TOMB ROBBERS AND ROYAL MUMMIES

The Egyptians of the nineteeth century A.D. were among the most accomplished tomb robbers the world has ever seen. One cannot help but have a certain sympathy for their point of view. The tombs were on their land and had belonged, if not to their direct ancestors, to their predecessors. Ancient artifacts had no value to the dead (devout Moslems go to their graves without so much as a coffin), but they were fetching high prices from tourists and museums. Furthermore, the busy citizens of Gurneh and Giza could reasonably claim that their activities were no more destructive than those of many of the archaeologists of the time.

Among the busiest and most successful of these entrepreneurs were the members of a family of Gurneh, on the West Bank at Luxor. The Abd er Rassuls had a well-nigh uncanny instinct for locating hidden tombs. They are the only tomb robbers mentioned inWho Was Who in Egyptology. One of the brothers, Mohammed, was in the ser vice of Mustafa Agha, a consular agent at Thebes. Ahmed and Hussein, the other brothers, “dealt in antiquities.” Their most spectacular discovery occurred in the early 1870s—the precise date is unknown—when Ahmed Abd er Rassul was strolling around the western cliffs for purposes unknown. He said he was looking for a lost goat. One may legitimately wonder whether he was looking for something else. He could not have anticipated the magnitude of his actual discovery, in a cleft in the rock going down to a small tomb. Packed helter-skelter within were dozens of coffins and many other pieces of funerary equipment.

Ahmed couldn’t read the inscriptions that identified the occupants of the coffins, but he knew enough to recognize the shape of the cartouches, which were only used by royalty. No doubt overwhelmed by the richness of the find, he let his brothers in on the secret, and they began marketing some of the smaller objects such as ushabtis and funerary papyri.

The world of archaeology is a small one, and collectors and scholars keep in touch with one another. Within a few years after the Abd er Rassul brothers struck it rich, objects began to turn up in museums and private collections all over the world. They were important objects, and yet no new tomb discovery had been officially reported. The matter came to the attention of Gaston Maspero, the French director of the Egyptian Antiquities Ser vice. Maspero kept an alert eye on the antiquities market, and gradually a pattern began to emerge. The probable source of the new objects was narrowed down to the Luxor area; although they came from the burials of different persons, the fact that they had been put on the market more or less simultaneously indicated that they had been found together. What was sought, then, was not a single royal tomb, but a cache where many mummies were concealed. Maspero asked the police to look out for a man from Luxor who was spending too much money.

The Abd er Rassul family soon came under suspicion, but nothing could make them divulge their secret, although the methods of interrogation were brutal; Ahmed was permanently crippled by being beaten on the soles of his feet. However, it was the eldest brother, Mohammed, who finally cracked. Mohammed thought his brothers were getting the lion’s share of the loot, nor could he give them the complete trust which brothers ought to feel for one another. In pure self-protection, fearing they were about to betray him, he betrayed them first.

Maspero was not in Egypt when Mohammed’s revelation broke, but his assistant, Emile Brugsch, went at once to Thebes. He was led to the cache, which was entered by a deep shaft descending from a small opening at the base of a sheer rock wall. Brugsch was stupefied by what he found—the coffins of the mightiest pharaohs of Egypt piled one atop the other like kindling wood. According to his later account, he read some of the cartouches as he moved slowly along the dark, cluttered passages, squeezing past mummy cases and stepping carefully over a litter of smaller objects. The liberator, Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the warrior Thutmose III—thirty-five mummies in all, including the family of the later priest-king Pinudjem, whose coffins filled the final chamber.

Dazzled and disbelieving, Brugsch had to make a hard decision. He knew that he had to get the coffins into safekeeping as soon as possible; it was not unheard of for fellahin to attack archaeologists, and the richness of the find was a strong incentive to violence. He was probably right, but the result was that no records were kept, no plans or sketches made. Wrapping and securing the objects, maneuvering the heavy coffins through the narrow passages and up the shaft, took fewer than six days. They were then carried across the river and loaded onto the government steamer. It is said that as the slow vessel moved downstream the villagers gathered on the shore, wailing and keening in a form of mourning millennia old. It was a touching sight, but one wonders whether they were mourning the loss of their ancient kings, or the removal of a reliable source of local employment.

