Curse of the Buried Pearl: Ancient Magick and the Many Hazards of Treasure Hunting – Part II
No English translation exists of The Buried Pearl, although it is a rather strange fact that in 1901, the French archaeological mission in Cairo made a regular French edition. Strange, because its introduction explains that it was published in order to discourage tomb robbery, a widespread problem in Egypt, as indeed it still is! Neither was this a new problem; ancient Egyptian papyri survive which tell of the 20th dynasty (circa 1187 to 1064 BC) and its great tomb robberies. It wasn’t new, even then.
The 1901 publication of The Buried Pearl inevitably encouraged others to have a go. The intention really was to say, “everybody knows all this now, all the treasure has long gone”. Even archaeologists, who claimed to have transcended their own earlier tomb raiding activities, continued to examine these treasure hunting texts as fertile source for new discoveries.
A Search Inspired by God
The Buried Pearl begins with the Sura al Fatiha, the first line of the Koran: “In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful”. This is followed by one terse statement that the search for these treasures is inspired by God. It could be that part of the original message has gone missing or this was the only justification offered or thought necessary. Essentially this implies that treasure hunting can be motivated by a desire to prove the truth of the holy Koran. The enrichment of the treasure hunters being incidental and to be fair, there is nothing morally wrong with the desire for property and material well-being—that is human nature after all.
There are two passages in the Koran that treasure hunters would no doubt evoke in their quest. K.10.88 “'Lord' said Moses, 'You have bestowed on Pharaoh and his nobles splendor and riches in this life, so that they may stray from your path. Lord destroy their riches . . .” and K.26: 58: “We make them leave their gardens and their fountains, their treasures and their sumptuous dwellings.”
11th-century Koran in the British Museum. Representative image. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ignoring the slightly awkward notion in the first of these passages, that accumulation of riches caused the Pharaohs to stray from the true path. The main point is that Holy Scriptures tells us ancient people buried their treasure in the ground; the finding of this will therefore verify the truth of the Koran and is therefore, to some extent, a pious act. Ironic, when one considers the current vogue for destruction of ancient antiquities by terrorist groups, this text illustrates the possible philosophical utility to Muslims, in studying ancient remains.
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Before giving a short example the reader should know that much of the ideology and magick of Islamic texts have ancient antecedents in the pre-Islamic Egyptian culture. For example, the use of special signs known as “charakteres” was a feature of Late Egyptian magic. Modern magicians have re-learned the same techniques, which is known as the construction of an “alphabet of desire” or a vernacular, emotional language. In the book Phi-Neter-Power of the Egyptian Gods I describe the evolution of Egyptian Hieroglyphs into this widespread use, the equivalent of modern “emoticons”. In a nutshell it happened as native speakers of the Egyptian language disappeared. Their mother tongue may have been forgotten but not the power of the old signs.
Islamic stamped amulet, 19th-century India. Executed on a very thin white paper, the amulet comprises a number of magic squares, Qur'anic verses, and divine or holy names all intended to bring good luck or provide protection to its owner. (Public Domain)
Here is one of the entries from The Buried Pearl, headed: 207. Cave of the Great Geni at Helwan.
Helwan, located near modern Cairo, is still yielding its archaeological treasures.
One is advised to leave the city via its east gate then head due south in search of the cave, which is in a wadi known as Umm-it-Qora. This could be Wadi al Garawi or Qarawi, which leads across the white desert to the Red Sea. According to The Buried Pearl, it was through it that the Israelites made their way to the east. The treasure hunter is to seek a tomb entrance high up on the cliff. One in particular is distinguished by two distinctive stone pillars, one rectangular and the other cylindrical. Steps in the rock lead up to this tomb. Before entering, the seeker must do some magick, making fumigations with frankincense, sandalwood, styrax and carob seeds whilst reciting the following incantations:
"Tanish, Karhatial, Akfahitha, Tafhout !, Aketkountha, Ahia, Shaqatqir, Ahirqal, Tafhout,
Hear me, O wise giant by the power of these names. Get thee hence by the power of these powerful names.”
Analyzing the background to these names is best done in another place. But this is familiar material for the historian of magick and indeed, no doubt, the practitioner.
How to Find Treasure, According to The Buried Pearl
As in the Tales of Sinbad, the correct words cause a hidden door to open.
Sinbad enters the Valley of the Diamonds. (Public Domain)
The recommendations follow: the tomb raider, no doubt armed with a portable censer, must keep the fumigations going more or less continually as there are dangers ahead, the model for many a later tomb raider fantasy. There is a fountain, presumably now dry, but with a statue whose hands contain the treasure of King Askar. Who King Askar might be is a moot point here. But one must be beware. for the whole is a trap that must be ignored. Instead one looks for another tunnel that can only been seen after doubling back. From it a whole lower basement comes into view—the location of the treasure.
First, more fumigations, including Opopanax, a perfume made from the flowers of the Acacia, a tree with long associations with the god Osiris and tombs. Words of power are to be repeated seven times; so it must be close. Now an encounter with a bricked up doorway which must first be demolished to reveal a hatch. It can be lifted but then one must wait until the emanations have dissipated before entering. This is good advice and still followed whenever an Egyptian tomb is opened. But inside is yet another arched door said to be like one in a convent. An undisturbed niche conceals the Cave of the Wise woman, the work of the wise Marish, presumably the tomb’s architect. It sounds like those Ka or “false doors” common in Egyptian tombs. It must be widened to allow entry; but there are yet more hazards to overcome, until one finds the keys to the door and as well as the alchemical(?) vessels of the wise Marish.
