In the recesses of the desolate Libyan mountains that lie behind
the temple and city of Abydus, the supposed burying place of the
holy Osiris, a tomb was recently discovered, among the contents of
which were the papyrus rolls whereupon this history is written. The
tomb itself is spacious, but otherwise remarkable only for the
depth of the shaft which descends vertically from the rock-hewn
cave, that once served as the mortuary chapel for the friends and
relatives of the departed, to the coffin-chamber beneath. This
shaft is no less than eighty-nine feet in depth. The chamber at its
foot was found to contain three coffins only, though it is large
enough for many more. Two of these, which in all probability
inclosed the bodies of the High Priest, Amenemhat, and of his wife,
father and mother of Harmachis, the hero of this history, the
shameless Arabs who discovered them there and then broke up.
The Arabs broke the bodies up. With unhallowed hands they tore
the holy Amenemhat and the frame of her who had, as it is written,
been filled with the spirit of the Hathors—tore them limb from
limb, searching for treasure amidst their bones—perhaps, as is
their custom, selling the very bones for a few piastres to the last
ignorant tourist who came their way, seeking what he might destroy.
For in Egypt the unhappy, the living find their bread in the tombs
of the great men who were before them.
But as it chanced, some little while afterwards, one who is
known to this writer, and a doctor by profession, passed up the
Nile to Abydus, and became acquainted with the men who had done
this thing. They revealed to him the secret of the place, telling
him that one coffin yet remained entombed. It seemed to be the
coffin of a poor person, they said, and therefore, being pressed
for time, they had left it unviolated. Moved by curiosity to
explore the recesses of a tomb as yet unprofaned by tourists, my
friend bribed the Arabs to show it to him. What ensued I will give
in his own words, exactly as he wrote it to me:
"I slept that night near the Temple of Seti, and started before
daybreak on the following morning. With me were a cross-eyed rascal
named Ali—Ali Baba I named him—the man from whom I got the ring
which I am sending you, and a small but choice assortment of his
fellow thieves. Within an hour after sunrise we reached the valley
where the tomb is. It is a desolate place, into which the sun pours
his scorching heat all the long day through, till the huge brown
rocks which are strewn about become so hot that one can scarcely
bear to touch them, and the sand scorches the feet. It was already
too hot to walk, so we rode on donkeys, some way up the
valley—where a vulture floating far in the blue overhead was the
only other visitor—till we came to an enormous boulder polished by
centuries of action of sun and sand. Here Ali halted, saying that
the tomb was under the stone. Accordingly, we dismounted, and,
leaving the donkeys in charge of a fellah boy, went up to the rock.
Beneath it was a small hole, barely large enough for a man to creep
through. Indeed it had been dug by jackals, for the doorway and
some part of the cave were entirely silted up, and it was by means
of this jackal hole that the tomb had been discovered. Ali crept in
on his hands and knees, and I followed, to find myself in a place
cold after the hot outside air, and, in contrast with the light,
filled with a dazzling darkness. We lit our candles, and, the
select body of thieves having arrived, I made an examination. We
were in a cave the size of a large room, and hollowed by hand, the
further part of the cave being almost free from drift- dust. On the
walls are religious paintings of the usual Ptolemaic character, and
among them one of a majestic old man with a long white beard, who
is seated in a carved chair holding a wand in his hand. Before him passes a procession of priests
bearing sacred images. In the right hand corner of the tomb is the
shaft of the mummy-pit, a square-mouthed well cut in the black
rock. We had brought a beam of thorn-wood, and this was now laid
across the pit and a rope made fast to it. Then Ali—who, to do him
justice, is a courageous thief—took hold of the rope, and, putting
some candles into the breast of his robe, placed his bare feet
against the smooth sides of the well and began to descent with
great rapidity. Very soon he had vanished into blackness, and the
agitation of the cord alone told us that anything was going on
below. At last the rope ceased shaking and a faint shout came
rumbling up the well, announcing Ali's safe arrival. Then, far
below, a tiny star of light appeared. He had lit the candle,
thereby disturbing hundreds of bats that flitted up in an endless
stream and as silently as spirits. The rope was hauled up again,
and now it was my turn; but, as I declined to trust my neck to the
hand-over-hand method of descent, the end of the cord was made fast
round my middle and I was lowered bodily into those sacred depths.
Nor was it a pleasant journey, for, if the masters of the situation
above had made any mistake, I should have been dashed to pieces.
