Prospectors on the trail of pharaohs' gold

No one had thought to prospect for gold in Egypt because there was no tradition of mining there in recent years. Until Sami Raghy came along.

Seven years ago, the experienced Egyptian geologist happened to visit a government office in Cairo, where he was intrigued by a wall hanging. It turned out to be a copy of a 3,200-year-old map showing gold-mine tunnels that is believed to have been sketched by King Seti I.

Using the map as his guide, Mr. Raghy, who has inevitably been dubbed Egypt's Indiana Jones, is now tracing the mines that once supplied gold for pharaonic treasures, including those of the boy-king Tutankhamen. The venture has turned into a $60-million mining operation - one that could put Egypt among the 10 top gold-producing countries in the world, say directors of Raghy's company.

The operation has converged on Sukari, 500 miles south of Cairo in Egypt's eastern desert, where ancient grinding stones and other rudimentary mining equipment still litter the low rugged hills overlooking the Red Sea.

"It's pretty quiet out here," says site manager Mike Kriewaldt, an Australian geologist, who mans the camp with 29 Egyptian workers. "It's desert, but it's beautiful. We're five miles from the nearest bitumen road. You see the odd camel. There are so few trees that every one has a name."

He and others are confident they've found what they were looking for. "The map was a proper geological survey," Mr. Kriewaldt says. "The big thing was to work out exactly which part of Egypt it was referring to. We believe we've found the spot."

In ancient times, the pharaohs sent out teams on camel trains to open mines as far south as Kush, the pharaonic name for Ethiopia.

King Seti, who was the father of Pharaoh Ramses II, a prolific builder who became one of the most celebrated pharaohs, ruled Egypt from 1290 to 1279 BC. Although this is about 40 years after the death of Tutankhamen, Raghy has no doubt the mines in the area he is now working also supplied the gold for Tutankhamen's treasures.

Some of the 120 or so mines dug well before the birth of Jesus were reopened to provide gold for the Roman Empire. Earlier this century, a few were worked by the British, but they came to be viewed as uneconomic.

Raghy's company, Centamin Egypt Ltd., hopes to change that by using open-cast mining instead of the more costly tunneling of former times. In 1994, he signed a concession agreement with the Egyptian government covering an area of about 2,000 square miles that includes some 16 pharaonic mines. In return for royalties and a share of the profits paid to the Egyptian government, the company will be able to export and sell gold without paying taxes for at least 15 years.

"It will also help boost employment, bring in new technology, and create a whole new industry," Raghy says. When drilling started at Sukari two years ago, all workers were Australians. Now all but one or two at the site are Egyptian.

Feasibility studies will be completed by the end of the year, and full-scale mining is due to begin early next year. Development work has already begun at one hill in Sukari that alone promises deposits of 2 million ounces of gold. Ten other potential deposits of "world standard" have been found in the area.

"We've already done 2,500 meters [8,200 feet] of drilling," says Kriewaldt. "Put another way, it means we've moved more dirt than the great pyramids occupy. We're past the exploration stage."

The project has been given a huge boost by the surge in the price of gold following the recent surprise announcement from 15 European central banks that they had imposed a five-year moratorium on fresh bullion sales. Prices had fallen to about $250 an ounce after the Bank of England announced in May it was selling more than half its gold reserves. Gold has since rocketed to about $300 an ounce.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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