The mystery of the "Persian Princess" mummy
Updated: Mar 12, 2022
I’ve covered lots of strange stories here — it’s kind of built into the fabric of my content. But today’s story is ones of the strangest ones I’ve ever heard. I’m not even sure how to categorize it; it has an element of dark history, as well as true crime. Either way, I’m kind of surprised more people aren’t talking about it. Let’s talk about the mystery of the woman only known as the Persian Princess.
The story of the Persian Princess likely begins in the fall of 2000. Police in Karachi, in southern Pakistan, were investigating a murder. During their investigation, they questioned a man named Ali Akbar.
Akbar showed them a video of a mummy that was being sold on the black market. Police were able to trace the mummy to Quetta, a town about 428 miles (698 km) away from Karachi in northern Pakistan. It’s still not clear how the mummy ended up on the opposite end of the country.
On October 19, 2000, police in Quetta raided the house of a camel breeder and tribe leader named Sardar Wali Reeki (sometimes spelled ‘Reki). It was here they found the mummy. It had allegedly been discovered by an Iranian named Sharif Shah Bakhi after an earthquake, I presume in Iran. Reeki and Bakhi planned to sell the mummy on the black market and split the profits.
There was an immense amount of conflicting information on the mummy’s asking price. One source said Reeki tried to sell the mummy for $50 million but only got just over $1 million. Another said Reeki was offered $1.1 million but declined because he wanted more. Another said it was sold for $11 million. Another said it was “on offer” for $11 million when it was seized by police. Reeki said in an interview that he received estimates that it was worth up to $1 billion. And yet another source said the asking price was $35 million. So I’m not entirely sure of the details surrounding the mummy’s sale. But one thing is clear: This mummy was a highly valued commodity.
After the mummy was found by police, it was taken to the National Museum in Karachi. The mummy had been placed inside an “ornately carved wooden box” as well as a coffin. The body was of a woman who had only been about 4 ‘ 7 “ (1.4 meters) tall in life. She was covered in resin that had hardened into a shell, had her arms crossed and a gold plate over her chest. Like many mummies, she had also been wrapped in bandages.
Drawings on the coffin were similar to those found in ancient Persia, and the coffin, wooden box and breastplate were covered in inscriptions. These inscriptions turned out to be cuneiform, an early system of writing that you may have learned about in history class. Asma Ibrahim, the National Museum’s curator, taught herself to read cuneiform so she could translate the inscriptions. The translations she uncovered read roughly as follows:
‘I am the daughter of the great King Xerxes. Mazereka protect me. I am Rhodugune, I am.’
I could not find out who Mazereka is. The only mentions I found of the word were articles about this particular case. But the name Xerxes is a lot more well known.
Xerxes ruled the Persian empire from 486 BC until his death in 465 BC. He was referenced in the Bible, albeit under a different name, and, a bit more recently, played a role the movie 300, which was (sort of) based on a real battle.
But if this really was the body of a Persian princess, why had she been mummified? No mummies had ever been found in Pakistan or Iran before. In fact, the only country thought to have ever mummified their dead — at least in that part of the world — was Egypt.
And in my own research — which, admittedly was limited to the internet — I couldn’t find much evidence that Xerxes even had a daughter named Rhodugune. A BBC documentary on this case says she was real but not much is known about her. The only other mention I could find of her online was on Wikipedia — not exactly the most reliable source. The Wikipedia entry also said Rhodogune (different spelling) was the daughter of Mirthidates, not Xerxes.
Archaeologist Ahmed Hasan Dani said the mummy might have actually been an Egyptian princess who was married to a Persian prince, and that’s why her body had been mummified like that of an Egyptian. He insisted the mummy had “the telling signs of ritual mummification that were unique to the ancient Egyptians.” The “princess” did have her organs removed, just like the ancient Egyptians. However, when the Egyptians removed the brain through the corpse’s nose, one of the bones in the nose had to be broken in order for the brain to get out. That bone wasn’t broken in the Persian Princess.
So, who was the “Persian Princess”? Was she, as her nickname suggests, a princess from an ancient empire? Was she an Egyptian who had somehow found her way into Persia, or vice versa? As it turns out…she was neither.
In March 2000, before the “Persian Princess” had even been found by police, Oscar White Muscarella, who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, received pictures of the mummy. The pictures were sent from someone in New Jersey, along with a letter saying the mummy was originally from Iran but brought to Pakistan years earlier. It also said the mummy was the daughter of Xerxes, and the sender knew this because of a translation of a cuneiform inscription on the breastplate. The sender asked if Muscarella/the museum was interested in buying the mummy. They reportedly offered $11 million for it, and I think this might be where some of the earlier conflicting information about the mummy’s asking price came from.
Muscarella was suspicious, so he contacted a cuneiform expert who analyzed the transcription. This person believed the inscription was a forgery, probably made in the 1930’s or later. Muscarella also found out that carbon dating showed the mummy’s wooden coffin was only about 250 years old. Convinced the mummy was a fake, he cut off contact with the potential seller.
In November 2000, smugglers confessed they found the mummy in Afghanistan, close to the Iran border and took it into Pakistan. In January 2001, the mummy was declared a fraud by Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organization. In April 2001, Asma Ibrahim released an 11 page report saying the mummy was a fraud and could also be a murder victim.