Also, the bats continually flew into my face and clung to my hair,
and I have a great dislike of bats. At last, after some minutes of
jerking and dangling, I found myself standing in a narrow passage
by the side of the worthy Ali, covered with bats and perspiration,
and with the skin rubbed off my knees and knuckles. Then another
man came down, hand over hand like a sailor, and as the rest were
told to stop above we were ready to go on. Ali went first with his
candle—of course we each had a candle— leading the way down a long
passage about five feet high. At length the passage widened out,
and we were in the tomb-chamber: I think the hottest and most
silent place that I ever entered. It was simply stifling. This
chamber is a square room cut in the rock and totally devoid of
paintings or sculpture. I held up the candles and looked round.
About the place were strewn the coffin lids and the mummied remains
of the two bodies that the Arabs had previously violated. The
paintings on the former were, I noticed, of great beauty, though,
having no knowledge of hieroglyphics, I could not decipher them.
Beads and spicy wrappings lay around the remains, which, I saw,
were those of a man and a woman. The head
had been broken off the body of the man. I took it up and looked at
it. It had been closely shaved—after death, I should say, from the
general indications—and the features were disfigured with gold
leaf. But notwithstanding this, and the shrinkage of the flesh, I
think the face was one of the most imposing and beautiful that I
ever saw. It was that of a very old man, and his dead countenance
still wore so calm and solemn, indeed, so awful a look, that I grew
quite superstitious (though as you know, I am pretty well
accustomed to dead people), and put the head down in a hurry. There
were still some wrappings left upon the face of the second body,
and I did not remove them; but she must have been a fine large
woman in her day.
"'There the other mummy,' said Ali, pointing to a large and
solid case that seemed to have been carelessly thrown down in a
corner, for it was lying on its side.
"I went up to it and carefully examined it. It was well made,
but of perfectly plain cedar-wood—not an inscription, not a
solitary God on it.
"'Never see one like him before,' said Ali. 'Bury great hurry,
he no "mafish," no "fineesh." Throw him down here on side.'
"I looked at the plain case till at last my interest was
thoroughly aroused. I was so shocked by the sight of the scattered
dust of the departed that I had made up my mind not to touch the
remaining coffin —but now my curiosity overcame me, and we set to
"Ali had brought a mallet and a cold chisel with him, and,
having set the coffin straight, he began upon it with all the zeal
of an experienced tomb-breaker. And then he pointed out another
thing. Most mummy-cases are fastened by four little tongues of
wood, two on either side, which are fixed in the upper half, and,
passing into mortices cut to receive them in the thickness of the
lower half, are there held fast by pegs of hard wood. But this
mummy case had eight such tongues. Evidently it had been thought
well to secure it firmly. At last, with great difficulty, we raised
the massive lid, which was nearly three inches thick, and there,
covered over with a deep layer of loose spices (a very unusual
thing), was the body.
"Ali looked at it with open eyes—and no wonder. For this mummy
was not as other mummies are. Mummies in general lie upon their
backs, as stiff and calm as though they were cut from wood; but
this mummy lay upon its side, and, the wrappings notwithstanding,
its knees were slightly bent. More than that, indeed, the gold
mask, which, after the fashion of the Ptolemaic period, had been
set upon the face, had worked down, and was literally pounded up
beneath the hooded head.
"It was impossible, seeing these things, to avoid the conclusion
that the mummy before us had moved with violence since it was
put in the coffin.
"'Him very funny mummy. Him not "mafish" when him go in there,'
"'Nonsense!' I said. 'Who ever heard of a live mummy?'
"We lifted the body out of the coffin, nearly choking ourselves
with mummy dust in the process, and there beneath it half hidden
among the spices, we made our first find. It was a roll of papyrus,
carelessly fastened and wrapped in a piece of mummy cloth, having
to all appearance been thrown into the coffin at the moment of
"Ali eyed the papyrus greedily, but I seized it and put it in my
pocket, for it was agreed that I was to have all that might be
discovered. Then we began to unwrap the body. It was covered with
very broad strong bandages, thickly wound and roughly tied,
sometimes by means of simple knots, the whole working the
appearance of having been executed in great haste and with
difficulty. Just over the head was a large lump. Presently, the
bandages covering it were off, and there, on the face, lay a second
roll of papyrus. I put down my hand to lift it, but it would not
come away. It appeared to be fixed to the stout seamless shroud
which was drawn over the whole body, and tied beneath the feet—as a
farmer ties sacks. This shroud, which was also thickly waxed, was
in one piece, being made to fit the form like a garment. I took a
candle and examined the roll and then I saw why it was fast. The
spices had congealed and glued it to the sack-like shroud. It was
impossible to get it away without tearing the outer sheets of
"At last, however, I wrenched it loose and put it with the other
in my pocket.