The Deir el Bahri cache was perhaps the most dramatic discovery ever made in Egypt: the actual physical remains of men who ruled one of the world’s mightiest empires thousands of years ago, men whose names and reputations were as old as legend. Scholars found it a trifle disconcerting to acknowledge that the momentous discovery was made by a pack of crooks, but these lucky intuitive moments do occur, even to the uneducated. They were willing to forgive and forget. In a burst of generosity, the Antiquities Department hired the stool pigeon, Mohammed. It was a good demonstration of the practical value of high moral gestures. In 1891, some ten years after the Deir el Bahri find, Mohammed came to Eugene Grébaut, Maspero’s successor, and ended what must have been a long and painful mental struggle—his new loyalty to the Antiquities Department against his instincts and family ties. The uneducated but inspired Abd er Rassul boys had found another tomb and had made good use of it while Mohammed was wrestling with his principles (the fight had lasted quite a long time). It was the third of the big multiple reburials, that of the high priests of Amon-Re. The second, in the tomb of Amenhotep II, had been found in 1898 by Loret, a professional Egyptologist, who thus retrieved some of his colleagues’ battered reputation for luck. With Amenhotep II’s mummy were, among others, those of Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, and Seti II.

The royal remains found by Loret were eventually brought to Cairo and united with those of their peers in the Cairo Museum, where, after many journeys, they lie today. Tutankhamon’s sadly decayed mummy, marred by the very unguents and ointment that were meant to increase its hopes of survival, and dismembered by the modern archaeologists who discovered it, still rests within its gilded and guarded outermost coffin in the Valley of the Kings. The skeleton of his brother, Smenkhkare, is also in Cairo.

One might assume that after the bodies of the kings were found in modern times they could expect a final end to their wanderings, in whatever dignity the museum could afford. But such was not the case. The royal mummies had one more journey to make—a short trip but one that, unfortunately, had touches of macabre comedy.

In the early 1930s, when the National Party came to power in Egypt, the prime minister, Nahas, erected a costly mausoleum to shelter the body of Saad Zaghlul, the founder of the party. Later the Nationalist government fell and was replaced by a hostile coalition that wanted tolessen the propaganda impact of Zaghlul and his mausoleum. In order to diffuse public interest, the new prime minister ordered the royal mummies to be placed in the tomb alongside the Nationalist idol. Then the Nationalists got in again and decided that too much admiration was being lavished on the mummies, and not enough upon their hero. They sent a curt message to the museum, ordering the authorities to come and get their old kings. Somewhat nonplussed, the museum authorities hired a couple of ambulances, and in the dead of night entered the mausoleum. The last funeral cortege—to date—of the royal dead of ancient Egypt wound through the streets of the sleeping city into a court of the museum, and the bodies were reverently placed in an unused room.

For some time thereafter it was necessary to secure permission to see them from the appropriate Egyptian ministry, and only scholars and distinguished visitors were accorded the privilege. Now the only criterion to which tourists are subjected is the payment of a sizeable fee. Not all the mummies are on display, only those that have been stabilized and put in climate-controlled glass cases. Among them is Ramses II, the greatest traveler of the lot; a few years ago he was taken to Paris to be treated for insect infestation by experts there.

Perhaps the exorbitant admission charge does deter the great majority of the irreverent. There is so much to see in the Cairo Museum that only mummy buffs and archaeologists are apt to pay an additional sum for the privilege of gazing on the ghastly remnants of the long dead. Certainly these tattered specimens deserve the courtesy of silence, at the least, and their present setting, quiet and dimly lit, is conducive to respect. We had a couple of mummies at the Oriental Institute when I was a student there—two little old ladies (they were certainly old) who were known to the students as Mert and Mabel. I found them just as interesting as anybody else did, but I used to cringe at those nicknames. I am not sure that I would recommend a visit to the royal mummies at Cairo as an enjoyable experience. Sekenenre is there, the holes of the battle ax piercing his skull and his mouth agape in the last horrid scream of anguish; Ramses II, the great warrior and womanizer, still has some nasty, rusty white hairs on his withered skull; even Seti I, who must have been a particularly stately and handsome man, is very dry. One comes away with a great thirst, and with a dim reluctance to eat or drink anything for a little time. The sunlight seems too bright, and the noises of the city streets strike strangely on the ear.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!