Digging for antiquities in a basement in Egypt

Digging for antiquities is a millennial traditional in Egypt. And there may have been quite an uptick in illegal digging in the last few years, as scavengers took advantage of the political upheaval and chaos. Our contributor Nour Youssef joined a risky, amateur dig and sent us this dispatch

Blowing his last lungful of shisha smoke at the check he just paid, a smiling Bondok turned to inform his company that women will never be allowed pay for anything in his presence and that efforts to break that law are considered attempts on his manhood. The young Cairo University graduate from Nazlet el-Samman -- a neighborhood next door to the Giza pyramids -- issued this law the day he grew the imperceptible strip of hair on his upper lip and is proud to enforce it more zealously when the female is foreign “to give (her) a good impression about Egypt.” In order to honor this law and his dance career, Bondok trades in antiquities -- or rather digs them up for others to trade.

Ancient Egyptian cat statuette courtesy of Shutterstock

Ancient Egyptian cat statuette courtesy of Shutterstock

“There is nothing wrong with it,” Bondok reminded me again on our way to his workplace, that is the hole under his aunt's house. “Nothing at all. We asked three sheikhs, one of them was from Al-Azhar,” his friend, Hossam, another CU graduate, added enthusiastically. Although one of those sheikhs is a fellow dealer, whose only Islamic credential is spending the 12th grade in Saudi Arabia, and another asked for a cut of the profit after his fatwa; the young men believe trading in antiquities is halaal. “If you say otherwise, everyone [in Nazelt el-Samman] will laugh at you,” Bondok’s cousin, Youssef, warned me with his hand against his belly to simulate mock laughter.

According to Islam, the Azhar sheikh told him, everything above and below your land is yours to do with as you please -- technically. Islam, they conceded, also says to respect the rules of the country you’re in and Egypt’s laws incriminate their business.

“But if your country doesn’t respect you,” the young men spoke in rehearsed unison like they were about to break into song, “then you don’t have to respect it!” Guffaws and brotherly shoulder punches ensued. “It is not like [the artifacts] leave the country without the government’s knowledge; everyone gets a cut,” Bondok further justified himself after the laughter subsided. .

Unfortunately, the jolly atmosphere quickly disappeared when we arrived at his aunt's house, who didn’t understand that when Bondok said he was bringing a stranger over that night he meant that he was bringing a stranger over that night. Sitting awkwardly on a plastic chair between an LCD and an old used-to-be-white refrigerator, I pretended to be too consumed with the Islamic woodwork on the wall to hear the mumbled argument taking place in the doorless kitchen in front of me, about me. A few minutes and a heavy sigh later, we were exchanging curt pleasantries without eye contact as we descended to the dank basement illuminated by a lonely neon lamp. Digging tools lay around the meter-deep hole in the ground, next to forgotten tea cups and an empty bag of Chipsy.

A scrawny barefoot boy coughed to draw attention to himself at the top of the stairs, as the trio took their jackets off, rolled their pants past their calves and their shirts past their elbows. He threw me a pack of cigarettes, asked why my hair is short, giggled and scurried off before I could answer. They young men assumed their positions and resumed digging in the name of God pausing every now and then to joke, recollect and give advice.

According to Bondok, if you want to excavate for treasure under your house and don’t want it to fall on your head; there are things you should do first. “Most people get a sheikh to read Quran in the place and find out if there is something worth digging for and how far below is it,” he said seriously -- unaware that his cousin, Youssef, a pharmacist “who [was] only doing this because [he] wanted to touch something old,” had his lip raised in contempt of such unscientific thinking. “After that, if you still have money, you can get an engineer to check the soil and tell you how to dig without disturbing the sand under the building’s foundation,” Youssef said, before Bondok cut in to add that you can hire professional diggers if you lack the manpower; just remember that these people can steal the kohl out of a woman’s eyes and will probably ask for a 10% cut of whatever they find.”

