Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Tomb robbers damaging history III

The ancient curse of the Pharaohs can sometimes catch up with today’s tomb robbers, writes Zahi Hawass

tomb robberies
Tomb robberies

The most interesting stories of tomb robberies are also the most tragic. When the robbers cut out tomb reliefs, or steal objects from archaeological sites, they also steal part of our knowledge of history as well as damaging it.  

Tomb robbers have long plagued the site of Saqqara, which contains the magnificent Step Pyramid built by the Pharaoh Djoser and executed by Djoser’s architect Imhotep. On one occasion robbers sneaked into the site, cut reliefs from a tomb, and entered the Saqqara storerooms and stole some papyri. 

At a lecture I was giving at the British Museum in London I later met my dear friend Vivian Davies, the head of the Egyptian Section at the museum, and his wife Renée. Davies told me an interesting story about some stolen papyri from Saqqara that had turned up in London. He said that a man had come to the museum and presented him with a copy of a papyrus written in demotic ancient Egyptian. 

The British Museum team knew immediately that this was a famous papyrus discovered by the British expedition at Saqqara and was one of the items stolen from the storerooms. Davies told the man that he would need to see the original papyrus in order to give him a scientific opinion and authenticate it. Two days later, the Englishman returned with the papyrus and was caught red-handed by inspectors from Scotland Yard who then informed the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. 

I remembered that the chief of the Saqqara inspectorate in Egypt had been removed prior to this incident from his position and replaced by another man whom I did not trust. The Egyptian police found that this man had been involved in the theft, and he was handed a prison sentence by the courts. An honest man was then appointed to the job, and he was able to put the site in order.  

I have many other stories that I could relate about my encounters with tomb robbers, but I will confine myself to two that happened early in my career. When I was 21 years old, I worked as an antiquities inspector accompanying an Italian archaeological mission working at the site of Sheikh Ibada under the direction of Sergio Donadoni. One day, thieves entered the mission camp and stole a large box of antiquities. It was a shock to all of us, and we all felt helpless. However, I decided not to call the police, wanting to try to solve this mysterious crime myself and recover the box of antiquities. 

The mayor of the local village was a very powerful man, and I thought he could help solve the mystery. I met him and told him that “I know you know who stole the box, and if you do not return it within an hour I will inform the police that you were behind the theft yourself.” The mayor said he would see what he could do. An hour later, he arrived with the stolen box mounted on a donkey. “I brought it back not because I was afraid of the police, but because I liked your courage as a young man,” he said. Donadoni was very happy with this result, and we celebrated by eating the Egyptian dish of molokhiya with rabbit. 

Another interesting story happened when I was inspector of antiquities at the site of Tuna Al-Gabal in Middle Egypt. One morning, I received a telephone call from the chief of police in nearby Malawi. He needed to see me urgently, he said, and was sending a car to pick me up. I asked him what was going on, but he said, “you’ll see when you get here.” 

When we reached our destination, I found myself in front of a house in the village of Al-Ashmonein. The scene inside it was something I shall never forget. A man of about 50 years old and his wife and three children were digging in the courtyard. When we arrived, they had unearthed pieces of a statue and a lamp. We arrested the man, who was angry and said that “I am digging in my own house, and these antiquities are the treasure of my ancestors who left them to me. I have not committed any crime.” 

We later learned that the man was selling the artefacts to someone in the village who worked as chief of the site guard and who had made millions selling antiquities to dealers. When I was at the office of the chief of police in Malawi, I met this chief guard and was sickened to see that the rings he was wearing were decorated with gold scarabs. I told him he had better watch out, but he did not seem to understand my comment. “What do you mean,” he asked. “If the police don’t catch you, the curse of the Pharaohs will,” I replied.

Three months later, the chief of police called me to say that the curse of the Pharaohs had indeed claimed the man’s life, as he had died in a car crash just 3km outside the town of Maghagha. When the police examined the car, they found an incredible treasure inside, with ancient statues, necklaces, earrings and other beautiful gold artefacts stashed in the trunk. He had been planning to sell these priceless objects to an antiquities dealer in Cairo, but the curse of the Pharaohs had not let him. 

I have many other stories about dealing with tomb robbers that I may relate in subsequent articles.

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