During my early days in archaeology, I went to Luxor in 1974 to be the
archaeologist who accompanied the University of Pennsylvania at Melkata in the
West Bank of Thebes (Ancient Luxor). This was my second time to visit the
West Bank; the first was when I was student at Alexandria University. When
I arrived, it was early in the morning, about 6:00am. The valley was
silent and quiet. I could hear only the noise of birds and see the dark
faces of the villagers.
I could not find a car to take me to the expedition house to meet David
O’Connor, the Professor of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania and
head of the expedition, so I had to hire a donkey to take me on a long plodding
trek. As I slowly made my way to the valley, my thoughts wandered, and I
thought back to the story of the cache of mummies that was found at Deir El-Bahri.
It is a story of the Abdou El-Rasoul family. These people know the
secrets of the past; they could locate the tombs of the pharaohs, and they used
to go into the Valley of the Kings at night to search with lamps for the
entrance of the tombs. The ancient Egyptians had a word for this called
“Hy,” meaning “He who knows the secrets of the location of the tombs.”
The workmen at Deir El-Medineh had a unique gift for finding the secret
entrances of the sealed tombs that the pharaohs had so carefully guarded.
About 1100 B.C., the Egyptians found that the tombs had been raided, and
the Governor of the East Bank registered a complaint against the Governor of the
West Bank. This complaint still survives in the historical record.
Later the Egyptians moved most of the mummies of the Kings in the Valley and put
them in two places, one at Deir El-Bahri and the other one at in the tombs of
In 1871, the Abdou El-Rasoul family found the “hy,” the location of
the secret tomb of Deir El-Bahri. They kept it a secret and they did not
tell anyone, so that they could benefit from the treasure themselves.
Slowly, royal artifacts began to appear in the market. The Antiquities
Department sent Ahmed Basha Kamal, the first Egyptian archaeologist, to find out
where these royal artifacts were coming from. The police caught Mohamed
Abdou El-Rasoul, a member of the family, and they tried all the ways they could
think of to get him to talk. They tried beating him, they tried talking to
him nicely, and they even tried to bribe him, but he did not reveal the secret
of the hidden tomb.
Later Mohamed went back to his family and explained to them how much he
had suffered, and asked for a greater share of the treasure inside the hidden
tombs. The family began to fight over how the loot was to be divided up,
and little by little, their secret began to be revealed. Mohamed got very
upset and finally he decided to go to Ahmed Basha Kamal, to whom he revealed the
location of the hidden tomb.
The Egyptian archaeologist took the police and entered the tomb in 1881.
Inside, he found about 40 mummies of the great pharaohs of Egypt, such as Ahmose,
who conquered the Hyksos; Tuthmose III, the Napoleon of the past; and the
greatest of the great pharaohs, Ramses II. All these mummies were found
surrounded with thousands of fragments of papyri and later, in 1934, Mohamed
Abdou El-Rasoul led the archaeologist to the location of yet another hidden
tomb. They moved all the mummies into a boat to be shipped to Cairo.
As all the mummies of the pharaohs were loaded onto the boat, ladies from the
village came out dressed in black, and both men and women of the village were
moaning and crying as they bid farewell to their ancestors.
Today, I listen to stories from our famous actress Nadia Lutfi about the
film that Shady Abdel Salam made about the discovery of these mummies.
Meeting Sheikh Aly
donkey finally arrived at a hotel called El-Marsam on the West Bank of Luxor.
There, I met my friend Abdel Fatah El-Sabahy, Inspector of Antiquities at Qurneh.
He welcomed me and said, “Leave your donkey and let us have tea in this hotel.
I want to introduce you to a great man named Sheikh Aly.” This man, he
told me, was about 70 years old with a large moustache and deep set eyes.
The skin of his face was deeply lined, and the white hair belied the count of
sat beside this man and shook his hand. He talked with me about his family
and his grandfather, who had told him many secrets and stories about the
pharaohs. Sheikh Aly explained to me that in this hotel, he had met many
great people who came to visit the tombs. He met Carter in 1922 when he
discovered the tomb of King Tut. I thought to seize this opportunity to
ask an eyewitness about this great archaeological discovery.
Aly said, “The real and the untold story of Carter is told in different ways
by many people. I met Carter, who was a great man and a friend of my
family, when he was having lunch in our house. He had been searching for
the tombs of the kings for a long time without luck, and the people financing
his expedition were threatening to cut off his funding. He was
discouraged, but he felt that he was very close to a great discovery, so he was
able to convince Lord Carnavon to give him money for one last season, and
promised that after that, he would not ask for any more money to dig in the
Valley. The Lord had paid a great deal of money for the expedition, but
the secret tomb of the young King Tut still had not been found.
still remember the day,” continued Sheikh Aly, “when Carter arrived in the
valley and met the ‘Rais,’ the overseer of the workmen. We were all
looking at Carter, who saluted us in Arabic with ‘al-Salamu Aleikum.’ Carter
then turned to the Rais and said, ‘I brought from England a unique bird, a
canary.’ The Rais said, ‘This bird will bring you luck, ya ganab el
“The excavation started.
Hundred of workmen were moving sand from the Valley. We were singing and
chanting as we worked. In the evening I used to go near Carter’s house
and listen to news and stories about Carter and his group. The workmen had
worked their way almost to the tomb of Rameses VI, but they still didn’t know
how close they were to the great discovery at hand. Carter used to remain
inside the tent, and he always wore long boots and a hat. But this year,
unlike other years, I did not see any smile on his face. All of us in the
village had heard many stories about the discovery of many royal tombs in the
Valley of the Kings, but we went to hear what Carter’s hopes and expectations
were for this expedition. He was incredibly frustrated by his lack of
success so far.
“I will never forget that
day, November 4, 1922. There was a cool breeze blowing, and the workmen
were singing. Carter was writing in his tent; he seemed to have lost hope
of discovering this tomb. On the other side or where we were working, a
young boy was bringing water in large pottery jars on a donkey. The boy
took one jar and tried to put it in the ground. He had to dig a hole so
that he could set the base of the rounded jar in it, so that it would not tip
over. He dug with his hand in the sand and suddenly his eyes began to
widen as he saw something strange appearing: a lintel of limestone.
“He ran to Carter in his
tent. Carter came to investigate, and found that this was the entrance to
the tomb. He was overjoyed, and pressed the workmen to dig more and more.
He went to the tent and sent a telegraph to Lord Carnavon. But as he did,
he saw a snake eating his canary. His heart started to beat and he began
to fear for his future…”
I asked Sheikh Aly about the
name of this water boy who had first found the entrance to the tomb. He
said that it was his cousin, Hussein Abdou El-Rasoul.
I stayed in the valley for two months, and I heart many different names for this water boy. But the villagers were all agreed on one thing: that the boy who had found the secret of the hidden tomb of King Tut was from the family of Abdou el-Rasoul.
NEXT: The Hidden Chamber of Seti I
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