What follows is the full story of Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, the boy who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Most people have never heard of him, but he was the unlikely star of the recent Saatchi exhibition of Tutankhamun’s tomb treasure.
The story most of us have heard does not mention Hussein at all.
The story most of us have heard focusses on Howard Carter, who spent five years digging in the Valley of the Kings, convinced that something important was there for the finding. The story has the happiest of endings: Howard Carter peering into the tomb through a small opening, holding a flickering candle. ‘Can you see anything?’ asks his friend Lord Carnarvon. ‘Yes,’ replies Carter. ‘Wonderful things!’
Wonderful was no exaggeration. Everywhere Carter looked, he saw gold, rubies, lapis lazuli, carnelian and yet more gold. No wonder that wherever Tutankhamun’s treasure is exhibited around the world, excited throngs queue to get a glimpse.
Who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb? Most quiz contestants would reply without hesitation: Howard Carter. After all, we have his own diary as evidence. The entry for 4 November 1922 states:
‘At about 10am I discovered beneath almost the first hut attacked the first traces of the entrance of the tomb.’
“I discovered” seems crystal clear, but in 1923 Carter published a fuller account:
‘Hardly had I arrived at work next morning (November 4th) than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of work, made me realize that something out of the ordinary had happened, and I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered underneath the very first hut to be attacked.’
“I discovered” is now “had been discovered”. Howard Carter, it turns out, was absent from the excavation site at the crucial moment. He was either asleep, eating his breakfast, or on his way to work.
In one sense, the tomb was still Carter’s discovery. It was he who pioneered the expedition to find the tomb and persuaded Lord Carnarvon to fund him. It was he who hired a hundred Egyptian workers, equipped them with spades and pick-axes, and told them where to dig. If it were not for Carter, the final resting place of King Tut might still be hidden today. Nevertheless, we can’t help asking ourselves which workman wielded the pickaxe which struck the uppermost step of the tomb.
The probable answer is, it was not a pickaxe nor even a spade that struck the step, and the workman was actually a twelve-year-old boy. Read on to meet Hussein Abdel-Rassoul and to unearth a fascinating Egyptian side to the story we all thought we knew.
Hussein Abdel-Rassoul was born in 1910, when Egypt was under British rule. His parents lived in Nag al-Rasayla, one of several hamlets in the Theban foothills that made up the village of Qurna. Wood was scarce in that region, so houses and furniture were all made of mud. Hussein and his parents lived in a mud-brick house with pastel-painted exterior walls and fine, arched doorways. The family kept cows, pigeons and a donkey.
During the rainy season, the people of Qurna (known as Qurnawi) farmed wheat and sugar-cane on the west bank of the Nile. During the dry season, they worked for foreign archaeologists like Howard Carter. The lucky ones got jobs as guards, guides or cooks, while the rest did backbreaking excavation work. Between 1917 and 1922, Qurnawi labourers shifted thousands of tons of earth in the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. Many of Hussein’s friends worked as ‘basket boys’, ferrying earth away from the excavation site to a convenient dumping ground. Some of these lads were as young as five years old.
Hussein himself was a water boy. Several times a day he brought earthenware jars of water to the excavation site and set them up near the workers. Digging was thirsty work and the men relied on Hussein to keep them going.
According to the Islamic calendar, Hussein’s amazing discovery happened on the fourteenth day of Rabi’ al-awwal, 1341. The twelve-year-old boy arrived at the site with his donkey, lugged his water jar to the row of Ramessean huts and kicked the heel of his right foot into the ground, creating a shallow dip in which to stand the jar.
At that moment, Hussein’s heel struck something unexpected. Just beneath the shallow layer of sand and limestone chippings was a block of smooth stone. A step!
Hussein had lived in those hills all his life, surrounded by ancient tombs with steps like these. He must have realized that he had found something important.
That day and the next, Hussein watched agog as the workers excavated step after step, down into the ground. By sunset the following day, they had uncovered twelve steps and revealed the top of a sealed doorway. When Howard Carter examined the doorway, he noticed a stamp depicting the god Anubis and nine bound captives. This seal was only used by Royal Necropolis guards. It indicated that the tomb belonged to someone of high standing.
