An Explosive Story: Hoover and the Sinai Peninsula Turquoise Mine

By Thomas F. Schwartz

As part of an ongoing exploration of Herbert and Lou Hoover’s connection with the Rosetta Stone exhibit, this blog post examines Herbert Hoover’s brief efforts to revive a turquoise mine in the Sinai Peninsula.  The episode placed Hoover at odds with the noted Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie.  Interestingly, both men describe the incident in their memoirs but with different emphasis.  In the first volume of Hoover’s memoirs he writes:

                “Among the side interests of Bewick, Moreing & Company, in my time, was a turquoise mine at Mt. Sinai.  The venture had its romantic aspect; for one thing, it brought the miners closer to the Ten Commandments than usual; for another, the very fact that it was a turquoise mine was a surprise.  Before I entered the firm, the Egyptian Government had asked it to interest itself in reopening some ancient workings reported on the Sinai Peninsula.  Copper ores were known to have been mined in that area.  A Cornish foreman and a prospecting party were sent in during the rainy season to explore.  They finally found a large dump and the partly buried portal of a tunnel.  The portal was of impressively large stones with ancient Egyptian inscriptions on every side.  That portal, three or four thousand years old, became one of my griefs.  The entrance was too small and narrow to suit the Cornishmen, so they enlarged it with a little dynamite.  They found extensive workings, and finally discovered that the ancient Egyptians had been mining turquoise.  The stones were all greenish.  That color must have been fashionable among Egyptian women 3,000 or 4,000 years ago but we could not find a jeweler in the world who wanted any of them, although we had bucketfuls.

                However, the Cornishmen did make a great contribution to knowledge.  They informed me that they had discovered an underground warehouse full of Egyptian ‘gravestones’ and that there were gravestones on the hills about.  I instructed the miners not to touch them and notified Dr. Flinders Petrie, the great Egyptologist at Cairo.  From these discoveries he was able to revise and extend a large part of the chronology and dynastic succession in ancient Egypt.  It seems that the Egyptians made periodic excursions to mine a supply of jewelry and often left a stele engraved with the date and other facts.  When Dr. Petrie arrived at the place he recoiled in proper horror at the blasted portal, for precious inscriptions had been destroyed.  In his absorbing book he rose to the heights of righteous vituperation over this vandalism.  Carried away by his indignation, he included in the indictment much destruction for which the Cornishmen were responsible.  He did not mention Americans in that book; but gossip in Egypt associated the deed with the essential barbarity of all Americans and laid it at my door.”

Flinders Petrie, in his memoirs Seventy Years in Archeology, recalled his work in the Sinai as follows:

                “By December 18, [1904] Currelly arrived with twenty-seven men from Koptos, having marched them more than eighty miles to the Red Sea, got a mining company’s steamer to carry them over, and then marched up to Wady Maghara.  We had, of course, to feed all our party, as nothing could be bought there, except an occasional goat.  The serving out of rations every morning was done by Button, 80 lbs. weight of flour, rice, lentils, sugar, oil, and onions having to be weighted out.  Our men were very reasonable, asking for rather more in the cold weather, and then later declining so much.

                Our main stores were sent down by boat, but we had to get flour and other things supplemented by camel from Suez, six days’ journey each way.  So it was needful to keep count a fortnight ahead, to make sure that we should not find our thirty-six people run short.  Our water supply was kept up by two camels, making two journeys each day, from sources which the Arabs kept secret to themselves, springs in the granite; the water was quite good.

                The first matter was to copy all the inscriptions, by wet squeeze on small ones, by dry squeeze and drawing on the large ones.  A few years before, a mining company run by Mr. Hoover I am informed, had been here to search for turquoise.  Their men had bashed up or destroyed the sculptures abominably, and a relic of their occupation was an immense steel safe, locked, which they had never required.  It would not pay to convey such lumber back to civilization, so for thousands of years that safe will stand up in that gaunt valley, a monument to futile destruction.  After our work was over, Currelly was asked to cut out and remove all the sculptures to the Cairo Museum; Semerkhet, the oldest. Only remains, highest and inaccessible.”

Both Hoover and Petrie were describing the region in the Sinai Peninsula of Serabit el-Khadim and Wadi Maghareh where the extraction of copper and turquoise supplied the Egyptian Pharaohs metal for weapons and artwork and turquoise used in jewelry and ground to make pigment for paint.  Because of the abundance of turquoise found here, ancient Egyptians called the Sinai Mafkat, or “Country of Turquoise.”  As Petrie describes the difficulty of working in such a harsh, barren region, it is no wonder that the main reason to have settlements here would be for the extraction of minerals and gems.  Once these mines were exhausted by the technology available to the ancients, these activities ceased to exist.  The main cities in the Sinai Peninsula hug the coast with only a small number of interior settlements because the extraction of metal and gems is no longer a profitable venture.

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