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A tall tale
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 10 - 2006

Nevine El-Aref reports on how a crook from Esna gripped world attention with a fake obelisk
Early this week the Upper Egyptian city of Esna was peacefully going about its usual business. Farmers were busy in the fields, merchants were trading in the market and weavers sat in front of their looms. Housewives were cooking Ramadan's iftar meals. Yet on Monday the city woke up to breaking news: a Ptolemaic obelisk dating from the reign of the famous Queen Cleopatra VII, found half-buried under the house of an Esna resident named Sayed Mahmoud, was up for sale with an asking price of $100 million.
The obelisk was said to be six metres high, carved of schist and decorated with hieroglyphic texts, lotus flowers and cartouches featuring Queen Cleopatra's face and profile. The news appeared on the Internet as well as in several Egyptian and foreign newspapers.
Intensive investigations carried out by the Esna police and antiquities inspectors, however, revealed the story to be a hoax and an attempt by Mahmoud, a well-known local crook, to defraud tourists by spreading a rumour that antiquities lay buried under his house.
It is not the first time that Mahmoud has been involved in an antiquities scam. The police and the Esna inspectorate have previously filed a number of legal reports against him for deluding tourists and his neighbours and for carrying out illicit excavation in the desert near Esna. Now he is accused of misleading the public by spreading rumours about an obelisk.
An archeological committee led by Esna antiquities director Abdel-Sattar Ahmed inspected Mahmoud's house near the city centre and found nothing. The house was totally empty of ancient relics, and no obelisk was found beneath it. In a telephone interview Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly that Mahmoud was "a crook who frequently spread similar reports to attract the attention of people, especially tourists, who believed him and accompanied him to admire the monuments after paying him a sum of money. Several attorney reports were filed against him, but he has since left the city and his whereabouts are unknown".
The story of the Ptolemaic obelisk first surfaced a year ago, but although it was quickly squashed it is still floating on the surface.
Supreme Council of Antiquities' (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass told the Weekly that investigations of the photograph of the obelisk had revealed it was not an authentic object but a replica, rather like those made by artisans and sold in the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar. He said that according to scientific evidence, the art motifs engraved on the obelisk were neither ancient Egyptian nor Ptolemaic: they were replicas.
"Regretfully false, imaginary reports about finding ancient monuments are spread all over the country, and most of the people believe them -- like the rumour of the red mercury which healed all diseases and gave them top energy," Hawass lamented, adding that believing in them invariably led to catastrophe. He recalled an incident several years ago when some people dug underneath their house in Aswan searching for a Pharaonic treasure but stumbled on a well. Water flooded the house and totally inundated the basement. Similar incidents occurred in Bahariya Oasis when people dug for the red mercury, and three years ago a gang inveigled an Arab emir into buying red paint instead of the famous red mercury.
Esna is about 776km south of Cairo on the West Bank of the Nile. Its ancient name was Senat, and later the Greeks called it Latopolis, the "city of the fish" where the Nile perch was worshipped. Today it has been made famous by its river dam: as their cruise boats pause to negotiate the dam, tourists take the opportunity to visit the Temple of Esna in the centre of the town.
Buried under its own debris for many centuries, the temple is dedicated to the ram-headed God Khnum, the god of creation. Tuthmosis III laid the foundation s of the temple in the 18th Dynasty, but Ptolemaic and Roman Emperors completed it from 40-250 AD, and their names are recorded all over the temple walls.
The well-preserved temple contains a colonaded hall with 24 pillars beautifully decorated with lotus and palm capitals. The walls are covered with four rows of reliefs showing Ptolemaic rulers and Roman emperors dressed in Pharaohs' costumes and sacrificing to the temple deities. On both sides of the temple entrance are chambers used in ancient time as storerooms. During Mohamed Ali's reign they were used to store cotton.
Flanking the entrance of each room is Emperor Trajan, carried in a litter by six priests, with jackal and hawk masks of the gods.
The most interesting scenes in this temple are those on the roof, which is decorated with astronomical representations. The left side of the temple gateway is decorated with a scene featuring the sky goddess Nut, the dog star, Orion's belt, and Alpha Draconis (the Dragon Star). The west wall of the façade bears a beautiful scene of Horus, god of victory, and the god Khnum dragging a net full of fish from the Nile, as well as reliefs of birds. Significantly at the foot of this representation is the last known hieroglyphic inscription ever recorded, completed by the Roman Emperor Dios in 250 AD.


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