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Thursday, September 16, 1999 Published at 21:41 GMT 22:41 UK

World: Middle East

Golden hopes from Pharaoh's map

One hill is said to hold big deposits of gold

Geologists and engineers in Egypt are searching for gold using a 3,000-year-old map, believed to have been drawn by King Seti I - the father of the Pharaoh Rameses.

The original map is drawn on papyrus and shows an ancient cutaway drawing of mine tunnels used during Seti's reign.

A joint Australian-Egyptian team has started probing the area shown on the diagram.

Geologist Sami Raghy: "This is shaping up to be one of the best mining projects in Africa"
The project is the brainchild of Sami Raghy, an Egyptian geologist who worked in Australian mines for 32 years.

He is working with the Australian exploration company Centamin to see if the map can really lead to gold.

Early mining

The map was found in Luxor in the late 19th century.

"It is the oldest known geological plan in the world. It was quite helpful for us because what is shows really is the ancient Egyptians were mining gold in the eastern desert when other communities were still in the stone age," says Sami Raghy.

[ image: The map dates from the reign of Seti I]
The map dates from the reign of Seti I
Mr Raghy said that no-one had thought to prospect for gold in Egypt before because there was no tradition of mining in the country.

The company's staff think they have identified about ten potential deposits, and they have started "serious development work" at one of them, Sukkari - 800km (500 miles) south-east of Cairo.

Mr Raghy said that the company had found one hill which promised deposits of 2m ounces of gold.

But it will be at least a year before full-scale mining can begin..

Open cast

Centamin, working through its subsidiary Pharaoh Gold Mines, plans to dispense with the costly tunnelling of the old days in favor of an open-pit approach.

[ image: Geologists are putting their faith in the wisdom of the ancients]
Geologists are putting their faith in the wisdom of the ancients
The firm estimates that this should keep extraction costs at about $120 an ounce, comparable to mines in the United States where removal costs are among the cheapest in the world.

However, gold prices have been falling sharply, and after the Bank of England announced it was selling off a significant share of its gold holdings, the price fell still further to around $250 an ounce.

Under the terms of a 1994 concession agreement with Egyptian government, Pharaoh Gold is free to export and sell gold without paying taxes for at least 15 years after the start of production.

In exchange, the government would receive up to half of any profits.

The company has already spent $14.7m and expects infrastructure costs to reach $400m million in the next few years, according to Mike Kriewaldt, the company's Australia executive director.

Investors have been hard to find because of the slump in gold prices - and perhaps because they are used to seeing more recent survey maps before investing in a project.

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