SAMI EL-RAGHY’S visit to Egypt in 1992 had nothing to do with gold exploration — at least not at first. A 1962 graduate of the University of Alexandria, El-Raghy had been living in Australia for nearly three decades, successfully working the mining areas of the country’s Western reaches, where he pioneered the exploration and exploitation of key finds.
El-Raghy, founder of Centamin Mining, had returned home to look at the Rosetta Mineral Sands Deposit, a valuable, if unglamorous, 37-metric-ton deposit of ilmenite and zircon located 60 kilometers east of Alexandria. While he was visiting the offices of the Egyptian Geological Survey and Mining Authority (EGSMA), he noticed an unusual wall hanging: a copy of the oldest geologic map in the world.
The 3,200-year-old papyrus map, discovered in Luxor in 1820, showed the locations of the Pharaonic mines in the Fawakhir district between present-day Edfu and Marsa Alam.
Intrigued, Sami quickly concluded his business in Rosetta and made his way to the Eastern Desert to seek out the long-dormant mines of the Pharaohs. What he found some 600 kilometers southwest of Cairo was an incredibly rich mineral deposit — essentially neglected for two millennia — that could transform not just the Red Sea Governorate but the entire Egyptian economy when it is brought on stream later this year.
“It’s a great story, isn’t it?” says Josef El-Raghy, Sami’s son, who is also managing director and CEO of Centamin Egypt. “I know it’s been written up that way before, but it’s really quite a stretch. People have known about the gold down there for centuries, but the last mining operation was British and lasted up until Nasser kicked them out in the ’50s.” Even that exceptionally small-scale operation paled in comparison to what the Pharaohs had managed centuries before.
While ancient maps sparking a treasure hunt à la Indiana Jones may be a slight stretch, Josef is certain the company’s concessions on the Red Sea coast will have a massive impact on Egypt’s economy. It’s a matter of sheer size, he says.
A Centamin employee takes chip samples from rocks in Sukari Hills to assess the gold content
“The Red Sea Hills run from just south of Hurghada nearly all the way to the Sudanese border,” he begins. “That’s comparable to the area that begins in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, where I grew up. That corridor has around 20 working goldmines in it.” In Australia, he notes, towns of 30,000 or more people have sprung up, all directly or indirectly working on one mine each.
“This whole area on the Red Sea coast is littered with old mines, so we know the whole thing is mineralized. Effectively, you’re looking at an entire mining province being created here in Egypt,” he says confidently, saying the company’s tests have proven the Pharaohs hardly made a dent in the total gold deposits in the area.
“This is Sukari Hill,” he continues, pointing at a map in his Alexandria office. “So far, what we’ve been doing is drilling core samples throughout the southern end of the hill.”
Centamin does some of the drilling itself, but has contracted Capitol Drilling, another Australian company that has incorporated in Egypt, for the bulk of it. To date, they’ve taken more than 130 kilometers of core samples from Sukari Hill.
“Over the last year of drilling, we’ve gone from proven reserves of 2.9 million ounces to more than 5.75 million [179 million grams]. At today’s price of roughly LE 4,000 an ounce, that makes Sukari’s proven reserves worth LE 23 billion. It’s been a pretty good year,” Josef says. “Hopefully we’ll do that again this year. We think the whole thing — all of Sukari Hill — is going to be significantly bigger.”
In one of the first steps to create a local mining industry, Capital Drilling has hired Egyptians, trained by expatriates, to work the mines.
To put things in perspective, he explains, “On the scale of goldmines, this is a truly world-class discovery. It’s very, very rare that you get something that’s more than a million ounces in one pit. So a single pit, multimillion-ounce deposit is unusual and pretty special.”
Sami estimates that if 10 mining companies achieved success at a level close to Centamin, gold mining would contribute nearly LE 60 billion to the Egyptian economy each year, a figure worth nearly 12 percent of Egypt’s estimated LE 514 billion in gross domestic product in 2004-05.
Even if his estimate is high, it would easily place gold as the number-one contributor to the economy: The three top revenue earners are presently tourism (nearly LE 37 billion in 2004-05), the Suez Canal (almost LE 19 billion in the same year) and oil and gas (LE 17 billion). Under the legislation governing mining in Egypt, the government banks more than 50 percent of the total value of all gold brought out of the ground, and each mine creates thousands of jobs.
