When John Lennon and Yoko Ono tried to loot Egypt’s ancient treasures

Lennon and Ono in Egypt, 1997.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Egypt, 1977.

 

(This post has also been translated into Arabic: عندما حاول جون لينون وزوجته سرقة كنوز مصر القديمة)

I was researching something unrelated (on 1970s political Egypt), then stumbled across this photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Egypt in 1977. So I got curious as to what they got up to on their trip, and it turns out, predictably, it was controversy galore.

“As January [1977] rolled on, an exotic adventure, engineered by Yoko, promised freedom from their lethargy. Sam Green learned from one of his colleagues about a clandestine archeological dig being conducted in Egypt to unearth an ancient temple. The project, however, needed funding to complete the excavation. When Green relayed this news to Yoko, she could barely wire the money to Cairo fast enough, and began planning a visit to the site. Lennon, too, excited by the prospect of an intercontinental hunt for artifacts, couldn’t wait to get on the plane.

John wrote excitedly to Leila that he was departing the following day for Cairo, stopping in Geneva for a week to take care of some business. He asked if any of her friends or relatives lived in Egypt and made a pun about wanting to exhume a few of her dad’s kin. He promised to write her all about the trip.

His gloom momentarily lifted, John plunged enthusiastically into his sketchbook, drawing romantic Egyptian deserts dotted with camels and Bedouins. He purchased the proper wardrobe, got himself a new passport photo, and even changed his hairstyle. At the same time Yoko and Sam Green were finalizing the details of a complicated plan to sidestep the Egyptian authorities. Because Egypt’s ancient national treasures were under assault by international art poachers, its governmental authorities instituted safeguards to protect these sacred gravesites, and even resorted to aerial searches to catch would-be raiders. John, eavesdropping from the next room on Yoko and Sam’s conversation, was thrilled to hear that accompanying them would be a cache of potent marijuana…

The next day, while the couple was rushing to make their flight to Cairo, Yoko got into a dispute with the hotel concierge over her attempt to purchase a pair of diamond watches with an inadequate deposit. Just as all seemed lost, he recognized John. For once the harried musician was grateful for his celebrity.

Arriving in Cairo, the Lennons checked into the Nile Hilton. John took a nap before venturing into the city to purchase a wardrobe for the excavation. He ran into Thomas Hoving, former director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was in Cairo on his own expedition for art. An enraptured John spent his first night exploring one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the great Cheops Pyramid, built by Pharaoh Khufu, founder of the Fourth Dynasty, around 2680 B.C. Afterwards, he took in the nightly Giza light-show extravaganza, a gaudy commercial tourist attraction he enjoyed thoroughly.

The next day Lennon awoke energized and refreshed. An ardent history buff, he enthusiastically toured the pyramid at Saqqara, which he found even more fascinating than the Cheops site. As he explored the underground chambers, he ran his hands across the hieroglyphics and marveled at the intricacy of the ancient artwork on the stone walls. Coming upon an open sarcophagus, Lennon was unable to resist the temptation and recklessly tore off a scrap of material as a souvenir. Only later did he wonder if his blasphemous action had incurred the mummy’s curse; he was worried enough to call an emergency meeting with one of Yoko’s mystics.

While Lennon was exploring various sites, Ono was finalizing details for the proposed visit to the illicit excavation. The more intent she became, the more Green feared her presence might cause problems. An internationally known celebrity couple wasn’t likely to go unnoticed by the Cairo authorities. Green used Thomas Hoving as a means to discourage Yoko’s plans. He concocted a story that the renowned art director had gotten word of their scheme for obtaining artifacts and stood prepared to alert the authorities himself unless all parties left Egypt immediately. Marlene Weiner, Yoko’s psychic du jour, confirmed the imagined threat, telling her that a certain assertive six-footer they’d meet in Cairo should be avoided. It wasn’t clear if Green encouraged her to make this statement, but he did recruit Charlie Swan to dissuade Yoko. She was concerned enough to abandon the plan. Surprisingly, John wasn’t all that disappointed by the abrupt turn of events. He had already had his fill of Egypt and was more than anxious to go home.”

Source: Geoffery Giuliano, Lennon in America: 1971-1980, Based in Part on the Lost Lennon Diaries (2001) p. 182-184.

Given today’s great threat to Egypt’s national heritage from within, not helped at times by the complicit authorities – the attempt of Lennon and Ono looks like a picnic.

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