Valley of the Golden Mummies by Zahi A. Hawass, Abrams, Zahi Hawass |, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Valley of the Golden Mummies

Valley of the Golden Mummies

by Zahi Hawass

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It is being hailed as the most sensational find since King Tut's tomb: undreds of 2,000-year-old mummies, in near-pristine condition and many with masks of gold, uncovered in the Egyptian desert. Never before have so many mummies been discovered in a single site. Ever since front-page headlines announced the electrifying find, the world has awaited the full story


It is being hailed as the most sensational find since King Tut's tomb: undreds of 2,000-year-old mummies, in near-pristine condition and many with masks of gold, uncovered in the Egyptian desert. Never before have so many mummies been discovered in a single site. Ever since front-page headlines announced the electrifying find, the world has awaited the full story. Now, in the only book on the golden mummies, the director of the excavation, noted Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass, takes readers to the site to see what cannot be seen anywhere else—and shares the wealth of new information the tombs are yeilding about Egyptian life during the Roman occupation.

The site will remain closed as the dig goes on, making this book—with more than 250 exceptional full-color photographs—the only place to see what lies inside these mysterious graves.

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The door closed, and then two thousand years later, it opened. The Bahariya Oasis golden mummy excavations are being justly hailed as the most important Egyptian archaeological discoveries since King Tut. These huge, virtually pristine burial sites offer riches in almost overwhelming quantity. Even a discovery a tenth this size would be considered major. Dr. Zahi Hawass, the director general of the entire project, relates the history of the digging and the significance of the discoveries. Curiously, like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the King Tut treasures, the cache was found by accident: After an overburdened donkey fell, its rider espied a small hole in the desert floor.

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American University in Cairo Press, The
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
12.00(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Chapter One


On March 2, 1996, I walked into the Antiquities Department tent next to the excavation of the Tombs of the Pyramid Builders, which are located southeast of the Great Sphinx at Giza, and found my assistant Mansour Boriak imitating me in front of some members of our excavation team. He was unaware that I had come up behind him until he heard me laugh, and then he almost fainted. A senior archaeologist and my favorite colleague at Giza, Mansour reports to me regularly about the status of other sites within my jurisdiction, but he loves to make up stories about discoveries or problems and then fool me into believing them. This time I enjoyed turning the tables by pretending to be very upset as I walked out of the tent in a huff. So when Mansour came into my office later that day saying excitedly, "Doctor! Doctor! Ashry Shaker is here. Something very important has been discovered in Bahariya Oasis!" I was sure it was another of his pranks and I proceeded to ignore him.

    "No, sir. This time it is true. Something very exciting was found," he said with an impish smile. But I did not believe him until Ashry Shaker, director of the Antiquities Department office at Bahariya Oasis, was standing in front of me with his typically serious expression. Ashry is a polite man with a beard and a moustache, a man you can trust. He reported that an Antiquities Guard at the Temple of Alexander the Great had been riding his donkey in the desert when the donkey's leg fell into a hole. When Ashry realized that the hole was an opening to atomb, he rushed to Giza to tell me about this very important discovery and to convince me to come to Bahariya right away. When I asked Ashry what made him so sure this was truly important, he said, "I followed the guard to the site and had a look myself. Inside I saw part of the face of a mummy sticking out of the sand. It appears to be shiny, like gold."

    At this time, my own active excavation sites included most of the ongoing digs at the Giza Plateau and a site in Saqqara near the pyramid of Teti, the first Sixth Dynasty king of the Old Kingdom. Because I could not be at each site for which I was responsible, I instructed Ashry to appoint an inspector to begin excavating the site at Bahariya and told him I would come down as soon as possible.

    I drove to Bahariya Oasis one week after receiving the exciting news about the new discovery of the mysterious hole in the ground near the Temple of Alexander the Great. What used to take the ancients four days by camel took me only three hours by jeep, traveling southwest along the ancient trade route for more than 260 miles by desert road, where one sees only endless stretches of sand that reveal no hint of what may lie beneath. When I arrived in the village of El Bawiti, which is in the center of the Oasis close to the site of El Qasr, its ancient capital, Ashry Shaker introduced me to Abdul Maugoud, a very serious man of forty-four whose donkey had literally stumbled upon the tomb.

    For ten years, six days a week, eight hours a day, Abdul Maugoud has stood in the doorway of the Temple of Alexander the Great—the same door that ancient worshipers passed through to make offerings to their gods. His job is to make sure that no one enters or violates the surrounding area. To protect himself from the intense sun, he always wears the traditional dress of men in the Oasis, a long white cotton robe, or gallabia, and a white scarf, or ema, around his head. I said to him, "Tell me, Sheikh Abdul Maugoud, tell me what happened."

