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A Pilgrimage to a Tomb
During research into back numbers of “The Illustrated London News”, I discovered by some lucky chance, on page 397 of the issue of April 25, 1874, a small article and a drawing of the tomb of the famous explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
During my next journey to Egypt, my foremost desire was to trace Burckhardt’s tomb. Having the accurate drawing from the “Illustrated London News” at my disposal, I considered this the perfect means, above all confusion of tongues, to try my luck at last. And on that memorable day, Wednesday 25, January 1984, after returning from the south, I went forth in the company of my Egyptian friend, Desouky Fahmy, to the Mohammedan cemetery near one of the old town gates of Cairo, the Bab el-Nasr. My friend was rather sceptical, and his expectations of finding the tomb, with nothing more than a 120 year-old drawing in hand, were definitely smaller than mine. Nevertheless, I could not be talked out of it. Right in front of Bab el-Nasr’s gate, we were halted for a while by a funeral procession, one of many we were to see that morning. Immediately afterwards, with the drawing firmly in my hand, I accosted everyone I met. The first victims were two women, dressed all in black, who lived in the neighbourhood. The two women carefully studied our drawing, listened with attention, and then said they knew nothing about the grave. But pointed out a man who passing by, the grave-digger, who was born and bred here, and who certainly would be able to help us. That man at once dashed all our hopes by telling us about road-works between Bab el-Foutouh and Bad el-Nasr some years ago, when dozen of tombs had been cleared away. Only the tombs of a few holy men had been relocated a bit further on in the cemetery grounds. All other graves had disappeared for good. Though he examined the tomb of Sheikh Ibrahim on the drawing, he could not place it anywhere. It was probably among the vanished ones. He was sure to know, for he knew every nook and cranny of the burial place. While wandering about, I suddenly began to see a light. Taking a good look at the drawing once more, I saw a mountain range outlined on the background. If mountains really figured in the background of the tomb, it could not have been located near or on that widened road, but would have to be much further into the cemetery. On the other hand, one could argue that the mountains had been artificially added by the artist to serve as a more decorative background. In spite of this possibility, I refused to lose courage so soon. After meditating a while, the grave-digger took us to someone else who would probably be more useful. He introduced us to Mohamed Ali Amin. Once again, I explained the whole story with the drawing in hand, as if it were the key to the grave. Yes indeed, he knew that tomb! He even knew a story about it, and he told us about Sheikh Ibrahim’s son. I hesitated. Burckhardt had never been married, and no source mentioned any son! But I decided to listen anyway, one never knew. And Mohamed Ali Amin began: Once upon a time, many years ago, a young man came to that part of the cemetery where the poor are buried. He went to the local caretaker and said: I have come to erect a stone on my father’s tomb. Fine, the caretaker replied, this is indeed a noble gesture on your part for your late father. But where is his grave? In this area, where the poor are buried without epitaph and the tombs remain nameless, you will never find it. We will find it, said the son. My dead father appeared to me in a dream and told me he had shown the way to his grave with white pebbles. Both men actually found the white pebbles, which thus led them to the tomb. While telling his story with conviction, in accordance with Arab tradition Mohamed Ali Amin picked up some pebbles and threw them one after another behind his back, as if to illustrate his words.
In the meantime we had walked quite a way between the graves, and our guide stopped at a small hut. That’s it, he said. And suddenly it all became clear to me. If the tomb really lay hidden behind that door, nobody would ever recognize my drawing of course. This hut had probably been added much later, out of respect for the grave, which was not exceptional. Mohamed Ali Amin shouted something to someone who was digging a hole a bit further. After a while, this man reappeared with a bunch of keys.
A minute later, the door was flung open………..a sunbeam illuminated the white
headstone with the beautifully elegant Arab characters. With a large gesture, Mohammed Ali Amin pointed at the stone and said: This is the grave you came for from so far. My happiness was complete. Moved, I walked a few times around the monument, touched it, and little by little regained my composure so I could start taking pictures. Thanks to the hut, the tomb is still fully intact, completely in marble. Everything corresponded with the text and the drawing on the Illustrated London News of 1874. Only a tick layer of sand was covering it.
In 1990 there was a “Sheikh Ibrahim” exhibition in the Ghouri Palace, with a opening on 20 February. I visited the tomb once more. The hut above the tomb was freshly paint, also the tombs in the close neighbourhood. The hut received a marble tablet, mentioned that Shykh Ibrahim (Johann Ludwig Burckhardt) was buried here. Now you just ask for the tomb and somebody conduct you to the right place. .
Graffiti by Johan Ludwig Burckhardt
MSS. 56319 625 c Notebooks. Warren Dawson, Notebook 83. Names carved on the rock of Abou Sir, near the second cataract from J. A. St John, Egypt and Mohammet Ali 1834, I, p. 499. The following name not recorded by St John, also occur: Burckhardt.
Giovanni D’Athanasi (Yanni), A Brief Account ot the Researches and Discoveries in Upper Egypt made under the Direction of Henry Salt, Esq. London MDCCCXXVI, p. 42,
In the course of our journey we arrived at an Egyptian temple called Semnis, a very small but highly interesting structure: on it we found written the name of John Burckhardt, which we had not found written upon any other edifice either in Egypt of Nubia beyond the second cataract. A sight of this name we gained courage a little, on reflecting that that individual, being quite alone, had dared, without meeting any disaster, to plunge himself into these difficult localities. Here we remained a short time to take drawings of all that was interesting, and then continued our journey.
notwithstanding this discouraging circumstance, however, we did not omit to visit the temple of Amara, where we found written the name of Shekh Ibrahim, (Burckhardt): At the present day there remain of this temple only a few ruins of columns and walls.
Moyle Sherer, Scenes and Impressions in Egypt and in Italy, London 1824, p. 109, Valley of the Kings 1822.
In one there were many inscriptions in Greek and Latin characters, principally names, also those of English, French, and German travellers, I stood long before one of them; it was written in a small neat hand in pencil, and ran thus:
“Ibrahim – post reditum suum a limitibus
Lamented Burckhardt! Long will it be ere traveller like thee be found. How little a man feels himself as he thinks on a life passed like that of Burckhardt, in patient toil, and self-denial, in study without remission, and in the sad and cheerless path of lone and solitary enterprise.
Erik Hornung, Zwei remessidische Köningsgräber: Ramses IV und Ramses VII, Mainz am Rhein 1990, X zu dem Graffiti p. 137 Moderne besucherinschriften Ramses IV. (Scheich) Ibrahim ( Febr. 1813). Johan Ludwig Burckhardt, kurz vor seiner entdeckung des temples von Abu Simbel (23.3.1813).
Ricardo A. Caminos, The Shrines and Rock-Inscriptions of Ibrim. London 1968,
Introduction. P. 9, note 7, cf. St. John, Egypt and Mohammed Ali. I 444 n.
In January 1833 a small group of British travellers saw in the fortress a graffito giving Burckhardt’s name and the date 1813. (name and date were still there in 1961).
Roger O. De Keersmaecker
The above article was first published without photographs and the graffiti information in:
No 11 – April 2001, p. 18-19
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