive battle brought the War of the Roses into its final stages, placing the Lancastrian Henry Tudor onto the throne of England as King Henry VII and bringing to an end the rule of the Yorkist dynasty and the Plantagenets.  We don’t really know the details of how King Richard was killed during the battle, but legend has it that after he was slain his mangled corpse was ignominiously slung over the back of a horse and taken into the nearby town of Leicester and left on display for the public to come and view for three days.  However distasteful this may seem to our modern minds, it was a politically astute move from the new King Henry VII, as it would stop any rumours being put around that Richard hadn’t really been killed during the battle and thus preventing a potential focus for rebellion against the new dynasty . The king’s body was then said to have been thrown into the River Soar that runs through the town and one of the bridges is known as ‘King Richard’s Bridge’.

However, a contemporary chronicler Sir Thomas Frowyk made a reference to King Richard being buried in the church of the Newarke in Leicester and chroniclers later in the reign of Henry VII spoke of money being set aside by the new Tudor king to build a tomb for him and of Richard’s burial being in the Greyfriars Church which was part of the Franciscan Friary. Greyfriars was destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries instigated by HenryVIII in 1536, and it would seem that it was at this time that the location of the royal burial became uncertain, as the bones could either have been removed from the tomb when the building was razed and either moved or discarded, or the royal skeleton was buried under the ground and was undisturbed but covered by more recent building work.  The Mayor of Leicester, Robert Herrick, constructed a mansion over the remains of the friary church and when Christopher Wren visited him in 1612 he reported seeing a stone pillar inscribed as a memorial to Richard III in the garden.  Around the same time in 1611, a map maker called John Speedie was recording local landmarks in Leicester and it is thought that he may have been the one who started the story that Richard III’s body had been thrown in the river. It is said that he did this to cover up his embarrassment at not being able to find the King’s grave, and that he had not searched in the right place, as he had been looking at Blackfriars rather than Greyfriars.

The archaeologists from Leicester University located the site of the lost Greyfriars church by examining historical maps and comparing them to modern ones. They started their excavations on 25th August 2012 in a car park belonging to the local council.  The mansion built by Robert Herrick had been demolished in the 1870s and replaced with public buildings, although the gardens were not paved over until the middle of the 20th century, and the excavations soon uncovered paving stones that are thought to be from the mansion’s gardens. Medieval finds included inlaid floor tiles, fragments of tracery from the church windows, and part of a stone frieze believed to be from the choir stalls and the locations of the eastern cloister walk and the chapter house were established.  But the most exciting find of all was the discovery of an intact skeleton of an adult male buried in the Choir area of the Friary Church.  The remains had not been interred in a coffin, but seemed to have been laid to rest in a shroud that has subsequently disintegrated, and there was nothing buried with the body to indicate the skeleton’s identity. So what clues are there that this could be the body of King Richard III?

The skeleton is that of an adult male who had been strong and in good health when he had died.  The remains also display injuries that could have been sustained during a medieval battle as there is a blade wound to the back of the head and an iron barbed arrowhead was found lodged between the vertebrae of the upper back.  The skeleton also has a curvature of the spine, known as scoliosis, that would have meant that during life the man’s right shoulder would have seemed to have been higher than his left.  This fits in with contemporary description’s of Richard’s appearance which speak of a raised shoulder and could have been the basis of Shakespeare’s exaggerated depiction of the monarch as an ugly, short hunchback who had a withered arm.  The experts are hoping to extract DNA samples for analysis from a few of the teeth and femur of the skeleton, which they are hoping will match with that of Michael Ibsen, a Canadian descendant of Richard III’s elder sister Anne of York to prove the identity of the remains.

This DNA testing will take about twelve weeks and during this time it will have to be decided where the remains will be reinterred if the testing proves that the skeleton is that of the King.  There are no plans for the excavation to be kept open for the public, so it is unlikely that the body will be returned to its original grave. A memorial stone already lies in Leicester Cathedral, so perhaps this could be Richard’s final resting place? Or could he be buried in York Minster as he himself had planned? Whatever eventually happens to the remains our last Plantagenet King, if it is proved that this really is Richard’s body it will offer historians and archaeologists much valuable evidence that will help them piece together what really happened to him at the Battle of Bosworth and how he was killed.