Ancient History & Civilisation


Early in 1881 a well-to-do American art collector was sailing up the Nile toward Luxor, a village situated opposite the ancient royal city of Thebes, where he intended to buy antiquities. He had no use for the official traffic in museum pieces, far too strictly controlled under the influence of Mariette, and preferred to trust entirely to his own instinct. Nights he frequented the dark alleys, the backrooms of the Luxor bazaar. There he made contact with an Egyptian who offered for sale what were apparently genuine and valuable objects.

This American’s method invites a brief digression. Today, every guide warns the tourist against engaging in black-market dealings in antiquities. Rightly so—most so-called antiquities are manufactured by modern Egyptian home labor, or even imported from Europe. The black marketeers have an inexhaustible bag of tricks for simulating authenticity in their wares. Even as seasoned a connoisseur as the German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe was taken in. While going about once with a professional guide who knew nothing of this, in the 1920’s, he found a small figurine in the sand. That he had found it himself convinced him of its genuineness. He “bribed” the guide to keep the matter quiet and smuggled the little object into his hotel under his coat. Then, to get a pedestal for it, he took it to a dealer, whom he asked for an opinion of the work. The dealer smiled. As Julius Meier-Graefe tells it: “The dealer invited me into the back of his little shop, opened a cupboard there, and showed me four or five identical pieces, each encrusted with thousand-year-old sand. They come from Bunzlau (in Germany), but he buys them from an agent in Cairo, a Greek.”

Apart from the faking of antiques as a business, scientists and scholars must look out for unpleasant surprises engineered by all kinds of practical jokers. This is illustrated by the following autobiographical story of a modern French novelist, André Malraux, onetime commissar in China, lately General de Gaulle’s propaganda chief. There is no reason to doubt the anecdote, reported here only as a curiosity and certainly not to inspire imitation. In 1925 Malraux fell into conversation in a Singapore bar with a Russian collector traveling at the expense of the Boston Museum to buy antiquities. After the first exchange of courtesies, the Russian lined up on the table five little ivory elephants he had just purchased from the Hindu: “You see, my friend, I buy little elephants. When we are through with a dig, I stick them into the graves before we cover them up again. In fifty years from now, when other excavators come along and open the coffins again, they will find these inside, nicely patinaed and weathered, and they will be so mystified.… I rather like to give those who come after me a little headache. On one of the towers at Angkor-Vat, my friend, I engraved an extremely indecent inscription in Sanscrit; well smeared over, it looks quite old. Some know-it-all will decipher it one day. One must do one’s bit toward deflating those pompous asses.…”

To get back to our American: while he may have been a dilettante in Egyptology, he was not lacking in expertise. Hence, when he saw the Egyptian’s wares, he became rather excited and, flagrantly disregarding the oriental rituals of dickering, bought a papyrus the like of which for beauty and good preservation he had seldom seen. He hid it in his trunk and left Egypt with all speed, bypassing customs and police controls. In Europe, experts confirmed that he had got a rare treasure. He had also, incidentally, triggered off a most remarkable chain of events in which he himself played no further part.

But before that story can be told, it is necessary to relate some of the strange history of the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Kings, or the Tombs of Kings at Biban el-Muluk, lies on the west bank of the Nile, across the river from Luxor and Karnak, site of the enormous colonnades and temple buildings of the New Empire. The valley site lies near the extensive and now desert region where once the great necropolis of the city of Thebes flourished. On this west side of the Nile, during the New Empire, tombs were cut into the rocky face of the cliffs for the reception of the bodies of high personages. Here, too, temples were dedicated to the god Amen (Amun) and to various kings (see Plate IX).

The custodial care and continued construction of a gigantic necropolis required a very large personnel, which was under the direction of an official entitled the Prince of the West and Colonel of the Mercenaries of the Necropolis. The garrison assigned to guard the cemetery lived in barracks. Common laborers and construction workers were housed in clusters of huts, which in time grew into small villages. Among this working force were stonemasons and painters, artists of all kinds, and, too, the embalmers, or mummifiers, who preserved the dead and provided an eternal house for the ka.

