Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Budgie the Keeper Raids the City of the Dead

The novelist Amelia Edwards in 1873 on a visit to Aswan describes the way the town looked in Budge’s time: “It was nearly dark when we reached Aswan. The cafés were all alight and astir. There were smoking and coffee-drinking going on outside; there were sounds of music and laughter within. A large private house on the opposite side of the road was being decorated, as if for some festive occasion. Flags were flying from the roof, and two men were busy putting up a gaily-painted inscription over the doorway. Asking, as was natural, if there was a marriage or a fantasia afoot, it was not a little startling to be told that these were signs of mourning, and that the master of the house had died during the interval that elapsed between our riding out and riding back again. In Egypt, where the worship of ancestry and the preservation of the body were once among the most sacred duties of the living, they now make short work with their dead. He was to be buried, they said, to-morrow morning, three hours after sunrise (Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile).”

Most likely the deceased would have been buried in the Fatimid Cemetery, a grid of tombs and mausoleums that is still a prominent feature of Aswan. It is a smaller version of the City of the Dead, the four mile long cemetery found in Cairo where people live and work amongst the dead presumably some of whom are ancestors. The smaller version in Aswan seemed deserted, if there were residents they were probably there as ghosts and almost certainly there are some who are still looking for Budge to account for what he did.

In Budge’s day he knew that the early Muslim dwellers in the remote south of Egypt considered a pilgrimage to Aswan as meritorious as a pilgrimage to Mecca, and the bodies of the illustrious dead were brought and buried in Aswan from all parts of Egypt. Thus there were graves of importance in the old Arab cemetery, which lay near the ancient granite quarries in the hills. These were marked by large rectangular tablets of sandstone, similar to the Egyptian steles, on which the names of the deceased, the dates of their death and passages from the Koran were cut using characters in the oldest Arabic calligraphic style, called Kufic. Many of these memorial stones were historically quite valuable.

On arrival in Aswan in December of 1886, Budge asked about the stones and he tells us that they were for sale. Buying old gravestones might put some people off, not Budge, who informs us that, the “notables” or headmen, “were quite willing for me to have as many as I wanted, provided I took them out of Egypt to a place where they would be preserved and respected.” Budge then selected 14 of the oldest and best and one evening he and one of his officer friends went out to the graveyard with camels and brought them back into the Army camp in Aswan where he was staying. On the following morning he packed them in strong wooden boxes.

What is difficult to believe is that such exacting and noble conditions would have been set down by the village “notables,” regarding the future disposition of the communities’ gravestones, especially the “oldest and best.” But, similar expressions of concern show up often enough in Budge’s autobiography, and they always require a stretch of the imagination. Not only do we have villagers with antiquarian mind sets identical to those of Bond Street auction houses, but we also have Budge and his friend going out at night to pick them up. Presumably they did that because if they were spotted during the day some of the villagers in the region might have forcefully objected.

Would they have objected? Here I interject a recent experience 123 years almost to the day of Budge’s visit to an Arab cemetery; I passed such a cemetery, not in Aswan but not far from there. I was in a car with a driver and a Muslim guide and, as I showed much interest in Arab cemeteries, the guide suggested we stop and look at one, which we did.

It happened that the one we visited was fenced, but the gate was not locked. It was tied closed with a bit of wire and as we entered and wandered around looking at the stones, I asked if I could photograph some. The guide, who up to that point had refused me nothing, said, “Of course.”
But as I made ready to take some snaps a man dressed in black robe and keffiyeh, the Arab head scarf, came rushing up to us and berated my guide, who indicated hastily to me that it might be best if we left. I scurried after him all the while trying to indicate by sign language that I was sorry for my transgression. The caretaker let us go with a few harsh words in Arabic, leaving us in no doubt about his feelings. It was definitely not the kind of thing I would want to do again.

In Budge’s case, regardless of whether “notables” gave permission or not, and based on my own experience, I would think that the removal of gravestones would be a crime akin to grave robbing. Even in Budge’s home town, in his day and ours, I’m certain that taking gravestones from an ancient graveyard in Cornwall would land you in jail, and if the mayor “sold” them to you, he’d join you as well.

Of course, once Mustafa Shakir, the man from the Antiquities Service who had been sent to Aswan to watch Budge, heard about this, he demanded that Budge give them up. But how much pressure could Mustafa bring to bear against a friend of Gen. Grenfell, the Sirdar, or any Englishman living in the middle of a British Army camp? Budge was safe and he knew it, his reaction now was to collect in earnest!

The stones were special, done in antique script, and considered quite a find. He claimed it was legal, i.e. he negotiated with the head man and paid for them. But then, why did he take an Army officer friend and several camels to retrieve them in the dead of night? Why not go there in the light of day? That was not Budge’s way, which is why he quickly gained a reputation for acquiring beautiful antiques using shady methods.

In the next post, Budgie becomes a Badger.

© Copyright 2009 John J. Gaudet, All Rights Reserved (Photo of column from Wikimedia Common)

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