Egyptian street vendors have been catering to the whims of tourists since forever, apparently: Selling ancient mummies to wealthy European and American tourists as “tourist souvenirs” was apparently commonplace in Egypt around the nineteenth century. Mummies were readily available from street vendors — such as the one pictured below from 1865 — for tourists to bring back home.
During the Victorian era, Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt threw open the Gates of Egypt’s history for the Europeans. At that time, mummies were not accorded the respect that they deserved from the European elites and in fact, mummies could be purchased from street vendors to be used as the main event for parties and social gatherings that took place in the 18th century. The elites of the era would often hold “Mummy Unwrapping Parties”, which, as the name suggests, had the main theme in which a Mummy would be unwrapped in front of a boisterous audience, cheering and applauding at the same time.
As the Industrial Revolution progressed, so Egyptian mummies were exploited for more utilitarian purposes: huge numbers of human and animal mummies were ground up and shipped to Britain and Germany for use as fertilizer. Others were used to create mummy brown pigment or were stripped of their wrappings, which were subsequently exported to the US for use in the paper-making industry. The author Mark Twain even reported that mummies were burnt in Egypt as locomotive fuel.
As the nineteenth century advanced, mummies became prized objects of display and scores of them were purchased by wealthy European and American private collectors as tourist souvenirs. For those who could not afford a whole mummy, disarticulated remains – such as a head, hand or foot – could be purchased on the black market and smuggled back home.
So brisk was the trade in mummies to Europe that even after ransacking tombs and catacombs there just were not enough ancient Egyptian bodies to meet the demand. And so fake mummies were fabricated from the corpses of the executed criminals, the aged, the poor and those who had died from hideous diseases, by burying them in the sand or stuffing them with bitumen and exposing them to the sun.