Mummies in the Dark
I was in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, back in 1967 just
before the Arab-Israeli war happened. This was also before Arab
terrorists were killing tourists, which kind of adventure I can
live without (literally).
Back then I was one of those hard core travellers, 1-2 years at
a time, hitchhiking, sleeping out, living cheap. We called
ourselves Road Bums, others called us WTs (World Travellers)--
the main thing was that we did not consider ourselves
"tourists", were in fact offended by the insinuation that we
were in the same company with rich travellers living in the
Hilton Hotel. We were on the shoestring world tour: not much
money, not much comfort, and no schedule. I'd hitched across
Africa from Casablanca to Cairo and was now on the way south
through Egypt to some jungle somewhere, as far as I could get
before my money ran out-- which I think I was down to about
$70 at that point. That doesn't sound like much, but Africa
was really cheap back then, I was living on about $1 per day.
I was travelling with Matsamuru Toru, a young Japanese guy I'd
met in Tanger. We had a good time together. He had a good
sense of humor-- we'd celebrated Pearl Harbor Day together in
Cairo-- the first Japanese guy I'd really come to know, and the
cultural differences were kind of fun. For example, he was
hitchhiking across Africa in a black suit and tie. But then he
kept getting westernized on the trip, trading off parts of the
suit for blue jeans, army jacket, smaller rucksack, until he
was as ragamuffin as the rest of us by the time we arrived
Which we did by train-- it was so cheap that it couldn't pay to
hitch-- along with a group of similar travellers who had also
been hanging out in the Youth Hostel in Cairo, a houseboat on
the Nile. Everybody gets hung up in Cairo collecting the chain
of visas needed to travel down into Africa, a slow process, very
unhandy and time comsuming. We'd been there almost 3 weeks just
to get visas, but that's another story.
So we filled up the Luxor youth hostel. None of us had very
much money, but Egypt was so cheap back then you wouldn't
believe it, the hostel cost about 20 cents US a day. As I
recall, we were Geoff the Australian, Steffi the German, the
Crazy Dutchman, Pat the English Canadian, Gilbert the French
Canadian, Toru the Japanese, and I the only American. There
had only been one plump old Bavarian German named Hermann (who
was probably 50, younger then than I am now) staying at the
hostel when we arrived, and he was glad to have some European
So we were 8 men. No girls. Not that we didn't want girls
along, believe me, but Arabic Africa was a Man's World. In so
many ways, but that's yet another collection of stories.
As for Luxor, it was a sleepy town back then, hardly a city at
all, about 600 km south of Cairo. Even though it's an often-
visited tourist stop, there was nothing special about the town
itself, standard just barely modern Arab town. Some good places
to eat, but no hangouts. Maybe there were luxurious hotels for
the rich, fabulous resturants somewhere, we never checked, but
mostly it was kind of run-down, quiet, boring. Which was okay
Ah, but once upon a time, long long ago, far far away, etc, this
had been the Royal City Thebes of Ancient Egypt. And
these days tourists cross the Nile to visit the ruins of the
Temple of Karnak, and 7 km farther out into the Valley
of the Kings lies that famous Tomb of Tutankhamen.
We were here to check out King Tut & all that, and the first
day we did just that. We took the ferry across the Nile--
actually a raft-- and a taxi on the other side to the Famous
Grave. There was a nicely paved road, and a ticket booth at
the site where we had to pay (£1, or maybe £3, I don't remember,
just that it was more than our daily budgets), and we could
follow the ropes and the lights down into the tomb. So hey, I
could say, "Yes, I've been in King Tut's Tomb...haven't you?."
Cool, eh? Well, it was ok, but it's not the high point of this
story, nor what this story is about.
When we came out we met & spoke with a British archeologist
who told us, "Well, this is the most famous tomb, of course, but
it was not called the Valley of the Kings because of this one
grave-- there are thousands of graves out in these hills. And
grave robbers have been plundering them for 3000 years, so many
of them are open. If you want a real experience you should go
explore the rest of the valley."
The next day we did that. But instead of taking an expensive
taxi we rented cheap bicycles and took the dirt road instead of
paved, out past the Temple of Karnak (which I am embarrassed to
admit that we didn't visit because it cost more than we wanted to
pay--our budgets had been ruined by King Tut), out past the quite
ruined giant statues of Ra and Isis, and up into the absolutely
Egypt is a very unique place-phenomenon, as we could witness from
atop those low hills: the Nile River flowed north through a
desert so bleak and dead and empty that from horizon to horizon
there was simply... nothing. Just a flat gey horizon of lifeless
dry dirt, sand, rocks, pebbles, boulders, as far as the eye could
see in every direction-- except for that mile-wide strip of
brilliant blazing green on both sides of the murky brown Nile.