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Therefore, one must elevate the name of Mari Girgis (Saint George) according to the talismans and chemical compositions of high-master Eliad Siliaslous. Only then can one turn the key and swing the open the heavy enameled iron doors behind which is a staircase with tomb paintings said to inspire awe in all who see them. This part of the description matches some Pharaonic tombs widely reused by Coptic Christians as monasteries and convents of which many such examples still exist. Magick was used by the Copts to prepare pre-existing Egyptian monuments for this kind of reuse.
The dark passageways of catacombs. Representative image. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Continuing with the fumigations, now with rather exotic ingredients: the hoofs of a gazelle inside crocodile skin. Both are “typhonian” animals in this tradition, so the hazard must be increasing. One descends unmolested, where there is a gallery ( liwan) with the queen’s mummy laid out. The author of The Buried Pearl, beseeches the reader, by the legitimate religion, to respect this princess, because she was one of the great figures of the Christian religion. Could she be St Demiana, her story only known from Arabic sources? she was martyred in reign of Diocletian, and is the founder of Egyptian “coenobitic” monasticism.
In the gallery it is written that one will find silver. But whatever one does one must not fall asleep. Instead the fumigation is to be intensified with valuable lignum aloes and rose water whilst repeating yet more words of power, on pain of being trapped, ending “… Asperge me and my companions by the power of the father. Son and Holy Spirit, One God. Amen'.”
The Hermit Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. (Public Domain)
If the journey thus far was risky, what follows to the realm of gold is even more so. Again doubling back into another tunnel; like the Hermit in the Tarot, one holds a bright light before one and follows the tunnel until you see these magical signs:
Magical sigils. (Courtesy Chris Morgan)
This is yet another double blind; it’s the unmarked tunnel nearby one needs to follow. In it you find coffins and leather bags, but again they full of silver. The gold is even deeper in the complex, hidden behind a well of mercury; the alchemical and allegorical elements in this text are beginning to become obvious. If not for the entirety of the book, one might easily think this is actually a spiritual adventure, which of course it is.
Now one must turn seven times until the mercury disappears and the bottom of a basin comes into view. There is yet another staircase hidden beneath a marble slab edged with lead. Note no iron at this depth in the tomb, so perhaps the original pharaonic level has been reached. The walls are adorned with every kind of representations but stone two lions, images of the goddess Sekhmet, block further progress. Though made of stone they can still move. Luckily they are held back by gold chains, which prevent them attacking and killing you.
More magic is needed to rid them of their power; fumigations with white frankincense and sandalwood, Vines and, woodsorrel. Talismans made from a mummified crocodile, well known for its protective power, are placed to counteract the magick of the lion statues.
Mummified crocodiles, Aswan. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The tomb-raider can now enter unmolested a room containing twelve gold heaps in each gallery and yet another gallery with a door giving access to a room that contains the riches of the pharaoh of Egypt. The number twelve is again heavy with symbolism. Even more tempting is a golden column in the center. But the Buried Pearl entreats the reader, by the god of love, not the get too close, nor set foot near it, because it is poisoned.
Abutting it and all around are piles of Roman loot, left there by the emperor Ardan, King of Qes. If you must have this too, then can be done by slipping special hoofs over your shoes, i.e. disguising your human nature. There is a tent, like those said to house the holy of holies, but otherwise everything is like that in the room of lions. Ominously, the floor is littered with the shriveled corpses of previous, unwary seekers; just like those, who in the Bible, approached too closely to the Ark of the Covenant.
Everything is fine until the time comes to leave with the treasure. The jealous occupant of the tomb will cry out. One must be ready with a special talisman bearing these sigils:
Magic sigils. (Courtesy Chris Morgan)
More fumigations need to be made together with words “Abra Tontghini, etc., Be at peace and be appeased by the power of these words. So be it.”
The dead King falls silent. You can leave with what you have, replacing the column as it was. But as ever, the magical forces in the tomb may still pursue you, as they did in many a similar ancient text from pharaonic Egypt. But for now you escape unharmed, burning your most valuable and special incenses, benzoin, agalloche Qimari, and crude amber. But even after this adventure, the constant risk of discovery and even betrayal by your companions may be your death.
Ancient Peril of Tombs
This fascinating account, no doubt in part allegorical, ttherththere is no doubt contained many authentic techniques and beliefs of the magical practice in Early Modern Egypt. It also clearly demonstrates that the idea of a tomb curse was not the invention of 1920’s journalists keen to sell papers, although that also happened. The tradition of a peril connected with tombs is a belief still widely held in Egypt and one that has a surprisingly long history.
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Tomb and antiquities robbery, some of it on an industrial scale, is rarely out of the news these days. The above essay is by no means meant as an acceptance of the activity. It is obvious that our sensibilities have changed. Even so, the quest for treasure is a very human activity, only now seen as a moral failing. Concerning the traditions of the Middle East, what I say might serve as a justification for archaeology as an activity, and the preferred means of establishing the truth of our sacred scripture. Archaeology and history is to be preferred to tomb raiding and treasure hunting as methods to find our buried past. In Magick, treasure hunting could be viewed now as a metaphor, as an imaginative quest for the underlying secrets of reality.
Chris Morgan is a respected independent scholar, former Wellcome student, and holder of an advanced degree in Oriental Studies from University of Oxford. He is the author of several books on Egypt, specializing in folk religion, ritual calendars and the “archaeological memory” encoded in the religions of post pharaonic Egypt. His latest book is “Isis: Goddess of Egypt & India.”
By Chris Morgan