The Mysteries of Qurna
By Sonny Stengle
There are eight thousand fellahin, or peasants, living in Qurna, across the Nile from Luxor, all massed together in five clusters of houses built on and around the tombs eight thousand people living, literally, on the past!
It was these richly furnished tombs of their ancestors which attracted them or their fathers before them to Qurna some one hundred years ago. The land around the site could not support that many people, with most of it belonging to a handful of wealthy individuals, so their livelihood depended almost entirely on robbing the tombs.
My fascination with this mysterious place began at the age of 8 when I found for the first time the name of Qurna in a book written by C.W.Ceram. He described a village built on top of the ancient Theban necropolis. I was fascinated with people like Howard Carter, Belzoni, Lepsius, etc. and their findings, their excavations, but besides that, I wanted to meet these people, not realizing they all died long ago. Years later (1988) my wife, my kids and I went to Egypt for a holiday trip, and there was no doubt that we would visit Qurna on the West bank of Luxor. When we finally arrived, we were surprised by the friendliness of all the Saidis living in Qurna, and we got to know them fairly well by staying in a house in Qurna ourselves.
While visiting the sites we also went to the Ramesseum, a funeral temple built by Ramses II. It was hot and fortunately, close by, was a little rest house with a big sign that read, "Sheikh Hussein Resthouse". When we went to sit down and refresh ourselves with some water and food, an old man turned up welcoming us. Nearby I saw a photo on the wall showing a young boy wearing one of Tutankhamens necklaces around his neck. I had seen that photo in quite a few books before and asked the old man how he came to have that photo on the wall of this restaurant. I was surprised when he told me it shows him as a young boy, as his father was foreman of all the workers for Howard Carter. His job was always to bring water to the workers in the Valley of the Kings. And then he mentioned that he is a member of the Abd el Rassuhl family. Of course, I had seen that name before during my research prior to my trip. I remembered seeing this name also in C.W.Cerams book. So this old man, Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl, was the last survivor of Carters team that discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. Howard Carter had asked him to wear the necklace for a photo as he thought the young boy Hussein probably looked similar to Tutankhamen at the same age.
We became good friends over the years and he told me many stories regarding Qurna, the tombs and the findings where his family always played an important role. I knew through my research at the archives of DER SPIEGEL magazine and others, that the Rassuhl family probably was the oldest and likely the "most successful" tomb-robber-dynasty in history. And I realized that it was Sheik Hussein who actually stated it, during his re-telling the story of the finding of the Cache at Deir el Bahari.
In 1870, fragments of funeral papyri turned up in Cairo offered to foreigners and it was Gaston Maspero, head of the Service of Antiquities, who heard found out that 21'st Dynasty funerary papyri were available on the antiquities market. He decided that someone had discovered a royal tomb somewhere in the vast Theban necropolis across the Nile from modern Luxor. Suspicion fell on members of the Abd el-Rassuhl family from the village of Qurna, but, when questioned, they would admit to nothing and they had to be released. In 1881 they were arrested again as even more artifacts out of an unknown tomb appeared on the antiquity market in Cairo. Finally, after seeing his brothers arrested and tortured, Mohammed el-Rassuhl, Sheik Husseins grandfather confessed and led Emile Brugsch, Maspero's assistant to the site of the tomb in the cliffs of Deir el-Bahari. When Brugsch climbed down the entrance shaft of the tomb, which later was named tomb DB 320, he made a discovery unlike any other in the history of Egyptology. As his eyes adjusted to the candle-lit dimness of the roughly hewn corridors, he found himself confronting the massed remains of 50 different burials, among them the coffins and mummies of some of the greatest rulers from ancient Egypt's glorious past. Stunned by the unprecedented nature of his find, Brugsch had the tomb rapidly cleared of its valuable contents and sent the mummies to Cairo for further study.
Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl smiled whenever he told the story, as yes, this tomb was the biggest bank account the family ever had.
There are many secrets and even a mystery kept in that mountain called Djebel el Qurn, which Qurna is build upon
thousands of tombs are still waiting to be discovered.
Strange (or, mystic?) incidents are still happening. An undecorated tomb in the north part of Qurna (DraAb el Naga) was used by a family as a stable and lumber room. One day, upon removing some rubbish from his cave, the owner discovered an entrance to a passage descending into the rock. Each day he dug away a portion of the stones blocking the doorway, careful that none of the neighbors would find out, hoping to find innumerable treasures at the other end. He told his family, but he chose a day when they were away to force his way through the hole. The following morning his wife became anxious about his disappearance and went through the passage in search of her husband. She was in turn followed by her mother, a cousin, and yet another cousin. When an hour had passed and no one had returned, two of the relatives who had gathered at the entrance decided to enter with candles. Three yards beyond the entrance the passage turned sharply to the left, then to the left again. Here the candles began to fail, but a moment later, they came across the second cousin lying on the floor. They dragged him out, but soon he expired. Finally they had to call the police and when they arrived with an antiquity inspector they entered the passage and found that beyond the spot where the body had been found the passage turned right, then left again and opened into a hall with four rough columns. The air was foul, and the candles began to go out, but they thought they caught a glimpse of the three bodies. They were unable to reach them, being overcome with nausea. On their return no one dared enter again, for the general opinion was that an afrit, an evil spirit, had overpowered the victims. The following day the passage was blocked up, the bodies left where they had fallen. The cause of death was registered (1949) as asphyxia produced by poisonous gases. Today there is no single remaining sign of that tragedy and as a now Islamic burial place, nobody is allowed to open it again.
"Tradition says that on every tomb a spell has been cast and if you do not know the anti-spell there will be big problems", said Sheikh Hussein. "Not many know this anti-spell". Sheik Hussein Abd el Rassuhl was one of those privileged few, and he died in 1997 at the age of 87. Now his youngest son Nubi Abd el Rassuhl is, together with his brother Mahmoud, head of the Abd el Rassuhl family.
The Mysteries of Qurna By Sonny Stengle
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Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Hotel Reviews By Jimmy Dunn & Juergen Stryjak
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
The Month in Review By John Applegate
Egyptian Exhibitions By Staff
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Nightlife Various Editors
Egypt On Screen By Carolyn Patricia Scott
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek
June 1st, 2001
Last Updated: June 26th, 2011