The Risks of the Field

Various projects prevent me from taking the time to publish anything more elaborate at the moment, but on Saturday I found an episode so startling that I can’t resist presenting it as is.

Portrait d'Auguste Mariette
Portrait of Auguste Mariette, 1862 (picture: Gallica)
Credits: Société de géographie/Bibliothèque nationale de France

This is a letter from Auguste Mariette’s personnel file in the National Museums collection1. It was written during the famous mission to Egypt during which he uncovered the underground passages of the Serapeum (1850-1853), and is addressed to an unnamed recipient. This person undoubtedly belongs to the Beaux-Arts administration, since Mariette discusses with him the question of his funds and the mission he entrusted to him. He may be the Count of Nieuwerkerke, Director General of the Imperial Museums and Intendant of the Fine Arts of the Emperor’s Household, to whom Mariette sent letters preserved with the one that interests us, but it could more simply be Emmanuel de Rougé, curator of the Egyptian department since 1849, or even Adrien de Longpérier, curator of antiques at the Louvre, who had previously supervised Mariette’s installation of the great Egyptian sculptures in the Henri-IV gallery.

Mariette was then in a delicate position: settled in Saqqara (he dates his letters “from Abusyr desert”), he devoted himself to the protection of the site he had discovered for the benefit of the Louvre, and found himself prey to countless difficulties: uncertainty about the legal status of his discoveries, which he intended to reserve for France, covetousness of amateur excavators in the region, vexations of Egyptian and Ottoman officials, incapacitating ophthalmia, etc.2 Having detailed his manoeuvres to get the crates of antiquities on board under the nose of the customs officers3, he adds an original episode dated 29 August 1853. 

But let’s give him the floor4:

It is my custom every evening to mount my horse and ride across the desert to the edge of the cultivated land. Yesterday evening I was riding philosophically among the mounds of sand heaped up by the ancient excavations of the Arabs, when 50 paces to my left a rifle shot burst out.

I had other thoughts in mind, and although I heard the bullet or the pellets whistling through the air, I only paid attention to the shot to point out to myself how little fun a boar or hyena hunter must have in that dark night. However, still walking, I began to think that no fellah is armed, that no Muslim would dare to hunt at night, and moreover that it was the first time in my life that I had seen an Arab venture alone in the darkness among the tombs5. I was at this point in my reflections, and I was beginning to worry and wonder, when suddenly, ten paces ahead of me, I saw a crouching Arab suddenly stand up, aim at me and fire. It was definitely an assassination attempt.

The lightning which lit up the night, the detonation, and the very singular cries with which the man followed his shot, frightened my horse, who reared up, turned on himself, and, taking his momentum in the Turkish manner, rushed forward like a whirlwind.

The Arab was still shouting, but I was no longer in control of my horse, which had the bit in its teeth. He only stopped at the village of Sakkarah itself.

Such, Sir, is the inconceivable attack which, as you can see, almost cost me dearly. What the aim was, who the perpetrators were, I cannot say. What I can say is that they are not fellahs: fellahs are liars and thieves, but their lack of intelligence does not lead them to wait for someone on the corner of a street to kill him, and besides they never use a gun. Are they Bedouins of the desert who, seeing a European alone, unarmed, on a horse, and supposing that, as a gold seeker, this European must have plenty of gold in his pockets, said to themselves: ‘Let us kill him to get his horse and his gold.’ — The thing is possible because it is in the customs of these people. But the cries of the man who fired the second shot are not the cries of Bedouins. I would rather believe that these two gentlemen are two of those Arnauts6 whose indiscipline is proverbial, and indeed I remember perfectly well having heard, in the fantasias and in the midst of the exercises of the jirid7, the Arnauts uttering those strange cries of which I still have my ears full.

Tableau représentant un Arnaoute.
Gérôme, An Arnaut in Cairo, s.d. (Image : Wikimedia Commons)

Anyway, that is where I am and you can see that it is not very pleasant.

On the very evening of the event, I was visited by the principal secretary of the Mudir (Governor of the province) who was in Sakkarah on an inspection tour. He behaved very well. He spent his night searching the mountains and this morning he had two individuals arrested, whom the village rumour has designated as the perpetrators of the attempt. The first is a Turk who had been established as a barber in Sakkarah for about a year, and the second is a fat ugly Arnaut intoxicated with hashish and no less fanatical against Christians. Both defendants are of course denying.

As for me, I confess that I am completely indifferent to this matter. I would be willing enough to make an official complaint to the divan8. But what good will that do me? It is obvious that the Egyptian government will have very affectionate eyes for the arnaut, who is part of a very respected corps here, and especially for the Turk — who is a Turk. It is then the poor Sheikhs-el-belled9 who will pay for the culprits not having been declared found – (it is the law that wants it that way) and then how do you want me to expose myself to having these poor devils hanged without cause? So I don’t move, and if the Egyptian court asks for my testimony – which is doubtful – I will give it and that’s all.

Moreover everything will depend on how the Mudir takes the case.

31 August 1853

I learned yesterday morning that the secretary of the Mudir had found my two suspects innocent and released them – and that on his way out, one of the two defendants had said he would do it again.

