The Relic of Bir Hooker: The Discovery

The Relic of Bir Hooker:
Continued from: How it all started

Travelogue by Gregor Spörri (1988)
The rickety Peugeot 504 struggles through the round-the-clock traffic jam. While the mustachioed cab driver’s feet dance on the pedals, he hammers his fist incessantly on the steering wheel. Obviously, the only way to get anywhere in this chaos is to push and honk recklessly. I look over at the dashboard to find out how many ‘millions’ of kilometers the rickety car has already covered – but the speedometer and odometer don’t work and neither does the ventilation.

When we finally reach the city limits, the traffic decreases rapidly and I can breathe again. Ahmed has not hidden from me the fact that the destination is outside Cairo. However, I am surprised that we are on the desert road in the direction of Alexandria.
Instead of canyons of houses, palm groves, scrubland and sand hills now pass by the windows open all around. We overtake donkey carts and roaring trucks that blow stinking clouds of soot into the air; dodge potholes, burning piles of palm fronds and animal carcasses. Mostly they are roadkill strays like dogs or cats. But there are also donkeys among them, stretching all fours with bellies bulging with decomposition gases. Every now and then I hold my camera out of the window and shoot.

Two and a half hours later, we leave the desert road at Bir Hooker and turn onto a dirt road. The 504 bumps along the road until we reach a farmhouse surrounded by date palms and a mud brick wall. Children play in front of the gate. They come running, sticking their laughing faces inside the car. The driver presses the horn. I get out. Immediately, the children surround me with a big hello.

Bir Hooker, Wadi el Natrun, 120 kilometers from Cairo
A rather remote place for a souvenir store, I think, as the merchant approaches the gate. The Arab is half a head taller than me and wears the traditional men’s dress, the jallabija. I estimate him to be over 70 years old. His elongated sharp-edged face has something of Pharaoh Akhenaten.
The driver parks his Peugeot under the palm trees and makes himself comfortable on the back seat with the doors open all around.
Nagib, as the old man introduces himself, first scares away the crowd of children, then he leads me around the outside to the back of the house. I look for something like a salesroom, but there is nothing there except a wooden bench and a small table. Nagib asks me to take a seat and then disappears into the house. Shortly after, he returns with tea and dates. While the drink steams in the glasses, he digs a shisha out from under the bench and sits down next to me. Sucking on the pipe, he eyes me up and down, then asks in broken English, “Where are you from?”
“From Switzerland.”
“Hmmm … What do you want?”
I look at him quizzically. “I’m here for the souvenirs.”
Now it’s him who’s looking funny. “What souvenirs?”
I’m irritated. “But that Ahmed guy from the Hotel Capsis in Cairo. You know him, don’t you?”
Nagib nods. “He’s my nephew.”
“Okay, so your nephew tells me you have some very nice pieces for sale. And because I’m looking for a decorative memento for my apartment …”
“Decorative memento?” the old man interrupts me, his face contorting. Then he wants to know what I do for a living and why I came to Egypt. I ask myself what business it is of his, but then I tell him about my company and the pyramid experiments. He listens to me attentively and asks a question now and then. When I mention the rock chamber under the Cheops pyramid, he raises his eyebrows for a moment. Then nothing happens for quite a while. He smokes and looks into the distance. I sit next to him, drinking tea and chewing his dates.

Finally, Nagib puts the smoker aside. “My nephew was wrong about you. What I have to offer is definitely not what you are looking for. I will write him a note, after which the cab will take you back to town.”
I feel like the biggest idiot. The day is in the toilet. So is my mood. “Ahmed will get to hear something from me!”, I exclaim.
Nagib stands up. A young woman comes out of the house. I find out later that it is his granddaughter. The two of them palaver away. I don’t understand a word. The woman disappears back into the house and the old codger takes a seat next to me again.
Again, nothing happens for a while, then Nagib says, barely louder than a murmur, “I could show you something for a fee.”
I respond irritably, “Just now you said you had nothing for me!”
“I also just want to show it to you, not sell it.”
“And you want me to pay for it, too?”, I complain.
Then Nagib tells me he sells art treasures pulled out of ancient tombs to well-heeled collectors from around the world.
In return, I wonder how the bartender could have gotten the idea of seeing an antique collector in me. These guys usually wear fine fabrics and silk ties, while I walk around in a T-shirt, washed-out jeans and worn-out sandals. I can only think of one response to this: Ahmed listened to the conversation between Jochen and me last night and drew completely the wrong conclusions.