“Just this strip here [the Red Sea Hills] has 66 different [Pharaonic] mines,” Josef says. “But you only need a few that will be this big to drive a massive industry. Just what we know we have here at Sukari, the 6 million ounces at today’s price, that’s about $3.5 billion [LE 20.1 billion] in already-proven gold. Now that doesn’t come out all in one year. With current techniques we can’t push production up much past about $250 million [LE 1.4 billion] worth of gold a year. Basically, you just can’t get enough trucks in the hole. So this mine alone will be going for the next 25 or 30 years. That’s just this one hole, and we only know for sure what we have in only half of this hole.
“In the 160-square-kilometer lease that we hold, there are at least a half a dozen other mines. We don’t know if they’ll be as big or bigger until we start drilling. But they are old mines, so we know the area is mineralized. The area is historically very important for Egypt and certainly could be again.
Centamin Managing Director and CEO Josef El-Raghy at one of the Pharaonic gold mines in the Sukari Hills site
“Nobody knows how big this is going to be yet. But everybody knows it’s going to be big,” he asserts.
CITY OF GOLD
It wouldn’t be the first mining province in Egypt, just the first one in a very long time. An ancient Egyptian saying goes: “In Egypt, gold is as plentiful as dust” — and most of that gold came from the Red Sea Hills. Anyone who has been to a Pharaonic exhibition or museum knows the importance of gold to the ancient religion and royalty. Gold’s polished surface was associated with the sun god Ra, and it was believed that gold was actually the flesh of the gods.
By the time of the Middle Kingdom, royal burial chambers were called ‘Houses of Gold.’ The young Pharaoh Tutankhamun was buried in a comparatively modest tomb after ruling for only nine years. Wearing his now world-famous golden mask, he was laid to rest in three gilded coffins inside his sarcophagus. The innermost coffin alone is made of 110 kilograms of pure gold.
Tutankhamun’s gold-littered burial chamber can only hint at what must have been meant to accompany the greater Pharaohs such as Ramses VI, whose infinitely grander tomb was ransacked by grave robbers just above the buried boy king.
Workers from Capital Drilling use percussion drilling to take core samples
From before the time Egypt was united until the beginning of the Common Era, the Pharaohs mined an average of 400,000 grams of gold a year. After the Pharaohs fell to foreign powers, few of Egypt’s subsequent rulers exerted enough control over the desert areas to safely mine them.
Although many rulers tried to resurrect the mines, the golden era had ended. All they could do was work the quartz veins of the Pharaonic mines, but they quickly found that most of the ‘easy’ gold had been taken, and the sites were left largely abandoned. Since the birth of Christ, less than 100 tons of Egypt’s gold have been mined.
As Josef explains, “Picks and shovels just don’t cut it anymore. You could probably produce a little, but this area requires a massive effort.”
Centamin’s days of having the Eastern Desert largely to itself are coming to an end. “A find like this is going to drive a lot of interest,” Josef says, “because if you find one big gold deposit, then you have an excellent chance of finding other deposits like Sukari throughout this corridor — and this corridor stretches a very long way.”
Gold Production in Egypt
With nearly 70 known Pharaonic mines in the Red Sea Hills, Sami’s LE 60-billion estimate could be possible.
It gets better: The corridor Josef describes isn’t the only one. A smaller fault line runs to the west of the Red Sea Hills, closer to the Nile River Valley. Gippsland, another Australian-based company, is exploring the Wadi Allaqi region southeast of Aswan, but is still in the early exploratory phase.
To this day, no one knows how much gold there is in the Red Sea Hills.
“All we’re doing right now is the simple stuff,” says Josef. “We’re just going where the old guys were.” Back in his office, he points to another nearby mountain on the map and says, “There’s nothing saying that this hill can’t be just as productive. It has the same type of geology, the same rocks are found throughout here. So, no one knows how big this is. There’s just no way to know until you drill it. All we do know for sure is that we’re sitting on a world-class deposit.”
