Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat-I was surprised, one morning, to find a story about the discovery of a huge ancient Egyptian temple next to the Temple of Esna in Upper Egypt on the front page of an Egyptian newspaper. The headline read ‘Golden Statues Discovered and Sold for 100 Million Dollars.’
This news item caused some concern to many people and some of them even believed it. Even though I knew, along with rest of my staff, that the story was false, I spoke to the Director of Antiquities immediately [and asked him] to head to Esna, not to investigate whether there was a discovery or not, but to do some fact-finding and learn who exactly was behind the story and why.
In Esna, the Director of Antiquities met with officials in charge of the city’s antiquities and the temple, which is located inside the town. After making some inquiries, it appeared that the entire scoop was made up by a journalist who had been working for the newspaper for over ten years and who had never seen his name on the front page as a correspondent for Esna. When he realized it was more or less impossible for him to get his name on the front page with his normal news reports about Esna, he decided to fabricate a story and his name was finally on the front page. Afterwards however, the paper carried a retraction on one of the inside pages, almost as if nothing happened!
I remembered that my famous architect friend Hamad Abdullah once called whilst he was on a visit to Germany and said that a friend of his in Cairo knew the location of a very important tomb in Al Fashan in the Beni Suef governorate. [It was claimed that] inside the tomb, a collection of papyri was placed under the heads of the mummies [buried] 15 meters underground. My architect friend said that a friend of his wanted to see me and the man came to me and said that a relative of his had given him this information and as a result he gave me his relative’s number. However, before calling him and examining the location in question, I said to that man: “It’s all a scam and we won’t find anything. It is the delusion of finding treasure.” I corresponded with the Beni Suef Antiquities Director and the head of the Antiquities Investigation Department. After finding the man who lived in Al Fashan, he told them he had heard that story and later recounted it to his relative in Cairo. And of course, we never found any treasure!
Unfortunately, false scoops about treasures of gold, diamonds, red mercury or other precious stones might have been started off by somebody obsessed with finding treasure or by a professional fraud. In other cases, rumours of such great discoveries may have sprung from someone stumbling across a stone with a line or two of hieroglyphics engraved on it. As the news is passed from person to person, the stone becomes a treasure made of solid gold. Exaggeration is normal; it adds thrill, mystery and suspense to everything.
The real danger however in spreading rumours about the discovery of hidden treasures can been seen in the hunts carried out by those with weak wills and gold diggers as they search for riches and end up losing their lives. Three brothers from Aswan lost their lives when they went digging underneath a mountain in search of antiques. The mountain collapsed on them. Six others suffered the same fate when they dug underneath one of their friend’s houses in Nazlet El Seman in Al Haram [in Cairo] that eventually caved in on them.
I believe that there is nothing that can be done in order to stop these rumours that we hear on a daily basis in Egypt. But we suggested that the new antiquities law imposes harsher penalties on stealing antiquities, secret digging and trespassing on archaeological sites (cases of this increased substantially to 18,000).
I wonder if there is some kind of mechanism we could use to safeguard our heritage against looting, theft and rumours.
It is a question that still has no answer, and the answer might never be found.