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Tomb robbers damaging history II
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 05 - 07 - 2018

The judge in the courtroom (known to the Ancient Egyptians as qnbt) asked the thief, “why did you steal from the tomb of the Pharaoh?” The thief replied, “everyone says the Pharaoh is a god, so why didn't he stop me?”
This remarkable record provides evidence of tomb-robbing in ancient times, and there are many interesting stories of how the desecrators of sacred burial sites operated over thousands of years in Egypt. They would hide among the hills at the Theban Necropolis, make their way secretly to the tombs in the dead of night, and somehow gain entry, holding a lantern which shone on the gold and silver treasures they had come to take for their own use. They were always afraid of being caught by the police in the cemetery — and there were police, even in ancient times.
One of the most interesting cases of tomb-robbery is recorded in two papyri known as the Abbott and Amherst Papyri. This famous robbery took place more than 2,700 years ago during the 20th Dynasty at the end of the New Kingdom. The story relates a conflict between an honest man, Paser, mayor of the East Bank of Thebes (Luxor), and a corrupt man with no conscience, Pawera, mayor of the West Bank of Thebes. Pawera was responsible for protecting the tombs of the Pharaohs, queens, nobles and officials.
Pawera and the local chief of police were involved in a conspiracy to steal treasures from royal and private tombs. They bribed everyone at the Necropolis, buying their silence so that none would incriminate them. But Paser, a pious man and a loyal official, heard of their plans and reported them to the authorities. He declared to the vizier that Pawera was involved in tomb robberies and was disturbing the peace of the ancestors.
The vizier appointed a committee to investigate. Unfortunately, it was made up of men who were loyal to the mayor of the West Bank, and not surprisingly a false report was presented to the vizier stating that the tombs were in good condition, all the seals were intact, and that nothing had been stolen.
The mayor of the West Bank and those loyal to him crossed the river and marched along the East Bank in a victory celebration, shouting and laughing, happy that he had been proven innocent. Paser was of course upset. He could not believe that the committee had written a false report, and he decided to fight back against this corruption. First, he reported to the vizier that the guilty Pawera had taken part in the celebration march, and then he wrote to the Pharaoh insisting that the committee was dishonest and had been bribed.
The Pharaoh appointed a new committee with no connection to Pawera and which could not be bribed by him or his associates. This went to the Valley of the Kings and other sites at the Theban Necropolis, opened many of the tombs and were horrified to find that most had been robbed. It is interesting to note that this ancient committee wrote up a list of every item found in the robbed tombs.
The qnbt looked into the case and ordered an investigation. The court received confessions from the thieves, and three men were found guilty of stealing from the tomb of the Pharaoh Sobekemsaf II. They were handed over to the high priest of the god Amun, who issued a decree that the tomb robbers who had escaped should be pursued and when captured imprisoned in the Temple of Amun until the Pharaoh had decided on their punishment.
One thief related how he found the mummy of a Pharaoh. He described him as being equipped with a sword and a set of amulets, with golden ornaments around his neck. His golden crown and diadems were upon his head, and the mummy was overlaid with gold. His coffins were wrought with gold and silver “within and without and inlaid with every splendid costly stone... We stole the furniture which we found with him, consisting of vases of gold, silver and bronze,” the thief said.
Had the tombs of the Pharaohs Thutmosis III, Amenhotep III, Ramses II, Seti I, or Ramses VI been found intact, just imagine what unimaginable treasures they must have contained. Unfortunately, these tombs and many others were ruthlessly robbed in antiquity. We are lucky that the tomb of the golden Pharaoh Tutankhamun survived intact. It was saved by a miracle: when the building of the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramses VI was progressing just above it, rubble toppled down the hill and completely obscured Tutankhamun's tomb. It was undetected until Howard Carter discovered it on 4 November 1922.
However, we are still confronted by tomb robbers. The heirs of the ancient thieves are still alive and kicking today, and my encounters with them have been endles


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