“He is very, very old,” I hear Nagib’s voice against my ear. “Very few people have ever seen him.”
I look at Nagib from the side. His gaze is once again directed into the distance.
“You’re interested in what the Great Pyramid is all about, aren’t you?”
I furrow my brow.
“Man is afraid of time, but time is afraid of the pyramids.”
What is he talking about?
“When you’ve seen what I’m willing to show you, you’ll see the pyramid with a whole new set of eyes.”
Is the old man pulling my leg? I ask him, “You know the true purpose of the Great Pyramid?”
“No, but I know some very old legends.”

The mud-plastered walls gleam a pale blue. Curtains instead of doors separate the rooms. Nagib leads me to a chamber in the back of his house. There is a dresser there, a blind mirror, a sofa with a dingy red blanket over it, a closet and two wooden chests. The room looks completely cluttered. The furnishings are old and worn, yet they seem far too feudal for an Egyptian country home. As the son of a period furniture maker, I think I know that it is late 19th century English furniture.

Nagib asks me to take a seat on the sofa, digs a bunch of keys out from under his dress, bends over one of the two chests and opens it. I stretch my neck, but his back blocks my view. When Nagib turns around, he is holding an oblong bundle wrapped in brown leather. He sets it down next to me on the sofa and unties the strings. Dirty white linen emerges from under the leather. Carefully, he unfolds the fabric.

With a mixture of curiosity and amazement, I look at the musty-smelling object. It has the shape of a gag, is about 30 to 40 centimeters long, six to eight centimeters thick, flattened on top and bent twice along its length. A piece of bone protrudes from the thicker end. What is it? A chopped-off goat’s leg? Is the old man trying to make fun of me? I take a closer look. The hairless, partially mold-infested brownish skin has split open in several places. The fibrous tissue underneath gives the impression that mice have gnawed on it.

I lift the creepy thing. It weighs several hundred grams. Perplexed, I turn it over and freeze at the same moment. A cold shiver runs down my spine. That’s absolutely impossible, it runs through my head. What I’m holding in my hands can’t exist at all! I force myself to take my eyes off it and look up at Nagib. He stands above me with a deadpan face. For a moment we stare at each other. His dark eyes reflect the knowledge of a monstrous secret from times long past.

I didn’t want to and couldn’t believe it, so I studied the finger more closely. Nagib noticed my distrust, reached into the chest again, carried a leather folder to the light and handed it over to me. In the folder were an old magnifying glass and an envelope with a yellowed document. A rusty paper clip fixed a kind of checklist to tick off, a hand-cut X-ray and a faded Polaroid photo of the finger. Nagib told me that he had inherited the relic from his father, who in turn had received it from his father. Where the finger originally came from, the old man could not or would not tell me. However, as to the existence of the X-ray, he explained that his deceased son had the relic examined by a friend of Klink’s doctor a long time ago.

My father was a style furniture carpenter by profession. As a boy, I was often in his workshop and knew a wide variety of materials. I knew what the different types of wood and leather, fabrics, plastic, etc. felt. So I looked at the finger very closely. The magnifying glass was a great help to me. However, I could not find anything that indicated a forgery. After about an hour Nagib told me that my visit time was over. In order to be able to photograph the relic, I had to have a generous Bakschisch jump. Unfortunately, the film in my camera was already half full. To document the enormous size of the finger, I added an Egyptian 20-pound note. At my request, Nagib also took a picture of me with his finger. He then accompanied me outside, where the taxi driver was already waiting impatiently. I asked the old man if he wanted to sell me the finger, but he vigorously refused.

During the drive from Bir Hooker back to Cairo, I thought hard. Had I missed something? According to him, the old man dealt in looted antiquities. Why not also with fakes? With imitation figurines, vessels, furniture and other objects from the Pharaonic era, there was certainly a lot of money to be made, but with something like this? Besides, a fake of this quality, with documents and an X-ray, was certainly not cheap. And then Nagib didn’t even want to sell me the thing. The longer I thought about everything, the more sure I was: The relic of Bir Hooker is not a fake!

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