    Abdul Maugoud clasped his hands together in front of him and never looked at me, keeping his eyes on the sand as a sign of respect as he began his story. The guard who usually replaces him had been late on the afternoon of March I, so Abdul Maugoud waited by the temple door for half an hour. Suddenly he noticed his donkey running toward the desert, holding in its mouth one end of the rope that usually hangs from each side of its head. This was an unusual sight, because donkeys do not often run unless they are forced to do so. Also, they normally bray when these steering devices are used and do not willingly take the rope into their own mouths. Abdul Maugoud ran after the donkey, but it went too far and he turned back, not wanting to leave the temple unguarded for very long. From the top of the hill on which the temple stands, he could see that his ride home had stopped almost a mile away, but he could not tell why. After another hour and a half, the replacement guard finally arrived, apologizing profusely for being so late. Abdul Maugoud told him to take his staff and fetch the runaway donkey, but they saw that it was on its way back. Eventually the animal stopped in front of Abdul Maugoud with the rope still in its mouth. He got on, but the donkey refused to take the same desert road they had used to go home every working day for the last ten years, so he dismounted and tried to push the animal, but it continued to balk. It seemed determined to go back toward the desert. The other guard thought that the donkey was trying to tell Abdul Maugoud something and that he should follow the animal to see what its story was.

    The bewildered man got back on, and the donkey took him to the spot where it had stopped earlier. Suddenly it turned its head and grabbed the rope from Abdul Maugoud's hand, nearly causing him to fall off. He saw that the donkey had dropped the rope in front of a hole in the ground, so he got off, knelt down, and looked into the hole. He could hardly believe his eyes. He went immediately to Ashry Shaker's office and told him there was something shining under the sand.

New sites such as the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Bahariya are rare. For the most part, important archaeological sites have long been established, and excavation—and in most cases preservation—is an ongoing process. This episode demonstrates that, as in most sciences, regardless of how carefully we carry out our research and planning, some of our best work is the result of pure luck. Minor archaeological finds can occur on a daily basis in Egypt, but it is not unusual for even a major discovery to be followed by months during which nothing is unearthed. Of course, this is largely because of the restricted digging seasons, which take place during the month of November and then again from January through March or even later, the length of time depending on many things, such as weather, budget, and other obligations. An archaeological team often works from dawn until dusk, and real work is thus possible only when the desert climate relents. An archaeologist usually determines on the basis of research where a specific site may be found; sometimes such sites are excavations that were begun by past explorers and then were covered over by sand or lost because of war, politics, or simple neglect. Even though archaeologists often know what they are looking for and approximately where to look, they sometimes set out to discover one thing and instead find something completely unexpected. A team of engineers may stumble over some bones or pottery shards while digging a sewage system, or local residents will come across a wall—the remnants of an ancient dwelling—as they dig foundations for new homes.

    This is what happened when a sewage system was being constructed for Nazlet el-Simman, the modern village closest to the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. Most of the people living there work as camel or horse drivers, as amateur guides to the Giza sites, or as vendors of postcards and souvenirs. In 1990 I appointed an Inspector to supervise the digging of the sewer so that we could follow the route of the causeway and find the Valley Temple of the Great Pyramid. But the local people were afraid that we would ruin their homes, so when I drove there one day to oversee the discovery of the Valley Temple, they tried to burn my car, an angry warning not to disrupt their village. This, of course, was not our intention at all. We did find stone blocks used by the ancient workmen to construct the causeway to the pyramid, just as I suspected we would, but we merely gathered them in the center of the village so that it would be easy for future archaeologists to locate the site.

    When the people of Nazlet el-Sisi, a village at the eastern foot of the Great Pyramid, were building new houses, they found a wall consisting of layers of basalt over a limestone base. The villagers hid this fact from us and even damaged part of the wall. We were fortunate that one of them reported the discovery to us, because when I went to inspect the site, I realized that what they were about to destroy was part of the ancient man-made harbor of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which connected with a canal to the Nile and was used to transport building stones to the Giza Plateau.

    The discovery in Bahariya Oasis is only the fourth recorded instance in which an animal has made a major archaeological find in Egypt. In 1899, before he even dreamed of uncovering King Tutankhamun's tomb, the famous English archaeologist Howard Carter made one of his earlier discoveries by accident—literally. While returning to his home on the West Bank one evening, Carter's horse stumbled and fell; its hoof had struck the edge of a sealed chamber in which Carter would soon find a painted limestone statue of Mentuhotep Nebhepetre, who ruled Egypt from 2061 to 2010 B.C., the first king of the Middle Kingdom. (Carter got lucky again in 1922, when his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, had just about given up hope of finding Tutankhamun's tomb and decided this would be the last season he would fund the dig. Carter's water boy unintentionally placed the pole of a tripod in a hole that turned out to be the first step leading down to the famous tomb, only a few feet away from where Carter's team was digging.)

    In 1900, in the city of Alexandria, another Antiquities Guard drove his donkey and cart straight down into a hole in a desert road just beyond the southwestern edge of the city, near the well-known classical monument called Pompey's Pillar. He landed in a labyrinth of underground tunnels known today as Kom el-Shugafa, a complex of Alexandrian catacombs dated to the second century A.D. Like the newly discovered site at Bahariya, this is a Greco-Roman cemetery, perhaps the most famous multiple tomb in Egypt. Believed to be the burial site of a religious community, Kom el-Shugafa has thus far served as our richest source for understanding this period in ancient Egyptian history. It represents a typical fusion of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman styles of art and architecture. Mummies seem to have been buried according to religious affiliation, which serves as a good demonstration of how the three religious cultures coexisted in Egypt during the first and second centuries A.D.

