Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Budgie Finds the Sacred Book and Much More

Budge’s second field trip for the British Museum was to Baghdad in 1887 to inspect an important dig the Museum had at the original site of the Biblical town of Nineveh. Along the way he was told to make a stop in Luxor, in Egypt where it was reported that an important “find” had been made. He landed in Alexandria on December 16th intending to quickly travel to Luxor, there he would buy whatever was intereting and return to the coast in time to catch a steamer and travel on to Baghdad via Basra. He soon found that it would not be that easy. He had worn out his welcome on his first trip. Much of this was due to resentment because he had illegally removed so many artifacts. A wall of defensive resistance was thrown up around him and, almost from the moment he set foot on Egyptian soil, he was under suspicion.

The first inkling of this came when the British Vice Consul in Alexandria read him the Riot Act. He told Budge that as he was an official of the British Museum he was “strictly forbidden by the laws of Egypt...to buy or export any antiquity.” Another warning came a few days later after he arrived in Cairo, where the new Director of Service of Antiquities came personally to his hotel to threatened Budge with arrest and legal prosecution if he attempted to deal with local collectors. Worse yet was the news that a police watch had been put on him. The police were to report his comings and goings in Cairo and to take the names of any antiquity dealers who talked to him.

And it didn’t end there. It was traditional when traveling south in Egypt to take the night train from Cairo along the west bank to the river port of Asyut, and then board the steamer the next day to go upriver to Luxor. But, the minute Budge got on the train in Cairo, he was informed by two fellow passengers, a Frenchman and a Maltese, also collectors, that there were police onboard who had been ordered specifically to watch both them and him.

Well, Budge, now what? The message was loud and clear. A lesser person would have turned tail and gone on to his business in Baghdad. Not Budgie, he stayed on the train where he learned that the Frenchman was on his way south to Amarna a town on the eastern bank where lay the ruins of the capital of the Egyptian Sun King, the Pharaoh Akhenaten; also called “Tell al-Amarna,” this enormous ancient city was built in the late 18th Dynasty (1353 BC). In was here in the ruins of the Library of the Royal Residence where some clay tablets were said to have been found.

None of this was news to Budge who even before he left London had been alerted by letter from one of his new Egyptian friends, a collector he’d met on his first trip. Budge could read cuneiform writing so he knew that, if real, such tablets would be an important find. Normally they were found in profusion in and around excavations near Baghdad the place where he was going after Egypt, but what were they doing here? Here in Egypt where for thousands of years papyrus was the preferred medium of the Pharaoh, cuneiform tablets were completely out of place.

As the train traveled south, stopping at every small station, Budge dozing in his berth had time to work out a plan. Early the next day when the train reached Deir Mawas, the station for Amarna, knowing what he knew of the importance of the tablets, it must have taken great discipline for Budge to sit there and watch the Frenchman get off the train. Budge stayed in his seat and he and the Maltese watched as a police escort got off as well and followed the Frenchman into town.

Budge and the Maltese continued south to Asyut where they boarded the steamer. Several days later they arrived in Luxor. Here the Maltese got off along with the rest of the police leaving Budge who was now free to go on to Aswan. From the steamer dock in Luxor, Budge could see the Temple of Luxor, including its massive pillars and Hypostyle Hall. Striking in its features it is still much smaller in plan than the temple complex just downriver at Karnak.

When I arrived 123 years later in December of this last year, I found that it hadn’t changed much. I arrived on a steamer that was much larger and grander, but the sight was just as breathtaking. My itinerary was different from Budge's although I was also in a hurry, but not because of the police, I was being harried by hundreds of fellow tourists and unmerciful guides.

Budgie’s steamer stayed only a few hours in Luxor, but during that time he looked up a resident collector, a friend, Rev. Chauncey Murch of the American Mission in Luxor. From him and others Budge got detailed descriptions of what was available from the new horde, he also found out who would be the best dealer to go to locally to get what he wanted. He was now set to carry out the next phase of his plan, but first he had to continue on to Aswan to make people believe he had no further interest in Luxor. At Aswan he found most of the Army had left and the town had reverted back to rather a large sleepy Nile village. The steamer stayed there three days then early in the morning started its return to Luxor arriving the same day just as the sun was setting.