Almost all life in that vast country is contained in a straight
ribbon from horizon north to horizon south, everything else is
We bicycled around the hills in the sweltering heat, looking for
holes in the ground, anything that could be an unsealed tomb, but
they were not that easy to find. Nor was there shade anywhere,
nor water. Yet there were occassional arab houses perched upon
the slopes here and there. Sometimes Arab kids would come up to
us and try to sell us small clay statuettes of gods, saying that
they were "ancient artifacts", but there were so many of them and
all identical, so we figured that they made them for tourists.
We met a group of 4 Japanes students from the University of Tokyo
cruising around in a fully-equipped Toyota Land Cruiser, also
looking for graves. Toru was glad to get to speak his own
language for the first time in months. (Once earlier, while he
and I were at the Pyramids in Cairo, we'd met a young Japanese-
looking guy and Toru got all excited and started chatting rapidly
to him in Japanese, whereupon the other guy said, "Hey, I don't
understand that stuff, man, I'm from San Francisco!") The
Japanese students had their own program, so we biked on.
Eventually we found a tunnel, like a cave or mine leading
horizontally into the hillside, rather than a hole down into the
ground. Could this be a grave? We got excited and all 8 of us
pressed into the dark entrance, also glad to get out of the sun.
The tunnel's ceiling was so low that we couldn't stand up
straight, but it was wide enough for two men to pass. We went in
as far as we could see, but it was dark as hell in there. There
was no end we could sense or see, but our voices echoed
distantly. However, we weren't really equipped for going into
caves, not having one flashlight between us.
But there in the dim light we could just make out actual Egyptian
hyroglyphics painted on the walls. Not many, because all the
grave robbers and tourists and souvenir hunters over the
centuries had chipped them off and taken them, leaving only
patches of those ruined by water or spoiled somehow. Even so,
it was a thrill to find them.
"How far does this tunnel go?" we wondered, and hooted to get an
echo. We got a good echo, so then we all called out, hooting as
loud as we could.
Then there were other sounds-- squeaking, flapping-- and suddenly
thousands of bats came flying out of the cave directly at us.
They'd been scared by our shouts, and now it was our turn to be
scared, for we couldn't get out of their way, as waves of
panicked bats swarmed over under around and through us, pissing
and shitting as they flew.
The entire tunnel was full of them, a swarm of leathery wings
that brushed by at speed, thousands of tiny monsters tapping
against us in passing. We could only drop to our knees, fold up,
covering our faces and heads the best we could, hoping not to
be bitten by a thousand bats with rabies. It was perhaps only
a few seconds, but it seemed to take a very long time for them
When it did stop, after the last stragglers flapped past the
eight frightened adventurers lying on the floor of the tunnel,
we were all pretty well rattled... and slimy with batshit.
"Anyone get bitten?" "Not me." "Nicht mir!" It was
unbelievable that we'd all been so lucky.
But now it seemed that the tunnel was cleared of bats, so we
could press on inward. We went deeper in, lighting matches to
see at all, but found nothing. We were not especially far into
the cave, maybe 50 meters, when we ran out of matches and had
to turn back.
It was a relief to return to sunight, but frustrating not to
be able to explore the tunnel. We resolved to come back again
the next day with some equipment, like lights & ropes.
We got our bikes, to head on back to Luxor, when we made an
interesting observation: there was an extra bicycle.
"We're only 7 now, who's missing?"
Sure enough, Hermann, the old Bavarian German was not among us.
He was the newcomer to our group, older than us, and a bit of
an outsider because he only spoke a weird Bavarian dialect
which none of us could understand very well, including the young
German Steffi. It would have been easy to forget him.
Steffi went back to the tunnel and called in, "Hermann, wo bist
du?" (Where are you?) Several times, no answer.
We looked at each other. This was a bit spooky. "How far in
could he have gone with no light?" "Do you think he's all
right?" "Or was he even with us when we went in?" Steffi
remembered talking with him in there at some point.
So some of us went in again, calling "Hermann," again and again,
feeling our way carefully in the darkness, not having any more
matches. We probably went in as far as we'd already been when
we finally heard Hermann answer.
Weak, distant, "Hilfe!" (Help!)
"Wo bust du?" Steffi called out.
"Ich bin gefallen! Ich glaube mein bein ist gebrochen!" (I have
fallen! I think my leg is broken!)
