19th century tomb robbers: ‘The Royal Mummies of Deir el-Bahari’ by Gaston Maspero (1889)


Translation to English from French, by me.

For the past little while I have been working on what may just be a non-academic non-fiction book about tomb robbing in Egypt (past and present). It is at a surprisingly advanced stage and I am really enjoying writing it.

Literary agents, get in touch.

Last night I found myself hunting around for an English translation of Gaston Maspero’s account of the infamous discovery of the Deir el-Bahari tomb DB320, a cache of royal mummies salvaged from ancient looted tombs and secreted away… only to be found by modern looters. The cache was found by members of one tomb robbing family who were able to hide their spectacular find for almost a decade.

I didn’t have any immediate luck finding an English translation: I imagine most Egyptologists can read French and thus use the original. Indeed, *I* read French because little me wanted to become an Egyptologist and somewhere I picked up that I needed to know French and German to become one. That was before I was lured away by the call of the Central American jungle…

Suffice to say I found the portion of the book I wanted on the website of the Russian Academy of Sciences Centre for Egyptological Studies (CESRAS), and set about translating it. Here it is, for better or for worse, for you all to put to your own purposes. Sorry about the huge paragraphs, Maspero didn’t seem to like breaks. Do cite my translation if you use it because it’s the right thing to do.

If you would like a PDF of this section of the book, look no further than here (again, thanks CESRAS). It’s out of copyright so roll with it. You’ll notice that I have only translated the first 6 pages of this 16 page section because that is the bit that I needed. If you can translate from French to English and want to pick up some of the rest, do get in touch or just start from the new paragraph at the very bottom of page 6 (page 516 of the book). If you send me your translation I will tack it on to this one and, of course, give you full credit.

The Royal Mummies of Deir el-Bahari [Les Momies Royales de Déir el-Bahari]

by G. Maspero, 1889, Mission archéologique française au Caire
pp. 511–516 translated (however haphazardly) by Donna Yates

1. The Discovery and the Inventory

During the summer of 1871 [1], an Arab from Gourna, in search of antiquities, discovered a tomb full of coffins piled confusedly one upon the other. Most were covered with cartouches and carried the uraeus on their forehead. The looters of Thebes have known for a long time that these are the marks of royal dignity: ours knew their profession too well to not guess at first glance that chance had given them a full underground tomb of Pharoahs. Never was there such a sight in the history of man; but the find, as precious as it was, could not fail to be difficult to loot. The coffins were numerous and heavy: it would not be too much for a dozen workers to move them. They had access to the funerary chambers through a deep shaft: it would have been necessary, to empty them of their valuable contents, to install above the gaping opening an apparatus of beams and ropes that would be impossible to hide. They should have let the neighbours in on the secret, sharing the treasure with them, still they were not certain which of their associates, dissatisfied with their lot, would report them to the moudir of the province or to the director of excavations. The Arab resigned himself to not take advantage of his windfall immediately. Two of his brothers and one of his sons helped him unwrap some mummies, and to remove from two or three coffins funerary figurines, scarabs, canopic jars, Osirises of painted wood, a half dozen papyri, a collection of objects that was easy to carry and hide. They descended three times in ten years deep into their cache: it was night, only for a few hours, and measures were taken so that no one around them would suspect the importance of their discovery. Every winter, they sold to tourists whatever loot they brought back from these expeditions: they expected to dispose of the rest to a scientist, an envoy sent on a mission by their government to Thebes or to a tourist rich enough to buy kings in bulk and obtain the “okay” {laisser-passer} of Egyptian customs.

