Sitting in a yellow plastic laundry basket attached to two thick ropes, I was lowered into the ground. The light dimmed, the temperature colder. A musty smell filled the air. The only sound came from the workers above handling the ropes and yelling “shweya” – slowly.
One mistake and I could fall 100 feet.
I was inside a burial pit in Saqqara, the ancient necropolis about 19 miles south of Cairo. In recent months, a series of discoveries have fascinated the world of archeology.
The most significant discovery came in January, when archaeologists came across inscriptions showing that the temple they were unearthing belonged to a previously unknown ancient queen. Her name was Queen Neit. She was the wife of King Thetis, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, who ruled over 4,300 years ago as part of the Ancient Kingdom of Egypt.
I was descending into the cemetery underworld beneath his mortuary temple.
In the middle of the well, the walls took on a honeycomb pattern, with large shelves carved into them. Thousands of years ago, they kept painted coffins and mummies wrapped in linen and reeds. As I went down further, the pit narrowed as I passed through a wooden frame that supports the walls. Just above the bottom, the water glistened on the walls like jewels.
The basket hit the ground.
The eyes got used to the darkness. There were two limestone coffins on the floor. Both damaged, their contents plundered, possibly over 2,000 years ago. Who was buried here? How and why were their coffins lowered so far into the earth? And how did the thieves know where to look?
“Our civilization is full of mysteries,” NeRmeen Aba-Yazeed, a member of the archaeological team, later said. “And we have discovered one of these mysteries.”
Before the inscription was found, King Thetis was thought to have only two wives, Iput and Khuit. But the knowledge that he had a third party, Neit, with his temple, was prompting us to think back to those ancient times.
“We are rewriting history,” Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s most famous archaeologist and his former minister of antiquities, would later say.
Ancient history is revealed in many parts of Egypt these days. In early February, archaeologists found 16 human burial chambers at the site of an ancient temple on the outskirts of the northern city of Alexandria. Two of the mummies had tongues of gold, which Egyptian Antiquities ministry officials said would allow them to “speak in the afterlife.”
In the same month, a huge 5,000-year-old brewery – believed to be the oldest in the world – was discovered in the southern city of Sohag. Beer, the researchers speculate, was used in burial rituals for early Egyptian kings.
Last month, the ruins of an ancient Christian settlement were discovered in the Bahariya Oasis, nestled in Egypt’s western desert. The find sheds new light on monastic life in the 5th century AD
And just last week, archaeologists announced that they have unearthed a 3,000-year-old “lost city of gold” in the southern city of Luxor, a discovery that may be the largest since the tomb of boy King Tutankhamun.
With each discovery, the government’s hopes increase that more tourists will arrive, bringing in much-needed foreign currency and creating new jobs for millions of people. Egypt’s tourism-dependent economy has suffered over the past decade from the political chaos that developed after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
The Saqqara necropolis is both a center of the country’s aspirations and its underground secrets. It was part of the burial sites of the ancient capital, Memphis, whose ruins have now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Saqqara, 17 Egyptian kings built pyramids to house their remains and possessions for what they believed was the transition to the afterlife. These pyramids include the oldest in the world, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built in the 27th century BC Recent discoveries have attracted the attention of the world, depicted in the Netflix movie “Secrets of the Tomb of Saqqara” and in the TV series ” The Kingdom of the Mummies “from National Geographic.
In November, for example, archaeologists excavated more than 100 richly painted wooden coffins, some with mummies and dozens of other artifacts, including amulets, funeral statues and masks. Some of the coffins had been found on those shelves I had passed on my way down.
After I emerged from the burial pit, Mr. Hawass explained how the discoveries were reshaping understanding of pharaonic times.
“We are now writing a new chapter in the history of the Old Kingdom by adding the name of a new queen of Thetis who has never announced before,” said Mr. Hawass, 73, standing in the ruins of the temple, wearing his trademark wide brim Indiana Jones hat and cream colored Saharan jacket over denim shirt and jeans.
But there was much more to consider than the emergence of a new queen. Could she also have been the daughter of Thetis? Mr. Hawass’s team had found inscriptions referring to Neit as the daughter of a pharaoh.
Incest would not be new to the ancients. In the Egyptian tradition, the god Osiris had married his sister Isis. The pharaohs were believed to have married their sisters and daughters, but this happened during the reigns following the Sixth Dynasty of Thetis.
“Is she the daughter of a King of the Fifth Dynasty or is she the daughter of Thetis?” Hawass asked. “If she is a daughter of Thetis, it would be the first time in Egyptian history to have a king marry his daughter.”
A short walk across the sand was another burial pit where even more of Thetis’ legacy had been discovered.
I followed Mr. Hawass down a ladder, 36 feet into the ground. At the back, in a space the size of a walk-in closet, were wooden coffins stacked in piles. They were painted in shades of blue and red, some with intricate images of gods and goddesses. They still contained the mummies, Mr. Hawass said, and the names of the dead were written on the decaying wood. His team found 54 coffins here.
From the inscriptions on the coffins, the team had traced the underground cemetery back to the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom of Egypt, from more than 3,000 years ago. The discoveries were shedding light on a poorly understood period of Saqqara, between 1570 and 1069 BC
Thetis apparently had been worshiped as a god in the New Kingdom. Many of his followers wanted to be buried around his pyramid, often visiting coffin and mummification workshops in Saqqara, Hawass said.
The poor were placed in simple wooden coffins. But the colorful and richly decorated ones I was seeing had belonged to the wealthy followers of Thetis.
Inside the coffins were miniature wooden boats, games, pottery, and tiny pieces of gold to be transported and used in the afterlife. Small statuettes and amulets bear the shapes and names of gods and pharaohs.
Among the artifacts discovered were pieces of a 15-foot-long papyrus that included texts from the Book of the Dead, a collection of spells written by priests to help the dead pass through the underworld and into the afterlife.
Inside a warehouse, Ahmed Tarek and Maysa Rabea are putting together the jagged pieces of the papyrus, as if trying to solve a puzzle. They are also restoring and studying artifacts to gain a greater understanding of how the Egyptians prepared for the afterlife.
The pottery fragments found in the rubble reveal new details of ancient life. Many were imported, proof that trade flourished between Egypt and Palestine, Cyprus, Crete and Syria.
Mohamed Mahmoud reassembles ceramic pieces to make them whole. In the tent next door, Asmaa Massoud analyzes skulls and other bones to determine the age and cause of death. Next to her, in a small wooden box, is a child’s mummy.
“The excavations and artifacts show how important Saqqara was in the New Kingdom,” Hawass told me. “They tell us more about beliefs, not only for the rich, but also for the poor.”
Some of the findings, however, defy explanation.
In a burial pit, this 63 feet deep, a 20-ton sarcophagus the size of a Humvee and made of granite sits at the bottom. How did you get there? It too was plundered by thieves. How did they know where to look?
Mr. Hawass expects to encounter other mysteries. It will take 20 years to fully uncover the secrets here, he says. “In Saqqara, we only found 30 percent of what’s underneath,” he said. “It’s a site that if you dig anywhere, you’ll find something.”
The Washington Post