Egypt: Tour Egypt Monthly: Where have all the Pharaohs Gone?

Volume II, Number 8 August 1st, 2001

Where Have All The Pharaohs Gone?

by Anita Stratos

The mystery of the missing royal mummies sounds like the title of a novel, but in this case, truth is stranger than fiction. Since the 19th century, archaeologists have been searching for the royal mummies of the New Kingdom Ahmose the Liberator, Thutmose III, Ramses the Great, and many more some of the greatest and most well-known rulers of ancient Egypt. Their tombs were filled with lots of wonderful artwork and artifacts, but their mummies just werent home.

Speculation abounded. Did looters steal these royal mummies? Were they ground up along with so many others for medicinal purposes? Or were their obvious tombs merely decoys for grave robbers while the pharaohs themselves rested in another location? For that matter, did they ever really exist at all?

The answer came from a most unlikely source. As fate would have it, it took a grave robber to uncover the whereabouts of these important mummies. And as luck would have it, he and his band of thieves didnt get all of the goods. Heres how the story goes.

It was 1871. Grave robbers Ahmed Abd el Rasul, his brother Mohammed, and their accomplice 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 afrit, a malevolent demon that villagers believed sometimes dwelled in ancient tombs. The looters left in a hurry.

Sure enough, proof of the afrit came the following day when villagers detected a nauseating stench on that area of the path, the telltale sign of an angry afrit 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 investigator back to Ahmed Abd el Rasul, 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 Rasul 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.

Ahmose I
(1570-1546 BC)

Seti I
(1291-1278 BC)

Ramses II
(1279-1212 BC)

Ramses III
(1182-1151 BC)

Ramses IX
(1126-1108 BC)

Tuthmosis I
(1524-1518 BC)

Tuthmosis II
(1518-1504 BC)

Tuthmosis III
(1504-1450 BC)

Some of the Mummies Found in the Shaft

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 afrit 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.

A heavily armed official from the Antiquities Service feared for his life when he traveled to Luxor to survey the scene, knowing full well that he could trust no one in the small village, since every villager would have gladly killed him rather than lose such a valuable cache. Even after all of the looting committed by the Abd el Rasul brothers, the tomb still contained incredible riches including more ushabtis, alabaster vessels, papyrus scrolls, trinkets, and much, much more. But the real treasure of the tomb shocked the official even more clusters of enormous royal mummy cases belonging to both male and female royalty haphazardly leaning against walls and lying on the floors of the chambers. His state of shock intensified when he read the names inscribed on the cases, which included Seti I and Ramses the Great all together, approximately forty of the greatest pharaohs of the 18th and 19th dynasties along with princes, princesses, court officials, and royal grandchildren. To say this was an important find would be an understatement.

Knowing he could not leave this cache unattended, the official hired a crew of over 300 workers to empty the galley and chamber. Some of the mummy cases were huge and very heavy, as in the case of Queen Ahmose Nefertari, whose ten foot long mummy case required 16 men to lift and carry it. At one point, much of the crew tried to fearfully desert their tasks when the mummy of Ramses I was left in the strong Egyptian sun too long, causing its arm to contract and raising its hand into the air.

After five days the tomb was cleared and the mummified royals, along with their artifacts, began their long journey down the Nile toward Cairo. By now everyone had heard about the cache, and the Nile was lined with men and women saluting the passage of their 3,000 year old pharaohs.

While Mohammed may have thought that crime paid, he soon found out that being a stool pigeon paid even better. He was given a sizable reward and then hired by the Antiquities Service as a foreman. However, years later, when he showed archaeologists a site containing 150 mummies of high priests belonging to the great temple of Amen-Re at Karnak, he was fired. Authorities believed that he already knew about the tomb and had been looting it for some time. So much for Mohammeds honorable career.

But why were all these magnificent royal mummies hoarded away so unceremoniously? Well, for one thing, tomb robbing was nothing new. Stealing riches from tombs began almost as soon as the dead were buried along with valuable treasures. Therefore, a pyramid was like a beacon to tomb robbers, marking an opportunity for great riches. Not one royal tomb that has been found thus far has escaped the hands of looters, some of whom broke in only days after tomb entrances were sealed.

Looting had become so commonplace that at the end of the 20th dynasty, most of the treasures buried with the pharaohs had already been stolen, and mummy cases had been desecrated. In some of the worst cases, the mummies of royal children were used as torches by looters. So the problem now was how to protect the actual mummies so their souls would be guaranteed survival in the afterlife.

The solution was reached and carried out by a group of officials and devoted priests. They gathered every royal mummy they could find in the Valley of the Kings and crammed them into a tomb in Deir el Bahri that had originally been created for an 18th dynasty queen, but was abandoned. Still others were put into the tomb of Amenhotep II, which remained secure. The mummy cases were piled up any which way just to keep them safely hidden, where they remained for 3,000 years.

Of course, every great discovery must have its share of opposition, and in the case of the royal mummy cache, some individuals have challenged whether or not these mummies actually are the remains of dynastic royalty. Opponents have cited a lack of facial resemblance to other family members within dynasties, age differences of the deceased versus known ages of kings, improper arm placement (some mummies arms are pendant at a time when rulers were embalmed with their arms crossed upon their chests), and claims that positive identification was impossible because some cases were reinscribed and some mummies were allegedly rewrapped. However, these challenges are inconclusive and experts say further evidence is required from more refined DNA tests and potential discovery of a third royal mummy cache, which is expected to house many other New Kingdom rulers.

Types of Travel to Egypt by Jimmy Dunn

Neil Bush Family Visits El Gouna by Hazel Heyer

Party Time in Ancient Egypt by Ilene Springer

Camel Trekking in the Sinai by Joyce Carta

Nuweiba by Jimmy Dunn

Egyptian Hajj Painting by Sonny Stengle

Where Have All the Pharaohs Gone by Anita Stratos

Marvelous Melokiyah by Mary Kay Radnich

Exploring Isis by Catherine C. Harris

Never Mind, Just Crossing the Moon by Arnvid Aakre

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 Various Editors

Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek

Prior Issues

July 1st, 2001
June 1st, 2001
May 1st, 2001
April 1st, 2001

March 1st, 2001

February 1st, 2001

January 1st, 2001

November 1st, 2000
October 1st, 2000
September 1st, 2000
August 1st, 2000

July 1st, 2000

June 1st, 2000

Master Index