In 19th-century Egypt, Ahmed Abdel-Rassoul stumbled upon ancient antiquities on his family’s land, which he thought his family could sell and live off the profits for generations. The Abdel-Rassouls could not have expected to be accused of stealing history only to have French and British colonizers seize the artifacts and give them away to other Western nations, but that is exactly what happened.
The chain of events led to the discovery and pillaging of the Priestly Cache at Luxor, though the story is not as straightforward as it first seems. It began sometime in 1871, according to the historical record, late one afternoon when Ahmed, the youngest of three brothers, gathered his goats on the rocky mountain of Deir el-Bahari in Qurna, Upper Egypt, to herd them in for the night. Legend has it that Ahmed noticed a kid was missing, and he climbed the dusty, rocky slope in his sandals to search as the sun set. At the edge of one seemingly bottomless crevasse, he heard the bleating cries of his missing goat. Ahmed realized his kid had fallen down one of the many shafts that honeycombed the west bank of this part of the Nile.
Though called Qurna today, ancient Egyptians knew the area as Luxor, and the ancient Greeks knew it as Thebes. The eastern bank hosted the temple of Karnak. Where Ahmed stood in 1871 was on the west bank of Luxor, which the ancient Egyptians reserved for their Necropolises; they believed the afterlife lay in the west where the sun sets. The lifestyle of the present intermingling with the ancient was common. Residents of Luxor led typical rural lives, but the ancient edifices surrounded them still, the historic sites incorporating themselves into the modern world. Life went on, even among the cities of the dead.
The ancients were no fools: The tombs of their royalty were hidden well and deep, though after a dynasty’s fall, the very artisans who built and designed the tombs usually looted them in lieu of (or in addition to) their final payments. After all, a tomb’s construction started at a ruler’s coronation and could not cease until its future inhabitant died, which left the last compensation up to the throne’s successor.
Ahmed the goatherd feared the worst, that his goat had fallen down one of the vertical shafts and injured itself so badly that even as he risked his own life rescuing it, the kid’s death was inevitable. Ahmed had prepared for this situation, however, when his goat first went missing. He lit his oil lamp and secured the long rope he’d brought with him around a block of stone. Then, Ahmed started his descent into one of the many shafts.
The wealth from the Egyptian cotton boom during the mid-19th century was waning fast, as scholar Christina Riggs points out in her book “Unwrapping Ancient Egypt,” and this goat was a much-needed income for the Abdel-Rassoul family. As Ahmed lowered himself and alternately calmed and cursed his goat, the passage tightened around him. He felt that the walls were inlaid with dark shapes. About 50 feet down, the tunnel opened into a horizontal corridor into the mountain. Stories differ about whether he opened the sealed tomb’s door then or later, or whether the treasures were simply open to behold. Ultimately, historian Ali Abu Dashish writes that Ahmed found at least 40 dusty wooden coffins, mummified bodies preserved inside, stretched as far as he could see, cartouches inscribed on their lids, bright blue “faience ushabtis” (servant statues), with inscriptions from unknown kings, royal cobras, canopic jars, funerary equipment and more. Ahmed’s goat had led him to an undiscovered royal tomb.
Not only was this discovery a huge find economically for the family, but it was also the first royal cache tomb discovered in Luxor. Truly, it was the first tomb excavated in modern times at all. Because of its proximity to the majestic mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, a formidable pharaoh, contemporary Egyptologists believed that those close to her were buried nearby, though she herself was buried in the deepest chamber of the Valley of the Kings.
At any rate, scholars later deduced that the cache in which Ahmed had followed his goat was a true boon. The high priests of the kings chose to transfer their mummies from their original burial grounds at the Valley of the Kings in order to protect their mummified bodies in this cache. What Ahmed looked upon were the mummies of kings and priests from at least three dynasties.
All three of the Abdel-Rassoul brothers agreed to bring out the treasure little by little, entering the cache only once a year to maintain its secret location. The Abdel-Rassouls now had a means of sustaining themselves outside of pastoral activities. As a result of what scholar Abla elBahrawy calls a “comic accident,” the Abdel-Rassoul family became the secret owners of the Spy Door, the first royal tomb ever found in Luxor, allowing them to develop the largest illicit antiquities trade in Egypt.
The brothers sold the ancient artifacts to tourists and collectors who came to visit, and over the course of a decade, consuls and dealers from foreign countries visited Luxor specifically to buy the antiquities and smuggle them out of the country. Egyptologists were excavating all over Egypt, says contemporary Egyptologist Bob Brier in his book “Egyptomania,” but not a single pharaoh’s mummy had been uncovered, despite searching for over a century. The pyramids were thought to have all been robbed by contemporaries until the French director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Auguste Mariette, purchased from a dealer of papyrus the “Book of the Dead,” which dated to the 21st Dynasty and was in incredible condition, with its resurrection spells in full, vibrant color. Mariette watched as other royal copies of “Book of the Dead” surfaced in private collections alongside beautiful funerary jewelry and other antiquities.
