Smithsonian Magazine

Inside the Tombs of Saqqara

Dramatic new discoverie­s in the ancient Egytptian burial ground. A special report produced with Smithsonia­n Channel

- By Jo Marchant Photograph­s by Roger Anis

Discoverie­s at the necropolis near Cairo add depth to ancient Egyptian archaeolog­y. An exclusive report

Twenty miles south of Cairo, on the Nile’s west bank, where river-fed crop fields give way to desert, the ancient site of Saqqara is marked by crumbling pyramids that emerge from the sand like dragon’s teeth. Most striking is the famous Step Pyramid, built in the 27th century B.C. by Djoser, the Old Kingdom pharaoh who launched the tradition of constructi­ng pyramids as monumental royal tombs. More than a dozen other pyramids are scattered along the five-mile strip of land, which is also dotted with the remains of temples, tombs and walkways that, together, span the entire history of

ancient Egypt. But beneath the ground is far more— a vast and extraordin­ary netherworl­d of treasures.

One scorching day last fall, Mohammad Youssef, an archaeolog­ist, clung to a rope inside a shaft that had been closed for more than 2,000 years. At the bottom, he shined his flashlight through a gap in the limestone wall and was greeted by a god’s gleaming eyes: a small, painted statue of the composite funerary deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, with a golden face and plumed crown. It was Youssef ’s first glimpse of a large chamber that was guarded by a heap of figurines, carved wooden chests and piles of blackened linen. Inside, Youssef and his colleagues found signs that the people buried here had wealth and privilege: gilded masks, a finely carved falcon and a painted scarab beetle rolling the sun across the sky. Yet this was no luxurious family tomb, as might have been expected. Instead, the archaeolog­ists were astonished to discover dozens of expensive coffins jammed together, piled to the ceiling as if in a warehouse. Beautifull­y painted, human-shaped boxes were stacked roughly on top of heavy limestone sarcophagi. Gilded coffins were packed into niches around the walls. The floor itself was covered in rags and bones.

This eerie chamber is one of several “megatombs,” as the archaeolog­ists describe them, discovered last

year at Saqqara, the sprawling necropolis that once served the nearby Egyptian capital of Memphis. The excavators overseen by Youssef uncovered hundreds of coffins, mummies and grave goods, including carved statues and mummified cats, packed into several shafts, all untouched since antiquity. The trove includes many individual works of art, from the gilded portrait mask of a sixth- or seventh-century B.C. noblewoman to a bronze figure of the god Nefertem inlaid with precious gems. The scale of discoverie­s—captured in the Smithsonia­n Channel documentar­y series “Tomb Hunters,” an advance copy of which was made available to me—has excited archaeolog­ists. They say it opens a window into a period late in ancient Egyptian history when Saqqara was at the center of a national revival in pharaonic culture and attracted visitors from across the known world. The site is full of contradict­ions, entwining past and future, spirituali­ty and economics. It was a hive of ritual and magic that arguably couldn’t seem more distant from our modern world. Yet it nurtured ideas so powerful they still shape our lives today.

TRAVELERS VISITING EGYPT have long marveled at the vestiges of the pharaohs’ lost world—the great pyramids, ancient temples and mysterious writings carved into stone. But Egyptology, the formal study of

ancient Egyptian civilizati­on, didn’t begin in earnest until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded at the turn of the 19th century and French scholars collected detailed records of ancient sites and scoured the country for antiquitie­s. When Jean-François Champollio­n deciphered hieroglyph­s, in the 1820s, the history of one of humanity’s great civilizati­ons could finally be read, and European scholars and enthusiast­s flocked to see not only the pyramids at Giza but also the colossal Ramses II statues carved into the cliffs at Abu Simbel and the royal tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.

Apart from its eroding pyramids, Saqqara was known, by contrast, for its subterrane­an caverns, which locals raided for mummies to use as fertilizer and tourists ransacked for souvenirs. Looters carted off not only mummified people but also mummified animals—hawks, ibises, baboons. Saqqara didn’t attract much archaeolog­ical attention until the French Egyptologi­st Auguste Mariette, who became the first director of Egypt’s Antiquitie­s Service, visited in 1850. He declared the site “a spectacle of utter devastatio­n,” with yawning pits and dismantled brick walls where the sand was mixed with mummy wrappings and bones. But he also noticed the half-buried statue of a sphinx, and probing further he found a sphinx-lined avenue leading to a temple called the Serapeum. Beneath the temple were tunnels that held the coffins of Apis bulls, worshiped as incarnatio­ns of Ptah and Osiris.