"Then we went on with our dreadful task in silence. With much
care we ripped loose the sack-like garment, and at last the body of
a man lay before us. Between his knees was a third roll of papyrus.
I secured it, then held down the light and looked at him. One
glance at his face was enough to tell a doctor how he had died.
"This body was not much dried up. Evidently it had not passed
the allotted seventy days in natron, and therefore the expression
and likeness were better preserved than is usual. Without entering
into particulars, I will only say that I hope I shall never see
such another look as that which was frozen on this dead man's face.
Even the Arabs recoiled from it in horror and began to mutter
"For the rest, the usual opening on the left side through which
the embalmers did their work was absent; the finely-cut features
were those of a person of middle age, although the hair was already
grey, and the frame was that of a very powerful man, the shoulders
being of an extraordinary width. I had not time to examine very
closely, however, for within a few seconds from its uncovering, the
unembalmed body began to crumble now that it was exposed to the
action of the air. In five or six minutes there was literally
nothing left of it but a wisp of hair, the skull, and a few of the
larger bones. I noticed that one of the tibia—I forget if it was
the right or the left—had been fractured and very badly set. It
must have been quite an inch shorter than the other.
"Well, there was nothing more to find, and now that the
excitement was over, what between the heat, the exertion, and the
smell of mummy dust and spices, I felt more dead than alive.
"I am tired of writing, and this ship rolls. This letter, of
course, goes overland, and I am coming by 'long sea,' but I hope to
be in London within ten days after you get it. Then I will tell you
of my pleasing experiences in the course of the ascent from the
tomb- chamber, and of how that prince of rascals, Ali Baba, and his
thieves tried to frighten me into handing over the papyri, and how
I worsted them. Then, too, we will get the rolls deciphered. I
expect that they only contain the usual thing, copies of the 'Book
of the Dead,' but there may be something else in them.
Needless to say, I did not narrate this little adventure in Egypt,
or I should have had the Boulac Museum people on my track.
Good-bye, 'Mafish Fineesh,' as Ali Baba always said."
In due course, my friend, the writer of the letter from which I
have quoted, arrived in London, and on the very next day we paid a
visit to a learned acquaintance well versed in Hieroglyphics and
Demotic writing. The anxiety with which we watched him skilfully
damping and unfolding one of the rolls and peering through his
gold-rimmed glasses at the mysterious characters may well be
"Hum," he said, "whatever it is, this is not a copy of
the 'Book of the Dead.' By George, what's this?
Cle—Cleo—Cleopatra—— Why, my dear Sirs, as I am a living man, this
is the history of somebody who lived in the days of Cleopatra,
the Cleopatra, for here's Antony's name with hers! Well,
there's six months' work before me here—six months, at the very
least!" And in that joyful prospect he fairly lost control of
himself, and skipped about the room, shaking hands with us at
intervals, and saying "I'll translate—I'll translate it if it kills
me, and we will publish it; and, by the living Osiris, it shall
drive every Egyptologist in Europe mad with envy! Oh, what a find!
what a most glorious find!"
And O you whose eyes fall upon these pages, see, they have been
translated, and they have been printed, and here they lie before
you— an undiscovered land wherein you are free to travel!
Harmachis speaks to you from his forgotten tomb. The walls of
Time fall down, and, as at the lightning's leap, a picture from the
past starts upon your view, framed in the darkness of the ages.
He shows you those two Egypts which the silent pyramids looked
down upon long centuries ago—the Egypt of the Greek, the Roman, and
the Ptolemy, and that other outworn Egypt of the Hierophant, hoary
with years, heavy with the legends of antiquity and the memory of
He tells you how the smouldering loyalty of the land of Khem
blazed up before it died, and how fiercely the old Time-consecrated
Faith struggled against the conquering tide of Change that rose,
like Nile at flood, and drowned the ancient Gods of Egypt.
Here, in his pages, you shall learn the glory of Isis the
Many-shaped, the Executrix of Decrees. Here you shall make
acquaintance with the shade of Cleopatra, that "Thing of Flame,"
whose passion-breathing beauty shaped the destiny of Empires. Here
you shall read how the soul of Charmion was slain of the sword her
Here Harmachis, the doomed Egyptian, being about to die, salutes
you who follow on the path he trod. In the story of his broken
years he shows to you what may in its degree be the story of your
own. Crying aloud from that dim Amenti where
to-day he wears out his long atoning time, he tells, in the history
of his fall, the fate of him who, however sorely tried, forgets his
God, his Honour, and his Country.