Egypt - Tomb robbers - Secret tunnels of Thebes
This story owes its existence to a chance encounter with a former tomb robber and antiques smuggler who introduced reporters Michael Stührenberg and Christopher Pillitz into the world of diggers and dealers in Thebes and Luxor. This understandably was only possible under false identities and false pretenses. Our intermediary was not motivated by financial gain – actually he did it without receiving a single penny for his central role in this risky enterprise. He was compelled to tell the inner workings of this story because it is also a reflection of an important part of his past. His only request was to preserve the people’s anonymity.
This is how it starts: In an impoverished village close to Tutankhamum’s Valley of the Kings, three tomb robbers are working ten meters underground, under miserable conditions: The air filled with the pungent acrid smell of bat excrement dried out over hundreds of years, is also filled with an unbearable quantity of fine dust. The men can only breathe through multiple layers of their turbans. For many hours they cannot stand upright but can only crawl through a network of narrow tunnels that link the burial chambers between one another and the small surface opening hidden behind a heap of garbage in the backyard of the owner’s house. The robbers work with the help of torches and lamps. Crouched under very low-lying ceilings, they sift through a mix of earth, dust and rubble using small picks and bare hands. Most of the time they only find broken clay pots. Presently they dig up bones and pieces of linen belonging to the 3000 year old mummy whose sarcophagus they broke up several months ago because it was impossible to carry the coffin through the tunnels. “Anyway, there is little chance to find a buyer for that kind of artifact right now”, says Mahmoud, one of the three. “So we use it for firewood which is expensive in the desert.”
From the secret tunnels of Thebes, the story leads to the world of small and big dealers in the illicit trade of antiquities, which, according to UNESCO, is running at close to six billion dollars per year. This makes it the third most lucrative illegal trade in the world, after arms and drugs. Although in the past years the black market has been fed with antiquities from the Middle East by terror groups such as ISIS the demand for antiquities by private collectors appears to be insatiable. And Egypt, home to an endless supply of Pharaonic treasures, is still the market’s favorite brand