I had obeyed patience until then; I confess that I lost it then.

So I mounted my horse and went to the village with the intention of seeing the Arnaut and the Turk myself and talking to them a little in my own way.

I entered the village on foot. I had a pair of large pistols on my belt and carried a Vincennes rifle on my shoulder, the sabre gleaming at the end, – a true insurrectionist look.

The arnaut was not there. But I saw a Turk sitting on a stone bench in the middle of a street, amid a large company, and next to a certain yellow-turbaned pilgrim who once accused me of giving his house the evil eye, and of causing his donkey and camel to die by means of this evil eye, so that, sacred as he is, he may well have been involved in my affair.

My head was heated up. I approached the group and, lowering my Vincennes rifle militarily, rang the weapon on the pavement. Then I address my individual in these terms: ‘son of a Jew, are you called Aessek the barber?’ – He answers me: ‘yes’ – and at the same time he stands up pale and respectful, but with dignity. The women begin to shout and, uncovering their faces, they flood them with dust, for it is obvious to me that these people feared that I was going to take justice into my own hands and execute the poor devil on the spot. I simply ordered him to follow me, him and the yellow turban, and we set off for my house, followed by the whole village.

Photograph of Mariette's house at Saqqara
Photograph of Mariette’s house at Saqqara
Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine, Beaux-Arts collection, box D 72-73, picture E 219 = Brugsch 511

When we arrived at my house, I put my two pistols on a table and my rifle in a corner, and started talking. I don’t know what I told them. All my Arabic went into it. I only remember that at the end, after having let them know that in eight days they would both be off to the Fazaglu if I wanted to, I seized a pistol in each hand, and putting it to their noses in such a way as to make them feel the coldness of the iron, I added: ‘You pimps, if I ever see any of you again in the mountains, by day or by night, you will not have time to take a step forward that I will have you killed like two dogs.’ –

I was angry and my people were scared. Everyone in the room was silent. So I suddenly decided to end it with a scene in the local fashion.

Facing the Turk, I said to him: ‘do you see that door over there with a crossbar in the middle? take this midjidi (Turkish coin of five francs) and go and put it on the door where the crossbar is.’ – The Turk obeys. I add: ‘now look, clumsy as you are!’ – I take a pistol, aim, and hit within two inches of the room. I take the second pistol and this time the bullet forces the silver coin through the board on which it was resting. –

The Turk was pale. He understood that, if anything, he was very lucky not to be missed, and taking my hand in his, he brought it successively to his lips and forehead. The assembly shouted ‘Allah!’ It was the submission of the defeated, I had coffee brought in and all was said.

As for me, when I was alone, I don’t know what I felt, but I began to cry like a child. Alas! Sir, why did God make men so bad, when it was even easier for him to make them good?

But I am wrong and these very personal details cannot interest you. Shall I tear up this letter and start again? Shall I hide this adventure from you absolutely, as I have hidden so many others from you, because it is a scientific mission that you have given me, and not a knight errant mission? I will not tear it up. On the contrary, you will know from these details in what environment I live and all that I suffer, Sir, in order to better deserve your benevolence and your protection for my poor little family which, for three years, has suffered greatly from my absence. The scoundrels of the Turks! Do you know that I will keep my word and that the first one I catch in the mountains with a rifle and equivocal intentions, I will kill him like a wolf.


This is one of the many adventures of the Serapeum excavations, which Mariette so loved to tell later to his visitors, and which he admitted to embellish often. This is how a certain number of more or less plausible, but always colourful, episodes circulated about this crucial period of his work. This anecdote, if it reveals nonetheless the taste that the future author of the plot of Aïda had for staging himself (the suggestive “as I have hidden so many others from you” is eloquent), has the merit of dating from the time of the events themselves. If some licenses are not to be excluded, this short account is nevertheless full of details that Mariette experienced during his eventful excavation; it reveals well the emotionality, and undoubtedly the state of nervous exhaustion, in which this tender-hearted pirate found himself at the time, after three years of excavation, isolation and doubts.10


This post was translated into English from the French original Les risques du terrain, 18 September 2019.

  1. Archives nationales, 20150497/118, file 145. []
  2. For the context of this mission, the difficulties encountered by Mariette and more generally her career, see his reference biography, which quotes extensively from contemporary texts: David, Élisabeth, Mariette Pacha. 1821-1881, Paris, Pygmalion, 1994. []
  3. “One bravely passes by and lets the customs officers shout, or one turns the difficulty around by paying them what they call a coffee.” []
  4. Punctuation and capitalization have been retained. []
  5. The Saqqarah plateau and its necropolises emerging from the desert. []
  6. Albanian soldiers. []
  7. Turkish equestrian game. []
  8. The administration of the Viceroy of Egypt, an Ottoman province. []
  9. village chiefs. []
  10. David, Élisabeth, op. cit., p. 72-75; Maspero, Gaston (ed.), Auguste Mariette. Œuvres diverses 1 (BibÉgy 18), Paris, Ernest Leroux, 1904, “Notice biographique”, p. XXXVIII. []

Thomas Lebée

Chargé de travaux dirigés (École du Louvre) ; documentaliste scientifique au département des antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines (musée du Louvre)

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