Yet even “sticking to the simple stuff,” as Josef calls it, has tremendous possibilities. “The biggest mine in the area historically was Hangaliya, which is just a little southwest of Sukari. We haven’t even gotten around to drilling that yet, so who knows?”
The map in Josef’s office is a satellite image of Centamin’s 160-square-kilometer concession. Visible are a total of six Pharaonic goldmines, all of which have the potential to be as big as Sukari, or even bigger.
Josef isn’t exaggerating when it comes to Centamin’s potential: Centamin subsidiary Pharaoh Goldmines owns the mining lease that includes Sukari. As a wholly owned subsidiary of an Australian company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, Pharaoh Goldmines is required to meet all the requirements of Australia’s Joint Ore Reserves Committee (JORC) code. JORC has the world’s toughest protocol for confirming mineral estimates.
Hellman and Schofield Pty Ltd is a JORC-recognized consultancy whose primary concern is the estimation of mineral resources throughout the world. “They will do all the numbers that we offer out, like the 5.75 million ounces,” Josef says. “So it’s all verifiable — it’s not just us.
“It’s not just me and my crazy Dad, sitting out in the desert, cooking up numbers and throwing them out. It’s all done properly.”
Likely expansion aside, Sukari’s already-proven reserves make it one of the largest gold mines in the world, which begs the question: Why does Centamin still have the Eastern Desert largely to itself?
“Well, when we got here the mining laws were pretty old,” explains Josef. “They dated back to 1956, when Egypt was trying to nationalize everything, not trying to attract foreign investment.”
With the state actively discouraging foreign interest in the mining industry, the site slowly faded from public memory. Worse: Until two years ago, EGSMA was under the Ministry of Industry.
“It [EGSMA] is now the Mineral Resource Authority and they’re under the Minister of Petroleum. For us that was a huge shift,” Josef says, noting that the change came after high-profile businessman Rachid Mohamed Rachid was made Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade in late-summer 2004.
Centamin claims it had nothing but problems working under EGSMA. Exploration actually came crashing to a halt in 2003 when the company was refused security permits to continue exploration. Even before they were officially shut down, Centamin claimed to be under assault from an entrenched bureaucracy: In 2002, work was stalled several times as the company waited months for equipment to clear customs —and fought not to have to pay customs on duty-exempt equipment.
Sami El-Raghy publicly blamed the EGSMA and told reporters at the time that, “Egypt has a huge problem: EGSMA has neither the experience nor the knowledge to capitalize on our success. They know nothing about mining and they do not want to know.”
“Under the previous EGSMA chairman, they didn’t seem to believe there was any gold left out there,” says Josef. Centamin has alleged that EGSMA was adamant that any further exploration was a waste of time because the Pharaohs had mined most of the gold from the Eastern Desert.
“I believe the exact quote was, ‘You’re just rummaging about in the desert,’” Josef says with a smile. “We told them we’re spending our money, we’re doing no damage to the country, we’ll just keep digging holes in this hill and if we’re just foolish, then we’re foolish. We’re squandering our own money and we’re employing locals, so why not just leave us to it?”
Rushdie Said, a former chairman of the EGSMA, wrote an editorial for Al-Ahram at the time that defended the Mineral Authority. Contrary to Sami El-Raghy’s assertion that they were unfamiliar with modern mining techniques, Said claimed that EGSMA was well aware of them — and well aware of Sukari’s potential long before Centamin arrived.
“In fact,” Said wrote, “it was this awareness that initiated the exploratory work that led to the Sukari discovery [by EGSMA] and also to its abandonment when it was found out that the application of these techniques could not make its extraction economical.” During EGSMA’s exploration in the area, prospectors estimated that producers would have to move a full ton of rock in order to extract just one gram of gold.
But Said claimed that it was one final factor that convinced him to order exploration to stop: the possibility of environmental damage. “I was also aware of the enormous harm that could be caused by the extensive use of cyanide to extract the gold from its rock,” he wrote. “Cyanide is an extremely toxic material and its use on the scale anticipated in a mining operation of these dimensions will be deadly.”
Centamin quickly responded in an exclusive interview with et’s sister publication, Business Today Egypt. Countering each of Said’s points, company officials claimed the mining boss showed his lack of understanding of modern mining methods.
