From An Archaeologist Note Book
26-April 2001

A Family to be Remembered
Zahi Hawass 

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 Amenhotep II.

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 

 My 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 his years.   

I 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. 

Sheikh 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.

“I 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 mudier.’

“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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