Cultural officials in Kyrgyzstan have caused a stink by allowing the mummified remains of a woman who may have died around the first century AD to be interred. The campaign to bury the mummy was headed up, among others, by a notoriously volatile psychic.
The Culture Ministry organized for the remains to be shrouded in a sheet and transported from Bishkek to the Batken region for burial on October 14 in the village of Kara-Bulak, where they were originally found. A small fragment of skin from the body was kept for further scientific research.
Culture Minister Tugolbai Kazakov said the decision to order the burial was based on concern that the body was in the process of disintegrating.
“According to the customs of our people, leaving a body out in the open like this is not proper. What is the point of showing visitors [to the museum] a body that is fall apart? Why are they keeping Lenin [at the mausoleum in Moscow]? Because he was a leader, that’s why. But what about this woman, who was she? Nobody knows, maybe she was just a regular woman. Who can prove she was a queen or some leader?” Kazakov said.
Kazakov said the mummy had been kept at Bishkek’s State History Museum for the best part of 60 years without anybody studying it, and so it made little sense to leave it where it is.
The scholarly community is up in arms and has called on President Almazbek Atambayev to order the mummy's exhumation. Eighteen have signed a petition to the president. Kadicha Tashbayeva, head of archeology at the Academy of Sciences, said the mummy was preserved in a vacuum and could safely have been kept for future scientific research. Tashbayeva was especially exasperated that the culture minister purportedly based his decision to have the mummy buried on the advice of clerics and psychics.
“You cannot consider this [mummy] as though it was a normal body. This was a museum exhibit, it was an archeological discovery. Why should we not study it? Why should we, as Kyrgyz people, fall behind? As we begin the third millennium, are to sink back into medieval obscurantism?” Tashbayeva said.
Tashbayeva and her colleagues said Kazakov should consider resigning his post and take up clerical robes instead.
"If the Culture Minister is in his activities guided by the fundamentals of Sharia law and Islam, he should take up religious duties in the mosque, and not head the Culture Ministry, which is legally responsible for the preservation of museum exhibits," Tashbayeva said.
It is not actually certain that the burial happened, as Tashbayeva claims, at the partial behest of mystics, but there are hints the suggestion might be grounded in some truth.
When a panel of Kyrgyz scientists gathered on October 17 to speak to the press about their dismay over the situation, Zamira Muratbekova, a self-described medium who was among those who spearheaded the campaign for the burial, crashed the event to upbraid the experts present.
Muratbekova said that many people had urged the Culture Ministry to act after she revealed the mummy had contacted her from the spiritual dimension to ask that she be interred. Muratbekova said that failure to bury the mummy was responsible for environmental disasters and other misfortunes befalling Kyrgyzstan. The long-dead woman had particularly urgent advice about the October 15 presidential election, the medium said.
“The mummy vowed there would be bloodshed at the elections. The elections only passed without incident because the mummy was interred. It was pure vandalism that they dug up the body just to stick it under people’s nose in the first place,” she said.
Cholpon Turdaliyeva, a professor of anthropology at the American University of Central Asia, said this entire episode was a stark illustration of the lack of respect accorded to science in Kyrgyzstan today. The decision on the burial also raises questions about where the line is between secularism and religiosity, Turdaliyeva said.
Atambayev has, in fact, come out in support of the scientific community, but he advised against exhumation all the same.
“We should not have let this happen. This discovery could have been used for scientific purposes. After all, not every country has objects like these. If it was necessary, we could have buried the remains later. We could have buried this exhibit after proper investigations had been carried out,” the president said, quite uselessly.