THE QUICK AND THE DEAD

The official transfer of the royal residence to the north stripped Thebes of much of its glory. Long before this time the city of Amon had, for all practical purposes, become a twin entity. On the east bank of the river were the great temples of Karnak and Luxor, the harbor and its attendant buildings, and the residential area inhabited by civil servants, temple officials, and the usual motley lot of anonymous commoners. Across the Nile, under the western cliffs, lay the greater city, which belonged to the dead. For generations the tombs of kings and commoners had honeycombed the hills; a row of great mortuary temples lay along the edge of the narrow cultivated land. The dead were not the only inhabitants of western Thebes, for they required an army of workmen, priests, soldiers, and artists to maintain their Houses of Eternity.

The royal necropoli on the west bank of the Nile had never been completely safe, but with the decline of the throne after the Nineteenth Dynasty, the grisly depredations of the tomb robbers multiplied and often went unpunished. We have a document, one of the most fascinating papyri ever discovered, which gives the details of a series of tomb robberies under Ramses IX, around 1120 B.C. The picture is one of depressing, widespread corruption. The accused are humble workers whose poverty might excuse their crimes, but the most casual reading between the lines makes it clear that more important people were criminally involved. The only bright and shining figure of virtue is that of the accuser, Paser, mayor of eastern Thebes, the city of the living. Paser’s counterpart in western Thebes was named Paweraa. He was not only mayor of the western city but chief of the necropolis police, and one of his primary responsibilities would be the safeguarding of the tombs, royal and otherwise. This was the man whom Paser accused—of negligence at the very least.

If we wanted to be cynical we might speculate about Paser’s motives; like his counterpart across the river, he was a politician, and when politicians fall out the worldly-wise may reasonably look behind the noble speeches. But it is kinder to view Paser as the one little candle in a naughty world. He certainly sounds righteous. Having received information to the effect that tomb robbers had been flourishing in Thebes of the Dead, under Paweraa’s control, he promptly filed charges with the vizier. His informant had been specific; Paser mentioned by name ten kings, four queens, and many nobles whose Houses of Eternity had been recently defiled.

The vizier appointed a commission to investigate (what a discouragingly modern sound that has) and put the mayor of western Thebes in charge. This was a perfectly logical appointment, considering Paweraa’s position, although a Solomon of a vizier might have realized that it was tantamount to appointing the fox to check on the hen houses. The commission accordingly tramped out across the steaming sands—this was in August, when most people simply collapse between the hours of twelve and four—and checked all the questioned tombs. They reported their results. Only one of the kings’ and two of the queens’ tombs mentioned by Paser had been robbed; with respect to the nobles’ tombs, the mayor of eastern Thebes racked up an astonishing 100 percent accuracy.

On the face of it, this report would seem to confirm the charges. Robbery was certainly progressing at a rapid rate; the exact proportion of tombs violated was really beside the point. But the mayor of western Thebes interpreted the findings of the commission differently. Or to put it another way, the technique of political “spin” is of ancient origin. On the following night, he allowed—the verb may be rather weak—his people, the workers of western Thebes, to demonstrate in celebration of his “vindication.” The mob made its way to the house of Paser, the accuser, and stood around jeering at him. Paser was vexed. He lowered himself so far as to come to the door and exchange insults with the crowd. During the flow of repartee, the infuriated Paser bellowed that he was not ready to give up; he had heard about other tombs that had been robbed.

His rival across the river promptly reported the latest doings to the vizier, taking a tone of injured innocence. A new commission of inquiry met next day in the temple of Amon, with Paser on the bench along with certain high nobles and the vizier himself. This gentleman, the highest appointed official in the land, then proceeded to render impotent the commission he had set up. He opened the hearings with a statement which implied that he had already checked the suspected tombs and found nothing wrong! This took the wind out of Paser’s sails. Imagine him, squirming on the bench and growing paler and paler as the suspects he had dragged in took their cues from the vizier and denied everything.

That was the end of Paser; reformer or not, he was trying to swim against the tide. He sank. We never hear of him again, whereas his opponent, Paweraa, was still mayor and chief of police seventeen years later. The tomb robberies continued and increased under the latter’s administration. Every now and then a petty carpenter or a humble coppersmith was tried and executed, as a sop to the proprieties, but it is so obvious from the papyrus itself who the guilty parties really were, that we wonder how anyone reading the report could have missed the truth. The answer may lie in the fact that the highest official who dealt with the matter was the vizier; and I have my doubts about him.

Recorded confessions of tomb robbers make it clear that part of the normal business expense in the trade was the bribery of officials. The situation went from bad to worse; by the time of the Twenty-first Dynasty, the priest-kings of Thebes were ready for drastic measures. Most of the royal mummies were still intact. How long they would remain so was a question. If they were left in their tombs, whose location was almost a matter of public record, some disappointed thief might destroy the sacred remains, as was in fact done by one set of robbers whose trial records we possess. So the successors of Herihor, who were in power at Thebes, made a plan. A royal commission met and took council on the problem of the dead, and the solution it proposed was the one we mentioned in the last chapter. One by one the despoiled bodies of the ancient kings were gathered together, repaired, and rewrapped (and, incidentally, stripped of any remaining valuables), and hidden away, most of them in a small rock-cut chamber tomb not far from Hatshepsut’s temple of Deir el Bahri. The coffins were shoved in, one on top of the other, until the small tomb was nearly filled. Then the weary officials retired, the entrance was concealed—and silence descended until a modern Egyptian named Ahmed went looking for a lost goat.

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