CAIRO—As the sun sets over Cairo, the streets are eerily quiet. Just a few years ago, the hillsides from Luxor to Giza would have been buzzing with the familiar sounds of tomb doors creaking open and bones snapping under the methodical shuffling of a slow, catatonic gait. But the telltale signs of Egypt's indigenous mummy population have fallen silent recently, and the fearsome creatures that once lurched freely across the Valley of the Kings are disappearing at an alarming rate. If nothing is done, experts say, the Egyptian mummy will soon go the way of the Bavarian lycanthrope or the Transylvanian vampire, and vanish forever.
Afterlife Preservation Society president James Amarcas said he can recall a time when Egyptians did not have to go to a museum, but could look out their window and see an entire herd of shroud-wrapped forms staggering on missions of revenge.
"My grandchildren have still never seen a mummy," said Amarcas, who vividly recalls his first mummy sighting in 1947, when he was just 3 years old. "These terrible monsters are little more than a legend to them. It's sad to think they might never see the bloodthirsty march of an undead Egyptian prince on a cool, calm night."
Prospects for Egypt's mummies are grim. A population that reached more than 12,000 in 1970 has today dropped to less than 300.
More alarmingly, it appears their natural lifecycle has been permanently disrupted. The Sakkara region had long supported a small number of looters and adventurers dismissive of natives' warnings about supernatural curses, prompting the ancient dormant creatures to emerge and seek fresh revenge—a natural cycle of death and rebirth that for centuries insured a regular habitat for the mummies.
Modern advances, however, have strained this delicate balance. Many of the slow-moving creatures are crushed each year on the superhighways that surround Cairo. Hydroelectric dams along the Nile River destroy countless mummies when rising waters soak through their dusty rags and dissolve their arid, desiccated bodies.
Four millennia ago, Egyptians attempted to preserve their mummies for eternity with deadly curses meant to kill or ward off potential invaders. But the old ways seem to have little effect on modern poachers who bring mummies to the Western world and sell them for millions of dollars to collectors and museums.
In response, a coalition group has proposed the so-called Mummy Conservation Act to the Egyptian Parliament, which aims to create a refuge to protect mummies, relocating them to reserves where they can guard their stone amulets in peace.
"In addition, inhabited tombs would be put on 24-hour surveillance, mummies would be tagged with tracking collars, and many items would be banned from all tombs," Amarcas said. "Especially torches, as mummies are very susceptible to fire."
The bill would also put severe restrictions on tourists eager to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking monsters.
"These people have no respect for the mummies' environment, and do irreparable harm to the precious crowns, elaborate masks, and golden staffs the mummies need to survive in the afterlife," mummy activist Adjo Quaashie said. "Without these most basic worldly possessions, the mummy is rendered helpless on its voyage to the next world on the barge of the god Osiris."
"Shawabti shobek, djed dromos, ankh amun!" Quaashie added, invoking an ancient incantation for raising the dead.
Experts suspect many mummies have simply become disoriented and wandered off their usual migratory paths, while others are thought to be doggedly pursuing trespassers who disturbed their sanctuaries, even as the foreign visitors return to their home countries thousands of miles away.
Most conservation groups, however, stress that Egyptians should focus on preserving the mummies that still remain, though recent efforts to increase their numbers by breeding them in captivity have failed, since mummies are dead and therefore cannot reproduce.