“Or you could  just dig and tell your mother to pray the roof doesn’t fall and trap you under, like we’re doing,” Hossam added with amusement and went on to tell comforting stories of excavations gone wrong. One time before the revolution, his neighbors found a cemetery under their house. They had gotten out everything except for the mummy and the sarcophagus. Blinded with greed, the diggers removed the wood boards they used to keeps the walls from caving in thinking they could widen their hole in search for the must-be-nearby mummy faster than the walls would react. They couldn’t. Four died under the rubble before the police managed to unearth them some five hours later. The diggers’ fortune was then driven away in the ambulances. Another friend once dug for three months, found the granite gate of a cemetery and sent for an electric drill. Having got sick of waiting, he pounded the granite with a chisel until it rained sand on his head. He was almost buried alive. “Greed is bad,” Youssef said needlessly, scratching his black widow’s peak.

Amateur diggers don't need to find anything as dramatic as this ancient Egyptian mummy (courtesy of Shutterstock). A few scarabs or statuettes will do. 

Amateur diggers don't need to find anything as dramatic as this ancient Egyptian mummy (courtesy of Shutterstock). A few scarabs or statuettes will do. 

Leaning on his spade, Bondok chastised his friend for his morbidity and began recalling his own stories. On the night of the police’s withdrawal, Jan 28, 2001, he remembers sneaking into an already-opened cemetery near the pyramids to film its layout for future excavation purposes with a friend. They were trying to adjust the camera’s flash when the sky lit up in green and a booming voice said to leave or get shot. Bondok broke out in a cold sweat and froze thinking it was the curse of the pharaohs, until his friend nudged him and told him that all of Nazelt el-Samman, apparently, has come out with shovels and drain trays in pursuit of ancestral wealth behind the pyramids, forcing the army to deploy a tank and soldiers to fire warning rounds and fireworks in the air. Those were the days, he said fondly, before striking the ground with his spade again. “This is harder than it looks,” he said looking up at me from the now-four meters deep hole. After all, people not only risk their homes -- unless they are digging near major archaeological sites or the relatively untouched ones left aside for future excavations by the government -- they also risk wasting a lot of time, effort and money on something that might not be there. And even if they get lucky, they still must evaluate the artifacts' worth, which is generally directly proportional to its age and the amount of gold in it. To determine these, digging residents may be forced to enlist the help of an unscrupulous expert, whose services they will have to substantially compensate him for too. Following that is the problem of finding a cooperative, trustworthy buyer, who won’t, for instance, buy nothing but the gold pieces and then send a friend to buy the rest of the cemetery for a reduced price, since it has no gold. It’s a classic scam.

“Digging is hard; selling is hard; buying is--” Youssef stopped mid-conclusion after Bondok swore to hit him over the head with a shoe if he doesn’t spare us his astute observations. Somewhere between the thuds, Bondok advising me to always sell antiquities in bulk -- a small scarab that would be priced at LE10,000 (almost $1,500) in wholesale to a rich buyer could be priced at as little as a thousand or two, if sold alone -- and Hossam assuring me that the government outlawed the antiquities market to monopolize it rather than end it; the boy who inquired about my hair length earlier joined us, carrying bottles of water. He put them down next to his callused feet on the floor and then asked if they were shaking. After a long moment of stupefied silence, everyone scrambled out of the hole.  

The building was not falling, but one of the walls looked like it was considering it. Having heard the commotion, my unwelcoming host all but tumbled downstairs, nostrils flaring, and demanded to know what had gone wrong. Claims that it wasn’t because of the digging, something they have been doing for three years without (much) trouble, hit her angry exterior and bounced off with little effect. Bondok tried to explain that while he may not have a degree in engineering, it is expected and normal for non-essential-to-stability walls to fall or tilt sometimes. “People dig up to 150 meters under their homes and no one would have any idea,” he said, arms wide open as if to contain her hostility. Still scowling, she turned to Hossam and asked him to remove the jinx (that's me) from her field of view. Outside in the cold, he nervously tried to snap his lighter back to life while I kicked around a Coca-cola cap and half-jokingly suggested leaving the maybe-eaten-by-now others behind.

Eventually, Bondok managed to contain his aunt's hostility with the promise of a profit share from a black granite status of "some Pharaoh" he had found a buyer for, in case he found nothing under her property, which, luckily for him, was not the case. A little over a week of constant digging later, they found a cartouche and decided to widen their search to satisfy his aunt. "If anything happens, we can say we were making a water pump," he said with a weary smile.

Oh greed is bad.