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The Pharaohs Stolen Treasures

by Jennifer Garner

May 9,2010

I am bent over, crab-walking down the steep wooden planks deeper into the darkness, until I reach an antechamber where I can at last stand upright. This room is where food, chariots, beds and wooden models of servants were stored for the king in the afterlife. After another five minutes of descending, I reach the open room directly underneath the pyramid’s apex where the body of the king was laid to rest. The stone sarcophagus remains there after 3,500 years of silence. This was the tomb of the pharaoh Kharife, who was buried here at Giza in 2532 BCE. Today the pyramids stand on the edge of the metropolis of Cairo, and are watched over by men hawking camel rides in a hot dusty parking lot. As I ride the ungainly humpback on a rolling jaunt around the Great Pyramid, I wonder where those chariots, silver coins and stone statues had gone from the empty vault. I recall from a rainy Saturday visit to the British Museum that I have seen many sarcophagi and pharaoh heads in that cavernous building in the north of London. How did Kharife's treasures leave the sunny banks of the Nile for a small island in the North Sea? And why are they still there?

The royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were built after the pyramids and are just as amazing, with their painted walls and their false doorways to throw off the tomb robbers of ancient and modern times. The hieroglyphics that remained a mystery to us until the French discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1789 line the walls in brightly painted vertical rows. The ceilings are dark blue with golden stars scattered across them. The boy king Tutankhamen, who died when he was just 19, is the one whose famous gold death masks visitors line up to see. Our guide Jon explains that King Tut is so well known not because of fame in his own time, but because his tomb was the only one not plundered by grave robbers.

As I cruise down the Nile, I imagine the baby Moses in the reeds along the riverbanks. We pass banana plantations and the headquarters of international oil companies. At the Temple of Karnak I am staggered by the size and grandeur of the entrance hall with its 134 columns, each 33 feet high and towering over the crowds of tourists. The temple began construction in 2000 BCE to worship the sun god Amun Re. Each new pharaoh added his own statues and inscriptions to demonstrate his power and military victories. It was a modern day conqueror that brought the world’s attention to Karnak. Halfway up the giant doors I can see French graffiti with the names and dates of Napoleon’s foot soldiers that discovered the ancient temple nearly covered by rubble in 1798. Scattered throughout the site are broken columns and pedestals missing their queens and kings. Subsequent explorers and rulers of other lands packed tons of these priceless treasures in crates and shipped them across oceans to cold foreign lands, where they lined the corridors of museums and palaces filled with curious visitors.

While lounging on the beach of the Red Sea, I felt compelled to consider the moral dilemma of what to do with the Egyptian treasures taken as booty by the French, English and Germans and scattered around the world. Unlike the Greeks with their obsession to reclaim the missing friezes from the Parthenon, the Egyptians don’t have a special case waiting for the head of Ramses II in the Cairo museum. Jon shared his view on the stolen treasures by saying that if people see a sphinx in Berlin or a mummy in Paris, and seeing it instills a desire to visit the real thing, then Egypt eventually benefits. I admire his blameless attitude but can’t help disagreeing. Seeing an obelisk from Karnak that the English have ensconced on the bank of the Thames and named “Cleopatra’s Needle” just isn’t the same as standing in the great courtyard of that ancient temple while the light filters dimly down through the maze of columns and a hot wind blows sand across your feet.

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