Monday, February 15, 2010

Budgie steals the book of the dead

Luxor was still a small town when Budge arrived on or about Christmas Eve, 1887. There were only a few decent hotels the best was the Winter Palace, the second largest building in the area after the Luxor Temple. It had just opened in 1886 one year before Budge’s arrival. Since then many famous people have stayed there including the Agha Khan, Empress Eugenie, the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, King Juan Carlos, Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Montgomery and Agatha Christie. Howard Carter stayed there along with the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, the collector of Egyptian antiquities who financed Carter's work, and it was there the announcement was made of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.
In Victorian times a goodly number of foreigners stayed in Luxor for their health, a practice widely recommended by the medical profession in England. Such people were perhaps more apt to choose a residential hotel such as the Luxor Hotel, a place recommended by Cook’s Guide Book of the day because, “the grounds are spacious and shaded, adjoining a farm cultivated to supply visitors with dairy produce, poultry, sheep, and bullocks. A qualified medical gentleman, a clergyman of the Church of England, and an English lady housekeeper reside in the hotel during winter.”

The Luxor Hotel is still standing and today still enjoys a good location. It is within walking distance of the Winter Palace Hotel, the Luxor Temple and the riverside pier. A quick glimpse inside the hotel courtyard reveals a brick building set in a spacious garden. It still prides itself in being one of the first three hotels to open in Luxor, however, it has suffered from the competition. Many other hotels have sprung up in Luxor over the last hundred years. Also the tour boats act as hotels for a great number of tourists, consequently it has come down in the world. But in Budge’s day it was still a major player in the world of accommodation and, as we will see, it had a major role in the theft of one of the most famous artifacts in Egyptian history.

When we left Budge the last time he was not in a good situation. He had been placed under arrest and the police had confiscated many of his antiquities, which were now held in rooms and houses that were sealed, locked and guarded. They were being held as evidence awaiting the arrival of an official of the Egyptian Government, the Head of the Antiquities Service, M. Grébaut.

Among the houses that were sealed and guarded was one small one that abutted on the wall of the garden of the Luxor Hotel. This was the house where Budge had stored his papyri in tin containers along with several items belonging to antique dealers in town, they used the basement as a safe storage place.

When the Luxor dealers saw it sealed up, and guards posted, they first invited the guards to drink cognac with them, then tried to bribe them to go away for an hour. But the guards stoutly refused to drink or to leave their posts. Not to be put off, the dealers held an interview with the manager of the Luxor Hotel. The result of their conversation according to Budge was that, “about sunset a number of gardeners and workmen appeared with their digging tools and baskets, and they dug under that part of the garden wall which was next to the house and right through into the basement of the house."

"They made scarcely any noise, and they cut through the soft, unbaked mud bricks without difficulty. Whilst they were digging I watched the work with the manager it seemed to me that the gardeners were particularly skilled house-breakers, and that they must have had much practice. It appears incredible, but the whole of the digging was carried out without the knowledge of the watchmen on the roof of the house and the sentries outside it. But it seemed unwise to rely overmuch on the silence of our operations, and we therefore arranged to give the police and the soldiers a meal, for they were both hungry and thirsty. M. Pagnon, the proprietor of the hotel, had a substantial supper prepared for them, i.e., half a sheep boiled, with several pounds of rice, and served up in pieces with sliced lemons and raisins on a huge brass tray.”

Budge then tells us that whilst they were eating happily, man after man went into the basement and brought everything out, piece by piece and box by box, and, boasts Budge, “in this way we saved the Papyrus of Ani, and all the rest of my acquisitions from the officials of the Service of Antiquities, and all Luxor rejoiced.”

Budge had won the day and what happened next was a bit of an anticlimax, M. Grébaut arrived in his steamer and tied up, but not in Luxor; he docked about 1¼ miles below Luxor downriver near the ruins at Karnak. The dealers and Budge at this point probably thought that the show was about to begin, certainly there would be some fireworks as soon as Grébaut walked into Luxor and found that the impounded antiquities had been swiped. Everyone waited for all hell to break loose, but it remained quiet all day.

