The short life of the Hawara child, AD 40

“Do not say…” an Egyptian sage wrote, …“that I’m too young to be taken – you do not know your own death. Death, when it arrives, robs the child from the arms of the mother, just as it does to the elderly.”

Perhaps the mother of the boy from Hawara knew this teaching from the Instructions of Any, and surely she knew her son’s death was coming. She would have seen him suffer, poisoned by a cancer of the pelvis, his big brown eyes slowly losing their playfulness and laughter. She would have prayed to the gods for his health and sought out medicines and amulets for his strength, but he was separated, in the end, from her embrace.

His parents would have lamented the death of their boy, just four years old, and they would have wanted him to find his passage into the afterlife. They spared no expense with his embalming, commissioning a delicate portrait of the boy which, nearly 2000 years later, still shows his serene face. Before entombing him in the necropolis of Fayum, Hawara, they would have sent for priests to make offerings to the gods, pleading for his protection and painting the rituals onto his sarcophagus to accompany him to the Duat, the underworld.

When the British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered the mummified child in 1888, he was captivated. He wrote in his diaries that among the discoveries he made in a pyramid near Hawara, this boy was “the most interesting of them all”. His ruffled hair, Flinders Petrie would have known, was a sign of the times in which the boy lived, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius, and his necklace an indication of his family’s wealth.

After two millennia resting in peace, this boy still speaks; reciting to us, perhaps, the Discourse of Thothrekh, a 330 AD text found in the tomb of Petosiris, Hermopolis: “I am a child ripped by force, depleted in years, as an innocent, rapidly snatched as a man who drifts off to sleep.”

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