Even if some of his claims that one gram of gold could be extracted from every ton of rock, they said, there was still money to be made at that level.
Mark Campbell, then-director of corporate development at Centamin, reported that international consultants had found the cost of extracting gold from Sukari to be between $100-160 per ounce — well below the wholesale price of gold at the time (and today).
“Look — we’re not doing this as a hobby,” Campbell said. “If, after spending millions scrutinizing the site, we had decided the site was uneconomic, why would we stay and waste our shareholders’ money?”
Pressed to explain the difference between Said’s claims and his own, Campbell simply stated: “Said has never been a miner, never been a metallurgist, never been in a commercial company.” Later he added: “All Mr. Said’s complaints are about out-of-date problems.”
Campbell claimed that EGSMA had overstated the environmental impact as well. Said’s concerns are “nonsense,” Josef says today. While he admits that cyanide is still in use, the levels are nowhere near those that led to environmental disasters in the past.
“The old heap-bleaching process is not used anymore. The amount of cyanide we now use is very small. In any case, it never comes in contact with the desert. And even if it does, it disappears without a trace in two hours.
“The possibility of disaster with the cyanide is if it gets into rivers or lakes. Here in the Eastern Desert, you just don’t have any,” Josef continues. “We’ve just completed our environmental impact assessment that meets or exceeds Australian mining law and World Bank standards. There’s no benefit to us cutting corners on any of this. We’ll just get torched down the line.
“If anything goes wrong in an area, it’s always the mining company’s fault. If there’s a sick donkey in a village 100 kilometers from here, it’ll be our fault. So we’re making sure everything gets done properly right from the outset,” he says.
In late 2002 and early 2003, Centamin filed suit against EGSMA in the Cairo Administrative Judicial Court as well as the Regional Center for Commercial Arbitration in Alexandria —and launched a full-scale lobbying campaign.
After two years of discussions with senior government officials, Centamin got back to work in April 2005. Parliament passed a law designed to attract new mining companies, and in a related restructuring of the regulatory system, the Mining Authority was made subordinate to the Ministry of Petroleum, which has long experience with resource extraction in oil fields. More recently, the ministry’s work in natural gas has seen Egypt move from being a bit player to the sixth-largest natural gas producer in the world.
Josef says the Ministry of Petroleum has taken an entirely new approach to managing Egypt’s mineral wealth through the Mineral Resource Authority. There are still issues to be worked out, he says, but things appear to be on the right track.
“Mining companies are very different from oil companies,” he tells us. “But now we’re dealing with people who understand resource exploitation.” As proof of the new level of cooperation, he points out that Minister of Petroleum Sameh Fahmy has personally visited Sukari to show his support.
In his latest report to his shareholders, Sami El-Raghy says the company’s relationship with the Egyptian government is improving daily — and that he is working with them to create the framework necessary for a successful Egyptian mining industry.
Fahmy echoed El-Raghy’s optimism in a statement he gave in 2005, noting, “The Egyptian government looks forward to a long and successful partnership with Centamin and subsidiary Pharaoh Goldmines. The mineral resource industry in Egypt has a very positive future which to date has not been fully appreciated. I will be fully supportive of the company’s development and exploration activities in order to fast-track Egypt’s first modern gold operation. All the problems of the past are behind us and the future is very exciting for the Sukari project.”
Progress has admittedly been a little slow up to this point.
“Generally, it takes about seven years from discovery to production in gold mining,” Josef points out. “We’re into our eleventh year, but we still feel like we’re making pretty good time for being the first in country and for a company that’s as small as us. What we’d like to see eventually is something that closely replicates the Australian Mining Code [generally acknowledged to be among the best in the world]. That’s a long way off, but I’d have to say we’re very happy with our progress so far.
“We’re not one of the majors that can just throw endless money at things,” he says.
Operating alone was unavoidable, he explains. “The problem is that very few companies want to have to try and change a law just to get started. Saying that the previous situation was not conducive to foreign investment is putting it pretty mildly. Gold mining is a very long-term prospect and mining companies are primarily concerned with the stability of the investment environment. When the dispute was on, everyone just threw their hands up in the air.”
No longer: “We’ve had a lot of companies come and visit us since we got back to work,” Josef says. “Centamin is not going to be operating alone for very much longer; by next year you’re going to see a lot of mining companies here.”