Since then, excavation­s have revealed a history of burials and cult ceremonies spanning more than 3,000 years, from Egypt’s earliest pharaohs to its dying breaths in the Roman era. Yet Saqqara has remained overshadow­ed by the glamour of Luxor to the south, where in the second millennium B.C. pharaohs covered the walls of their tombs with depictions of the afterlife, and the Great Pyramids just miles to the north.

It certainly took a while for Mostafa Waziri, the archaeolog­ist directing the latest project, to be converted to Saqqara’s charms. He spent most of his career excavating in Luxor, but in 2017 he was appointed director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquitie­s (making him, among other things, a successor to Mariette). The new job entailed a move to Cairo. Continuing to dig in southern Egypt was therefore no longer practical, he says, but on his doorstep was another great opportunit­y: “I realized it was less than one hour from my office to Saqqara!”

Working with an Egyptian team, including Youssef, the site director, Waziri chose to excavate near a

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 ??  ?? The excavation site is not far from Djoser’s Step Pyramid, which was thought to convey divine energy.
The excavation site is not far from Djoser’s Step Pyramid, which was thought to convey divine energy.
 ??  ?? Additional research by Caterina Turroni, Marianne TamesDemau­ras and
Sam Kassem PREVIOUS SPREAD Beneath the ruins of the Bubasteion temple, archaeolog­ists discovered “megatombs” crammed with burials. The coffins pictured date to more than 2,000 years ago.
Additional research by Caterina Turroni, Marianne TamesDemau­ras and Sam Kassem PREVIOUS SPREAD Beneath the ruins of the Bubasteion temple, archaeolog­ists discovered “megatombs” crammed with burials. The coffins pictured date to more than 2,000 years ago.
 ??  ?? Mohammad Youssef, the site director, prepares to explore a shaft tomb. The shafts can descend 30 feet, and open
at different levels into niches
and chambers.
Mohammad Youssef, the site director, prepares to explore a shaft tomb. The shafts can descend 30 feet, and open at different levels into niches and chambers.
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 ??  ?? The Bubasteion,
dedicated to the cat goddess
Bastet, was likely built in the 6th century B.C. near Saqqara’s eastern boundary. The tent is a research field
station.
The Bubasteion, dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, was likely built in the 6th century B.C. near Saqqara’s eastern boundary. The tent is a research field station.
 ??  ?? Local laborers helped to excavate using a traditiona­l winch known as a tambora, which can raise objects weighing close to 1,000 pounds.
Local laborers helped to excavate using a traditiona­l winch known as a tambora, which can raise objects weighing close to 1,000 pounds.
 ??  ?? An engineer from Cairo’s Ain Shams University uses a Lidar scanner to map the 4,300-yearold tomb of a high-ranking official named Pinomis.
An engineer from Cairo’s Ain Shams University uses a Lidar scanner to map the 4,300-yearold tomb of a high-ranking official named Pinomis.
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 ??  ?? The variety of burials inside the shafts, from simple wood boxes to painted coffins and stone sarcophagi, suggests that individual­s from across the Late Peri
od’s middle classes were buried together.
The variety of burials inside the shafts, from simple wood boxes to painted coffins and stone sarcophagi, suggests that individual­s from across the Late Peri od’s middle classes were buried together.
 ??  ?? The coffin of a man who likely lived during the Late Period. The winged goddess Nut protects the mummy inside; a funerary prayer, in hieroglyph­s, is above his name and parentage.
The coffin of a man who likely lived during the Late Period. The winged goddess Nut protects the mummy inside; a funerary prayer, in hieroglyph­s, is above his name and parentage.
 ??  ?? A conservato­r cleans a statuette of the composite deity Ptah-SokarOsiri­s; each god was associated with creation or rebirth and venerated at Saqqara.
A conservato­r cleans a statuette of the composite deity Ptah-SokarOsiri­s; each god was associated with creation or rebirth and venerated at Saqqara.

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