Even as politics in Pakistan acquired a new turn last month with the forging of an alliance between longstanding rivals Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, a recently unearthed mummy of disputed origin has forced its way into public and media attention, and now finds itself mired in international controversy. Claims to ownership have so far been made by Iran, Afghanistan and Egypt and the controversy generated by it has been so heated as to override, for the present, the question of its true identity. Most significantly, Islamabad finds itself in the uncomfortable position of trying to assuage two of its important regional allies, the Khatami administration in Tehran and the ruling Taliban in Kabul.

Meanwhile, the brief note on the mummy prepared by the experts at the Pakistan Archaeology Department reads: "This mummy is a princess aged 18 years old. Her name was Khor-Ul-Gayan or Tundul-Gayan, and 2,600 years (approximately) ago first ruler of the area Karoosh-ul-Kabir from the family of Khamam-ul-Nishiyan was her father. They were Zurtasht [Zoroastrian]. The gold plate on her chest, its cover and top of the box provides this information in Makhi Cuneiform."

The mummy, found by the police in Quetta —the capital of Pakistan's southwest Balochistan province bordering Iran—is believed to be that of a prince or princess who lived more than 2500 years ago. It has been dated to the era of the Persian Khamam-ul-Nishiyan dynasty, circa 600 BC. The relic is currently in the National Museum in Karachi, as the police continue to investigate its mysterious trail. Following the discovery of the mummy, two Pakistani men, including the tribal chief at whose home it was found, have been arrested. It is believed the mummy had been put up for sale with a price tag of more than USD 1 million. Pakistani police are still looking into the murder of one of the dealers apparently involved in trying to sell it. After the murder, the mummy was hastily sent to Quetta to be hidden, where it was discovered by the police. It was found wrapped in a brownish wax cloth inside a wooden coffin and decorated with a gold crown, a gold mask and a gold chest-plate.

Pakistan is rapidly evolving as a source for the lucrative market in illegal antiques. For many years, dealers have smuggled out Gandharan statuary and artefacts from Pakistan as well as neighbouring Afghanistan. The price of such items has increased tremendously. This trade in antiques has reached serious proportions and though there is a law to deal with it the problem lies in its enforcement.

The international row over the mummy began when authorities in Teheran claimed that it belonged to Iran, and should be returned. However, there are some experts who argue that it could have come from ancient Egypt. Iran's demand for the return of the mummy is based on the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organisation's claim that the artefact is an ancient member of the Iranian royal family, citing the engravings in ancient Persian on the mummy as evidence. The organisation says it will take legal action under a convention of the UNESCO, to regain the mummy, which it claimed was smuggled into Pakistan, and identified it as the remains of an Achaemenian prince. The sarcophagus bears carvings and images of Ahura-Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism, the ancient state religion of Persia. Though the mummy's breastplate and gold crown are ancient Egyptian in style, engravings on the breastplate are in ancient Persian. Pakistan has so far refused to allow a team of experts to identify the disputed mummy. Well-known archaeologist, Professor Ahmed Hasan Daniof Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, who examined it, says it is still unclear whether the mummy is Iranian or Egyptian.

The Afghan Taliban were quick to join issue with Iran and Pakistan. From Kabul, Culture Minister Qudratullah Jamal said that the mummy had actually been smuggled from Afghanistan's southwest Nimroz province to Pakistan, and that it should be returned. "The property of Afghanistan should be returned to the Afghan people. Its sale and purchase are forbidden," he said. What the minister failed to mention was that under Taliban rule the once prestigious Kabul Museum, which housed precious artefacts dating so far back as 8000 years, now stands stripped of nearly all its precious possessions. Taliban commanders have plundered, smuggled and sold them all. Some would find it difficult to see the anti-idolatrousTaliban actually taking care of the mummy in contravention of its own strictures.

Whether the mummy has Persian, Afghan or Egyptian origins, Pakistan's Archaeological Department, however, is in no doubt as to its ownership. If its provenance is verified, the mummy will be one of the greatest archaeological finds in Pakistan. Experts at the National Museum say that they are trying to find out whether the princess died a natural death or not. Commenting on the findings about the cause of her death-2500 years ago—and her age at the time, one official said, "Her vertebral column shows a major trauma." There is, meanwhile, no saying where this diplomatic trauma, that this antiquarian episode has had on the relationship among Teheran, Islamabad and Kabul, will lead to…

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