KNOWING THE DRILL
Diodorus Siculus, a Roman visitor to Egypt during the first century BC, wrote about his travels around the Pharaonic goldmines, possibly even Sukari itself. His descriptions of the work and the conditions of the laborers are filled with terms like “unfortunate wretches.”
His depiction of an industry that relied far more on brute force than technique couldn’t be farther from the truth at the mining camp at Sukari, located some 600 kilometers southeast of Cairo.
Here, the buildings much more closely resemble the resorts of nearby Marsa Alam (about 20 kilometers to the West) than the tent-like structures that usually dominate Upper Egyptian work camps. A large, comfortable cafeteria stands near the shaded common areas where workers relax between shifts in front of satellite televisions.
Retired Air Defense Forces General Esmat El-Raghy is the man responsible for having made the Sukari camp what it is today. Esmat is Sami’s younger brother; he took over field administration when Centamin set up in Egypt.
“Everything you see out here was built by our workers,” Esmat says, pointing around the camp. When there’s no work for the men on the mine, he has them building up the camp infrastructure. “People take much better care of a place and have more pride in it if they’ve built it themselves,” he explains.
“For all of the operations that have to do with the mine, we’ve had to train the people here to do them,” Esmat tells us. “There was no skilled labor force for these things, so once we’ve trained people we need to keep them here.”
Esmat’s philosophy on retaining his staff has proven as successful as it is simple: comfortable living conditions, recreation and (by Esmat’s reckoning) the highest wages in Upper Egypt. Weekly football matches and monthly trips to the beach at Marsa Alam are small investments with large returns, Esmat claims.
“We are planning a 30-year project on Sukari alone,” he begins. “The more trained people we can keep here, the lower our operating costs. If you can keep even one trained worker here by having satellite television, why not do it? Don’t take my word for it: Ask anyone you meet around here.”
We did. Bahaa Adel is a geologist from Minya. He’s been with Centamin since the company came to Egypt. Adel analyzes the data that comes in from the test drilling, then turns it into both paper and computerized charts and recommends further testing in specific areas.
Asked why he would leave his home to come work in the middle of nowhere, he simply shrugs, “I am a geologist — I have to work in the middle of nowhere.” Adel stuck with the company throughout the dispute with EGSMA. “Things were very slow for a while, but now that we’re moving into the construction phase things are getting very busy. It can be very exciting; there’s nothing else like this in all of Egypt.”
Then, with more than a hint of playful conspiracy in his voice, he whispers: “Don’t ask me too much more about working here — I could get fouled really bad at the next company football game.”
GOING FOR THE GOLD
If the figures add up, the goal of creating a mining province in the Red Sea is certainly achievable, if a ways off. “If you compare the Red Sea Hills to Tanzania, which has become the vanguard for African mining, there’s no comparison,” Josef says.
Tanzania changed its mining policies to World Bank Standards in 1998. “Tanzania has had new mines opening every year since 1999, and there’s been at least $2 billion in capital invested directly in the mining industry there during that time. That doesn’t begin to bring into account all of the extra services and other revenue that spring up around a mine,” he says. “Tanzania can be considered very comparable in terms of the amount of investment and development you could expect, but [the Red Sea hills] is just a much more attractive environment. As far as mining goes, the Eastern Desert is made for it.”
It’s not just the geography of the Eastern Desert: A host of other reasons set Egypt up to replace Tanzania as the ‘vanguard’ of African gold mining.
“It’s basically everything about the place,” Josef continues. “Fuel is seven times more expensive in Tanzania. Egypt has a much better educated populace and, despite their inferior educations, labor is still more expensive in Tanzania. The infrastructure here is vastly superior: We’ve got roads and ports — in some countries you have to build all this up. Even where we will have to build roads, there aren’t any rivers to cross or bridges to build.”
The landscape around the Red Sea Hills is another attraction. “There’s no soil cover, so effectively it’s straight into mineralization here, whereas in Tanzania, the mountains are hidden by vegetation and soil. In that environment, you drill a lot of blind holes and waste a lot of money. This whole thing really is a win-win situation here, but since we were the first people in, it’s taken us a bit longer to capitalize on it.”
