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Eqyptian antiquities thief: ‘I won’t give up looking’

Families butcher children to avoid Pharaoh’s curse

By Tarek Abbas

Illegal sales of antiquities in Egypt is one of its fastest growing and most controversial industries as those deprived of opportunities loot their heritage.

It is hardly a new practice;  according to rumours, the wealthiest family in my grandfather’s family village derived their fortune from ancient gold pieces found beneath a grandfather’s house a hundred years ago.

However, looting antiquities reached a frenzy after Egypt’s January 25 revolution in 2011, when  police were too weak to guard major archeological sites and museums. The  massive robbery of monuments created a new illegal trade, steeped in legend that makes it prone to swindlers, and reaching a willing market of collectors and antiquities dealers worldwide.

Every year for the last five years, the ministry of interior has recorded 1700 to 2000 stealing and smuggling cases of Egyptian antiquities, according to an official working with tourism and antiquities police.Two diggers were arrested in the past week, he said.

Most of the digs  are planned by people who are experts on maps of ancient Egyptian tombs. Some start by buying a house above what they think is a site, then  digging inside looking for treasure. 

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The video below is an example of a dig, inside a house, which discovered an ancient burial tomb (note the cows mooing in the background).

The core area targeted by antiquities hunters  includes neighborhoods and lands beside the pyramids in Giza, such as “Nazlet Elsamman,”  where thousands of cases have been already discovered.

In addition to Gisa, monuments in  Luxor, Aswan, Qena, Menya, Souhag, Fayyoum and Cairo  have also been  targeted  by gangs of looters, and people are still digging under their own houses to find  – and illegally selling – antiquities. Like gambling, the quest has an addictive a quality.

When I asked around my own city, it did not take long to find a would-be  antiquities thief raising money for a dig. I met Mahmoud, 50, in a coffee shop in Cairo. 

He explained  that  he was in contact with a “Sheikh”, who asked him to find people who would  fund the digging up of a secret place near Giza – the main site of ancient burial monuments.

They would need a sum of  about 300,000 EGP, about 16,000 USD, to buy some instruments for digging, special kinds of olibanum, and to hire workers to dig secretly at night.

The work would take place from 11 pm till 6 a.m., and  treasure expected to appear at a depth of  25 to 60 meters down.

He swore that the “Sheikh” had let him see “demons and signs”  in the place, proof of the treasure under it.

Then the interview took a bizarre turn. Mahmoud claimed that his “sheikh” is working on  “clean job,” while others use children’s blood as a sacrifice for the  spiritual guards of the tomb.  

I had heard about this practice years ago, but Mahmoud assured me that it is still happening as a deal between the ‘jinn’, or spirit who guards the tomb and the man who owns the property. 

Additional research confirmed scattered reports of this practice.   Aksalser reported  that a  father sacrificed a daughter and a brother sacrificed a sister  in Northern Egypt to “guard the treasure and facilitate the extraction process.”

The incidents have occurred primarily in small towns where “increasing poverty and widespread unemployment” causes people to turn to “charletons and quacks,”  sometimes  excavating directly under their own houses, causing them to collapse, Aksalser reported, calling for a campaign of more awareness.

In an interview with  Iran News Network,  social researcher Dr. Mona Obamishamh,  repoerted that “a lot of quacks can brainwash ordinary people and manage to make them sacrifice one of their children, or to abduct a child, to be offered to the Jinn, so the rest of the family can become rich.”

Kidnapping children is also practiced there a form of familial revenge in this area, but the heinous practice harkens back to the persistence of a belief in  the Curse of the Pharaohs, and its use  by religious tricksters who promise both protection and a successful excavation.

According to religious scholars, ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife and thus kept their treasures beside their corpses for future use. Tombs were built with with secret doors to prevent looting, and the curse of Pharaohs, may have been created as another preventative measure,  said to cause a death and disease for anyone decided to disturb the Mummies.  

Occasionally people have died after entering the tombs,  strengthening this legend. When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings (Luxor) in 1922,  many of his team members subsequently had accidents.  Although scientific opinion has written these events off to bacteria, radiation and coincidence, in Egypt the belief resists inoculation.

A typical team of antiquities hunters is led by a  magician or swindler, such as Mahmoud’s ‘Sheikh,’  who convinces the property owner and the person who is responsible for funding that he has communicated with the demons who protect the tomb; and that they have given  him  permission to open the tomb and take its contents.

The magician may threaten all related persons that he will harm them if they tried to cheat or take any steps without his permission, my police contact said. 

Digging for antiquities can also be dangerous in other ways. Some workers digging underground  have died or been killed by others in a fight over the loot.

But for  Egyptians are ready to sell the history of their country in hopes of an easy fortune the price is worth it.

“I won’t give up looking for the treasure, even if I spent all my life and lost all my money”, Mahmoud said.  

But during the conversation, he also wondered what, if anything, the police would pay if he gave up the site’s location. As always in the business of excavating sacred relics, a toxic combination of mysticism and hope make it impossible to identify what is real.

The  trade in authentic antiquities has given rise to fraudulent offshoots, as well as sacrificial victims.  Hustlers throughout Egypt now sell  fake pieces of antiques at high prices. A  famous SMS message sent from unknown persons has even spread throughout  the country, telling the recipient that they found a treasure and want an honest person who can help with selling it.  

In a new take on the Pharoah’s Curse, the buyer winds up with a piece of a monument, one to man’s greed, cruelty and folly. 

Written by

An Egyptian journalist, living in Cairo,  I have worked for many newspapers and websites, in addition to tv channel. You can reach me atTarekmedia2008@hotmail.com.

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