This development took place, as I have said, during the period of the New Kingdom, when the mightiest potentates of Egyptian history were in power, the Sons of the Sun, the first and second Ramses. The period is identified with the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, and ran from approximately 1350 to 1200 B.C. From the Spenglerian point of view, it was a period that bore an analogy to our own present, a time, that is, of almost pure “civilization” characterized by “Cæsarism.” According to the Spenglerian concept of historical simultaneity, this Egyptian period, during which the architectural impulse ceased to find expression in pyramid building and instead produced the showy structures of Karnak, Luxor, and Abydos, corresponds with the Cæsarian era of Roman history, during which epoch the “monumental” Greek culture was absorbed into Roman “colossality.” Other instances of the “colossal” historical phase are the period when Sennacherib built up Nineveh into an Assyrian Rome, when Emperor Huang-ti ruled in China, and when the great Indian (Hindu) monuments were erected, after 1250. Moreover, the same forces at work during the Egyptian transition into colossality are at work today among us of the West who live in the skyscraper city of New York, in the ruins of Berlin, in stagnant London, or in an enervated Paris.

A remarkable change introduced by King Thotmes I (1545–1515 B.C.) signals the beginning of the era of building activity in the Valley of the Kings. Thotmes I is a definitive figure in the dynastic history of Egypt. He is also significant—though this has yet to be finally proved, and final proof will require more than a purely archæological effort—in so far as he symbolizes the evolution of Egyptian culture into civilization, a process typically involving a breakup of old traditions.

However that may be, Thotmes was the first Egyptian king to build his tomb apart from his mortuary chapel, in his particular instance distant from it by nearly a mile. And instead of having his corpse interred in a pretentious and widely visible pyramid, he left instructions to have it hidden in a rock chamber carved into the cliff face. This hardly strikes modern ears as important. But actually the decision represented an abrupt repudiation of a tradition that had lasted for some seventeen hundred years.

In making this drastic move Thotmes created immeasurable difficulties for his ka and seriously jeopardized his existence after death. For the viability of his ka depended on the giving of sacrificial gifts on certain holy days at his mortuary chapel, which of course was no longer intimately connected with the body around which the ka putatively hovered. As compensation for this defect, however, Thotmes hoped to gain the permanent security denied his forefathers by tomb-robbers. The instructions he gave his master builder, Ineni, were motivated by a consuming fear that his grave would be desecrated. Despite the rationalistic decay and secularization of religion—the Twenty-first Dynasty consisted entirely of priest kings, and prior to that time their power in the kingdom had been growing apace—concern about the possible destruction of his mummy was still the dominant factor in Thotmes’ mind. By the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty there was scarcely a royal tomb in the vicinity of Thebes that had not been robbed. Hardly a single mummy remained that had not been stripped of at least a part of its “magical armor,” and so defiled for eternity. As a rule the tomb-robbers were not apprehended, though now and again they may have been disturbed and all forced to leave their booty behind. Five hundred years before the reign of Thotmes the intruder who had entered the tomb of the wife of King Zer had been interrupted in breaking up the Queen’s mummy and had hastily hidden one of the desiccated arms in a hole in the burial chamber. There it was found in 1900 by an English archæologist, intact under the wrappings, and with a valuable amethyst and turquoise arm ring.

The chief architect of Thotmes was called Ineni. We can imagine the discussion that took place between the monarch and his chief builder. After the decision to break with tradition had been made, certainly Thotmes must have realized that unless the site and construction of the tomb were kept absolutely secret, there could be no final guarantee of escaping the fate of preceding kings.

The vanity of the architect has preserved for us the story of how the project was carried out, for on the walls of his own mortuary chapel Ineni left, as part of a detailed biography, an account of the construction of this first cliff tomb. One pertinent sentence reads: “I alone supervised the construction of His Majesty’s cliff tomb. No one saw it, no one heard it.” But a modern archæologist, Howard Carter, one of the foremost authorities on the Valley of the Kings and the physical characteristics of tomb-building there, estimated the number of men who worked for Ineni. Carter writes: “It is sufficiently obvious that a hundred or more workers with a knowledge of the King’s most precious secret would never be allowed at large, and we can be quite sure that Ineni found some effectual means of stopping their mouths.” Conceivably the work was carried out by prisoners of war, who were slaughtered at its completion.

Did Thotmes’ break with tradition fulfill its object? His cliff tomb was the first of many to be quarried in the Valley of the Kings. Into the limestone walls of a lonely, forbidding valley lying beyond the western cliffs of Thebes he had a steep passage bored according to a plan used for five subsequent centuries by Pharaonic architects. The Greeks, struck by the flutelike approach to the sepulcher, called the rock tombs syringes, because they called to mind a syrinx, or long shepherd’s flute. Strabo, the Greek traveler who lived in the last century before Christ, described forty of these tombs as worth seeing.

We do not know how long Thotmes lay cloistered in peace. We do know, however, that it could not have been too long, in the scale of Egyptian history. The day came when his mummy, together with that of his daughter and others, was taken out of the cliff, this time not by robbers, but by the priests as a precaution against intruders. The kings had seen to it that their graves were built close together in the cliffs so that the watch over them could be concentrated, rather than scattered as hitherto, but still the robberies continued.