Esmat estimates that for every person Centamin will employ directly at the mine, three others will be indirectly employed in fields including food services, transportation and (once Centamin builds the city it’s planning for its workers) there will be everything from kiosks and supermarkets to a hospital to staff.
When the mine is up and running at full capacity, Esmat claims it will directly employ up to 4,000 people.
Josef agrees and says that the mine-related industries are just the beginning. “For example,” he explains, “all of the drilling rigs on site had to be imported. In fact, we just had two new rigs built in Sweden. There’s no reason you can’t build a drilling rig here, there’s just never been a demand. A lot of this stuff will be built in country in the future.”
Centamin has been trying to encourage this side of the industry, not just out of national pride, but simple economics as well.
“We try and do all of our procurement in country; it’s just quicker and cheaper without the shipping costs. Most of the everyday stuff is no problem — overalls, our pumps and seals, all that we get done here. But much of the industry-specific stuff we use, such as our lab equipment to crush the samples, we still bring that in from Australia. But I’m certain we’re going to see that side of the industry springing up here in the near future as well.”
Despite lacking many industry-specific skills, there are several companies in Egypt whose expertise will be invaluable to Centamin and those who follow them. Today, 150 tons of water are being trucked into Sukari each day. The company is planning a pipeline from the Red Sea and a desalinization plant, both of which will be sourced from local contractors.
The group is also building a labor pool of skilled mining workers, Josef notes.
“When Capitol Drilling started, they had one Australian per mining rig training a local crew. Now all of the rigs are headed by Egyptians who are doing the training themselves.” Capitol Drilling uses their Australian drillers now to check up on the drilling operations and troubleshoot problems that the less-experienced Egyptian operators haven’t run across before.
“These Egyptians will be the guys who do all of the test drilling for the next mining company that sets up here,” Josef tells us. “That sort of thing is going to happen all through this belt. Not instantly, but little by little.”
Esmat says that Egyptians will be moving into every level of the industry, noting with a touch of pride that, “I’m going to Tanzania for a couple of months starting in August for a training program on the production plants. I am going to be the first Egyptian goldmine production plant manager in at least 2,000 years.”
That day should come by year’s end as Esmat’s crew begins pulling gold out of Centamin’s LE 23-billion hill.
In 1382, Garkas Al-Khalili, the Mamluk sultan’s Master of Horse, acquired the old Fatimid royal cemetery. In a fit of anti-Shi’a fervor, he dug up the bodies and threw them over the city’s walls onto the rubbish heap.
He immediately built a new khan on the site. Few visitors stepping off the tour buses which run daily into the Khan El-Khalili realize the grisly beginnings of what is now seen by many as a rather benign tourist trap. Nor do many of them realize that the craftsmen of the Khan’s El-Sagha, or Goldsmith’s Street, were once considered the best in the world at their trade.
Safwa, who runs Guzlan Jewelry in the Khan, says the high price of gold is hurting his business right now, but adds that many would-be purchasers balk not at the price, but at the gold’s origin.
“The tourists always ask, ‘Is this gold from Egypt?’ I would love to get all my gold from Egypt,” he says, noting that it would be a massive selling point, “but it’s not possible right now.”
But it just might happen in the near future. Later this year, when Centamin begins production at Sukari Hill, some 600 kilometers southwest of Cairo near Marsa Alam, the company plans to sell a percentage of the highest-grade gold directly to the Egyptian market.
The rest of the gold will be shipped overseas to be refined before returning here or being sold on global markets.
“You could certainly turn Egyptian gold into a trademark the way they’ve managed to do with Welsh gold,” says Josef El-Raghy, Centamin chairman.
There is little extraordinary about Welsh gold except that it generally has a slight reddish tint from the copper deposits found throughout the Welsh mines. Resting on the strength of its name, Welsh gold is consistently sold at a higher price than gold mined anywhere else in the world — all thanks to a clever marketing campaign.
The tax revenue from Centamin’s gold mines will be a huge boost to the Egyptian economy — everyone benefits. The residents of El-Sagha in particular could see a much more direct benefit. It could even return the Khan El-Khalili to a place of global renown in the gold and jewelry markets