"Oh, scheisse!" we all agreed.
As we neared him, he warned us, "Pas auf hier, es gibt ein tief
loche!" (Watch out here, there's a deep hole!)
"Oops!" said Steffi in the dark, as he almost stepped into the
hole as well. "Everyone stop!"
We ascertained that there was a drop, and it sounded like Hermann
was about 4 meters below us, but we couldn't see anything. This
was a real mess. He seemed to be weeping.
"Ich bin mit die Töte!" He seemed to be about to panic.
"You're not with the dead yet! We're here, we'll get you out."
Toru zipped off to find the Japanese students with the Land
Cruiser, they were on expedition and had all sorts of equipment.
In minutes the tunnel rang with Japanese language as the students
came rushing to the rescue. They were totally enthusiastic about
getting to use all their wonderful gear at last-- ropes,
flashlights, first aid kits, pickaxes, whatever. The tunnel
flooded with light, and we could see at last.
The hole was deep and wide, and there lay the old German, not
looking that bad off, but what we saw down in that pit stunned us
all--he WAS with the dead: Hermann was lying on a floor of
Hundreds of them-- mummies in various stages of wrappings, all
broken up like dry wood, all tangled together in a heap. There
were loose skulls, hands, feet, dry grey human parts scattered
about everywhere. This was the grave robber's garbage dump.
Our first priority was to get Hermann up out of there-- he was
about to go crazy. Steffi took a rope around his waist and was
lowered into the pit. He had to stand on the dead bodies, there
was no where else to be. They crunched and broke under his
weight, they were like old worm-eaten wood, dessicated and
brittle. The rope was wrapped around Hermann and we hauled him
Hermann seemed much better once he was up with us, not sure if
his leg was really broken or not. Mostly he'd been scared.
Imagine his experience: falling in the dark, getting hurt --he
might have been unconscious a while, because he didn't answer
when we called at first-- and then feeling around, blind in the
darkness: finding skeletons, finger bones, jaws, lying
helplessly tangled in corpses, alone, not knowing if he could
ever come out of there or not. Yes, he was glad to see us.
The Japanese students were really excited-- hey, we all were.
Toru said, "They want a mummy." So we lowered them down into
the hole, where they began to rummage around in the mummy pile,
looking for one best example.
Most of the mummies were pretty ruined, heads or legs missing,
all so frail and delicate that they crumbled apart easily. The
students were pretty disrespectful, I guess, tossing dead bodies
aside when they found a better one. Finally they settled for a
specimen that was almost intact, missing both feet but otherwise
perfect from the knees up.
We carried the wounded Hermann and the dead mummy out into the
sunlight. The Japanese guys looked around carefully for any
locals, because they knew that it was against the law to take any
ancient artifacts out of Egypt. There were some, but nobody near
We got a good look at the mummy: its body was still partially
wrapped mummy-style, but head exposed, revealing the sunken face
of a tiny man, of indeterminate age at death. It wasn't
especially disgusting, nothing wet or smelly about something so
long dead and dessicated, more like a paper-mache mannequin than
a human corpse. It weighed very little, and we had to be
careful not to crumble pieces off. Other than the missing feet
it was a pretty good example of the species.
The Japanese guys were ecstatic-- they had to get it back to the
University of Tokyo. I couldn't understand them, but later Toru
said they were already trying to figure out how they could
smuggle it out of Egypt. It would be too expensive to go by
Suddenly we saw a few Arabs approaching us, waving those silly
clay statuettes for us to buy. We waved them off before they got
too close, we didn't want them to see the mummy, of course.
Looking around, we saw others walking past. Suddenly we seemed
to be in a very busy part of town. We couldn't count on getting
to the Land Cruiser unobserved.
So we ended up walking as a tight group, more a shuffling cluster,
bearing Hermann between two men, and holding the mummy as if he
was walking with us. Pretty comical really.
Hermann couldn't walk or bicycle. his leg was just sprained but
we didn't know that yet, so we loaded him into the Land Cruiser
and Toru and Steffi went with the Japanese students to drive
Hermann to the hospital. The rest of us bicycled back to cross
the Nile to Luxor.
That was the last we saw of the mummy. I wonder if those guys
got it back to Japan, or got caught trying to smuggle an ancient
relic out of Egypt, which was really pretty illegal. Or maybe
they decided to go through proper channels with Tokyo U as their
sponsor, I hope. Anyway, perhaps if you go visit the Department
of Archeology in the University of Tokyo and you see a mummy
with no feet, that's probably our guy.