Imagine the suspense. Perhaps the same feeling developed in Luxor as in the movie, High Noon when Gary Cooper, assisted by a drunk, a kid, and his Quaker wife, Grace Kelly, watch the clock tick away. Imagine Budge waiting in the middle of the dusty main street of Luxor, guns well-oiled and strapped to his thighs, the brim of his hat snapped down over his eyes to shade them from the sun as it rose to the zenith...

As it turned out, Grébaut never showed up. Instead, the news came that that he was not well. Budge waited at the hotel with his luggage until he heard the police had arrested two dealer friends. When an officer turned to Budge, presumably to put him in fetters like the rest, he talked his way out of it, “When I asked to see the warrant under which I was arrested he had nothing to produce.” The policeman left, but only after he warned Budge that he might hear more of the matter in Cairo.

Meanwhile the steamer arrived at midnight and Budge went on board with his boxes and baggage. He settled into his cabin for the night and at dawn left Luxor for Asyût. After arriving in Asyût he boarded the train to Cairo hoping to arrive that evening, but the train was late and instead he arrived early in the morning and found that there were no longer any carriages at the station. Budge was stuck once again. There he was with all that precious baggage and no transport,
“As I sat there, practically on the roadside, two British officers out for an early morning ride passed by, and as they did so one of them hailed me in a cheery voice, and asked me why I was sitting there at that time of the morning. I recognized the voice as that of an officer of whom I had seen a great deal the year before in Aswan, and I quickly told him why I was there, and about the contents of my bags and boxes, and my wish to get into the town as soon as possible. After a short talk with his brother officer, whom I had met at General Sir Frederick Stephenson's house in Cairo, my friend dismounted and went to the police, whom I had pointed out to him, and told them to carry my bags and boxes into Cairo for me.”

The Customs Officer posted at the bridge on the outskirts of the city assumed that the police were carrying British Army goods and therefore made no attempt to stop them. Budge’s officer friends dropped him at the Army barracks where he found his old friend Major Hepper, the officer who had helped so much when they were clearing out the tombs in Aswan the previous winter. Hepper listened to the story of Budge’s Luxor experiences with great interest, then, in a reply that stretches the imagination, asked Budge to: “...tell him where the papyri and...tablets were to go, and for whom I had bought them. I told him I had bought them for the British Museum, and that they would be paid for by the British Treasury with public money, and that I was most anxious to get them sent off to the British Museum before I started for Baghdad. In answer he said, 'I think I can help you, and I will. As you have bought these things which you say are so valuable for the British Museum, and they are to be paid for with public money, they are clearly the property of the British Government, and they must be put into a place of safety as soon as possible.'”

Hepper went on to say that he was leaving for Alexandria that afternoon and would take all the tin boxes containing the papyri with him and send them on to the British Museum. So even before Budge left Egypt for Baghdad he learned, perhaps via another friend, one he had made in Alexandria who happened to be the Director of Telegraphs, that the papyri had been received in London.

And so it was done, technically Budge had stolen the Papyrus of Ani along with everything that had been confiscated in Luxor. He later claimed it was all legal, as he had bought the objects and resold them to the Museum at a later date, but he glosses over the fact that he had taken the Papyrus of Ani against the will of the Egyptian Government and the British Consul, in violation of customs regulations and the use of military baggage to which he was not entitled.

How times change, in a recently assembled show (according to the Earth Times website, the Ruhr Museum looks at the treasure-hunting era before archaeology settled down to become just another academic subject. (“The Great Game: Archaeology and Politics in the Colonial Period,” in Essen, Germany, runs until June 13.) Charlotte Truempler, head of the archaeology department of the new museum, which was inaugurated a month ago, said it was the first show she knew of that had looked at the political implications of turn-of- the-century archaeology. Ulrich Borsdorf, head of the Ruhr Museums notes that archaeology is a highly political matter, which is why today's archaeologists are very careful about what they say and would never dare do anything illegal. Professor Gehrke, effectively the top archaeologist in Germany, agreed. “We are a research institute. We don’t collect things any more. We leave everything in the country where we found it.”

I wonder what Budgie would say to that?

Next post, The Last Word.
© Copyright J. Gaudet, 2010, all rights reserved. (Photos from Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons)

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