Thieves broke into the tomb of Tutankhamen within ten or fifteen years after his death. A very few years after the death of Thotmes IV robbers left their visiting card in his sepulcher by scratching the secret signs and slang words of their thievish kind on the walls. This tomb suffered so much that a hundred years later the pious Horemheb in the eighth year of his reign gave the official called Kej orders “to renew the burial of King Thotmes IV, justified, in the Precious Habitation in Western Thebes.”

The tomb-robbers reached the peak of their activity during the Twentieth Dynasty. The rule of the autocratic Ramses I and II and of the first and second Sethos (Seti) had come to a close. The succeeding nine kings, all of whom were called Ramses, were great in name only. Their control over the kingdom was weak and chronically threatened. Bribery and corruption were rife. The cemetery guards ganged up with the priests, the supervisors of the burial area with the governors of the district. Even the mayor of Western Thebes, the highest official in the protective system of the necropolis, came to secret terms with the tomb-robbers. It seems almost uncanny to us today to find, among the papyrus collections from the period of Ramses IX (1142–1123 B.C.), a document relating to a tomb-robbery trial that took place three thousand years ago. Before this trial the tomb-robbers are anonymous; now they suddenly acquire names and come to life as real people.

Peser, the mayor of Eastern Thebes, got wind of extensive grave-robberies on the western side of the river. The mayor of Western Thebes was the publicly suspect Pewero, for whom Peser had as little use as Pewero for him. Peser, it appears, was overjoyed to have a chance to discredit his rival in mayoral office with the vizier, or governor, of the whole Theban district, a certain Khamwese. (The following is Howard Carter’s report of the proceedings, based on Breasted’s collection of Ancient Records of Egypt.)

But things turned out badly for Peser. In his denunciation of Pewero and his henchmen Peser made the tactical mistake of naming the exact number of tombs that had been rifled. According to his story, ten royal tombs, four containing the remains of priestesses, and a great many others of private persons had been desecrated. Several members of the formal investigatory commission that Khamwese now sent across the river, including the man in charge, may well have been implicated in the robberies. Even Khamwese himself might have been making a few talents on the side. As we would say today, the commission had got their cut, and their report was already framed when they rowed across the Nile. Falling back on legal formalities, they acquitted the accused, by skirting the point at hand—namely, whether tombs had been robbed—and concentrating on irrelevant issues.

The commission disputed the literal accuracy of Peser’s bill of particulars. They tabled his charge on the grounds that whereas Peser said ten royal tombs had been plundered, actually this was true of only one, and instead of four priestesses’ tombs, only two. That in truth nearly all the private tombs mentioned by Peser had been disturbed could not be denied, but the commission saw no reason in this to haul such a worthy official as Pewero into court. The day after the accusation had been shelved, the triumphant Pewero rounded up “the inspectors, the necropolis administrators, the workmen, the police, and all the laborers of the necropolis,” and sent them as a body to the east side of the Nile for what, in modern parlance, would be called a “spontaneous demonstration.” They were enjoined to parade with particular attention to the neighborhood of Peser’s home.

This was too much for the mayor of Eastern Thebes. Peser could not contain his chagrin. He fell into a temper, in which unsettled condition he committed his second, and nearly fatal, mistake. Heatedly arguing with one of the leaders of the parade from the western city, in his excitement Peser swore, within the hearing of witnesses, that he was going over the vizier’s head and appeal directly to the King.

This was exactly what Pewero had been waiting to hear. As fast as he could, he rushed word to the vizier, Khamwese. Peser, he informed the governor, planned to act outside of channels, an incredible breach of bureaucratic discipline. The outraged vizier now summoned a court and forced the tactless Peser to sit with the other judges at his own trial. He found himself in the odd position of accusing himself of perjury and pronouncing himself guilty of the crime.

This strangely modern crime story, to the fully documented details of which nothing has been added here—it could have been told at far greater length, in fact—even had a “happy ending” seldom found outside fairy tales.

