A Windfall of Royal Mummies



FOR SOME YEARS it had been known that the Arabs of el~Qurna had dug out one or two royal tombs, whose location they refused to reveal. In the spring of 1876 an English general named Campbell had shown me the hieratic ritual of the High Priest Pinotem, purchased at Thebes for four hundred pounds. In 1877 Monsieur de Saulcy, on behalf of a friend in Syria, sent me photographs of a long papyrus that had belonged to Queen Notemit, mother of Hrihor (the end of it is now in the Louvre and the beginning in England). Monsieur Mariette had also arranged to purchase from Suez two other papyri, written in the name of a Queen Tiuhathor Henttaui. About the same time the funerary statuettes of King Pinotem appeared on the market, some of them delicate in workmanship, others coarse. In short, the fact of a discovery became so certain that as early as 1878, I could state of a tablet belonging to Rogers-Bey that "it came from a tomb in the neighborhood of the as yet unknown tombs of Hrihor's family"; its actual source is the hiding place at Deir el-Bahari, where we found the mummy for which it had been written.

To search for the site of these royal vaults was, then, if not the first, at least one of the primary objects of the journey that I made in Upper Egypt during March and April 1881. I did not plan to take borings or to start excavations in the Theban necropolis; the problem was of a different nature. What had to be done was to extract from the fellahs the secret that they had so faithfully kept until then I had but one fact to proceed on: the leading merchants of antiquities were a certain Abd-er-Rassul Ahmed, of El-Sheik Abd-el-Qurna, and a certain Mustapha Aga Ayad, vice-consul of England and Belgium at Luxor. To go after the latter was not easy: protected as he was by diplomatic immunity, he could not be prosecuted by the excavations administration. On April 4th I sent the chief of police at Luxor an order to arrest Abd-er-Rassul Ahmed, and I telegraphed to His Excellency Daud Pasha, Mudir [governor] of Qena, as well as to the Ministry of Public Works, asking to be authorized to conduct an immediate inquiry into his actions. Questioned on shipboard first by Monsieur Emile Brugsch and then by Monsieur de Rochemonteix, who was kind enough to put his experienced help at my disposal, he denied everything with which I charged him according to the almost unanimous testimony of European travellers the discovery of the tomb, the sale of the papyri and the funerary statues, the breaking of the coffins. I accepted his proposal to have his house searched, less in the hope of finding anything compromising there than to give him an opportunity to think it over and come to terms with us. Gentleness, threats - nothing availed; and on April 6, the order to open the official investigation having arrived, I sent Abd-er-Rassul Ahmed and his brother Hussein Ahmed to Qena, where the Mudir was demanding their appearance for trial.

The investigation was energetically carried on but, on the whole, failed of its object. The interrogations and arguments, conducted by the magistrates of the mudiria [province] in the presence of our delegate, the official inspector of Dendera, Ali-Effendi Habib, resulted only in bringing out considerable testimony in favor of the accused. The notables and mayors of elQurna declared several times, on oath, that Abd-er-Rassul Ahmed was the most loyal and disinterested man in that part of the country, that he had never excavated and would never excavate, that he was incapable of diverting the most insignificant antique, still less of violating a royal tomb. The only interesting detail revealed by the investigation was the insistence with which Abd-er-Rassul Ahmed asserted that he was the servant of Mustapha Aga, vice consul of England, and that he lived in the latter's house. He thought that by making himself out to belong to the vice consul's household, he gained the advantage of diplomatic privileges and could claim some sort of protection from Belgium or England. Mustapha Aga had encouraged him in this mistaken belief, together with all his associates; he had convinced them that by sheltering themselves behind him they would thenceforth be safe from the agents of the native administration; and it was only by this trick that he had succeeded in getting the entire trade in antiquities in the Theban plain into his own hands.

So Abd-er-Rassul Ahmed was given provisional freedom, on the recognizance of two of his friends, Ahmed Serur and Ismall Sayid Nagib, and went home with the certificate of spotless honour conferred on him by the leading men of el-Qurna. But his arrest, the two months he had spent in prison, and the vigour with which the inquiry had been conducted by His Excellency Daud Pasha, had clearly shown that Mustapha Aga was unable to protect even his most faithful agents; then too, it was known that I planned to return to Thebes during the winter and that I was determined to reopen the matter myself, while the mudiria would also begin further investigations. Some timid accusations reached the Museum, we learned a few more details from abroad, and even better, disagreement arose among Abd-er-Rassul and his four brothers: some of them thought the danger had passed forever and that the Museum directorate had been defeated; others considered that the wisest course would be to come to terms with the directors and reveal the secret to them. After a month of discussions and quarreling, the eldest of the brothers, Mohammed Ahmed Abd-er-Rassul, suddenly decided to speak up. He went secretly to Qena and informed the Mudir that he knew the site that had been fruitlessly sought for a number of years; the tomb contained not merely two or three mummies but about forty, and most of the coffins were marked with a small snake, like the one displayed on the headdresses of the Pharaohs. His Excellency Daud Pasha immediately referred the information to the Ministry of the Interior, which transmitted the dispatch to His Highness the Khedive. His Highness, to whom I had spoken of the matter on my return from Upper Egypt, at once recognized the importance of this unexpected declaration and decided to send one of the Museum staff to Thebes. I had just returned to Europe, but I had left Monsieur Emile Brugsch, assistant curator, the necessary powers to act in my stead. As soon as the order arrived he set out for Thebes, on Saturday July 1st, accompanied by a friend on whom he could rely and by Ahmed Effendi Kamal, Secretary-Interpreter to the Museum. On reaching Qena, he found a surprise awaiting him: Daud Pasha had searched the premises of the Abd-er-Rassul brothers and bad seized several precious objects, among them three papyri of Queen Maekere, Queen Isimkheb, and Princess Neskhonsu. It was a promising beginning. To ensure the success of the delicate undertaking that was about to begin, His Excellency put at our agents' disposition his wekil and several other employees of the mudiria, whose zeal and experience proved to be of great service.

