In the tombs of Saqqara, new discoveries are rewriting ancient Egypt's history
SAQQARA, Egypt — Seated in a yellow plastic laundry basket attached to two thick ropes, I was lowered into the earth. The light got dimmer, the temperature colder. A musty smell filled the air. The only sound was from the workmen above handling the ropes and yelling "shweya" — slowly.
One miscue, and I could fall 100 feet.
I was inside a burial shaft in Saqqara, the ancient necropolis roughly 19 miles south of Cairo. In recent months, a series of discoveries have captivated the world of archaeology.
The most significant find came in January, when archaeologists came upon 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 Teti, the first pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty, which ruled more than 4,300 years ago as part of Egypt's Old Kingdom.
I was descending into the cemeterial netherworld below her funerary temple.
Midway down the shaft, the walls took on a honeycomb pattern, with large shelves carved into them. Thousands of years ago, they held painted coffins and mummies wrapped in linen and reeds. While I descended farther, the shaft narrowed as I passed through a wood frame that supports the walls. Just above the bottom, water glistened on the walls like jewels.
The basket touched ground.
The eyes adjusted to the dark. On the floor were two limestone coffins. Both damaged, their contents looted, perhaps more than 2,000 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," NeRmeen Aba-Yazeed, a member of the archaeological team, said afterward. "And we have discovered one of these mysteries."
Before the inscription was found, King Teti was thought to have only two wives, Iput and Khuit. But the realization he had a third, Neit, with her own temple, was prompting a rethink of those ancient days.
"We are rewriting history," Zahi Hawass, Egypt's most well-known archaeologist and its former antiquities minister, would say later in the day.
An archaeological bonanza
Ancient history is being 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 golden tongues, which Egyptian Antiquities Ministry officials said were to allow them to "speak in the afterlife."
That same month, a massive 5,000-year-old brewery — believed to be the world's oldest — was discovered in the southern city of Sohag. The beer, researchers hypothesize, was used in burial rituals for Egypt's earliest kings.
Last month, 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 A.D.
And just last week, archaeologists announced they had unearthed a 3,000-year-old "lost golden city" in the southern city of Luxor, a discovery that could be the biggest since the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen.
With every discovery, the government's hopes rise that more tourists will arrive, bringing much-needed foreign currency and creating new jobs for millions. Egypt's tourism-dependent economy has suffered in the past decade from the political chaos that developed after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
The Saqqara necropolis is at once a center of the country's aspirations and of its subterranean secrets. It was part of the burial grounds for the ancient capital, Memphis, its ruins now 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 world's oldest, the Step Pyramid of Djoser, built in the 27th century B.C. Recent finds have drawn the world's attention, depicted in the Netflix film "Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb" and National Geographic's "Kingdom of the Mummies" TV series.
In November, for instance, archaeologists dug up more than 100 ornately 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 during my descent.
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