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Report From Egypt: Checking Out the Tombs at Saqqara

Posted: 02/09/11 04:17 PM ET

Jeffrey Bartholet, reporting for National Geographic magazine


On January 29, looters swarmed into the archaeological site of Saqqara, an ancient burial ground known for its pyramids and many surrounding tombs. Reports circulated about damage to the tombs and their beautiful reliefs. "All the sites are safe," said Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass. "Nothing stolen, nothing destroyed." With Hawass' permission, veteran foreign correspondent Jeffrey Bartholet, on assignment for National Geographic magazine, was able to visit Saqqara, some 18 miles south of Cairo. He filed this report.

I spent three-and-a-half hours at Saqqara on Friday, February 4, walking the grounds and visiting tombs with Sabry Farag, general chief inspector for the antiquities ministry in the area. From one ancient tomb to another -- many of them more than 4,000 years old -- Farag repeated the words "no touching," meaning they hadn't been breached by looters. He also showed me a handful of tombs where robbers had succeeded in breaking steel padlocks on the doors. Once the robbers realized the rooms were empty, Farag says, they ignored the gorgeous reliefs on the walls and went elsewhere, presumably hoping to find gold, jewels, and other treasures they could carry away.

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Sabry Farag in front of the step pyramid; Photo/Jeffrey Bartholet

"Thank God they didn't know what they were doing," says Mohammed Hussein, an Egyptian archaeologist who, like Farag, was present when the looting at Saqqara and nearby Abusir began on the evening of Saturday, January 29.

Scores of people, many of them youngsters from adjacent villages, had swarmed the area. Farag tried to shoo them off; guards fired shots in the air. The treasure-hunters would flee briefly, then quickly return. Most of them were children and teenagers digging fruitlessly in the sand, Farag told me. He called in the army, and two platoons arrived on the morning of the 30th, led by Lt. Col. Mohammed Tayel. Most of the 30-man force held back at first, while Tayel and an 11-man reconnaissance team scoped out the situation.

"Kids, kids, kids," says Tayel, holding his large hand out about belt high to show the size of some of them. He caught two boys, both of whom looked to be about 12. "They started to cry," he says. He told them never to come digging again -- that Saqqara was now a restricted military area -- and let them go.

The scene was chaotic and worrisome enough, however, to call in reinforcements. Soldiers took up positions around the Imhotep Museum; the two main storerooms for valuable statuary, mummies, pottery, and fragments of reliefs; and other storage rooms for less significant items. Five armored vehicles patrolled elsewhere until Tayel had enough soldiers to cover the whole site. The number of soldiers at Saqqara eventually reached about 50, Tayel says.

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Soldier on a tank stationed betweeb Saqqara and Abu Sir; Photo/Jeffrey Bartholet

The would-be looters outnumbered the guards. In an email to colleagues, a European archaeologist in the area reported seeing roughly 200 people digging in a cemetery of Abusir at one point. He praised the efforts to protect the site. The archaeologist said Farag and several colleagues worked three days and nights "without interruption and without sleeping, guiding the army, enjoining the army to stop the depredations, touring in the [site] all the night."

Soldiers are still stationed at Saqqara and Abusir around the clock. "We need everybody to know the truth, not just rumors," says Tayel, a burly man with an easy smile who trained as a military engineer in Missouri in 2000 and again in 2006. "We don't want people all over the world to just hear rumors about us. We can protect our history. Every army soldier here will die to save this place."

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A soldier in front of sealed tombs at Saqqara; Photo/Jeffrey Bartholet

There had been reports on archaeology blogs that at least one tomb had been badly damaged and looted: the tomb of Maya, treasurer and top adviser to King Tutankhamun. When I asked to see the tomb, Farag took me to a place whose doors were sealed with bricks. This was Maya's tomb, and it was untouched, he said. I later learned that this tomb didn't belong to the treasurer Maya. It was that of a second Maya, King Tut's wet nurse. When I called to ask about the treasurer's tomb, and others that might have been vulnerable in its vicinity, I was told those too were undamaged. "I've seen them during the last week, and Maya is in good shape," says Hussein, the government archaeologist. "Nothing at all happened there."

The government has stated that Saqqara may open to tourists again on Sunday, February 5. Whether there are any tourists left in Egypt is another matter. Even if there were, parts of downtown Cairo are potentially dangerous: Men, armed with crude weapons, have set up makeshift roadblocks.

On our way back from Saqqara, as my taxi driver and I neared the Cairo city center, we encountered several roadblocks, some manned by pro-government thugs carrying clubs, bats, knives, and at least one machete. They demanded my passport, and at two successive roadblocks, jumped in the car. Several of them screamed at each other, apparently arguing over what to do with me. One looked at me, held his wrists together as if handcuffed, and said I should be arrested. Eventually, I was delivered unharmed to an army checkpoint not far from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests. The weary officer manning the post sent us back on our way.

Visit National Geographic for more Egypt coverage.