On Wednesday the 6th, Messrs. Emile Brugsch and Ahmed Effendi Kamal were led by Mohammed Ahmed Abd-er-Rassul directly to the spot where the funeral vault opened. The Egyptian engineer who had excavated it long ago had laid his plans in the most skillful manner possible - never was a hiding place more effectively concealed. The chain of hills that here separates the Biban el-Muluk from the Theban plain forms a series of natural basins between the Asasif and the Valley of Queens. Of these basins, the best known hitherto was the one in which stands the monument of Deir el-Bahari. In the rock wall that divides Deir el-Bahari from the following basin, directly behind the hill of El-Sheikh 'Abd el-Qurna, and some sixty meters above the level of the cultivated ground, a vertical shaft was sunk eleven and a half meters deep by two meters wide. At the bottom, in its western wall, was cut the entrance to a corridor 14 meters wide by 30 centimeters high. After running for 7.4 meters, the corridor turns suddenly northward and continues for some 60 meters, but not remaining of the same dimensions throughout - in some places it reaches a width of 2 meters, at others it is only 1.3 meters wide. Toward the middle of it, five or six roughly hewn steps reveal a marked change in level, and, to the right, a sort of uncompleted niche shows that the architect had once considered changing the direction of the gallery yet again. It finally leads into a sort of irregular oblong chamber about 8 meters long. The first thing Monsieur Emile Brugsch saw when he reached the bottom of the shaft was a white and yellow coffin bearing the name of Neskhonsu. It was in the corridor, some 60 centimeters from the entrance; a little farther on was a coffin whose shape suggested the style of the XVIIth Dynasty, then Queen Tiuhathor Henttaui, then Seti I. Beside the coffins and scattered over the ground were boxes with funerary statuettes, canopic jars, libation vessels of bronze, and, farther on, in the angle formed by the corridor where it turns northward, the funeral tent of Queen Isimkheb, folded and crumpled, like something of no value that a priest in a hurry to get out had carelessly thrown into a comer. All along the main corridor were the same profusion of objects and the same disorder; he was forced to crawl, never knowing upon what hand or foot might be set. The coffins and mummies, fleetingly glimpsed by the light of a candle, bore historic names, Amenophis I, Thutmose II, in the niche near the stairway, Ahmose I and his son Siamun, Soqnunri, Queen Ahhotpu, Ahmose Nefertari, and others. The confusion reached its height in the chamber at the end, but no more than a glance sufficed to reveal that the style of the XXth Dynasty was predominant. Mohammed Ahmed Abd-er-Rassul's report, which at first seemed exaggerated, was actually far short of the truth. Where I had expected to find one or two obscure kinglets, the Arabs had disinterred a whole vault of Pharaohs. And what Pharaohs! perhaps the most illustrious in the history of Egypt, Thutmose III and Seti I, Ahmose the Liberator and Ramses II the Conqueror. Monsieur Emile Brugsch, coming so suddenly into such an assemblage, thought that he must be the victim of a dream, and like him, I still wonder if I am not dreaming when I see and touch what were the bodies of so many famous personages of whom we never expected to know more than the names.

Two hours sufficed for this first examination, then the work of removal began. Three hundred Arabs were quickly got together by the Mudir's officials and set to work. The Museum's boat, hastily summoned, had not yet come; but one of the pilots was present, Rais Mohammed, a reliable man. He went to the bottom of the shaft and undertook to bring out its contents. Messrs. Emile Brugsch and Ahmed Effendi Kamal received the objects as they emerged from underground, transported them to the foot of the hill, and placed them side by side, never relaxing their vigilance for an instant. Forty-eight hours of energetic work were enough to bring up everything; but the task was only half finished. The convoy had to be conducted across the Theban plain and beyond the river to Luxor; several of the coffins, lifted only with the greatest effort by twelve or sixteen men, took seven or eight hours to travel from the mountain to the river bank, and it is easy to imagine what such a journey was like in the dust and heat of July.

Finally, on the evening of the 11th, mummies and coffins were all at Luxor, carefully wrapped in mats and cloth. Three days later the Museum's steamboat arrived; no sooner was the load aboard than it started back to Bulaq with its cargo of kings. Strangely enough, from Luxor to Qift, on both banks of the Nile fellah women with their hair down followed the boat howling, while the men fired shots as they do at funerals. Mohammed Abd-er-Rassul was rewarded with five hundred pounds sterling, and I thought it proper to appoint him reis of the excavations at Thebes. If he serves the Museum with the same skill that he used so long to its detriment, we may hope for more fine discoveries....


From Maspero's "Rapport sur la trouvaille de Deir-el-Bahri", Institut Egyptien Bulletin, Ser. 2, No. 2 (1881).

Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask.