THE city of Antinoopolis was so wealthy that residents buried their dead in a "second skin" of precious gold leaf, turning each mummy into a veritable golden statue, archaeologists say.
People who lived in the city, also called Antinoé, during the hey day of the religion of Antinous routinely covered every square inch of the skin of their dead loved ones with precious gold leaf. Even lips and eyelids were lovingly sheathed in gold by the embalmers during the mummification process.
As the Religion of Antinous waned and was replaced by Christianity, the gilded-skin practice went out of fashion, but was replaced by shrouds of the most exquisitely embroidered linens and ornate Byzantine jewellery.
The amazing revelation comes from a stunning French documentary film entitled LE MYSTÈRE DES MOMIES COPTES D'ANTINOÉ (Secrets of the Antinoé Coptic Mummies) which aired this week on the French-German cultural TV network ARTE.
Antinoopolis became renowned around the world in 1896 when the French archaeologist Albert Gayet began exploring the vast necropolis burial grounds south of Antinoopolis. An estimated 40,000 mummies were buried in the Antinoé necropolis.
Gayet's crews worked day and night unearthing hundreds of mummies representing all social classes and historical epochs.
To his utter astonishment, many of the mummies were gilded, many were swathed in priceless woollen wraps and others wore Byzantine jewellery and headdresses.
He returned to Paris, where the most exquisite mummies were put on display at the Louvre, attracting throngs of visitors and spawning a "Coptic Craze" throughout Europe and America.
Antinoopolis embroidery and linens inspired Matisse, Renoir and the leading Paris fashion designers, who incorporated the rich colors and designs into their work.
But the craze soon waned. The mummies were packed away in storage, most of them to disintegrate or become lost. Gayet died at age 60, impoverished and embittered after having spent 20 years of his life trying to raise funds for further exploration of Antinoopolis.
Gayet's dream of a "Musee d'Antinoé" in Paris died with him.
One hundred years later, at the end of the 20th Century, experts discovered that only 39 of Gayet's mummies had survived the rigors of time. For the past 15 years, the experts have studied these mummies to unlock the secrets of Antinoopolis.
What they have found is proof that Antinoopolis was a very rich city from its founding in 130 AD up until the Islamic onslaught in the 7th Century AD.
"All of the mummies indicate a very high standard of living," says Louvre Chief Curator Yannick Lintz. "They had had a healthy diet during their lives and had no indication of having had stunted growth or chronic illness. We knew that Antinoé had been an important city, but now we have proof that it was very prosperous indeed for 500 years."
The film provides never-before-seen footage of efforts to restore the famous Basilica of Antinoé by an Italian team of archaeologists headed by Rosario Pintaudi.
As the cameras roll, Pintaudi and his crew raise a column at the Basilica to the upright position where it originally stood at least 1,700 years ago. The column had been in pieces and represents the turbulent religious history of the Sacred City.
The base of the column is a stone with incised reliefs from the time of Ramses II in 1400 BC. The column itself has an inscription honoring Emperor Hadrian from the 2nd Century AD. And graffiti chiseled onto the upper parts of the column dates from the Christian era in the 5th Century AD.
"The history of Antinoopolis is the history of using existing stone buildings to build new structures. Each new religion re-used stone from monuments to earlier religions," says Pintaudi.
"Antinoopolis was a major center of religious thought in Egypt for at least 500 years, and the vying religious sects and groups variously lived, fought and coexisted with each other all of that time," says Pintaudi. "It was and continues to be a very extraordinary city indeed."