The Ghosts of Thebes
by Jimmy Dun
Adapted from A Story by Sonny Stengle
Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl, who lived on the West Bank at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in the village of Qurna, is now deceased, but he was the last remaining member of the Howard Carter expedition that excavated the tomb of Tutankhamun (a child at the time, he acted as their water boy, though Howard Carter used him to model jewelry from the tomb, perhaps because he felt like the young Abd resembled Tutankhamun ). However, Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl has one other distinction. Prior to his death, he was the head of perhaps the most famous family of tomb robbers in the world. In 1988, Sonny Stengle, a contributing writer for Tour Egypt, was perhaps one of the last people to interview the Sheikh before his death.
There are many secrets and even a mystery kept in that mountain called Djebel el Qurn, which Qurna is build uponthousands of tombs are still waiting to be discovered. Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl told Sonny Stengle of just such a discovery, though there appears to have been no happy ending for the tomb robbers.
"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.
Right: It wasn't mummies that guarded the tombs of Thebes, but Ifrits.
Also spelled afreet, afrit, afrite, or efreet, Arabic (male) 'ifrit, or (female) 'ifritah in Islamic mythology, ifrits are one of the most power of the infernal jinn (spirits below the level of angels and devils) noted for their strength and cunning. An ifrit is an enormous winged creature of smoke (or fire and air), either male or female, who lives underground and frequents ruins and are malicious and inspiring great dread. Ifrits live in a society structured along ancient Arab tribal lines, complete with kings, tribes, and clans. They generally marry one another, but they can also marry humans. While ordinary weapons and forces have no power over them, they are susceptible to magic, which humans can use to kill them or to capture and enslave them. As with the jinn, an ifrit may be either a believer or an unbeliever, good or evil, but he is most often depicted as a wicked and ruthless being.
Jinni as a whole can do good or evil, are mischievous and enjoy punishing humans for wrongs done them, even unintentionally. Thus accidents and diseases are considered to be their work. In the stories of the "Thousand and One Nights" a jinn often inhabits an old, battered oil lamp. After rubbing the lamp three times, it will appear and grants the holder of the lamp three wishes. A forth wish will undo the previous three.
Ifrids certainly did guard the tombs of Thebes. Several of Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl most famous relatives were Ahmed Abd el Rassuhl and his brother, Mohammed. In 1871, together with an accomplice, they were walking along a path on the face of a cliff in Deir el Bahri, high above the ruins of Queen Hatshepsuts temple. Ahmed suddenly observed a dark area hidden behind a large boulder. Upon closer inspection, he saw a small opening that was exposed just enough to catch the eye of an experienced tomb robber. The test he performed was simple enough: He tossed a rock into the opening and was rewarded with a long pause before hearing a far-off thud that confirmed his hopeful suspicions. This was an ancient shaft that could lead them to fantastic riches.
Sure enough, proof of the ifrit came the following day when villagers detected a nauseating stench on that area of the path, the telltale sign of an angry ifrit whose resting place had been disturbed.
This, in turn, set off an investigation by Sir Gaston Maspero, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, in the spring of 1881. An investigator disguised himself as a wealthy collector and went to Luxor in an attempt to lure the looter out into the open. Eventually, Mustapha Aga Ayat, a Turkish dealer, offered to sell the investigator a royal ushabti, which obviously came from a looted tomb. But justice did not yet prevail, as Ayat was consular agent for Belgium, Russia, and Britain, giving him diplomatic immunity. However, enough information was obtained to lead the investigators back to Ahmed Abd el Rassuhl, and the trio of thieves was arrested, questioned, and tortured. But even the severe beatings didnt shake them from their agreed-upon story that on the night in question, they were merely looking for their lost goat. No one knew about the ropes and digging apparatus they had been carting along with them.
However, the torture managed to create discord among the thieves, who argued about who was tortured the most, and was therefore deserving of the greater portion of the treasure. Since most of their neighboring villagers families had made a living from robbing tombs for centuries, as had the Abd el Rassuhl family, Mohammed feared that someone, including one of his partners, might turn them in, and he could end up taking the blame. Shrewdly, he decided that the only way to save himself was to be the one to turn in his own partners, which he did in July of 1881.
Mohammed told the local Qurnan governor that Ahmed had found the royal burial site. He confessed that he and Ahmed had created the foul smell of the ifrit by killing a donkey and throwing its carcass into the tomb in order to keep other villagers, as well as their partner, away. Mohammed and Ahmed had been looting valuable artifacts from the tomb since then, occasionally putting a few at a time on the market in order to keep suspicions down and prices up.
As it turns out, this was the famous Deir el-Bahari cache. When the local authorities finally climbed down the entrance shaft of the Rassuhl find, 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.