On arriving back in Luxor Budge perhaps lingered in his cabin until it was dark enough to walk into town with impunity. The police seemed to have had other things to do as he stopped first at some tinsmiths where he ordered several tin boxes made up. Then he went with a few local collectors who rowed him across the river to a small tomb on the western bank. It was all done quickly and in the dark. Arriving at the site of the tombs he found,

“...a rich store of fine and rare objects, and among them the largest roll of papyrus I had ever seen. The roll was tied round with a thick band of papyrus cord, and was in a perfect state of preservation, and the clay seal which kept together the ends of the cord was unbroken. The roll lay in a rectangular niche in the north wall of the sarcophagus chamber, among a few hard stone amulets. It seemed like sacrilege to break the seal and untie the cord, but when I had copied the name on the seal, I did so, for otherwise it would have been impossible to find out the contents of the papyrus. We unrolled a few feet of the papyrus an inch or so at a time, for it was very brittle, and I was amazed at the beauty and freshness of the colors of the human figures and animals, which, in the dim light of the candles and the heated air of the tomb, seemed to be alive. A glimpse of the Judgment Scene showed that the roll was a large and complete Codex of the Per-em-hru, or ‘Book of the Dead,’ and scores of lines repeated the name of the man for whom this magnificent roll had been written and painted, viz., ‘Ani, the real royal scribe, the registrary of the offerings of all the Gods, overseer of the granaries of the Lords of Abydos, and scribe of the offerings of the Lords of Thebes.’”

When the papyrus was unrolled in London the inscribed portion of it was found to be 78 feet long. That same evening he also found, conveniently stored in niches in the same tomb, a papyrus of the Priestess Anhai, a papyrus codex of the Book of the Dead written by Nu in the 18th Dynasty and a leather roll containing chapters of the Book of the Dead, with beautifully painted vignettes.

Again, Budge is lucky, in one stroke he comes into possession of four rare and extremely valuable objects. And on the following day he acquired eighty-two tablets, his share of the Amarna Letters. He thus completed a collection that few if any had come into within such a short period of time, in just under twelve months he could be ranked with the masters, Belzoni, Salt and Drovetti the principle perpetrators of the Rape of the Nile.

Once he determined that they were authentic, the tablets allowed him to unravel the story of the “Amarna Letters,” correspondence on tablets written in Akkadian from the royal households in Mesopotamia to the 18th Dynasty Pharaohs in Egypt, Amenhotep III and IV. Of the cache of three hundred that had been found by a woman digging for compost near the ruins, all were sold to a neighbor for 10 piastres. Many others surfaced at this time, but they represented exactly what archeologists are always looking for, everyday correspondence, the business of life, true, this was a cut above the ordinary in that royal households were involved, still it was fascinating, one, for example, was a large tablet that contained a list of the dowry items of a Mesopotamian princess who was going to marry a king of Egypt.

On arrival back in Luxor town at dawn, Budge stopped to pick up the tin boxes into which he placed his treasures. While drinking coffee in the house of a friend he learned that police and soldiers had arrived with orders during the night from M. Grébaut, the Director of the Service of Antiquities, to take possession of every house containing antiquities in Luxor. They were told also to arrest the house owners and Budge. He asked to see the warrants for the arrests and was told that they would be produced later. M. Grébaut had failed to reach Luxor because his steamer was stranded.
Since nothing else could be done, they all had breakfast including the guards, after which Budge was allowed to go about his business as long as he did not leave the town. Meanwhile the police took possession of the house, posted watchmen on the roof, a sentry at each corner of the building, sealed them and set guards over them.

It was a done deal, all of Budge’s loot was now locked up. He hadn't counted on any of this, and was forced to sit and wait for his Nemesis to arrive. Apparently the Egyptians were not willing to let him get away with his loot this time without a fight. It was now between Budgie and them as we'll see in the next post...
© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2010, all rights reserved. (Photos from Library of Congress, British Museum, Wikimedia Commons and author's collection.)

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