How to Search for Buried Treasure in Egypt

Mr. Mark Pettigrew, ARCE/NC’s September speaker, receivedhis BA in anthropology from Harvard University, an MA in Arabic languageand literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currentlya Ph.D. candidate, also at Berkeley.  Mark lived in Egypt for 5 yearsdoing advanced studies at the Center for Arabic Studies at the AmericanUniversity in Cairo. His focus is on Medieval Arabic literature.

Mark began his presentation by advising the audience thatone must:

This rather amazing formula comes from a medieval treasurehunting manual known as, The Book of Pearls.Gaston Mespero, directorof the Egyptian Museum and the Egyptian Antiquities Service from 1881 until1914, declared that this work had caused more destruction to Egypt’s monumentsthan all the wars that had been fought in Egypt. Therefore, he had AhmedKamil translate the book into French and circulated it widely throughoutEgypt, hoping that it’s ready availability would result in cooling theverve for treasure hunting. Unfortunately, it had just the opposite effect!

The Book of Pearls is a form of popular speculationabout the past.  It’s origin is obscure and it’s author or authorsare anonymous. In fact, it is probably a compilation of the works of manyauthors, culled from many old manuscripts - a compilation of compilations,with no definite date of origin. It’s compilation may have been an ongoingprocess that spanned many centuries.

The Book of Pearls is written in the form of imper-ativesand instructions - rather like a cook book!   Some of the authorsare barely literate, others are quite skilled.  The length of the“recipes” vary, but follow a general, 3-part form:

Generally the descriptive information is more concerned withvarious magical means of pursuing the treasure, than it is with a practicalmeans of locating it.

Treasure hunting was popular in the Middle East duringthe Middle Ages, particularly in Egypt. The government even sponsored treasureexpeditions and employed professional treasure hunters to lead them! Treasure hunting became a taxable industry. Scams abounded, leading treasureseekers to seeded sights.   In fact, Mark speculated that the“real” tomb robbers probably started their careers actively seeking “treasure”.The West Bank village of Qurnah was a hot bed of small tomb robbers until1871 when the cache of royal mummies found and plundered by the Rassoulbrothers finally came to light as a result of a argument between them.

How are the treasure hunting manuals related to tomb robbing? Most telling is the fact that popular wisdom regarding what is to be foundin the tombs of the ancients shows up in The Book of Pearls. Folkbeliefs and curiosity about the tombs fits well with local folklore, andwhen published undoubtedly sold well. Many of the “recipes” suggest anoral origin.  Names used indicate that local rumors predated the recipe,and local folk tales were probably abbreviated to produce some of them.An example is the “supernatural market where objects turn to gold”.

Some elements do not relate to folk tales. They are, infact, the literary equivalent of the con game. They often allude to anancient king or ancestor who left the treasure specifically for the reader.Considerable “window dressing”, in the form of lengthy descriptions ofthe old texts that have been consulted and  the incorporation of crypticchemical code words, make the book more mysterious. There are constantwarnings used to establish the author’s authority, such as admonishmentsthat conventional knowledge is not sufficient to protect the seeker, soonly the specialized knowledge, which is being imparted by the author,will do. Mundane physical details and hyperbole fur-ther whet the appetite.TheBook of Pearls is filled with popularly applied magic texts, localwish fulfillment’s and rumors. Mark described these treasure hunting manualsand the “New Age” Literature of the Medieval Ages!!

The treasure hunting manuals were compiled as sourcesjust for amateur treasure hunters.  In the 1200s, some did, in factaid attempts to lean real information about the past, but predominatelythe manuals were sources of fantastic descriptions and entertaining listsof wonders and marvels. They aver that the ancients had mighty powers toforetell events, and intimate that those powers were so great the theycan still work during the Middle Ages, if only the right seeker followsthe formula!
Of thirty ancient wonders described in The Book ofPearls, twenty are in Egypt. In comparing The Book of Pearlsto other, similar literature, it’s tales compare favorably with the Bookof a Thousand and One Nights. Similar tales are found in each. Suchfantastic motifs as magical rings, and genies are prevalent in both. Thedifference in The Book of Pearls, however, is that it makes no attemptto interpret Egypt’s past, contains no history and does not reflect theethnic pride of the author[s]. Books such as the Big Book of Mysteriesdid, in fact, try to explain Egypt’s history.  In it we find a listof ancient manuals, and the introduction of a new passenger on Noah’s arkwho marries one of Noah’s daughters and learns to read hieroglyphs. Weare further told that the Copts are the holders of the treasures of theancients.

Medieval Muslims were both awed and inspired by the ancients.Themes in which the ancients failed to appreciate and embrace monotheism,ancient monuments which are dangerous, and dire warnings in which thosewho desecrate them may be slaughtered or lost forever, abound. The “Taleof the City of Brass”, is one such story in which the treasure hunts endin failure. The Book of Pearls has none of these dangers and thehunter is always successful. It displays a selective assimilation of themesthat appear in other genre. There is no moral overtone; just the usualwarnings.  It forms an important part of the context of Egypt. Ahmed Kamil’s translation came out at a time when Egypt was forging a newsense of her past, which may explain one reason for it's great popularity.

  • Nancy Corbin
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