Share This Page

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

| 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 bhiel@tribweb.com.

Related Content
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.