    The two other discoveries by animal took place on my sites, for which I can only say "il-Hamdulillah," a phrase we say every day in Egypt meaning "Thanks be to God." The first occurrence was on the Giza Plateau. I had written my dissertation on the funerary cult of the Fourth Dynasty kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, and in the course of my study, I became convinced that the tombs of the workers who had built the pyramids were located to the south of the Great Sphinx. In 1990, after returning to Egypt from the United States, I collaborated with my friend and fellow archaeologist, Mark Lehner, in searching for the tombs and the ancient work site. We mapped out a grid of ten-meter squares and opened four of them. In one we found evidence of a burial that included bones and pottery, and in another we found grain, although the digging season ended before we could interpret its significance. Then, on a very humid day in August of the same year, Mohammed Abdul Razik, former Chief of the Antiquities Guards on the Giza Plateau, came to me and said that an American woman had been riding a horse that had tripped on what appeared to be a wall. I immediately went with him to the spot, and when I saw the mud-brick wall that the horse had stumbled over and then looked directly north toward the Great Pyramid, I announced: "These are the tombs of the workers who built the pyramids!" The spot was just nine yards from where we had been digging only a few months earlier. Since 1990, statues, tombs, or skeletons have been discovered almost daily on the site. We have established the location of an upper cemetery for the artisans and a lower cemetery for the workmen who moved the stones, as well as a work site, which included an area where pottery, beer, and bread were made.

The second time providence stepped in for me in the form of an equine was, of course, at Bahariya Oasis, the now-famous site of the Valley of the Golden Mummies. A preliminary survey of the site was made by Mohammed Tiyab and Mohammed Aiady, Inspectors from the Bahariya office, immediately after the discovery, but it was not until 1999 that we decided to take a team to Bahariya to begin the excavation of the four tombs that had been surveyed, in order to establish a conservation plan to protect the site. I told my team that they should be prepared to stay at the site for at least three weeks, until it was too hot in the desert to dig anymore. Then I met with my secretary, Nashwa Gaber, who organizes every detail of my life and to whom I owe much of my success. I instructed her to call me only if anything was urgent. We packed a bus for the drive and headed out. I kept my eyes closed the whole way, thinking about everything I was leaving behind and trying to imagine what this site would contain.

    We arrived at the local mining company's small housing community, where we had rented five apartments. The next morning after leaving at five, it took us a whole hour to drive to the site. We realized that we would have to find a place to stay in the town of El Bawiti, which is about fifteen minutes away. We settled into El Beshmo Lodge, a cottage-style hotel with an especially friendly atmosphere. We were all happier and went to a café in town to discuss our plan for the next day's site survey. The owner of the café came to me and said, "Sir, our town is so neglected. Next time you're on TV, will you please talk about us?" Neither of us realized that I would soon be mentioning their little town in publications and programs broadcast worldwide. Bahariya has now become one of the most famous archaeological areas in the world.

    When the team got to the site the next day, we walked around collecting artifacts such as pottery shards, bones, and old glass, which were littered across an area three hundred yards to the south of the Temple of Alexander the Great. From this initial survey, I estimated the size of the cemetery could be nearly four square miles. The next step was to dig a sondage, a narrow trench, around the entire area to establish its boundaries. Then the architects Abdul Hamied and Hamdi mapped out a grid dividing the entire site into ten-meter squares.

    Each of the six hundred squares—identical, nondescript swells of sand and rocks—was then assigned a number and an archaeologist. One square contained the tomb partially excavated by the two inspectors Aiady and Tiyab. This was Tomb 54, to which Mansour Boriak was assigned. Pickaxes and shovels began to plunge into the sand. As the sun rose higher overhead, the heat intensified, but everyone seemed too focused on their work and on what their next shovel full of sand might reveal to notice. Baskets of sand were carried away by local workers hired for the season. I noticed how weathered and bony their hands and feet were compared to those of the rest of us, who write or work in an office during the off-season. Soon the line of men passing baskets of sand from one to another grew longer as the holes dug in the desert grew deeper. The rim of some sloping shafts began to emerge, then a few stairs leading about ten feet down, then flat earth. We had reached the floor of a tomb.

    It wasn't long before we struck gold. A face, a golden face beautifully molded with large obsidian eyes staring out from beneath the sand, and then an entire mummy. It was Tomb 54 that would soon prove to contain the largest number of mummies, and the best-preserved examples, of all the four squares we completed that season. It always seems that just when we sense something important is about to happen and everyone's work speeds up and excitement rises, the sun sets and we are forced to stop. We must be patient until the next day, when the light will enable us to continue. We always seem to end the day satisfied at how much has been done yet suffering from almost unbearable anticipation.

Meet the Author

ZAHI HAWASS, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and has been excavating in Egypt for over thirty years. In addition to his numerous scholarly publications, he is the author of several best-selling popular books.

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