If you’re searching for gold in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, you should bring water, a spare tire, an exploration geologist, and a good map. By 10:30 a.m. we’d already made use of all four. The left rear tire of our SUV had blown out on a rough desert track, but the spare held up, and now our small convoy had successfully deposited the geologist and the map atop the rocky, sandy soil of a place called Abu Zawal.
The geologist was named Leonard Karr, and the map was a printout from Google Earth. It was covered with Karr’s handwritten annotations, which to a layman were almost as mysterious as hieroglyphs: “flat felsik dikes,” “dead fresh,” “foliated black rock.”
Karr is employed by Aton Resources Inc., a Canadian company formerly known as Alexander Nubia, which hopes to strike it rich in Egypt’s Eastern Desert, the high wasteland that separates the Nile Valley from the Red Sea. In modern corporate terms, Aton Resources is a pioneer, one of a small handful of mining companies active in Egypt. Only one firm is currently mining, but all of them are following in the tracks of pharaonic miners, inspired by one of the most remarkable documents that the ancient Egyptians left to posterity.
More than 3,000 years ago, a government official took a roll of papyrus and sketched out the features of a valley in the Eastern Desert with such detail and accuracy that the document is considered to be the earliest geologic map in history. If it weren’t for this map, it’s likely that Karr and the rest of his crew never would have ended up in Abu Zawal.
The region is desolate—it’s more than an hour’s drive to the nearest settlement—but plenty of visitors have found their way here throughout history. Within a single square mile we could see ruins that span 30 centuries: an abandoned British mill from the 1930s, a Roman-age stone fort, the remains of a Ptolemaic mining settlement, and Egyptian stone tools that date to at least the 11th century B.C., during Egypt’s New Kingdom.
“The ancient people were pretty smart,” Karr said, stooping to pick up a rock. “This iron stain is what the old-timers would vector in on. Those are iron oxides. You see that yellow, you know you have an iron sulfide. That’s a really good indication that you might have gold.” He grabbed a second stone, which was green. “That’s another color you can look for,” he said. “That’s the iron silicate minerals epidote and chlorite. Those two green minerals are part of the bull’s eye.”
A Chance Encounter, and a Revelation
Despite a history of several millennia of mining in Egypt, it took a chance encounter to get today’s industry started. During the 1960s, an Egyptian named Sami El-Raghy was trained as a geologist, but the socialist economic policies of that time precluded any investment in mining. So El-Raghy immigrated to Australia, where he built a successful career, eventually founding a company that mined gold and other resources around the world.
In 1993, while visiting family in Egypt, El-Raghy stopped in at the government’s Geological Survey and Mining Authority in Cairo. In the chairman’s office, he was struck by a decoration on the wall: a replica of the Turin papyrus map. The original document dates to around 1150 B.C., when it was prepared for a quarrying expedition that was sent by the king Ramses IV. Currently located in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, the map was excavated from a tomb in Luxor’s West Bank, and it portrays the Wadi Hammamat, a valley not far from Abu Zawal.
For El-Raghy, the map was a revelation. “I studied geology here at Alexandria University, but they never mentioned that map,” he remembered recently. “I thought, ‘We go to the middle of Africa, we go to the jungle of South America, we go to the harsh environment of northern Canada to look for minerals and gold—and here it is in Egypt!’ And nobody at all was working here.”
James Harrell, an archaeological geologist who is now retired from the University of Toledo, says that there are no known contemporary equivalents to the Turin papyrus. It’s likely that other maps were made during pharaonic times, but such documents typically were not placed in tombs, and papyrus rarely survives for millennia. Other ancient cultures didn’t seem to produce diagrams with such a level of detail. In fact, the next known geologic map appears in the historical record about 29 centuries after the Turin papyrus.
“It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that the science of geology had evolved to the point where people thought of doing a spatial representation of the geologic world,” Harrell said. In 1989, Harrell studied the Turin map closely and became the first person to confirm that it features Wadi Hammamat. He took a copy to Egypt, drove to the wadi, and hiked for 10 miles (16 kilometers) under the fierce sun. Along the way, he realized that the colors of the local rock—the sort of details that jump out at a geologist—can still be recognized on the papyrus.