And this was a pretty elaborate fraud. It probably required multiple people to carry out, including a stone mason, expert in Egyptian mummification, and someone who knew cuneiform — or at least could learn it — to write out and carve the inscriptions. It could have taken several years and thousands of euros — though, if their scheme had been successful, it would have turned quite the profit.
In January 2001, an analysis of an earlier CT scan carried out on the mummy determined the body belonged to a woman who was about 21 and had been mummified just a couple of years before being found. The CT scan had also determined the woman may have died of a blow to the spine. Her organs had been removed and replaced with powder. She was also beginning to decay.
Now it was time for an autopsy. The first thing the coroner noticed when unwrapping the body was blonde hair. This later led to speculation that the woman was from an urban area of Pakistan. Interestingly, the rest of her hair was gray — only the tips were blonde. This might be why some sources have said she was actually closer to 50 when she died. Her cause of death was also confirmed as a blow to the spine, thought it couldn’t be determined whether it was accident or homicide. Some sources also said she had a broken neck and actually died from that.
So, what exactly happened here? Who was this woman? How did she die, and how did she end up mummified and sold in an elaborate forgery? We don’t know for sure, but there have been some theories proposed over the years.
The first theory is that her family sold her body willingly. They were approached by smugglers, maybe even sought them out, and sold the body of their recently deceased loved one for what was probably much needed money. They may or may not have known that her body would be used for illegal purposes.
I’d like to believe this theory, because it’s a lot better than either of the other ones we’re going to go over. But, like everything else, there’s not really any evidence pointing toward it.
The next theory is that her body was stolen by grave robbers. She may have been in a car accident, a building collapse or even a fall that led to her untimely death. Then grave robbers found her body shortly thereafter and stole and used it because it was still fresh.
There’s something interesting about this theory and some earlier speculation that I’d like to point out. This area of the world is pretty warm, and smugglers would have to work quickly, probably within a 24 hour window, to mummify a body to make sure it didn’t decay. The woman was thought to have died about four years before she was found, but only embalmed about two years before she was found. It’s possible that one of these estimates is inaccurate. Or maybe smugglers found her fresh body in 1996 and somehow hid and froze it for two years, for whatever reason. It’s just one of the many things in this case that we don’t know.
The last theory is that the woman was a murder victim, killed for the intention of creating a forgery. If this is true, the smugglers who made the forgery probably committed murder so they’d be guaranteed a fresh body.
There’s been speculation that the woman had no family or was possibly a social outcast, someone who wouldn’t be missed. There could also be a very complex system of organized crime in the area, and she may not be the only victim.
During the media whirlwind after the mummy’s discovery, there was a dispute over who actually owned her. Pakistan said the the mummy belonged to them because it was found there. Iran said it belonged to them because the mummy was of a Persian princess and modern day Iran is in what used to be the Persian empire. (This was obviously before the mummy was confirmed to be a forgery.) Even the Taliban tried to claim the mummy, saying they’d caught and punished the smugglers who took the mummy out of Afghanistan. There’s also been speculation that the National Museum wanted to keep the mummy for themselves because it would bring in much needed revenue, but I’m not sure if this is true.
At some point in 2001, the woman’s body was taken to a mortuary in Karachi. She was set to be buried in 2005, but the burial was delayed by the proverbial “red tape.” One source said she was finally buried in 2008, though I don’t now how reliable this information is.
Today, the woman’s coffin and bandages are at the National Museum. She has been buried since, but nobody is really sure where — they know the cemetery, but not the location. It’s not uncommon for Islamic graves to have simple or no markings; if she was buried in the Islamic tradition, as Asma Ibrahim wanted and as many people in Pakistan are, her grave could very well be unmarked.
After the Persian Princess was uncovered, more fraudulent “Persian” mummies have popped up on the black market. According to Oscar Muscarella, most museums have some sort of forgeries on display. Some are shown because they were given by wealthy donors who the museum doesn’t want to upset. Some were created by museums who weren’t able to acquire legitimate artifacts.
So before we go, a few more things. I’ll put links below for two documentaries on the case that I used as sources and that are pretty interesting on their own. The first is a BBC special that aired in 2001, and that I mentioned earlier. The other is from a docuseries called X Files History. That one is free if you have Amazon Prime; if not, you can get it for pretty cheap.
I also want to mention the book Keeping the Dead by Tess Gerritsen (known as The Keepsake in the U.S.). It’s the seventh book in Gerritsen’s Rissoli & Isles series, which was later turned into the TV show of the same name that ran from 2010 to 2016.
The book follows the two detectives as they track down a murder victim who was initially embalmed like a mummy and believed to be an ancient find — until a bullet was found in their body. I have read that the book was inspired by the Persian Princess case; I can’t confirm this, but they are pretty similar.
So that’s all I have for you today on the Persian Princess. Unfortunately, this is a case that’s unlikely to be solved any time soon. It doesn’t seem to be a high priority for the Pakistani police, and I don’t even think it’s currently an open investigation. I wish I could end this on a happier note. Maybe this woman really was sold after her death by an impoverished family rather than a murder victim. At least that’s what I’d like to think.