16 July 2008

A stinky news story about Arap Baba’s mummy

I have noted the rather pathetic reporting of science-related news in Turkish news media. So when the headline "Arap Baba’s unmummified corpse hasn’t decomposed in 700 years" caught my attention in today’s edition of the newspaper Radikal, my 1st reaction was "Here we go again."

Arap Baba (Arab Father), it turns out, is a local legend in the eastern Turkish city of Elazığ. His decapitated corpse, said to be 700 years old, was displayed in a türbe, a small mausoleum usually reserved for saintly figures.

According to the governor of Elazığ, cited by Radikal, there were recent complaints of odor coming from the coffin. Therefore, some university scientists were contacted who came and removed Arap Baba for an investigation. That event was what initiated the news agencies’ interest in the body that wouldn’t rot.

I suspected that the "corpse that hasn’t decomposed in 700 years" was the desiccated, or naturally mummified, remains of someone who may have died a long time ago. If organic remains are thoroughly dry and remain dry, they can't rot, because microorganisms that do the decomposition will not grow and any enzymatic reactions that may otherwise contribute to the breakdown of tissues will also be inhibited. There is nothing extraordinary about the process. But if the humidity in Arap Baba's coffin room went up recently, the remains could have started to get moldy and smelly.

A Google search found a more reasonable account of the story by the CNN Türk, although this one has an even more catchy headline: "The secret of the corpse that hasn’t decomposed in 700 years." Nevertheless, the quotation attributed to the forensic anthropologist Yaşar İşcan of the Istanbul University, who is a member of the team examining the "saintly" remains, confirms my suspicion (translation and italics mine):

The reason why we came here is to collect data, to make observations. To understand the mummy’s physical structure and what sort of evidence is present. What remains are representing the mummy? We want to examine if it is in the form of a skeleton or if it still retains soft tissue, skin or muscles.
So, it indeed is a mummy. Stories about mummies are always interesting, though, and I hope there will be follow-up reports.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Arab baba may well be translated as Arab Father, but please be reminded that "Baba" is a term reserved for the elders of a town, sometimes wealthy and certainly who have done a lasting good deedl, and is a term of reverence, not to be confused with religion.
The word "Arab" also had double meaning, indicating both the Arabic race as well as dark skinned Africans.
A mystrious person indeed.