Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The story of the mysterious sarcophagus

The discovery of the black granite sarcophagus in Alexandria has given rise to many all-too-explicable rumours, writes Zahi Hawass


The black granite sarcophagus in Alexandria
The black granite sarcophagus in Alexandria

The black granite sarcophagus that has been found in Alexandria has sparked a lot of speculation. I have been working in archaeology for a long time, but I have never heard so many rumours regarding a discovery as those that were spread around last month.

They said that the sarcophagus had inscriptions on it that said that if the sarcophagus was opened, it would bring a curse on those who had opened it and even warned that the curse would hit the city of Alexandria itself. But what really made this sarcophagus the topic of the news was the fact that some people in the press thought that this could be the tomb of Alexander the Great, leading them to fill the papers with stories about him.

The other rumour that was sparked by the sarcophagus emerged as it was opened and red-coloured water was found inside. People began to say that red mercury had been found inside the sarcophagus. This discovery made the world’s press and TV channels call me to find out my opinion. I will now explain the story of this mysterious sarcophagus.

From the beginning, I said to the media all over the world that the sarcophagus had no curse attached to it and that the tomb of Alexander the Great could not be in this area. The red mercury was a myth, I said, and when the sarcophagus had been fully opened it would likely contain water and perhaps a skeleton. This was the result, and the media said that I had been right.

We know that modern Egypt was built on Ancient Egypt and that even now people can dig in the courtyards of their homes and discover antiquities. This can be seen from Aswan to Alexandria. We have also to remember the site of Matariya in Heliopolis where tombs and statues were found under the houses. We cannot forget the statue of Psmatik I that weighed eight-and-a-half tons and was found under houses in Matariya.

 In the past, the Antiquities Service issued a law saying that if an individual wanted to rebuild his house he would have to go to the inspectorate offices and apply for permission. The Antiquities Service would then appoint one of its inspectors to supervise the digging of new foundations. The law also says that if anything is found during this process the Antiquities Service will take it and leave the land to the owner. However, if a structure that cannot be moved is found, the Antiquities Service will pay compensation to the owner for the land and declare it an archaeological area.

This happened with land that once belonged to the Lawyers Syndicate, where a beautifully decorated tomb and statues were found. The syndicate was paid LE50 million for the land, which became the property of the Antiquities Service.

In Alexandria, there are areas that fall under this law, and one of these is where the black granite sarcophagus was found underneath the foundations of buildings in a narrow hole. The photographs that were taken of the sarcophagus made it look as if it belonged to an important person because it is huge and is thought to weigh 30 tons. We know that the black granite came from Aswan, so the owner must have been someone important. However, the photographs made it look as if the only person who could have had the power to cut a granite sarcophagus and ship it from Aswan would have to have been a king.

This led to the first rumour and the story of the curse. It must be stated clearly that the curse of the Pharaohs is a myth. However, many people believe in it, and it became widely known after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and the death of Lord Carnarvon, the funder of the expedition, only five months after the discovery.

The problem came about after Carnarvon gave exclusive rights to the London Times to write about the discovery of the tomb, while other newspapers had to rely on the information published by the Times before they could publish anything about the discovery. These reporters considered Carnarvon’s death to be a great story to write about and began to write fake stories about his death and the possibility of a curse.

We know that the Ancient Egyptians wrote curses at the entrances of their tombs. In one of the tombs that I found in the cemetery of the Pyramid builders at Giza, I found the following inscription: “anyone who enters this tomb will be eaten by the crocodile, the hippo, and the lion.”

The death of Carnarvon in late February 1923 triggered stories about the curse of the Pharaohs, sometimes called the curse of the mummy, and the curse of the sarcophagus. The stories spread like wildfire, making a lot of people believe that an ancient curse had been reawakened when Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened.

While Carnarvon lay ill with pneumonia in the old Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, stories of the curse were being spread by a novelist called Marie Corelli. She claimed that she possessed a rare book in Arabic entitled The Egyptian History of the Pyramids that supposedly said that “the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb, and secret poisons [are] enclosed in boxes in such wise that those who touch them shall not know how they came to suffer.” She also hinted that something more sinister than a mosquito bite had made Carnarvon sick.

