Egyptian Rag

People are mysterious, they have many mysterious ways
For four thousand years in Egypt, when someone reached the end of their days
They’d be carried out to the desert, preserved in an oily broth
And they’d be buried beneath the ground wrapped in twenty pounds of cloth
And they called it Egyptian Rag

People are mysterious, some mysteries last a while
With half a billion people buried in the sands beyond the Nile
So when the British came to build a railway connecting west to east
With every trench they dug, they unearthed the deceased
Wrapped up in Egyptian Rag

People are mysterious, like one wealthy man in Maine
Who heard about these mummies discovered as the British built their train
He formed a corporation to make good use of this find
He sent steam ships across the water where there were graveyards to be mined
Filled with Egyptian Rag

People are mysterious, where there is money to be made
By turning linen into paper in the body-snatching trade
The boats were sent across the sea for fifty years or more
Shipping cargo over to the New England shore
Filled with Egyptian Rag

People are mysterious, and in the paper mills they thought
There was something strange about these tons of cloth they were brought
For they’d throw it on the floor and wonder at what they were seeing
As the linen sprang into the shape of a human being
And they called it Egyptian Rag

People are mysterious, and we may never know
All the many consequences of what we reap and what we sow
But next time you hold a book printed in the nineteenth century
If you believe there is a God, perhaps you want to pray for mercy
For what they once called Egyptian Rag

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“Egyptian Rag” originally appeared on the Bandcamp album, Into A Prism, in 2013.

Listening to the local community radio station on my way into Moab, Utah one afternoon, there was an archaeologist being interviewed. In the course of the interview, she made reference to the use of Egyptian mummy wrappings for making rag paper, back in the 19th century. I was shocked to hear about this, which was entirely new to me. I looked into it, and found convincing articles that appeared in a Bangor, Maine newspaper. Evidence is scant, but sufficient, as far as I can tell, to support the claim that massive numbers of Egyptian mummies were disinterred in the course of the railway-building efforts in Egypt that the British colonial power was directing. What to do with the masses of graveyards you have to disrupt in the course of building a railway between Cairo and Alexandria? Mine them for oil, cloth and fertilizer, of course. A paper company based in Maine apparently had big ships going back and forth between Maine and Egypt in order to import the mummy wrappings, for much of the latter half of the 19th century. The practice stopped due to changes in paper-making technology, and the switch around the turn of the 20th century from rag paper to paper derived from wood.