New finds in ancient Saqqara tombs rewrite Egyptian history


New finds in Saqqara’s tombs rewrite ancient Egyptian history

Sitting in a yellow plastic laundry basket attached to two thick ropes, I was lowered into the earth. The light became weaker, the temperature colder. A musty smell pervades the air. The only noise was from the workers above handling the ropes and screaming, “Shweya! ” (slowly).

One mistake and I could fall to 100 feet.

I was inside a burial shaft in Saqqara, the ancient necropolis located about 30 km south of Cairo. In recent months, a series of discoveries has captivated the world of archeology.

The most significant find came in January, when archaeologists found inscriptions showing that the temple they were digging up belonged to a previously unknown ancient queen, Queen Neit. She was the wife of King Teti, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, who ruled over 4,300 years ago as part of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

I descended into the underground world of the cemetery under its mortuary temple.

With each discovery, the government hopes more tourists will arrive, bringing much-needed foreign exchange and creating new jobs for millions of people.

Halfway down the well, the walls took on a honeycomb pattern, with large carved shelves. Thousands of years ago they held painted coffins and mummies wrapped in linen and reeds. The tree narrowed as I walked through a wooden frame that supports the walls. Just above the bottom, the water sparkled off the walls like jewels.

The basket hit the ground.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness. On the ground, two limestone coffins. Both damaged, their contents looted, perhaps more than 2000 years ago. Who had been 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,” Archaeological Team member NeRmeen Aba-Yazeed later said. “And we have discovered one of these mysteries.”

Zahi Hawass at the site where he and his team discovered evidence of Queen Neit

(For the Washington Post)

Before the inscription was found, it was believed that King Teti had only two wives, Iput and Khuit. But the realization that he had a third, Neit, with his own temple, made us rethink those ancient times.

“We are rewriting history,” Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s best-known archaeologist and former Minister of Antiquities, would say later today.

Ancient history is being revealed in many parts of Egypt these days. In early February, archaeologists discovered 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 golden tongues, which officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities said was to allow them to “speak in the afterlife.”

That same month, a massive 5,000-year-old brewery – considered the oldest in the world – was discovered in the southern city of Sohag. According to researchers, beer was used in the funeral rituals of the first kings of Egypt.

One of the archaeologists got out of a tree using a pulley and basket

(For the Washington Post)

Last month, ruins of an ancient Christian settlement were discovered in the Bahariya Oasis, nestled in the Western Desert of Egypt. The discovery sheds new light on monastic life in the 5th century AD.

And last week, archaeologists announced that they had unearthed a 3,000-year-old ‘lost golden city’ in the southern city of Luxor, a find that may be the most significant since the tomb of young King Tutankhamun.

With each discovery, the government hopes more tourists will arrive, bringing much-needed foreign exchange 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 Arab Spring uprising of 2011.

The bones of an ancient Egyptian child

(For the Washington Post)

The Saqqara necropolis is both the center of the country’s aspirations and its underground secrets. It was part of the cemeteries of the old capital, Memphis, its ruins now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At Saqqara, 17 kings built pyramids to house their remains and possessions for what they believed to be 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 findings have caught the world’s attention, portrayed in the Netflix film Secrets of Saqqara’s Tomb and National Geographic’s Kingdom of mummies TV shows.

In November, for example, archaeologists unearthed more than 100 richly painted wooden coffins, some with mummies, and dozens of other artifacts, including amulets, grave statues and masks. Some of the coffins had been found on these shelves that I had crossed during my descent.

Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi found by Zahi Hawass archaeologists

(For the Washington Post)

After I stepped out of the burial shaft, Hawass, 73, spoke about how the findings reshaped understanding of the Pharaonic era.

“We are now writing a new chapter in the history of the Old Kingdom by adding the name of a new Queen of Teti whom he had never announced before,” he said, standing in the ruins of the temple, bearing her wide-brimmed Indiana Jones hat. and a cream colored safari jacket over a denim shirt and jeans.

But there was more to consider than the mere emergence of a new queen. Could Neit also have been Teti’s daughter? Hawass’s team had found inscriptions referring to Neit as the daughter of a pharaoh.

The view of the well that led to the newly discovered sarcophagi

(For the Washington Post)

Incest would not be new to the elders. In Egyptian tradition, the god Osiris married his sister Isis. It was widely believed that the pharaohs married their sisters and daughters, but this was during the reigns after the Sixth Dynasty of Teti.

Hawass asks, “Is she the daughter of a king of the Fifth Dynasty, or is she the daughter of Teti?” If she is Teti’s daughter, it would be the first time in Egyptian history that a king marries his daughter. “

A short walk across the sand was another burial shaft where even more had been discovered about Teti’s legacy.

I followed Hawass up 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 mummies, Hawass says, and the names of the deceased are written on the decaying wood. His team found 54 coffins here.

Archaeologist Zahi Hawass’ excavation site at Saqqara, where the discovery of a queen reshaped the understanding of the ancient Egyptians

(For the Washington Post)

From inscriptions on the coffins, the team traced the underground cemetery to the 18th and 19th Dynasties of the Egyptian New Kingdom, more than 3,000 years ago. The findings shed light on a little-known period of Saqqara between 1570 and 1069 BC.

Teti, it seems, had been worshiped as a god in the New Kingdom. Many of his followers wanted to be buried around his pyramid, often visiting coffins and mummification workshops in Saqqara, Hawass says.

The poor were placed in simple wooden coffins, but the colorful and richly decorated coffins I saw belonged to the wealthy followers of Teti.

Placed inside the coffins were miniature wooden boats, games, pottery, and tiny gold coins to transport and use in the afterlife. Small statuettes and amulets bear the shapes and names of gods and pharaohs.

Among the objects discovered were pieces of a 15-foot papyrus which included texts from the Book of the dead, a collection of spells written by priests to help the deceased cross the underworld and into the afterlife.

Pottery, some of which is imported, shows the importance of the ancient city as a trading center

(For the Washington Post)

In a store room, Ahmed Tarek and Maysa Rabea place the jagged pieces of the papyrus together, as if trying to solve a puzzle. They also restore and study artifacts to better understand how the Egyptians prepared for the afterlife.

Pottery shards 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 collects pieces of pottery to make them whole. In the neighboring tent, Asmaa Massoud analyzes skulls and other bones to determine age and cause of death. Next to her, in a small wooden box, is the mummy of a child.

“The excavations and artefacts show how important Saqqara was in the New Kingdom,” says Hawass. “They tell us more about beliefs, not only for the rich, but also for the poor.”

Some of the findings, however, defy explanation.

Read more:

In a burial shaft, this one 63 feet deep, a 20 ton sarcophagus the size of a truck and made of granite lies at the bottom. How did he get there? It was also looted by thieves. How did they know where to look?

Hawass expects to encounter more mysteries. It will take 20 years to fully uncover the secrets here, he says. “In Saqqara, we only found 30% of what is below,” he says. “This is a site that if you dig anywhere you will find something.”

Heba Farouk Mahfouz of the Washington Post in Cairo contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post

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