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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tomb robbers destroying history I - Al Ahram Weekly

Tomb robbers destroying history I

Zahi Hawass tells the stories of those who have acquired artefacts from Ancient Egyptian tombs in the first in an occasional series of articles


As an Egyptologist, I have met many strange people. Some of them, known as "pyramidiots", have far-fetched ideas about aliens, lost civilisations, and the power of the pyramidal form. Others want to drill inside the Pyramids themselves. Still others simply want to become famous, so they announce mere theories as facts. We live in a strange world.

One day when I was head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in Egypt, I heard from Jack Graves, a professor at the University of California in the US. His letter was enclosed in a Fed-Ex package sent from California to my office. The package was extremely heavy, and when it was delivered my secretary Nashwa was afraid it might contain a bomb.

Some people may have wanted to get rid of me. I told her not to worry and explained that those who wanted to do away with me would know that the people who would replace me would follow in my footsteps and also dedicate their lives to protecting Egyptian monuments.

Inside the package was a piece of alabaster with hieroglyphic inscriptions on it. It was an authentic artefact dating from the New Kingdom of Ancient Egyptian history, and the inscription was an utterance to the god Osiris from the pharaoh. Also on the fragment was a part of the cartouche of the pharaoh Seti I, who built his great tomb in the Valley of Kings.

It is known that many blocks of stone have been stolen from this tomb. However, we do not know what happened to the objects that were originally placed in the burial chamber. Because of the nature of the fragment that was sent to me, I believe it is not part of the tomb itself but part of one of the pharaoh's funerary objects, possibly the canopic chest.

In 1821, the European explorer Giovanni Belzoni exhibited the alabaster sarcophagus he found when he discovered Seti's tomb. He tried to sell it to the British Museum in London for £2,000, but the museum foolishly refused to buy the piece. In 1824, the sarcophagus was acquired by the English collector Sir John Soane, and it now resides in the Soane Museum in London.

The mummy of Seti I was found in 1871 in the cache at Deir Al-Bahari near Luxor that had been stumbled upon by the Abdel-Rasoul family who assisted in excavations in the area. Egypt's own first great Egyptologist, Ahmed Basha Kamel, and the Antiquities Department at the time then moved the royal mummies discovered in the cache to Cairo. They travelled down the Nile by boat, but when they arrived and were being processed the agents responsible could not find the word mummy in their book so they improvised and accepted them as "salted fish".

In the package with the beautiful alabaster fragment that landed on my desk was a letter from Graves. He began by telling me how much he had enjoyed seeing me on television discussing the mummy of the Ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun and that his favourite moment had been when King Tut and I had come face-to-face with each other.

He then told me a story about a friend of his who had visited Egypt in 1958. When his friend was inside one of the tombs in the Valley of Kings he had found the piece of inscribed alabaster in the package and had simply picked it up and hidden it inside his jacket. His friend had then spent the rest of his life feeling guilty about taking the fragment, and before he died he had given it to Graves, who had duly sent it to me.

I am very happy that he took the honourable way out, and I hope it will encourage others to return any artefacts they may have acquired. The fragment is now registered at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square.

However, not all the stories about tomb robbers are that simple, and sometimes higher powers are involved.

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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