Great men in antiquities
It is not only famous Egyptologists who have made important contributions to the discovery of Egypt's ancient heritage, writes Zahi Hawass
We always put the spotlight on archaeologists when they make a discovery. But behind any discovery are great people who helped in the excavation, restoration and administration of a dig.
There is a small town near Luxor called Quft where local people have long assisted foreign archaeologists in their discoveries. They began working in the early years with foreign adventurers such as Belzoni, Caviglia, Lepsius, and others. But Sir Flinders Petrie, known as the "father of Egyptian archaeology," was the one who trained the workmen from Quft.
They began to learn the techniques of excavation and became experts in this field. Petrie had many friends from this large village. When he was excavating at Abydos and the workmen found the head of an ivory statuette of Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, he examined the head and thought that the four centimetres missing from the statuette was still under the sand.
He asked his Qufti reis (overseer) to go to Baliana in the governorate of Sohag and bring sieves that could be used to sift all the sand in the area. The Qufti workmen then found the rest of the statuette, the only known sculpture of the builder of the Great Pyramid.
Many great foreign archaeologists have befriended their reis, including Manfred Bietak, Rainer Stadelmann, David O'Connor, and others. I have also heard many stories from Miroslav Verner and Daniel Polz. But the most interesting story is connected with Howard Carter, the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun, whose reis was also from Quft.
When Carter brought his canary with him, his reis told him that the bird "will bring you luck, yaganab al-mudir," which means "Mr Director". Another story concerns Hussein, a nine-year-old boy from Quft, who brought water in jars by donkey for the workmen. The jars had a pointed base, and while he was digging a hole to put the jar in the ground, he found the first step to the top of Tutankhamun's tomb. He ran to Carter to tell him, and Carter rewarded him by putting a necklace around his neck and taking a photograph of him, making it the most famous photograph in all of Egyptology.
I myself learned excavation techniques from the Quftis. More than one hundred of them worked with me during 10 years of excavation at the site of Kom Abou Bellou. We had a great reis whose name was Reis Doctor. He did not know how to read or write, but his father, who had worked with many famous doctors of archaeology, gave him this name.
Reis Doctor was a tall, polite man, and he gave me a brush to clean a statue and taught me excavation methods when I was just 20 years old. There was also Hag Mohamed. He had a face like an ancient Egyptian, and I believe he was the most intelligent person I have ever met in my life. There was also Reis Hamed and his son Abdel-Wahab.
The Quftis also brought us the expertise to move huge statues and the lids of sarcophagi in the way the ancient Egyptians did. I remember when I was inspector of antiquities at Ashmonein in Middle Egypt, and we wanted to move a statue of the god Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom. The statue was in the shape of a baboon and weighed about 20 tons. Reis Ali Al-Kasab, who lived in Luxor, was able to move the statue with the help of only a few men.
Some of the Quftis later moved to Luxor, and others lived in Helwan and Saqqara. One large family that had experts in moving heavy stones was the Al-Kreity family in Saqqara. The father, Abdou Al-Kreity, was the best at this work, but he also had two superb sons, Ahmed and Talal. The father and Ahmed later died, and this week Talal Al-Kreity, the last member of a family that had raised huge stones like in the time of the pharaohs, also passed away. I had the privilege to see them in action many times, though I did not know the father well.
When Miroslav Verner discovered the tomb of Iuf-aa, director of the palace at Abousir dating to 500 BCE, he found that the tomb was intact. Inside, there was a huge sarcophagus, the lid of which weighed some 30 tons. When Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture at the time, heard about the discovery he wanted to attend the opening.
Verner and I decided that we couldn't open the sarcophagus in front of the press and that we would have to open it first. Reis Talal and his brother Ahmed managed to open the lid and interior of the coffin as if by miracle. The most interesting thing were the songs they sang during the process.
When I discovered the pyramid of the mother of King Teti, the first king of the 6th Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, Ahmed also came to open the ten-ton lid of the sarcophagus in the burial chamber.
Later, a famous scene was recorded inside the tomb of the ancient governor of Bahariya showing Ahmed and Talal inside the tomb with me. Talal is explaining to me how to proceed. The two of them did a fantastic job, and their work was shown on a live show on the American network Fox-TV.
The last time Talal came to see me was about two months ago. He came with his son Hatem, who has a doctorate from Prague and had come to work at Saqqara, and his other son Kazen, who wants to study in the States. But this week he passed away, and with him the last representative of the dynasty of great Qufti workers has left us.