There were no more rumours about Ancient Egyptian curses in the media for some years, but they re-emerged in the rumours about the inscriptions on the sarcophagus found in Alexandria. I told the press that no inscriptions had been found on it. The sarcophagus is plain, and there is nothing written on it. I told the reporters that there was no such thing as a curse, which was just a myth.


THE TRUTH OF THE CURSE: I explained the truth about the curse to one TV presenter.

“The dearest wish of an Ancient Egyptian was to have his or her name live forever. Tutankhamun, after vanishing in complete obscurity for thousands of years, would likely have been grateful rather than angry that his tomb was finally discovered.  He is now the best-known and the most talked-about of all Egyptian kings, and his name is spoken more frequently than he could ever have imagined. I don’t believe he would have put a curse upon those who found him,” I said.

If you discover a tomb with a mummy inside, it will contain germs that you cannot see. In the past, archaeologists were often in a hurry, and they used to enter the tombs right after they had opened them, meaning that they could be infected with these germs. What we do now when we open a sealed tomb is leave it open for a few hours until the contaminated air has gone and fresh air has entered the tomb. No curse can happen if we are careful.

I talked to Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany about the rumours I told him were circulating before the sarcophagus was opened. We both laughed, and I told him that because the sarcophagus had not been opened yet we would hear many more rumours.

The second rumour that spread across the world, and was made up by the foreign press, was that the sarcophagus belonged to Alexander the Great. I said that we are sure that the tomb of Alexander the Great is in Alexandria, and we have a text that describes the tomb as being in the city. We also cannot forget the famous Greek waiter who got permission in 1963 to look for the tomb underneath the Ramle Station in Alexandria and even began to collect money from Greek citizens on the grounds that he knew the location of the tomb.

Some people have believed that the tomb is under Nabi Daniel Street in Alexandria. The late Fawzi Al-Fakharani thought the tomb could be in the area of the Latin cemetery in the Al-Shatby neighbourhood of the city.

I myself believe that the tomb will be discovered by accident one day, because most of the tombs and monuments in Alexandria have been found by accident. For example, one day a man was driving in a cart pulled by a donkey when the leg of the donkey fell into a hole, revealing the Catacombs of Kom Al-Shoqafa. The remains of the ancient theatre were also found by accident underneath Kom Al-Dekka.

However, the sarcophagus was found in the area of Sidi Gaber, and it cannot have belonged to Alexander because Sidi Gaber is not above a royal cemetery dating to the Ptolemaic Period. Moreover, the sarcophagus was found in a hole, and if it had been Alexander’s tomb it would have had decorated rooms around it and would have been decorated with scenes and inscriptions of the name of Alexander the Great.

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri went to Alexandria to witness the opening of the sarcophagus. The following day, I was at the Ministry of Antiquities to attend a meeting, and El-Enany told me that the sarcophagus had been opened. It had been found that it had been cracked open in antiquity, he said, and water had leaked inside it and turned red, making everyone say it was red mercury.

The latter is also a legendary substance. Some people believe that if you open the neck of a mummy you will find a liquid called red mercury. This will allow you to control the spirits and make you rich, they say. Many still believe this, and people sometimes stop me to ask about it. Of course, there is no truth in the stories of red mercury, though I have to say that one of the reasons the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was saved during the 25 January Revolution was because people thought they might find red mercury inside it.

The water that was found inside the sarcophagus, on the other hand, was red because it was mixed with mummy remains and had turned red as a result. Inside the sarcophagus, three skeletons were found, and it has been announced that these were probably of soldiers who died in battle because one of the skulls has a wound from an arrow in it.

The sarcophagus was opened, and no curse took hold. It is not the tomb of Alexander the Great, and the red water is not red mercury. Some journalists have claimed that the Antiquities Ministry made a mistake because it did not open the sarcophagus under the eyes of the cameras. However, this was not done because we already knew that there was nothing inside the sarcophagus: we did not want to open it live on air to reveal some water and a few skeletons.

Egypt has received great publicity all over the world thanks to rumours. These will never stop because even today thousands of people want to drink the “juice of mummies” as they believe it will give them more energy. I have never heard rumours of the present kind attending any similar discovery. But to me they are not strange because the Pharaohs continue to generate mystery and magic.

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