Read De Potter's Grand Tour Online

Authors: Joanna Scott

De Potter's Grand Tour (8 page)

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Under Bougault's influence, Armand formed a confused impression of North Africa, which stood, at least as he wanted to perceive it, as the one place in the world where time did not progress in its usual relentless fashion. Change was unwelcome here. The past had been given permanent shape in relics that were of great value to the future. The present was full of danger yet ripe with possibility. The same monotonous landscape that made it easy for foreigners to lose their bearings kept its treasures snugly stored below its surface. A man just needed to know where to look.

On a train from Tunis to Cairo, he met a Dutchman who had retired from his work at the embassy and lived in a private residence in Alexandria. Hearing of Armand's interest in antiquities, the man showed him a pure-gold Ptolemaic coin that he'd recently purchased from a dealer in Luxor.

“I sense that you are an inexperienced collector,” the man said. “Allow me to give you a short lesson.” As the law stood in Egypt, he explained, the national museums had the right to acquire all antiquities found during excavations, but at a price fixed below what could be obtained elsewhere. For this reason, the dealers preferred to offer their wares to foreign collectors. But these transactions had to be conducted in utmost secret, and collectors needed to prove that they could be trusted not to disclose the source of their acquisitions to the Egyptian authorities.

“My advice to you, sir, is to offer my name as a reference,” the Dutchman said, handing him the card of the dealer who had sold him the gold coin. He added that he'd heard about some Arab brothers who had dug up a cache of treasures in the Valley of the Kings. If Armand was interested, he'd better hurry to Luxor, the man advised, for the treasures would surely be gone within the week.

 

A Trip up the Nile

I
N THE HILLS
outside Luxor, in the early morning before the sun rose and before the tourists disembarked from their steamers and the donkeys were saddled and guides assigned, the four Abd-er-Rasoul brothers climbed the cliff behind the Ramesseum, cleared the rocks they'd used to hide the cave they'd made, and resumed their digging.

The government called them criminals, the representatives of museums called them vermin. They were the inheritors of a tradition that was as old as the first mastaba of Saqqâra. Seal the entrance of a tomb with a three-ton slab of granite, and they would break that slab apart. Hide a secret chamber behind a false one, and they would find it. In the land of the living, even a withered finger was worth enough piastres to buy food for the day. What did the dead need with fingers anyway? The less weight carried into the afterlife the better, and industrious thieves were ready to help lighten the load. Besides, any treasure they dug out of the earth was rightfully theirs, since the land belonged to their father. In a just world, it would be so, but in the unjust world of Luxor in the 1870s they were whipped with a bastinado on their bare soles and thrown into jail if they were caught peddling their wares to tourists.

The trick was to not get caught. So they dug in the predawn darkness, when the night sky was just beginning to lighten and the first whisper of the sun's torrid presence was carried by the breeze. Deep inside the cave, with the stones re-piled behind them to camouflage the entrance, the four brothers felt no breeze. Instead, they felt the heat of the torch carried by the youngest brother and smelled the limestone dust that mixed with their sweat, staining their faces with a thick gray paste.

These skilled grave robbers had learned the craft from their father and uncles, who'd learned from their father, who'd discovered that plundering the old tombs was a good way to supplement the income from his small farm. How strange that foreigners were willing to pay—even pay handsomely—for a mummified head or pieces of broken crockery. But the grandfather of the four Abd-er-Rasoul brothers had understood that the law of supply and demand will always prevail. For years, the family had been meeting the foreigners' demand for relics with a steady if trickling supply, passing along the secret maps of the tunnels from one generation to the next.

Beneath the peak of el-Qurn, the trickle was about to erupt in a flood. One of the brothers widened a gouge in the wall, the rock crumbled from the impact, and the flickering light of the torch revealed the engravings of the cartouche above the entrance of a subterranean passage. The passage was six feet square, and the fearless brothers followed it westward for twenty-four feet and then turned northward, continuing deep into the mountain before the passage terminated in a stairway. One after another, they descended the stairs. At the bottom, the youngest brother raised the torch he was carrying, casting enough light for the brothers to see that this forgotten mortuary chamber contained a dragon's hoard of treasure, there for the taking.

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Armand made no secret that he owned some of the jewels that had been looted by the Abd-er-Rasoul brothers from Deir-el-Bahari—including feldspar colonettes and faience mystic eyes, an alabaster ring, an amethyst amulet, and dozens of scarabaei in porcelain, lapis lazuli, jade, amethyst, silver, and gold. He also convinced the brothers to sell him the object that would prove the most important of his early acquisitions, though it was only in wood: a shabty, or “sepulchral statuette,” as Armand would describe it in his
Old World Guide
, that “shows the
uraeus
, emblem of royalty on the forehead; and it bears the
cartouche
of Ramses II.”

To this day, this shabty is one of only three wooden examples known. The cartouche links it to Ramses II, whose tomb was plundered during the XX Dynasty. The contents of the tombs were then reconsecrated in the XXI Dynasty and sealed inside the chamber that the Abd-er-Rasoul brothers discovered. Until Ahmed Abd-er-Rasoul was arrested in 1881, the brothers were busily selling their goods to foreigners, and Armand, with thrilling ease, was eagerly adding to his collection, convinced that he was playing an important part in bringing the treasures to light.

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Three years after he lost contact with the Abd-er-Rasoul brothers, Armand expanded the offerings of the American Bureau of Foreign Travel. The new itinerary included stops in Jerusalem, Samaria, Nazareth, Damascus, Constantinople, Athens, and Patras. But the bulk of the tour—the entire month of February—was dedicated to Egypt. While he made sure to give the impression that his main concern was the comfort of the members of his party, he also let it be known that he was looking to establish himself as one of the world's premier collectors of antiquities. He always offered the local traders a higher price for their goods than what the government would have paid and avoided asking the kinds of questions that would have caused them to put away their wares and make a hasty retreat. The trips proved so fruitful that he repeated them on a dozen separate occasions, either on regional tours or as part of De Potter's Grand Tour Around the World.

