Copyright © 2000 Zahi Hawass. All rights reserved.
A DONKEY'S TALE:
On March 2, 1996, I walked into the Antiquities Department tentnext to the excavation of the Tombs of the Pyramid Builders, which are located southeast ofthe Great Sphinx at Giza, and found my assistant Mansour Boriak imitating me in front ofsome members of our excavation team. He was unaware that I had come up behind him untilhe heard me laugh, and then he almost fainted. A senior archaeologist and my favorite colleagueat Giza, Mansour reports to me regularly about the status of other sites within myjurisdiction, but he loves to make up stories about discoveries or problems and then fool meinto believing them. This time I enjoyed turning the tables by pretending to be very upset asI walked out of the tent in a huff. So when Mansour came into my office later that day sayingexcitedly, "Doctor! Doctor! Ashry Shaker is here. Something very important has beendiscovered in Bahariya Oasis!" I was sure it was another of his pranks and I proceeded toignore him.
"No, sir. This time it is true. Something very exciting was found," he said with an impishsmile. But I did not believe him until Ashry Shaker, director of the Antiquities Departmentoffice 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 thatan Antiquities Guard at the Temple of Alexander the Great had been riding his donkey in thedesert when the donkey's leg fell into a hole. When Ashry realized that the hole was an openingto a tomb, he rushed to Giza to tell me about this very important discovery and to convinceme to come to Bahariya right away. When I asked Ashry what made him so sure this wastruly important, he said, "I followed the guard to the site and had a look myself. Inside I sawpart 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 theGiza Plateau and a site in Saqqara near the pyramid of Teti, the first Sixth Dynasty king ofthe Old Kingdom. Because I could not be at each site for which I was responsible, I instructedAshry to appoint an inspector to begin excavating the site at Bahariya and told him I wouldcome down as soon as possible.
I drove to Bahariya Oasis one week after receiving the exciting news about the new discoveryof the mysterious hole in the ground near the Temple of Alexander the Great. Whatused to take the ancients four days by camel took me only three hours by jeep, traveling southwestalong the ancient trade route for more than 260 miles by desert road, where one seesonly endless stretches of sand that reveal no hint of what may lie beneath. When I arrived inthe village of El Bawiti, which is in the center of the Oasis close to the site of El Qasr, itsancient capital, Ashry Shaker introduced me to Abdul Maugoud, a very serious man of forty-fourwhose donkey had literally stumbled upon the tomb.
For ten years, six days a week, eight hours a day, Abdul Maugoud has stood in the doorwayof the Temple of Alexander the Greatthe same door that ancient worshipers passedthrough to make offerings to their gods. His job is to make sure that no one enters or violatesthe surrounding area. To protect himself from the intense sun, he always wears the traditionaldress of men in the Oasis, a long white cotton robe, or gallabia, and a white scarf, or ema, aroundhis 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 usuallyreplaces him had been late on the afternoon of March I, so Abdul Maugoud waited by thetemple 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. Thiswas 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 ropeinto their own mouths. Abdul Maugoud ran after the donkey, but it went too far and heturned back, not wanting to leave the temple unguarded for very long. From the top of thehill on which the temple stands, he could see that his ride home had stopped almost a mileaway, but he could not tell why. After another hour and a half, the replacement guard finallyarrived, apologizing profusely for being so late. Abdul Maugoud told him to take his staffand fetch the runaway donkey, but they saw that it was on its way back. Eventually the animalstopped in front of Abdul Maugoud with the rope still in its mouth. He got on, but thedonkey refused to take the same desert road they had used to go home every working day forthe last ten years, so he dismounted and tried to push the animal, but it continued to balk. Itseemed determined to go back toward the desert. The other guard thought that the donkeywas trying to tell Abdul Maugoud something and that he should follow the animal to seewhat its story was.
The bewildered man got back on, and the donkey took him to the spot where it hadstopped earlier. Suddenly it turned its head and grabbed the rope from Abdul Maugoud'shand, nearly causing him to fall off. He saw that the donkey had dropped the rope in frontof a hole in the ground, so he got off, knelt down, and looked into the hole. He could hardlybelieve his eyes. He went immediately to Ashry Shaker's office and told him there was somethingshining 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 excavationand in most casespreservationis 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 isthe result of pure luck. Minor archaeological finds can occur on a daily basis in Egypt, but itis not unusual for even a major discovery to be followed by months during which nothing isunearthed. Of course, this is largely because of the restricted digging seasons, which take placeduring 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 onlywhen the desert climate relents. An archaeologist usually determines on the basis of researchwhere a specific site may be found; sometimes such sites are excavations that were begun bypast explorers and then were covered over by sand or lost because of war, politics, or simpleneglect. Even though archaeologists often know what they are looking for and approximatelywhere to look, they sometimes set out to discover one thing and instead find something completelyunexpected. A team of engineers may stumble over some bones or pottery shards whiledigging a sewage system, or local residents will come across a wallthe remnants of anancient dwellingas they dig foundations for new homes.
This is what happened when a sewage system was being constructed for Nazletel-Simman, the modern village closest to the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. Most of thepeople living there work as camel or horse drivers, as amateur guides to the Giza sites, or asvendors of postcards and souvenirs. In 1990 I appointed an Inspector to supervise the diggingof the sewer so that we could follow the route of the causeway and find the Valley Templeof the Great Pyramid. But the local people were afraid that we would ruin their homes, sowhen I drove there one day to oversee the discovery of the Valley Temple, they tried to burnmy car, an angry warning not to disrupt their village. This, of course, was not our intentionat all. We did find stone blocks used by the ancient workmen to construct the causeway to thepyramid, just as I suspected we would, but we merely gathered them in the center of the villageso 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 limestonebase. The villagers hid this fact from us and even damaged part of the wall. We were fortunatethat 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 ofthe Great Pyramid of Khufu, which connected with a canal to the Nile and was used to transportbuilding stones to the Giza Plateau.