According to Brier, by the late 1800s, Egyptomania was wild everywhere. To modern eyes, the purchase of antiquity by a French government official might not seem out of the ordinary, or at least not cause for alarm, but in the 1800s, Egypt was under brief French colonial rule. Napoleon Bonaparte had staked France’s claim at the turn of the century, in part to protect French trade interests and in part to snub those of Britain. The French initiative to build the Suez Canal to expedite shipping began and was completed. Most relevantly, during French colonial rule, many important artifacts found their way out of Egypt and into Western possession. The current Ministry of Antiquities credits Western fascination with Egyptian antiquities to the French campaign and the publication of the “Description of Egypt.” In fact, antiquities had long been presented as gifts from the head of the Egyptian state to powerful Western leaders. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the governor of Egypt, even presented Britain with one of the 3,500-year-old obelisks constructed under Hatshepsut as a gift in 1819. This Western obsession with Egypt was reflected in a law in 1835, according to the Ministry of Antiquities, when the very same governor of Egypt banned the export and trade of all Egyptian antiquities. ElBahrawy states that the “uncontrolled flow of artifacts into private and public collections and museums continued, whether as goods or as gifts to foreign dignitaries offered by Egyptian rulers.”
Because Egypt was under French colonial rule from 1798 to 1801 and British colonization from 1882 to 1956, the colonial powers or Western scholars either had sovereignty over Egypt’s historical artifacts or had a crucial role in managing them — though neither side may have recognized that relationship so directly at the time, and even still this opinion is disputed. Nonetheless, elBahrawy states this marked the beginning of Egypt being represented in popular culture as a foreign discoverer, which adequately reflects the dilemma of Egyptian national identity at the time. Brier says that upon the purchase and examination of “Book of the Dead,” “it became clear to Mariette that an intact royal tomb of the Twenty-first Dynasty had been discovered, and its contents were being sold off piecemeal.” Mariette died before he could solve this mystery, but his successor prioritized finding the culprit.
Ten years after the original discovery of the Spy Door, Riggs says that the head of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, the newly appointed French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, was determined to identify the source of these for-sale antiquities. Maspero gathered enough clues to narrow his search. One of the two suspects, Mustafa Ayyad, “had diplomatic immunity because he was a vice consul for Britain.” Maspero turned to the other lead. He had enlisted his former student, American expatriate Charles Edwin Wilbour, and when Maspero asked, Wilbour admitted hearing rumors that the Abdel-Rassoul family was looting a newfound tomb. Wilbour wrote in a letter to his wife in March, Brier says, that he thought the brothers would lead them to the tomb.
They did not.
On April 4, 1881, Maspero and the Luxor police force arrested Ahmed and brought him in for interrogation. Three days after his arrest, local residents (including the mayor) testified that the family was well-respected and they could not be involved in smuggling. Some sources say the police interrogated the middle brother, Hussein, as well. The police searched the family house, but they only found “a few worthless antiquities.”
Interrogation methods were violent in those days in Egypt, but neither man confessed. According to Riggs, Maspero left Ahmed in custody for two months before releasing him without charge, after which Maspero left for France. Local legend says that after leaving custody, Ahmed returned to his brothers with a crippled leg and asked for more than his one-third share of the profits, but they refused, then they beat him up for asking. Sources also say that Ahmed walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
The folklore does not account for what the eldest brother, Mohammed, did next. On June 25, 1881, Mohammed went to the same brutal police chief, Daoud Pasha, and confessed to the looting, telling him not only that there were treasures in the cache but also that there were 40 mummies, their coffins lacquered with gold. Maspero was still in France at the time, but another member of staff from the Cairo Museum, the Egyptian Egyptologist Ahmed Kamal, met Emile Brugsch, a German Egyptologist, in Luxor. Mohammed led them to the Spy Door. Upon visiting the cache 200 feet into the cliff face, the Egyptologists realized the mummies were from different dynasties and that the Abdel-Rassouls had indeed discovered something special. They also realized that the locals — not the professionals — had found the first mummies to be seen by modern eyes.
The Egyptian Antiquities Authority panicked, according to Riggs: In their minds, Qurna’s inhabitants had made their living for centuries from plundering the tombs. They charged the local governor to conscript 300 local men, and in a mad dash to rescue what they could from the dealers, they excavated and wrapped approximately 6,000 antiquities, which they then carried across the desert to the Nile. It took more than a dozen men to lift several coffins, and Riggs says, “the overland journey to the river took up to eight hours.”