“It shows a very strong sensitivity to the geology in the choice of colors for the rock, and also in the little colored spots that represent the gravel on the wadi floor,” Harrell said. “These are shown in brown and white and green, and those are actually the colors, more or less, of the actual gravel.”
The papyrus was drawn by an Egyptian scribe and government official named Amennakhte, who annotated the document in the same way that a contemporary geologist would mark up a printout from Google Earth. “It has annotations that say things like ‘hills where gold is found’ or ‘hills of gold and silver,’” Harrell said. The Turin museum contains another papyrus on which Amennakhte, with the same keen eye for geologic detail, sketched a diagram of the underground tomb of Ramses IV, in the Valley of the Kings.
“He has these diagonal lines cutting through the mountain, with dots over the diagonal lines,” Harrell said. “If you look at the actual tomb, you have these inclined limestone layers with dark nodules of chert—exactly as drawn in the tomb plan.”
Harrell says that it would be wrong to describe Amennakhte as a geologist, because there’s no indication that he approached his subject as a science. But he seems to have been a remarkable individual. “He served as a judge in civil disputes,” Harrell said. “He kept records of flood levels. He made extra money painting wooden coffins. He was multitalented—he was an artist, he was a scribe, he was an administrator. And he was an observer of the natural world.”
Ancient Miners 'Just Scratched the Surface'
Amennakhte also deserves some credit for the 17 million ounces of gold that Sami El-Raghy’s company, Centamin, has discovered thus far in Egypt. In 1993, after El-Raghy encountered the replica of the papyrus, he began to research possibilities in the Eastern Desert. He realized that the British and other 20th-century miners had mapped and explored many ancient workings, and he began visiting and testing locations. Eventually, he opened a successful mine at an ancient site called Sukari, and now Centamin has a market capitalization of nearly two billion dollars. Some of the people who worked for El-Raghy are now with Aton Resources, which is currently exploring and testing other ancient sites in the Eastern Desert.
Nobody knows how much gold was mined during pharaonic times. According to Harrell, any estimates are simply “rank speculation,” because proper archaeological work has never been carried out on the vast majority of pharaonic sites. But even a glance at the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb makes it clear that the ancients went a long way with crude technology. At Abu Zawal, I found curved rocks, shaped to fit the hand, which would have been used to grind ore during the New Kingdom, the period of Tutankhamun. Pharaonic mines were small, without bracings, and they never went deep into the Earth.
“They just scratched the surface,” Leonard Karr told me. Mark Campbell, the CEO of Aton Resources, said that the ancient combination of energetic exploration with primitive technology is perfect for modern possibilities. “Even though you had 3,000 years of mining here, it’s effectively virgin territory—but with a road map,” he said.
Ancient Sites at Risk
One issue, though, is that the Eastern Desert is also effectively virgin territory for archaeologists. In Egypt, so much work has been focused on the Nile Valley that little attention has been paid to sites in the Eastern Desert. And commercial activity, some of it illegal, has already damaged a number of sites. Harrell describes how he once tried to make successive visits to a Roman fort, only to find that the ruins had vanished by his second trip. “A big fort completely disappeared, because they wanted gravel for a railroad embankment,” he said.
In the southern city of Aswan, an Egyptologist named Adel Kelany is the supervisor of the Ancient Quarries and Mines Department in the Ministry of Antiquities. But his office, which has a permanent staff of only five, lacks even a four-wheel-drive vehicle. They also have trouble coordinating with other government bodies. Kelany says that the Egyptian Mineral Resources Authority, which is legally required to have all commercial work cleared by archaeological surveys, ignores these regulations. “The mining authorities don’t really want to do this,” Kelany said. “It’s difficult, and they don’t want more work.”
Until such regulations are enforced, Eastern Desert sites will remain highly vulnerable. Protection basically depends on the interests and sense of responsibility of the various commercial actors. At Aton Resources, Campbell says that the mining authorities haven’t required any archaeological approval for their current exploration phase, but if his company prepares to build an actual mine, it will hire archaeologists to contribute to the environmental impact study. “We don’t have any issue with that,” he said. “Understanding why these people were there, what they did, and why they left, is also useful to us.”