However, some the objects that they had managed to dispose of had reached Europe. In 1874, a few figurines, of rather coarse workmanship, but coated with a charming blue enamel, had made their appearance on the Paris market. Those that I saw did not have the royal name, but the simple first name Khopirkhari, that is attributed to two Pharaohs at least. The oldest is Ousirtasen II of the 12th dynasty, the more recent Pinotmou of the 21st: I threw myself on the latter, for lack of a better term, and other clues soon proved that this was not without reason. In the spring of 1876, an English officer general by the name of Campbell showed me the hieratic Rituel of the high priest of Amon Pinotmou, which he had procured in Thebes for the sum of four hundred pounds sterling. In 1877, M. De Saulcy delivered to me the photographs of a long papyrus that belonged to the queen Notmit, and whose end is now in the Louvre, the beginning in England and Bavaria: the original was, he said, in the hands of a Syrian drogman who had acquired it in Luxor. Mariette had already bought in Suez a papyrus of the same provenance, written on the behalf of queen Tiouhathor Hontooui. In 1878, Rogers-Bey exhibited in Paris a wooden tablet on which was written a very curious test: the god Amon made there a decree in favour of the funerary figurines deposited with the corpse of the princess Nsikhonsou. In short, in 1878, I could say that the Arabs had discovered one or more hypogea belonging to a group of unknown royal tombs of the 21st dynasty. The search for its location was, if not the primary, at least one of the primary objectives of the trip I made to Upper Egypt during the months of March and April 1881. I did not have the pretension to find, through methodological soundings, or by personal diggers, the precise point from which the telltale objects came: the task was much more difficult. It was wrested from the fellahs, by cunning or by force, the secret that they had hitherto faithfully guarded. A long investigation, conducted patiently with acquirers and European tourists, had taught me an important fact: the principal dealers of royal antiquities were a certain Abderrassoul Ahmed, his bother Mohammed Abderrassoul of Sheikh Abd-el-Gournah, and Moustapha Agha Ayat, consular agent of England, Belgium, and Russia in Luxor. Attacking the latter was not easy: he was covered by diplomatic immunity, he escaped all charges. After several days of hesitation, I decided to vigorously proceed against the Abderrassoul brothers. On 1 April, I sent to the chief of police of Luxor an order to arrest Abserrassoul Ahmed, and I asked of Daoud Pacha, moudir of Qénéh as well as Minister of Public Works, via telegram for authorisation to immediately open an inquiry into the principal inhabitants of the village of Sheikh Abd-el-Gournah. Abderrassoul Ahmed, seized by two gendarmes the moment he returned from a journey in the mountains, was brought aboard my boat. As I did not yet speak fluent Arabic, he was interrogated in my presence, first by M. Émile Brugsch, now deputy curator of the Musée de Boulaq, next by M. de Rochemonteix, sub administrator of the Commission of State Domains who was willing to lend me the aid of his experience and served as my interpreter. Abderrassoul Ahmed denied all the facts that were imputed to him by the unanimous testimony of the tourists, and which fall directly under the cut {le coupe} of Ottoman law, clandestine excavation, unauthorised sale of papyrus and funerary statuettes, destruction of coffins and objects of art and curiosity belonging to the Egyptian State. I accepted his offer to let me search his house, less in the hope of finding some compromising stash {dépôt}, but rather to provide him the opportunity to reconsider and come to terms with us. Kindness, threats, offers of money, brought no success, and on 6 April, the order having arrived to officially start the inquiry, I shipped the prisoner and one of his brothers, Hussein Ahmed, to Qénéh, where the moudir called for them to proceed with their trial.

