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.
Renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass’s dig site at Saqqara, Egypt, in February. The discovery, among many others, of a previously unknown queen has reshaped researchers’ understanding of ancient Egyptians. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
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
Workers lift a team member out of a Saqqara shaft using a pulley and basket. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
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.
The ladder leading to the newly discovered sarcophagi in Saqqara. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
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.
A king becomes a god
After I emerged from the burial shaft, Hawass explained how the discoveries were reshaping the understanding of Pharaonic times.
“Now we are writing a new chapter in the history of the Old Kingdom by adding the name of a new queen of Teti that he never announced before,” said Hawass, 73, standing in the temple’s ruins, wearing his trademark wide-brimmed Indiana Jones hat and a cream-colored safari jacket over a denim shirt and jeans.
But there was more to consider than just the emergence of a new queen. Could Neit have also been Teti’s daughter? Hawass’s team had found inscriptions that referred to Neit as the daughter of a pharaoh.
Hawass at the site where he and his team discovered evidence of Queen Neit. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Incest would not be new for the ancients. In Egyptian lore, the god Osiris had married his sister Isis. Pharaohs were widely believed to have married their sisters and daughters, but that was during reigns later than Teti’s Sixth Dynasty.
“Is she a daughter of a king of the Fifth Dynasty, or is she a daughter of Teti?” Hawass asked. “If she is a daughter of Teti, it would be the first time in Egyptian history to have a king marrying 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 down a ladder, 36 feet into the ground. At the bottom, in a space the size of a walk-in closet, were wooden coffins stacked in piles. They were painted in hues of blue and red, some with intricate images of gods and goddesses. They still contained mummies, Hawass said, and the names of the deceased were written on the decaying wood. His team had found 54 coffins here.
Sarcophagi of ancient Egyptians found by Hawass’s team at Saqqara. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
From inscriptions on the coffins, the team had traced the subterranean cemetery to the 18th and 19th dynasties of Egypt’s New Kingdom, from more than 3,000 years ago. The discoveries were shedding light on a little understood period of Saqqara, between 1570 and 1069 B.C.
Restoration specialist Ahmad AbdelAzeem removes the cover of a recently discovered sarcophagus with a mummy inside at Saqqara in February. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Teti, it appears, 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.
Miniature gold pieces in the shape of hands, fish and bees were also found.
The poor were placed in simple wooden coffins. But the colorful, ornately decorated ones that I was seeing had belonged to Teti’s wealthy followers.
The bones of an ancient Egyptian child at Hawass’s site. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
A deep well of discovery — and mystery
Placed inside the coffins were miniature wooden boats, games, pottery and tiny gold pieces to carry and use in the afterlife. Little statuettes and amulets carry the shapes and names of gods and pharaohs.
Among the artifacts discovered were pieces of a 15-foot-long papyrus that included texts of the Book of the Dead, a collection of spells written by priests to help the deceased pass through the underworld and into the afterlife.
Pottery, some of it imported, at Saqqara shows the ancient city’s importance as a center of trade. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Inside a store room, Ahmed Tarek and Maysa Rabea are placing the jagged pieces of the papyrus together, like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle. They are also restoring and studying artifacts to gain more understanding of how Egyptians prepared themselves for the afterlife.
Shards of pottery found in the rubble unveil new details of ancient life. Many were imported, evidence that trade flourished between Egypt and Palestine, Cyprus, Crete and Syria.
Researchers are examining skulls at the site to determine ages and causes of death. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Mohamed Mahmoud reassembles pieces of pottery to make them whole. In the tent next door, 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 artifacts show how much Saqqara was important in the New Kingdom,” Hawass told me. “They tell us more about the beliefs, not only for the rich, but also for the poor.”
Some of the discoveries, however, defy explanation.
In a burial shaft, this one 63 feet deep, a 20-ton sarcophagus the size of a Humvee and made of granite sits at the bottom. How did it get there? It, too, was 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 have found only 30 percent of what’s underneath,” he said. “It is a site that if you dig in any place, you’ll find something.”