The Egyptian workers covered up the doorway to protect the tomb until Lord Carnarvon arrived from England. For the following two and a half weeks, they continued to demolish the ancient stone huts and Hussein continued to supply them with water.
When Lord Carnarvon finally arrived, the workers dug up the staircase again. This time they excavated all the way down to the sixteenth and final step, revealing more seals on the doorway in front of them. Howard Carter hurried to examine them. How his heart must have leapt as he recognized the hieroglyphs in the oval at the top: a basket (NEB), a beetle (KHEPER), three lines (U) and a sun (RE).
NEB-KHEPERU-RE (Lord of Manifestations Re) was the throne name of Tutankhamun himself, and this must be his tomb.
The humble water boy had struck gold!
If you spend time exploring the Valley of the Kings, you will soon drain the last drops of your water bottle and find yourself gasping for a cool drink. Thankfully, the Abdel-Rassouls are still in the business of watering thirsty people. Hussein’s grandchildren own Hotel Marsam, a historic rest house on the west bank of the Nile River.
Step inside the rest house and you come face to face with a whole wall of photos and newspaper articles celebrating Hussein Abdel-Rassoul. The most striking photograph on the wall is the one made famous by the ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ exhibition. It shows Hussein wearing a clean white robe, a turban and one of the most extraordinary pieces of jewellery in the world: the ‘necklace of the sun on the eastern horizon’.
Official tomb photographer Harry Burton took the photo in 1926 to demonstrate how the neckpiece would have sat on the boy-king’s shoulders. It is made of gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian, feldspar and turquoise, and depicts the sun-god Re in the form of a scarab beetle, pushing the sun across the sky. One prominent archaeologist called it the third finest treasure from Tutankhamun’s tomb, after the beaten-gold burial mask and the golden coffin.
Hundreds of travellers have left Hotel Marsam refreshed by cold drinks and stirred by astonishing yarns they have heard there. We should weigh these stories carefully to sift the possible from the preposterous. One piece of fake news from Hotel Marsam is that Howard Carter was so grateful to Hussein for finding the tomb, he gifted him the necklace of the sun on the eastern horizon as a souvenir.
Some people question whether the boy in the photo is Hussein. Zahi Hawass, organizer of the ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ exhibition, is convinced that it is, but others say that his skin tone looks wrong and that it could be one of the basket boys instead. Hussein himself, who lived to a ripe old age, always insisted that he was indeed the boy in the picture.
Hussein’s grandson Taya Abdel-Rassoul claims there is a second photo of Hussein in Harry Burton’s archive. Taken on 2nd December 1923, it shows Howard Carter and three Egyptian workers demolishing the wall between the first room of the tomb (the ‘antechamber’) and the burial chamber itself, where Tutankhamun’s golden coffin lay. A wiry boy has squeezed into a small gap near the ceiling and is helping to dislodge chunks of plaster and masonry. It certainly looks like Hussein, but even if Taya is mistaken, it is fascinating to see a young Egyptian boy so involved in this crucial moment of archaeological history.
An earlier generation of Abdel-Rassouls were famous not as water carriers or hoteliers but as tomb robbers. Set your time machine for 1871, forty years before Hussein was born. Ahmed Abdel-Rassoul and his brother Muhammed Abdel-Rassoul are out exploring with a family friend, when they find a shaft descending deep into the ground. Muhammed and the friend tie a rope around Ahmed’s waist and lower him into the darkness…
Minutes later, a bloodcurdling scream rises from the shaft and Ahmed begs to be pulled out. He claims to have found a secret passage guarded by an afrit, a malevolent genie. The next day, villagers gather at the shaft, where a ghastly stench provides proof that a powerful demon has indeed been disturbed. They flee for home, not daring to explore further.
In fact, Ahmed himself concocted the afrit story because he had made a wonderful discovery and he did not trust the friend to keep the secret. As for the smell, there was a simple explanation. Ahmed had returned to the shaft at night, before news of the tunnel genie spread, and had thrown in a rotting donkey carcass.
What had Ahmed found at the end of the secret passage? A large burial chamber full of treasure and mummies! He was astonished to see that many of the mummy cases had a uraeus (cobra) on their foreheads – the unmistakeable sign of a pharaoh.