The case was conducted smoothly.[2] The interrogations and the debates, conducted by the magistrates of the Moudiriyeh, in the presence of our delegate, the officer-inspector of Dendérah, Ali Effendi Habib, had the sole result of provoking many favourable testimonies from the accused. The chiefs and notables of Gournah repeatedly affirmed under oath, that Abderrassoul Ahmed was a most loyal man and most disinterested in land {pays}, who never looted before and would never loot again, who was incapable of stealing the most insignificant object of antiquity, let alone violating a royal tomb. They noted the insistence with which Abderrassoul Ahmed proclaimed that he was a servant of Moustapha Agha Ayat, and that he lived in the house of that personage. He believed that by professing domesticity with regard to a consular agent, he would benefit from the privileges attached to the diplomatic function and come under some sort of Belgian, Russian, and British protection. Moustapha Agha had carefully maintained this misunderstanding, to him and all his accomplices; Agha had persuaded them that by covering for him, they would be untouchable by agents of indigenous administrations, and, thanks to this artifice, he had managed to concentrate all of the commerce in antiquities of the Theban plain in his own hands. Abderrassoul Ahmed was provisionally released, with the guarantee of two of his friends, Ahmed Serour and Ismail Sayid Nagib. He returned to his home around the middle of May, with the patient immaculate honesty that the notables of Gournah ascribed to him. However his arrest, and the two months of imprisonment that he had suffered, and the vigour with which the investigation of Daoud Pacha had been conducted, had clearly shown the inability of Moustapha Agha to protect his most faithful accomplices: we know more so I planned to return to Thebes during winter and I was determined to resume the case on my side, while the Moudiriyéh took over operations on his. A few timid denunciations arrived at Museum, some new information reached us from abroad, and, best of all, there was discord within the Abderrassoul family: some believed that the danger had passed and the Museum was beaten, others thought that it would be safer to cooperate with the Museum and tell them the secret. At the same time Abderrassoul Ahmed claimed that the community owed him compensation for the months in prison that he endured, and demanded the majority of the treasure for himself, instead of the fifth that satisfied him previously: if they refused to grant his demand, he threatened to go immediately to the director of excavations. After a month of discussions and arguments, the eldest of the brothers, Mohammed Abderrassoul, seeing that betrayal was imminent, decided to preempt it. He secretly went to Qénéh on 25 June and declared to the moudir that he knew the location that we had searched for unsuccessfully for so long[3]. Daoud Pacha referred this to the Ministry of the Interior who transmitted the despatch to the Khedive. The Khedive, who I had spoken to about the affair during my return to Upper Egypt, easily recognised the importance of this declaration, and immediately demanded certain precise details. A second telegram arrived the next day, the words of which leave no doubt about the importance of the discovery. “In checking the site discovered, on 25 June, said Daoud Pacha, we found it long and containing more than 30 sarcophagi which ware covered in inscriptions. The images of serpents and the ornaments that we saw in it prove that it is a royal place. We could not count all the ancient pieces that were in it, without taking them out of the underground tomb.”[4] The conservator, Vassalli-Bey, was on leave. Private matters had recalled me to Europe. I had to depart, leaving with the assistant curator, M. Émile Brugsch, the instructions and and powers necessary to proceed. On 27 June, upon receiving the second telegram, the Khedive gave him the order to return to Thebes in the company of MM. Thadeos Matafian, since appointed inspector of the pyramids district, Ahmed Effendi Kamal, interpreter secretary to the Museum, and Mohammed Abdessalam, captain of the boat Le Menshiéh, employed by the excavations service.[5] The small commission set off on Friday 1 July in the evening. They arrived at Qénéh on Monday the 4th, in the afternoon, and a surprise awaited them: Daoud Pacha having recovered in the deposit of Mohammed Abderrassoul many precious objects, among others, the four canopic jars of the queen Ahmas Nofritari and three funerary papyri of the queens Makeri and Isimkhobiou, and the princess Nsikhonsou. This was an encouraging start for our agents. To ensure a successful outcome for the delicate operation that was about to start, Daoud Pacha put at their disposal his wekil, Mohammed-Bey El-Bedaoui, and many other employees of the Moudiriyeh, who with zeal and vigilance rendered their services.

[1] [This is the date that was indicated to me at different times by Mohammed Abderrassoul and by his two brothers, Ahmed Abderrasoul and Soliman]
[2] [All of the official documents of the inquiry, in Arabic and French, are deposited in the archives of the Museé de Boulaq.]
[3] [All of the information that I offer about the quarrels of the family were given to me, during the years that followed, by various people resident to Luxor, Karnak, Gournah, and Erment, as well as from Eyoub Effendi, then an agent of the Egyptian telegraph, Ali-Bey, moufattiche of the Dairah Sanieh for the taftiche of Erment, Ali-Mourad, consular agent to the United States, Samuel, Catholic curate of Neggadeh, etc. They were confirmed to me by the Abderrassoul brothers.]
[4] [Translation of the official despatch of Daoud Pacha, in a letter from Ahmed Effendi Kamal, interpreter secretary of the Museum, dated 18 June 1881.]
[5] [Letter from M. Émile Brugsch, dated 19 June 1881: “Here is a very important and true case. I sent the viceroy a coded despatch announcing the discovery of a tomb at Thebes containing 30 coffins and a quantity of other objects. I received the order to go to Gournah to produce a report and bring back the objects. The next morning I left for Siout, accompanied by Kamal Effendi, my secretary, and the réïs of our boat. There was an Arab there who had told the moudir of Kénéh about the tomb, who I immediately made a guard to prevent theft. Perhaps we shall have our Pinotem?! I will send you a telegram to Paris just as soon as I have checked the tomb…. What good luck for Abderrassoul!”]