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We only sell real thing, Egyptian grave-robbing family boasts

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Saturday, June 15, 2013, 9:13 p.m.

Looting is an open secret in the village of Abu Sir al Malaq.

Policemen quietly debate the depth of some emptied tombs. Villagers driving on a dirt road across the adjoining necropolis can see piles of excavated bones.

At one farmhouse, looting appears to be a family business. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an elderly man and his sons admit to digging into tombs at night, working with a spotlight and armed with weapons.

They openly discuss grave-robbing while serving a meal of hard wheat rolls, homemade white cheese and hot tea.

“You want to see a coffin? We have a coffin,” one son asks eagerly.

He and the others say they store stolen artifacts in a plundered tomb. “No one would dare to take it,” says one of the men.

The family elder claims to have an ancient statue, 3 feet tall. He sends a son to retrieve a sample of their loot — three turquoise funerary figurines, called shabti, 6 to 9 inches tall. He offers to sell each for 500 Egyptian pounds, about $74.

The men seem surprised when a journalist isn't interested in buying, only in photographing the antiquities; when a camera appears, they nervously shrink against a wall.

“We don't need fakes anymore,” the patriarch declares, making a final sales pitch. “We only work in originals.”

Shabti are among the most common looted antiquities, experts say. These three are mummy-shaped, holding agricultural tools, with well-defined hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Wahiba Saleh, an archaeologist and chief antiquities inspector at Egypt's Dahshour burial complex, said the figurines are representations of servants. A tomb might contain hundreds of them, one for each day of the year.

Ancient Egyptians believed that “if one of the gods calls upon the deceased to do some work … a little shabti magically will get up and say, ‘I obey and reply,' and go off to do the work so the deceased doesn't have to,” explained Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at American University in Cairo.

She and other university Egyptologists examined Trib photos of the figurines and said they appear real, dating between 664 and 332 B.C.

“Two are made from the same mold. They are in very good shape,” Ikram said.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at

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