Following an itinerary that never varied, the party left Marseille on a Messageries steamer bound for Alexandria. They stayed at the Grand New-Hotel in Cairo and spent the first four days visiting museums and mosques and bazaars. On the fifth day they set out early for Ghizeh, traveling by carriage through the Ismaileeyah quarter of Cairo, over the Kobri el Gezira Bridge, along an avenue bordered by acacias and palms, and across a broad embankment to the edge of the desert, where they would mount camels and trek the last half mile to the base of the First Pyramid.

After Armand paid the entrance fee, the party would march in a file into the pyramid, stumbling through the dark tunnels and expressing disappointment at finding the burial chambers empty except for a single unlidded granite coffer. Back outside again, they fed their apples to the camels and assumed that every Arab peddler spoke English. They each paid twenty piastres to the Sheikh of the Pyramids for permission to ascend the First Pyramid. Groups of Arabs were usually milling about, and for a few piastres they could be called upon to pull and push the visitors up the side. Some young boy would always try to impress the tourists by running up one side of the pyramid and down the other, as quick as a lizard. And a photographer was sure to be on hand to provide them with a record of their adventures.

Satisfied that they'd “done the Pyramids,” as they would say in their letters home, the group embarked up the Nile aboard a Cook's steamer. They sat on a deck shaded by a large awning and spread with rugs, and while a dragoman in attendance poured filtered Nile water for those who were thirsty, Armand described the sights they passed: the white-winged dahabeahs moored under a bridge, the wooded island of Rhoda and its ancient Nilometer, clusters of mud huts, sugar factories, and white-domed mosques. They watched fellahin scoop water from the river and empty the buckets into tiny canals that laced the fields. Sometimes the villagers stood on the shore saluting them. At night, a stake was driven into the riverbank to moor the boat. The silence of the desert was unbroken, except when the captain chose to tie up the steamer near a sakiyeh, a wooden irrigation wheel turned by oxen. Then the passengers would have to try to fall asleep to the sound of the slimy wheel creaking for hours.

On each stop—in Bedreshayn, Bellianah, Assioot, Denderah—they were met by a crowd of shouting, barefoot boys and braying donkeys. Using saddles Armand had rented in Cairo, the men and women of the De Potter party would mount the donkeys, the boys would brandish sticks, and the party would set off at a gallop, passing through palm groves and mud villages, along the edge of the desert marked by a stark line of yellow sand that bordered the green fields, between deep pits lined with shreds of mummy cloth, all in order to see the ruins of ancient temples, broken pieces of colossal statues, and tombs half-buried in the sand.

Always at the Coptic monastery at Gebel-el-Ter, a naked monk would swim out to the steamer, begging for alms, and the passengers would make a game of dropping coins over the rail into his bucket. At Beni-Hassan, farther up the river, there would be more donkey boys waiting for the steamer, along with an especially large group of villagers. As they rode through the village, naked children would run alongside their caravan, offering dusty little bundles for sale that Armand explained were the mummies of cats dug up from an ancient cemetery in the neighborhood. He liked to surprise the Americans, who were easily disgusted, by purchasing a bundle for five piastres. Over the years he'd collected more mummified cats than he could count.

But the tourists had to hurry if they wanted to keep up with their guide, especially once they'd disembarked at Luxor. Even Aimée was left behind when her husband dashed off through the maze of halls and chambers dug out of the solid rock of the mountains. Up the stone steps, down the sloping corridor, across enclosed terraces, and into the temple that had supplied Armand with the bulk of his collection: Deir-el-Bahari.

Wait for your party, Prof. de Potter! But he couldn't wait. He had to go ahead of the group to allow himself a minute alone. Since 1881, when the Abd-er-Rasoul brothers had finally been caught, archaeologists appointed by the Egyptian authorities had been hard at work. The first time Armand had visited Deir-el-Bahari, the one chamber that was open to the public still had a floor of rubble. Through the years, the ancient cenotaph became increasingly tidy, until Armand hardly recognized it. But each time he arrived there, he would stand in calculating silence, wondering if any new treasures had been found.

The travelers never suspected that their guide was concerned with something more important than their interests as he led them through Deir-el-Bahari. Only Aimée knew the extent of his appetite for antiquities. And the next day, while they picnicked among the ruins of the Temple of Isis on the sacred island of Philae, only Aimée knew where he was going when he disappeared.

On the rooftop terrace of the Temple of Isis was a small temple dedicated to Osiris, where Armand would retreat, leaving his wife to preside over the picnic and make up excuses for her husband while he indulged in a rare spell of solitude. Standing on the terrace admiring the view—the waste of sand and rock stretching south, the foaming waters of the cataract to the north, the white houses of Assouan in the distance, veiled by the palms—he would see it all as if for the first time, and he would reflect on the combination of luck and ingenuity that had brought him to this lovely place. Lost in reverie, he would go so far as to imagine the past alive again, seeing in the glint of far-off quartz the jewels of a crown balanced on a pharaoh's head, hearing in the cataract the rumble of stones being dragged by slaves to a temple.

What an enterprising civilization once reigned here, producing beautiful objects for the sole purpose of sealing them for eternity in tombs. Yet Armand couldn't help but wonder: Did it ever cross the minds of the artists that their work would be unearthed one day in the distant future? Did they secretly hope that the tombs would be plundered and their creations acquired by men who would appreciate their beauty and tend them accordingly?

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