The discovery in Bahariya Oasis is only the fourth recorded instance in which an animalhas made a major archaeological find in Egypt. In 1899, before he even dreamed of uncoveringKing Tutankhamun's tomb, the famous English archaeologist Howard Carter made one ofhis earlier discoveries by accidentliterally. While returning to his home on the West Bankone evening, Carter's horse stumbled and fell; its hoof had struck the edge of a sealed chamberin 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 gotlucky again in 1922, when his benefactor, Lord Carnarvon, had just about given up hope offinding 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 bethe first step leading down to the famous tomb, only a few feet away from where Carter's teamwas digging.)
In 1900, in the city of Alexandria, another Antiquities Guard drove his donkey and cartstraight down into a hole in a desert road just beyond the southwestern edge of the city, nearthe well-known classical monument called Pompey's Pillar. He landed in a labyrinth of undergroundtunnels known today as Kom el-Shugafa, a complex of Alexandrian catacombs datedto the second century A.D. Like the newly discovered site at Bahariya, this is a Greco-Romancemetery, perhaps the most famous multiple tomb in Egypt. Believed to be the burial site ofa religious community, Kom el-Shugafa has thus far served as our richest source for understandingthis 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 accordingto religious affiliation, which serves as a good demonstration of how the three religiouscultures 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 firstoccurrence was on the Giza Plateau. I had written my dissertation on the funerary cult of theFourth Dynasty kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, and in the course of my study, I becameconvinced that the tombs of the workers who had built the pyramids were located to thesouth of the Great Sphinx. In 1990, after returning to Egypt from the United States, Icollaborated with my friend and fellow archaeologist, Mark Lehner, in searching for the tombsand the ancient work site. We mapped out a grid of ten-meter squares and opened four ofthem. In one we found evidence of a burial that included bones and pottery, and in anotherwe 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, formerChief of the Antiquities Guards on the Giza Plateau, came to me and said that an Americanwoman had been riding a horse that had tripped on what appeared to be a wall. I immediatelywent with him to the spot, and when I saw the mud-brick wall that the horse had stumbledover and then looked directly north toward the Great Pyramid, I announced: "These arethe tombs of the workers who built the pyramids!" The spot was just nine yards from wherewe had been digging only a few months earlier. Since 1990, statues, tombs, or skeletons havebeen discovered almost daily on the site. We have established the location of an upper cemeteryfor the artisans and a lower cemetery for the workmen who moved the stones, as well asa 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, atBahariya Oasis, the now-famous site of the Valley of the Golden Mummies. A preliminary surveyof the site was made by Mohammed Tiyab and Mohammed Aiady, Inspectors from theBahariya office, immediately after the discovery, but it was not until 1999 that we decided totake a team to Bahariya to begin the excavation of the four tombs that had been surveyed, inorder to establish a conservation plan to protect the site. I told my team that they should beprepared 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 andto 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, thinkingabout 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 rentedfive apartments. The next morning after leaving at five, it took us a whole hour to drive to thesite. We realized that we would have to find a place to stay in the town of El Bawiti, which isabout fifteen minutes away. We settled into El Beshmo Lodge, a cottage-style hotel with anespecially friendly atmosphere. We were all happier and went to a café in town to discuss ourplan for the next day's site survey. The ownerof the café came to me and said, "Sir, ourtown is so neglected. Next time you're onTV, will you please talk about us?" Neitherof us realized that I would soon be mentioningtheir little town in publications andprograms broadcast worldwide. Bahariya hasnow become one of the most famous archaeologicalareas in the world.
When the team got to the site the nextday, we walked around collecting artifactssuch as pottery shards, bones, and old glass,which were littered across an area three hundredyards to the south of the Temple ofAlexander the Great. From this initial survey,I estimated the size of the cemetery could be nearly four square miles. The next step was todig a sondage, a narrow trench, around the entire area to establish its boundaries. Then thearchitects Abdul Hamied and Hamdi mapped out a grid dividing the entire site into ten-metersquares.
Each of the six hundred squaresidentical, nondescript swells of sand and rockswasthen assigned a number and an archaeologist. One square contained the tomb partiallyexcavated by the two inspectors Aiady and Tiyab. This was Tomb 54, to which MansourBoriak was assigned. Pickaxes and shovels began to plunge into the sand. As the sun rose higheroverhead, the heat intensified, but everyone seemed too focused on their work and on whattheir next shovel full of sand might reveal to notice. Baskets of sand were carried away by localworkers hired for the season. I noticed how weathered and bony their hands and feet werecompared 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 holesdug in the desert grew deeper. The rim of some sloping shafts began to emerge, then a fewstairs 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 largeobsidian eyes staring out from beneath the sand, and then an entire mummy. It was Tomb 54that would soon prove to contain the largest number of mummies, and the best-preservedexamples, of all the four squares we completed that season. It always seems that just when wesense something important is about to happen and everyone's work speeds up and excitementrises, the sun sets and we are forced to stop. We must be patient until the next day, when thelight will enable us to continue. We always seem to end the day satisfied at how much has beendone yet suffering from almost unbearable anticipation.