How to Search for Buried Treasure in Egypt

Mr. Mark Pettigrew, ARCE/NC’s September speaker, received his BA in anthropology from Harvard University, an MA in Arabic language and literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate, also at Berkeley.  Mark lived in Egypt for 5 years doing advanced studies at the Center for Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo. His focus is on Medieval Arabic literature.

Mark began his presentation by advising the audience that one must:

This rather amazing formula comes from a medieval treasure hunting manual known as, The Book of Pearls.Gaston Mespero, director of the Egyptian Museum and the Egyptian Antiquities Service from 1881 until 1914, declared that this work had caused more destruction to Egypt’s monuments than all the wars that had been fought in Egypt. Therefore, he had Ahmed Kamil translate the book into French and circulated it widely throughout Egypt, hoping that it’s ready availability would result in cooling the verve for treasure hunting. Unfortunately, it had just the opposite effect!

The Book of Pearls is a form of popular speculation about the past.  It’s origin is obscure and it’s author or authors are anonymous. In fact, it is probably a compilation of the works of many authors, culled from many old manuscripts - a compilation of compilations, with no definite date of origin. It’s compilation may have been an ongoing process that spanned many centuries.

The Book of Pearls is written in the form of imper-atives and instructions - rather like a cook book!   Some of the authors are barely literate, others are quite skilled.  The length of the “recipes” vary, but follow a general, 3-part form:

Generally the descriptive information is more concerned with various magical means of pursuing the treasure, than it is with a practical means of locating it.

Treasure hunting was popular in the Middle East during the Middle Ages, particularly in Egypt. The government even sponsored treasure expeditions and employed professional treasure hunters to lead them!  Treasure hunting became a taxable industry. Scams abounded, leading treasure seekers to seeded sights.   In fact, Mark speculated that the “real” tomb robbers probably started their careers actively seeking “treasure”. The West Bank village of Qurnah was a hot bed of small tomb robbers until 1871 when the cache of royal mummies found and plundered by the Rassoul brothers finally came to light as a result of a argument between them.

How are the treasure hunting manuals related to tomb robbing?  Most telling is the fact that popular wisdom regarding what is to be found in the tombs of the ancients shows up in The Book of Pearls. Folk beliefs and curiosity about the tombs fits well with local folklore, and when published undoubtedly sold well. Many of the “recipes” suggest an oral origin.  Names used indicate that local rumors predated the recipe, and local folk tales were probably abbreviated to produce some of them. An example is the “supernatural market where objects turn to gold”.

Some elements do not relate to folk tales. They are, in fact, the literary equivalent of the con game. They often allude to an ancient king or ancestor who left the treasure specifically for the reader. Considerable “window dressing”, in the form of lengthy descriptions of the old texts that have been consulted and  the incorporation of cryptic chemical code words, make the book more mysterious. There are constant warnings used to establish the author’s authority, such as admonishments that conventional knowledge is not sufficient to protect the seeker, so only the specialized knowledge, which is being imparted by the author, will do. Mundane physical details and hyperbole fur-ther whet the appetite. The Book of Pearls is filled with popularly applied magic texts, local wish fulfillment’s and rumors. Mark described these treasure hunting manuals and the “New Age” Literature of the Medieval Ages!!

The treasure hunting manuals were compiled as sources just for amateur treasure hunters.  In the 1200s, some did, in fact aid attempts to lean real information about the past, but predominately the manuals were sources of fantastic descriptions and entertaining lists of wonders and marvels. They aver that the ancients had mighty powers to foretell events, and intimate that those powers were so great the they can still work during the Middle Ages, if only the right seeker follows the formula!
Of thirty ancient wonders described in The Book of Pearls, twenty are in Egypt. In comparing The Book of Pearls to other, similar literature, it’s tales compare favorably with the Book of a Thousand and One Nights. Similar tales are found in each. Such fantastic motifs as magical rings, and genies are prevalent in both. The difference in The Book of Pearls, however, is that it makes no attempt to interpret Egypt’s past, contains no history and does not reflect the ethnic pride of the author[s]. Books such as the Big Book of Mysteries did, in fact, try to explain Egypt’s history.  In it we find a list of ancient manuals, and the introduction of a new passenger on Noah’s ark who marries one of Noah’s daughters and learns to read hieroglyphs. We are further told that the Copts are the holders of the treasures of the ancients.

Medieval Muslims were both awed and inspired by the ancients. Themes in which the ancients failed to appreciate and embrace monotheism, ancient monuments which are dangerous, and dire warnings in which those who desecrate them may be slaughtered or lost forever, abound. The “Tale of the City of Brass”, is one such story in which the treasure hunts end in failure. The Book of Pearls has none of these dangers and the hunter is always successful. It displays a selective assimilation of themes that appear in other genre. There is no moral overtone; just the usual warnings.  It forms an important part of the context of Egypt.  Ahmed Kamil’s translation came out at a time when Egypt was forging a new sense of her past, which may explain one reason for it's great popularity.

  • Nancy Corbin
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