The Treasure Hunt

For most of, and perhaps even beyond recorded history, humans have been plumbing the depths of the earth for its hidden treasures. Mining is an art and a science almost as old as time itself, having been practiced as both a family enterprise as an extension of agriculture, and as an industrial undertaking over the centuries.

The Sinai Peninsula is known to hold many mineral reserves, including copper, manganese, sulfur, coal, iron, petroleum, and perhaps even gold if Bedouin lore is to be believed. While various imperial powers have attempted to exploit these lucrative reserves over the ages, none of these minerals is more synonymous with Sinai than Turquoise, the copper-aluminum phosphate known for it’s bright aqua-green color. 

“So where’s the turquoise?” my fellow explorer Caroline spoke up?

“Al-Maghara and Um Baghama” explained Youssuf.

“So it’s still there? We can find it? Caroline followed up. 

“In Al-Maghara, there is not that much. There is more in Um-Baghama, but the quality is less good. But maybe you can find it. I took a French man out to a cave in Al-Maghara a while back, he found a huge piece. So there is some still there”.

“Let’s go look for some!” Caroline excitedly exclaimed as she headed off down the trail to the mine. Moustafa, our other companion, was as enthusiastic as he and I followed her to the head of the pit.

Turquoise mining in Sinai began at least 3,000 years ago, with pharaoh Amenemhat III’s establishment of the first mines in an area currently known as “Al-Maghara” a short distance from the Temple of Hathor which was built to serve the miners. Turquoise was valued as a precious stone that was sacred to Hathor,  highly valued for trade, as well as the decorative arts, particularly jewelry. While Amenhemhat III’s mines at Al-Maghara have long been abandoned save for the occasional tourists, turquoise mining is far from a thing of the past in Sinai with the region around Um Baghama, which produces less radiant in color, but still high quality turquoise currently being explored and exported by a German company. 

Although we were far from Um Baghama, my company thought that we would go ahead and descend into the mines of Amenhemhat III if not to try our luck at finding Turquoise, then for the sheer thrill of the adventure. 

The mine itself was a steep rectangular pit, marked by a large hieroglyphic dedication to Amenhemhat III, praising his might and military conquests, looming over an entrance hole barely wide enough for one person to squeeze into. I went first. I crouched and held my breath as I went on all fours, into the dusty blackness of the 3,000 year old mine. The air was stale and dusty, and using my phone flashlight, I could make out a small passage into a much wider and taller chamber in which I could rise to a crouch. The scene was cavernous, hand hewn walls on all sides framing a small side tunnel leading further to the back of the chamber. As Moustafa and Caroline crawled in and our headlamp and phone lit eyes adjusted to the chamber, it was apparent that we’d likely have to go further back to have any luck of finding anything; the current room in which we were standing resembled a rubble heap left by a dilapidated building. None of us were geologists, but this certainly did not appear to be the place to find precious stones. Crawling further to the back of the mine, we got comfortable and began to look around again in the most removed chamber. As we joked and attempted to take some photos, in awe of the simple fact that we were “mining” within a 3,000 year old turquoise mine it became apparently that the lust for treasure was very real among the spirit of the group. Each tantalizing flash of a mineral—a small glimmer of a crystalline rock, the slightest hue of blue—could it be turquoise? We eagerly dug in the rocks for a bit before realizing that as Youssuf was preparing tea, we’d better not hold him up too much. We scrambled out of the turquoise mine, empty handed and dusty.

As we sat speaking to Youssuf, he asked us if we had gotten lucky. When we reported he bad news to him in greater detail, he responded “You have to look for the seam in the rocks” he grabbed a loose piece of stone laying on the ground to show us the “seam” that is, the striated tan, black, and gray colors in the rock, in which, if you’re fortunate, you’ll catch a bit of turquoise by breaking open the rock. “You have to find something like this, look for the seam and break it open, you don’t even have to go in the mine, you can find I laying around here, maybe” he followed. Newly energized by Youssuf’s word’s of encouragement, tea, and the timeless appeal of a treasure hunt, we decided to give it one more go. We headed back to the mine, as Moustafa and I descended. Caroline preferred to look around up top.

We crawled again, on all fours, into the mine’s antechamber, assumed our squatting position atop the seemingly endless heap of broken stones and rubble, and began to work through, handful by handful, the heap of stones. Anyone that remotely resembled a seam, we carefully examined, laying it aside in case we would need to break it open. After about 5 minutes of working in the darkness, Moustafa caught the unmistakable robin’s egg blue of the turquoise poking out of a small fist sized rock. One small tap against a harder stone, and a fingernail sized chunk of turquoise emerged, liberated at last from its 3,000 year imprisonment by two first time miners. We excitedly scrambled out of the cave to share our discovery with our companions. Caroline was in disbelief, and Youssuf’s smile implied “I told you so”.  The elation was short lived, however—somewhere in in the desert, making our journey back, the small piece of turquoise would make it’s way out of Moustafa’s bag, and return to the earth from whence it came. Perhaps, after 3,000 years, it was not ready to leave Ta-Mafkat, but not without teaching us an important lesson: there are still many treasures left to be found on this earth, even after more than 3,000 years, however, they are not always ours to keep, and in many cases, they’d rather stay put. Making their existence known, albeit briefly, is enough to keep the magic going for another 3,000 years.