Two or three years after this triumph of corruption a band of eight tomb-robbers was caught. These robbers, “after being chastised with a double rod on hands and feet,” gave a deposition that obviously must have come into the possession of some honest man who would not be frightened into hushing it up. Five of the names of these eight robbers have come down to us: the stonecutter Hapi, the artisan Iramen, the peasant Amenemheb, the water carrier Kemwese, and the Negro slave Thenefer. In their confession they say:

“We opened their coffins and their coverings in which they were. We found the august mummy of this King.… There was a numerous string of amulets and ornaments of gold at its throat; its head had a mask of gold upon it; the august mummy of this King was overlaid with gold throughout. Its coverings were wrought with gold and silver, within and without; inlaid with every costly stone. We stripped off the gold, which we found on the august mummy of this god, and its amulets and ornaments which were at its throat, and the covering wherein it rested. We found the King’s wife likewise; we stripped off all that we found on her likewise. We set fire to their coverings. We stole their furniture, which we found with them, being vases of gold, silver, and bronze. We divided and made the gold that we found on these two gods, on their mummies, and the amulets, ornaments, and coverings, into eight parts.”

The court found the defendants guilty, and by extension validated Peser’s earlier accusations.

Yet it appears that this court action—and a number of others in which culprits were also harshly dealt with later on—could not stop the systematic plunder of the Valley of the Kings. We know that thieves broke into the tombs of Amenophis III, Seti I, and Ramses II. “Strange sights the Valley must have seen, and desperate the ventures that took place in it,” writes Carter. “One can imagine the plotting for days beforehand, the secret rendezvous on the cliff by night, the bribing or drugging of the cemetery guards, and then the desperate burrowing in the dark, the scramble through a small hole into the burial chamber, the hectic search by a glimmering light for treasure that was portable, and the return home at dawn laden with booty. We can imagine these things, and at the same time we can realize how inevitable it all was. By providing his mummy with the elaborate and costly outfit which he thought essential to its dignity, the King was himself encompassing its destruction. The temptation was too great. Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice lay there at the disposal of whoever should find the means to reach it, and sooner or later the tomb-robber was bound to win through.”

But the time of the Twentieth Dynasty was not peopled entirely by tomb-robbers, traitorous priests, bribed officials, corrupt magistrates, and highly organized gangs of thieves recruited from all levels of the social scale. There were honest believers, righteous men who would honor dead kings. For even as the thieves were making their nightly getaway over secret paths, little groups of the faithful were lying in wait for them. Necessity had driven these pious men to use hijacking tactics, to fight fire with fire. In the retaliatory war waged by the loyal priests and incorruptible officials against the tightly knit robber organizations, it was expedient to be even more secretive than were the outlaws.

It is exciting to picture these defenders of tradition as, with heated whisperings, they went into the tomb, holding the torch so that its light would shine into the open sarcophagus, bodies ducking in fear of being surprised. They were not afraid of the sentinels posted at the tombs themselves. Yet a single glance by a corrupt guard might be enough to let the robber gang know which king it was this night who was in protective custody and thus out of their thievish reach. And the faithful vigilantes carry away the embalmed bodies of their dead kings. They move the mummies from tomb to tomb to shield them from sacrilegious hands. They hear that new raids are planned by the robbers, and make reply with more nocturnal expeditions. And the dead kings, whose mummies should have remained at rest for all eternity, wander.

Suddenly the scene changes. The priests take protective measures in broad daylight. Police shut off the valley. Long columns of porters and beasts of burden transport the huge coffins from the threatened burial chambers to new sites, new hiding places. The military take over—and once again many eyewitnesses have to pay with their lives that the new secret may be kept.

Three times Ramses III was taken out of his tomb and reinterred. Ahmes, Amenophis I, Thotmes II, and even Ramses the Great were transferred to safer spots. Finally, for lack of any other hiding place, all were dumped into a single sepulcher.

“Year 14, third month of the second season, day 6, Osiris King Usermare-Setepnere (Ramses II) was taken to be buried again in the tomb of Osiris King Memmare Seti I, by the High Priest of Amen, Paynezem.”

But even there they were not secure. Sethos (Seti) I and Ramses II were placed in the tomb of Queen Inhapi. Finally no less than thirteen royal mummies were crowded into the tomb of Amenophis II. Other kings were collected at different times and under widelyvarying circumstances and carried over the lonely and desolate highland path leading out of the Valley of the Kings. They were then placed in a tomb hewn in the wall of the rocky basin of Deir el-Bahri. This site was not far from the gigantic temple built by Queen Hatshepsut, sister of the third Thotmes, who was co-regent during her reign.

Here for three thousand years the mummies rested in peace. Apparently the exact location of the tomb was lost, the same contingency that protected the tomb of Tutankhamen after one superficial pillaging. It is possible that a heavy rainstorm washed away all trace of the entrance. Then an American collector’s trip to Luxor in 1881 led to the disclosure that this mass grave of kings had been discovered by chance six years earlier, in 1875.

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