This excavation is widely considered an archaeological catastrophe. All the cache’s contents were emptied, without a single drawing or map of where things were located upon its discovery. Maspero and his crew returned later with the intent of mapping the tomb’s contents, but of course, none of them could remember every detail. That information is lost forever.
Less than a month after Mohammed’s confession, on July 15, the Antiquities Authority moved the priestly cache’s contents down the Nile by steamboat. News of the royal mummies’ relocation spread quickly, as residents of Luxor and hundreds of “fellahin” (farmers) gathered on the banks of the Nile. The men stood in respect; the women dressed in black and wore veils. As the government transferred the 3,000-year-old royalty to Cairo, the Egyptians on the bank pulled their hair in mourning and fired shots into the air in traditional funeral fashion. Their ancient leaders were leaving for good.
In 1882, one year after the Abdel-Rassouls’ arrest, Britain invaded Egypt and “British scholars became more dominant in the scene,” elBahwary says.
Over the next 10 years, Maspero studied the mummies. There were two that observers favored. One, which Maspero deemed to be in “poor condition,” was the mummy of Thutmose III, the nephew/stepson/husband who erased Hatshepsut from her nearby temple. The other favorite was Ramesses II “the Great,” who Brier says is almost certainly the pharaoh who would not listen to Moses, and thereby the only face from the Bible that anyone living will look upon. Riggs describes the royal mummy as lying “in a rather plain wooden coffin that may originally have been made for an earlier pharaoh, and a hieratic inscription inked on the surface recorded how Ramesses II had in fact been reburied twice”
By the end of Maspero’s service to the Antiquities Authority, the Abdel-Rassoul family made history again. The Antiquities Authority rewarded the eldest brother Mohammed when he turned stool pigeon and hired him as a foreman. Mohammed was so impressed by the experience that he studied Egyptology, according to the University of Oslo’s writing on “The Priestly Cache.” Within 10 years, Mohammed’s fortune had so changed that in 1891, he accompanied the great Egyptologist Georges Daressy on an official excavation in front of the Temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari.
About 40 feet inside the temple area, the archaeologists were disappointed to find just a single coffin. One of their Egyptian workers, however, discovered a small crevice in the ground that revealed they were standing on an artificial plateau that ultimately led to yet another undisturbed grave, this time a mass of priests. Rather than awarding him the praise Mohammed no doubt expected, the authorities instead accused him of knowing about the tomb and looting it regularly, and so they fired him.
Not until independence from British rule in the 1950s did the Egyptians really gain control over their ancient artifacts and foreign missions worked under the supervision of the Egyptian authorities. By that time, however, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had long since resolved an important dilemma. After discovering the second grave, 254 new coffins had to be stored in a place that was already overfilled, and elBahrawy says that “long-term storage under these conditions could damage the coffins.” According to one account, in 1893, the Egyptian Museum at Cairo petitioned the government, after which the “khedive,” the Ottoman viceroy in Egypt, decided to “present the coffins as gifts” to museums in Europe and the United States. There, the Museum of Oslo, which also boasts several coffins from the cache, said “they would receive the care they deserved.”
Despite Egyptian independence, elBahwary says that the digging by local treasure hunters in Luxor was “condemned and disregarded … while foreign colonial archaeological and architectural practice remained as a part of Egyptian heritage as constructed by authorities.” Indeed, the government viewed local heritage as inferior, and there were ongoing efforts to exclude it. In the early 2000s, people legally housed on the east bank were forcibly evacuated and looters’ informal settlements in the west bank were demolished, according to elBahwary because of a “damaging proximity to ancient tombs.” Famous architect Hassan Fathy designed a village to relocate the looters, but they never took up residence there because, elBahwary explains, “it did not sit on a treasure — their source of income.” Adjacent excavation houses, however, remained and were even renovated before opening to tourism, and inside them, foreign archaeologists employed families of locals as caretakers.
As for Ahmed’s goat, no one knows what happened to it after it fell. The descendants of the Abdel-Rassoul family today dissociate as much as possible from the three brothers. When asked about a relation to them, they felt that the interviewer was accusing them of being descendants of thieves or of being thieves themselves, though none referred as such to the colonial authorities who sold off the artifacts and destroyed the original site. It is an irony perhaps best articulated by elBahrawy: “On the dig site, the same politics apply — the foreign archaeologist gives orders while the local worker does the actual digging; when the worker makes a find, the archaeologist claims the discovery.”
Editor’s note: A previous version mentioned that the French ruled Egypt in the 1880s, instead of the 1800s. This has been corrected.