Ifrits, The Ghosts of Thebes

The Ghosts of Thebes

by Jimmy Dun

Adapted from A Story by Sonny Stengle

Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl and 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.

Sheikh Hussein Abd el Rassuhl holding a picture himself modeling Tutankhmun's jewelry

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.

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 ifrit, 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 it is now an 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.

It wasn't mummies that guarded the tombs of Thebes, but Ifrits

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.

The rare appearance of the term ifrit in the Qur'an (the sacred scripture of Islam) and in Hadith (eyewitness narratives recounting Muhammad's words, actions, or approbations) is always in the phrase the ifrit of the jinn and probably means rebellious. However, the world probably originates from pre-Islamic times when ifrit were thought to be half-human and half demon. Originally, they were spirits of nature that caused madness in humans. The word subsequently came to refer to an entire class of formidable, rebellious beings, but, in the confused world of chthonic (underworld) spirits, it was difficult to differentiate one from another. The ifrit thus became virtually indistinguishable from the marid, also a wicked and rebellious demon.

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.

Once the men opened up the surface hole, Ahmed went down into the shaft. Time passed, but the two thieves heard nothing from their leader below. Suddenly a terrifying scream emerged from the shaft, followed by Ahmed hastily clambering up the rope. Gripped with fear, he told his cohorts of his brush with an ifrit, a malevolent demon that villagers believed sometimes dwelled in ancient tombs. The looters left in a hurry.

The modern village of Qurna

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.

During the course of several years following the incident, some extraordinary artifacts slowly turned up at bazaars, auction houses, and in private collections. This set off a stream of rumors that someone must have discovered a treasure-filled royal tomb. Some of the most remarkable artifacts being sold included ushabtis (small blue statuettes) engraved with the name Pinedjem, a 21st dynasty pharaoh, as well as illuminated papyri in unusually impressive condition.

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.

Part of the Deir el-bahri Cache guarded by the Ifrist

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.

Hence, we may never really be bothered by ifrits ourselves, their introduction to the tombs of Thebes may have at least saved a few robberies. These are the Ghosts of Thebes. Happy Halloween, all.