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December along the upper nile river is the ideal time to dig for sabakh. The devastating summer heat is gone and the valley soil more pliable than it is in the dry season. December 1945 was particularly auspicious. World War II had ended four months before. Egypt was enjoying a welcome hiatus between the ravages of Rommel and the coming war over the new state of Israel. A rare peace had descended upon the Middle East.
But the camel drivers digging in the sloping base of a cliff near the river had a personal war to worry over. There were seven of them, including Muhammed Ali and two of his brothers. The area where they hunted the nitrate-rich fertilizer, not far from their native village, appears to the unknowing eye safe and unassuming. Located three hundred miles south of Cairo, it is a spot where the Nile flows from east to west. The small village of Nag Hammadi lies near a bend in the river just a few miles away.
It is here that a railroad track marked a borderline as menacing to Muhammed Ali and his band as the line in the sand that had separated German tanks from the forces of the Allies. South of the tracks, inside the river bend, was the territory of Ali's clan. To the north lay Hamrah Dum, the fortified village of a warring clan that had already killed Ali's father. The seven sabakh diggers were in a no-man's land between the secure embrace of their village and a region of certain death. The Hawwaris of Hamrah Dum claimed to be a noble race of Arabsdescended from the Prophet himself. One thing about them was certain: They hated Ali's people with a blood passion.
Ali's brother was the one who discovered the jar. Abu al-Majd, a lad of fifteen, was working with the older men along a level area near the talus slope that angled up toward a honeycombed cliff. Abu was picking in the soil beneath a barrel-shaped boulder when he unearthed a large reddish-hued urn. It was two feet high and had four small handles at the top. The mouth was covered by a bowl and sealed with bitumen.
Muhammed Ali immediately took charge. At first the older brother--though a seasoned man of twenty-six--was too frightened to break open the mysterious container. It was the type of vessel that might contain a jinn, an evil spirit that could appear in human or animal form and exercise supernatural powers over people. But greed eventually overcame fear. Ali reasoned that, more likely than the dark home a demon, the clay jar could be full of gold. He raised his mattock and smashed it.
Thirty years later Muhammed Ali still feared that spot. It was September 1975 when an American scholar finally caught up with the elusive villager. Ali's mattock had revealed something far more astounding than a jinn, and this tall, angular professor wanted to unravel the mystery surrounding the discovery. Though the site was within five miles of Ali's village, the Egyptian had not returned to it for three decades.
James M. Robinson was a singularly determined man with an intense demeanor and a slight Southern drawl. He had graduated with honors from the Columbia Theological Seminary around the time Ali was wielding his digging tool. Now he had found the man whose discovery had determined his academic career.
But Ali was adamant. Even after revealing a scar above his heart inflicted by a rival clan member and boasting that he would kill his assailant, Ali refused to lead Robinson back along the Nile River. Robinson tried bribery and eventually challenged the villager's courage before Ali relented.
Even then Ali's conditions were like something out of a Keystone Cops comedy. He would be dressed in American clothes and sit next to Robinson in the back of a Russian-made jeep. In case of gunfire, Robinson would serve as shield: on the way out, the scholar would sit on the side nearest Hamrah Dum, then for the ride back, Ali would switch seats with him so that Robinson would always be positioned between the Egyptian and the rival village. The day chosen was during the Islamic month of Ramadan, a period of fasting. To further ensure his safety, Ali suggested they go during the late afternoon when hunger and thirst would keep his enemies indoors. The driver was to ride past the cliffs without stopping. Ali would point out the place of discovery.
As the party drove along the rockface Ali directed them to a tomb. Robinson later returned, without the nervous camel driver, and excavated the site for five days, coming up with nothing. Another guided search would be necessary. This time Ali stepped from the car, marched forward without hesitation to the barrel-shaped boulder and began digging in the earth, proclaiming it the spot. He told of how his camel had been tethered on the south side of the boulder and recalled that all seven men had been afraid the rock would collapse on them.
Describing the scene years later, Ali admitted it was an image of gold that finally drove him to smash the jar. When the ancient ceramic shattered, it seemed for a moment that his dream was fulfilled: tiny yellow flakes filled the air. The Egyptian villager had either conjured an amber-colored jinn or struck it rich.
In fact, what he found was priceless. Muhammed Ali, an illiterate field hand who would never afterward be able to remember exactly when the event occurred, had made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. Those gilded flecks were actually tiny fragments of papyrus; Ali's treasure was a collection of thirteen books containing over fifty ancient manuscripts, many of them Christian, dating to the fourth century.
Among them was The Gospel of Thomas, a collection of over one hundred sayings of Jesus purportedly written down by the "doubting Thomas." Historians had long known about the gospel from references in the writings of early church fathers, but in almost two thousand years a complete copy had never been located. While some of the sayings could be found in the New Testament, many were unique. They portrayed Jesus as a wise man, Zen-like at times. In the years that followed, biblical scholars would claim that some of them were closer to the historical Jesus than the New Testament itself.
One person's trash, as they say, is another's treasure. Muhammed Ali was a very disappointed man. What the world called a precious historical discovery, the villager saw as pottery shards and a stack of old leather-bound scraps of papyrus. He began tearing the ancient codices apart, intent on sharing them with the other men. Perhaps fearing Ali, and considering his offer insincere, the others refused to take them. So Ali unwound his turban, spread out the headdress and stacked the books inside. Swinging the load over one shoulder, he unhobbled his camel and headed back home. There, in the room where he housed his animals and feed, Ali dumped the load.
During the next decade, as experts and government officials alike began realizing that this humble camel driver's cache was the largest collection of unknown apocryphal Christian writings ever found, antiquities dealers would offer them on the open market from Cairo to New York, and the question of access to "the Nag Hammadi library" would flare into an international struggle ultimately involving the United Nations. That night Ali's mother, in search of kindling for her outdoor clay oven, cast some of them into the fire.
Later the family tried to sell the books, hoping to pick up a few Egyptian pounds. No one was buying. They bartered a few for oranges and cigarettes. Various accounts also mention them receiving a little tea and a supply of sugar. At some point Ali learned the documents were written in Coptic, an ancient language used by Christians in Egypt.
This meant they probably belonged to the church, which could be trouble for Ali. Possession of such antiquities was a crime, and Muhammed Ali was already being watched by the authorities. In fact, the police were searching his house every night for weapons. It had been less than a year since his father, a night watchman, had killed an intruder who turned out unfortunately to be from the village of Hamrah Dum. Within hours Ali's father was murdered, shot through the head and dumped next to the body of the man he had killed. Ali's mother overcame her grief long enough to instruct her seven sons to keep their mattocks sharpened. This was the situation when Muhammed Ali unearthed the manuscripts.
About one month later the fears of the police were realized. Someone ran to the Ali home to tell them their father's murderer had fallen asleep nearby--he lay along a dirt road, a jug of sugarcane molasses by his side. James Robinson recounted the horrendous scene after interviewing Muhammed Ali: "The sons grabbed their mattocks, fell on the hapless person before he could flee, hacked him up, cut open his heart, and dividing it among them, ate it raw, the ultimate act of blood vengeance."
|PART I The Discovery||1|
|ONE Blood Feud||3|
|TWO The Frenchman in the Museum||10|
|THREE Hamrah Dum||15|
|FOUR Smuggling the Sacred||20|
|FIVE The Jesus Curse||24|
|SIX Rabies and Revolution||31|
|PART II The Gospel of Thomas||37|
|PART III A Commentary||93|
|About the Authors||106|