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Plundering Egypt's pyramid treasures

By Louise Lief / August 5, 1980



Cairo

In an alley off Goumhouria Street near Opera Square stands a dusty little shop with a couple of pots and a Pharaonic mask in the window. The wooden shelves inside the shop are lined with mummy cases sawed in thirds -- chests and heads in one section, legs in another, and ornamented feet in a third.

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In a back room dozens of tiny flowered boxes in closed drawers hold hundreds of ancient scarabs, amulets, and miniature statues.

The shop belongs to Muhammad Abdul Rahim, now under investigation by the Antiquities Department for smuggling and illegal sales of stolen antiquities.

If history is any measure, today's antiquity smugglers are following an old and familiar profession. Since the third dynasty in 2700 B.C., tomb robbers have plundered Pharaonic treasures.In the first intermediate period (2263 to 2040 B.C.) the pharaohs built pyramids with complex corridors to elude thieves.

The great monuments, there for so many centuries, have enticed generation after generation of robbers. A papyrus from the second intermediate period ( 1785 to 1575 B.C.) finds a judge asking a robber why he stole from the king's tomb.The thief replied, "You say the king is a god. The god has not moved to prevent me."

Who are the grave robbers? They tend to be locals, coming from the villages that have existed near or on the archaeological sites since time immemorial. According to records, during the 22nd dynasty (945 to 730 B.C.) the "omdahs" (village heads) of the east and west bank of the Nile at Luxor feuded over who had the right to steal from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The village of Qurna on the west bank at Luxor has long been a den of antiquities thieves. The villagers link up with merchants and middlemen, who contact dealers outside Egypt.

Modern-day thieves, smugglers, and charlatans have proved to be just as imaginative as their ancestors.

In 1914, a German expedition smuggled the famous bust of Nefertili out of Egypt by covering it with a mask of gypsum and telling the Egyptian authorities it was piece of minor value.

Then there are the adventures. In 1818, Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian circus owner, dug his way through Egypt, destroying everything in his way from Giza to Abu Simbel in his search for gold and monuments. He even sought one day to dismantle the third pyramid at Giza to see if it contained a burial chamber, but found the project too expensive.

Perhaps the cleverest ones of all are the counterfeiters. An ingenious old "fellah" (farmer) in Qurna named Mata'ani made clever copies of Pharaonic scarabs from limestone and faience. He then fed the scarabs to his flock of 200 geese, whose stomach enzymes aged the scarabs 4,000 years.

"They [people in Qurna] can even make a mummy for you," says Dr. Ali Hassan, an Egyptologist at American University in Cairo.

Mohammed Sha'ar's son Muhammad, a young man with black eyes and a black moustache, can spot the fakes in a heap of stone scarabs on a table in a second.

"This is fake, this is real . . .," he says, separating the mass into two piles. The Sha'ars come from Abu-El-Hol, the village near the Giza pyramids, where generations of peasants have lived off the artifacts.

While Egypt is covered with hundreds of richly endowed archaeological sites, there are inadequate funds to hire guards to protect them all. Thieves enter the unguarded storehouses and help themselves.

"In Giza I have about 8,500 tombs, and 10 guards," says fiery-eyed Zohi Hawass, chief inspector of antiquities in Giza. Mr. Hawass has been known to beat negligent guards, and lie in wait at night on the Giza plateau, waiting for robbers to appear.

Some measures now are being taken to protect Egyptian antiquities. A bill before the People's Assembly would make stealing antiquities a felony; now it is a misdemeanor. The investigation committee at the department also has managed to recover some pieces.

But the thieves are clever, and although most of the temples and tombs in the Nile Valley already have been rifled, they still lie unattended, with any undiscovered treasures there for the taking.