“Of some of these tombs many persons could not withstand the suffocating air, which often causes fainting. A vast quantity of dust rises, so fine that it enters into the throat and nostrils, and chokes the nose and mouth to such a degree that it requires great power of lungs to resist it. In some places there is not more than a vacancy of a foot left, which you may contrive to pass through in a creeping posture like a snail, on pointed and keen stones that cut like glass. Surrounded by bodies, by heaps of mummies in all directions which, previous to my being accustomed to the sight, impressed me with horror. The blackness of the wall, the faint light given by the candles or torches for want of air, the different objects that surround me, seeming to converse with each other, and the Arabs with the torches or candles in their hands, naked and covered with dust, themselves resembling living mummies, absolutely formed a scene that cannot be described.”
Saturday 2nd February, 2008. Western Thebes.
Belzoni’s colourful description of his second visit to the tombs at Qurna, in 1818, inspired a whole tradition of ‘archaeological romance’ from Henry Rider Haggard to Indiana Jones. Little did I know as I entered the tomb of Khaemhet that I was to be allowed a small glimpse of this world first hand. When the tomb was first discovered by Europeans in 1842 it had been the home of generations of Qurnawis who blackened the decorated walls with smoke from their fires. The first attempt at cleaning it was made sixty years later by the Englishman Sir Robert Mond, armed with scrubbing brush and bucket, whose good intentions were unfortunately far superior to his conservatorial technique. Coming on top of the ‘squeezes’ made by early Egyptologists, by which pigment was removed onto wet paper, and the hacking out of whole sections for removal to European museums, it’s remarkable that there is anything at all left to see. Nevertheless, even stripped of its once vibrant colour there are some wonderful scenes such as the unloading of goods at Thebes and of Khaemhet himself supervising the work in his fields.
But the current guardian of the tomb obviously senses that I have an appetite for something more adventurous. “You see pit – mummies?” Before I can utter a word he has made the show of a glance outside and has me firmly by the wrist. Soon we are crouching low within the type of jagged blackened tunnel so vividly described by Belzoni. I am gripped by a sudden fear: “Snakes – are there snakes here?” “Yes!” he replies, so enthusiastically and with such a broad smile that he has either misheard me or is so fearless himself that I am immediately reassured.
A cloud of parched dry dust rises up, through which I can just make out the rough steps by which we are descending, here and there strewn with scraps of ancient linen. As we go further down into the darkness the dust starts to choke and I cough and splutter as my guide warns of overhanging rocks or points out items of interest. At last we come to a stop – in reality we have not descended far, but in my imagination I am with Belzoni – and I sweep the beam of my flashlight around the blackened pit. There, in a corner, amid the jagged shards of limestone, bundles of linen and fragments of human bone, the soot-stained skull of some ancient citizen of Thebes looks up at us through the swirling dust. My heart beats fast, though I am frozen in the moment.
After a quick peer into the dark labyrinth of tunnels beyond us we ascend once again and the guardian dusts me down, the final act in a scene which has been performed by his ancestors for curious travellers since the time of Bruce and Belzoni, and possibly beyond. Somewhat humbled at having come literally face-to-face with death, I emerge once more into the present, and breathe deep lungfuls of the crisp desert air.