Over the following ten years, Ahmed and Muhammed sold hundreds of royal artefacts on the black market and ended up attracting the attention of local police. In 1881 Muhammed confessed to his part in the robbery and led German archaeologist Emile Brugsch to the tomb.
Muhammed was rewarded with 500 pounds and was put in charge of excavations in the Valley of the Kings. But he and Ahmed did not stop tomb robbing. In November 1901 they entered the tomb of Amenhotep II and rifled his mummy, looking for precious amulets and jewels. By coincidence, a young Howard Carter was working for the Egyptian Antiquities Service at that time and was responsible for the investigation. He hired a tracker to follow the trail, and was not at all surprised when it led straight to Ahmed Abdel-Rassoul’s house in Nag al-Rasayla.
People love stories with obvious goodies and baddies. If we relied on the writings of twentieth century Egyptologists, we would conclude that Howard Carter was a gentleman and a scholar, and the Abdel-Rassoul brothers absolute scoundrels.
Of course, the truth is much more complicated. In 1871 Egypt was terribly poor, with many Egyptians on the brink of starvation. The wheelings and dealings of the Abdel-Rassoul brothers ensured that their whole clan survived that desperate period. Besides, the reason Qurna sprung up in the first place was not because its inhabitants were born and bred to the habit of tomb robbery but because foreigners wanted artefacts.
And what of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon? They were digging in a country that was not their own, a country not yet independent. Their excavation license entitled them to remove half of the treasure from any tomb they found and to ship it back to England, thousands of miles away. In these respects, their activities were as questionable as the nocturnal filchings of the Abdel-Rassouls all those years before.
These moral questions became even more urgent after the discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb. Did the priceless treasures belong to the Carter? To Egypt? To science? To the world?
Treasure does strange things to people. Howard Carter described in almost comical terms the first party of visitors to enter the burial chamber: ‘Each had a dazed, bewildered look in his eyes, and each in turn, as he came out, threw up his hands before him, an unconscious gesture of impotence to describe in words the wonders he had seen.’
A ceaseless parade of donkey carts trudged between Luxor and the newly-discovered tomb. Excited tourists peered down at those sixteen stone steps, holding their breath as they waited for yet another priceless treasure to emerge. Young Hussein sometimes joined them there, feeling a mixture of pride and disbelief.
Journalist Arthur Merton described the fervour: ‘Tutankhamun, though dead, still lives and reigns in Thebes and Luxor today. All the district is his court. He is paid tribute from everywhere. His name is all over the town. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels. While in the local shops, Tutankhamun advertises everything: art, hats, curios, photographs, and tomorrow probably ‘genuine’ antiques. Every hotel in Luxor has something on the menu à la Tut.’
Egyptian poets waxed lyrical about the discovery. ‘O my companions, go down to the valley,’ wrote Ahmad Shawqi. ‘Salute the remains of our Tutankhamun’s glory, a tomb that by its beauty and goodness made the stones seem to shine and the clay smell sweet.’
Confronted by the glory and riches of the young Pharaoh, most Egyptians felt sad at what Egypt had become: a poor country ruled by foreigners. Several of Shawqi’s poems about Tutankhamun had an angry edge to them. ‘Pharaoh, the time for self-rule is upon us, and the dynasty of arrogant lords has passed. Now foreign tyrants in every land must relinquish dominion over their subjects!’
Egyptians longed for independence, and in January 1924 they got it. Elections were held and political hero Saad Zaghloul became Prime Minister. Zaghloul had strong opinions on Tutankhamun’s treasure. It should stay in Egypt, he argued. After all, modern Egyptians were the direct descendants of the civilisation that produced it.
Howard Carter disagreed. He thought that European and American museums could look after the contents of the tomb much better than any Egyptian one.
Of course, the newly elected Prime Minister of Egypt got his way. The magnificent treasures of that famous Egyptian boy, discovered centuries later by a less famous Egyptian boy, remain in Egypt to this day.
In 2019 and 2020, the centenary exhibition ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ wowed crowds in Los Angeles, Paris and London. It was the biggest and most beautiful collection of tomb objects ever to travel outside of Egypt. Millions of people marvelled at the exhibits and read the accompanying information panels. Hussein Abdel-Rassoul had a panel all to himself, giving him the credit for finding the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb.