Egyptian King Ramses I: From Pharaoh to a Niagara Falls Freak Show Oddity

Grave robber is a harsh term. It conjures up images of slimy, dishevelled old men missing a few teeth armed with rusty shovels sifting through mud and filth. The word ‘thieves’ also comes to mind. Now, tomb raider, on the other hand, at least has some spark to it.

There’s even a slight romanticized flair to the title, due largely to popular movies and video games released over the past 20 years that capitalize on the perceived swashbuckling side of the job. Reality is it’s a bit from column A, a smidgen from column B. Grave robbers, tomb raiders, and of course, Niagara Falls — you really can’t have any one of the three without the others. Wait…what?

One doesn’t normally associate Niagara Falls, the ‘honeymoon capital of the world’, with a mummified 3000-year-old Egyptian corpse that also happens to be a lost pharaoh snatched from its final resting place by a marauding band of thieves (your choice on which of the above terms you wish to call them) on the hunt for anything they can sell for cold, hard, cash.

But in 1817, a series of events began to unfold that would eventually bring the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses I (generally agreed upon to be the founder of the 19th Dynasty) to Canadian soil. Rather unceremoniously, it should be noted.

It was in that year that Italian archaeologist (or, in the eyes of Egyptian authorities, tomb raider) Giovanni Belzoni discovered Ramses’ original burial place. Over time the tomb had been picked clean of all gold, jewels, and carvings that a fellow in Belzoni’s line of work would be interested in. The odd thing about the scenario Belzoni found himself in was not only were the valuables missing, there was a coffin but no body.

What Belzoni didn’t know was that Ramses, who became pharaoh in 1291 BC and reigned for less than two years, had been moved from a variety of different locations over time. This was under the authority of priests attempting to protect the pharaoh from looters and find him a suitable final resting place. It wasn’t until 890 BC that Ramses found a permanent home alongside the mummified royal remains of his son (Seti I) and grandson (Ramses II).

The mummified remains of Ramses I.

In approximately 1860, the Abd-el Rassul family, know throughout Egypt as pillagers of anything having to do with the country’s heritage and history, discovered this royal tomb. They did what grave robbers do best — took everything they could get their hands on, including the body of Ramses I. The family retained the services of antiquities dealer Mustapha Aga Ayat, who then sold Ramses’ mummy and a few coffins to James Douglas Jr., a Canadian on a buying trip for Thomas and Sidney Barnett.

The Barnetts were the owner/operators of the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame, and they were eager to cash in on the crowds they knew would pay to see their latest exotic finds. No one involved in the transactions had any idea the mummy they were looking at was Ramses I, not that anyone was really asking in the first place.

With his arms crossed over his chest in the traditional royal pose, Ramses I was on nameless display in Niagara Falls for close to 140 years. Surrounded by rooms full of truly bizarre and freakish oddities, Ramses blended right in. In 1999, the museum’s collection of Egyptian artifacts was sold to Canadian William Jamieson, who later that year found a buyer for many of the pieces (including the nameless mummy) in the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta.

It was there that the mummy was identified as Ramses I, and arrangements were made by the university to return the pharaoh to Egypt. Ramses I had the red carpet rolled out for him on his return to his homeland, and now resides in the Luxor Museum. It was a weird and often times unglamorous journey for the pharaoh, but nothing can beat a marching band playing in your honor when folks finally know your place in history.

Ramses I, back on home soil. (Amir Nabil, Associated Press)
Ramses I, back on home soil. (Amir Nabil, Associated Press)