For more than 2,000 years, a vast cemetery filled with thousands of mummies
lay buried beneath the sands of Egypt's western desert, its stone tombs
guarding the secrets of an era that reached to the days of Alexander the
Great and Cleopatra.
|This gilded Greco-Roman mummy was one of the first found in the ancient necropolis
But three years ago, archaeologists literally stumbled upon an opportunity to
explore this period after an antiquities guard riding on a donkey
accidentally punched through the roof of a tomb in the desert oasis of
Bahariya. As he peered inside with a flashlight, a glimmer of gold promised this was no ordinary hole in the ground.
After only a month of preliminary excavations last year, Egyptologists
uncovered a trove of 105 well-preserved mummies dating back to the Greek and
Roman periods of Egyptian history. The scientists also identified more than
100 other tombs over a two-square-mile area situated some 200 miles southwest of Cairo.
They estimate the site contains more than 10,000 mummies, making it the biggest mummy cemetery ever found.
Indeed, the ancient necropolis is believed to be so extensive that Egyptian
archaeologists call it the "Valley of the Mummies." With further excavations
now underway, they predict the site eventually will take its place beside the
tomb of King Tutankhamen as yet another extraordinary window into the
If that celebrated discovery taught the world about the wealth and splendor
of Egypt's pharonic period, archaeologists hope their findings in Valley of
the Mummies will help fill out the more murky Greek and Roman era of Egyptian
history. That era, which began with Alexander's conquest of Egypt
in 332 B.C. and lasted until the second century A.D., is only now beginning to be understood.
|Many of the 105 mummies were bedecked in the metal of the ancient gods: gold
But the site is already yielding fascinating clues into this period of cultural transition,
as Egypt absorbed the arts and gods of her Greek and Roman conquerors.
During pharonic times, only the richest and most powerful figures were
mummified. But the discoveries in Bahariya suggest that the practice seemed to
have become commonplace among the middle class during the Greco-Roman era.
In that sense, the Bahariya cemetery may have been the
ancient Egyptian equivalent of New York's Forest Lawn.
For centuries, Bahariya flourished as an oasis known for
making wine. Nearby is a newly excavated temple to Alexander the Great, who
is believed to have traveled through the area.
The mummies appear to reflect both the good economic times,
as well as the mixture of Greek, and later Roman, influences with the rich Egyptian culture. Some are elaborately encased in gold, indicating wealth. Some are encased in pottery shells, suggesting a more middle class station, while the poor are simply wrapped in linen like the mummies in Hollywood horror films.
|Many of the crypts in Bahariya are similar. You walk down a few steps into a narrow room with shelves lined with mummies
The paintings on the more elaborately encased mummies reflect Greek culture's
influence on the Egyptians. As with classic Greek sculpture, the hair is
a profusion of curls and the faces have long, aquiline noses, strong chins
and expressive mouths. Some female figures have golden breasts tipped with
jewels. Yet the encasements also depict various Egyptian gods and symbols.
The manner in which the dead were prepared also appears to confirm that mummification was waning as Christianity began to spread throughout Egypt. In pharonic times, the internal organs of the dead were placed in jars and buried alongside the mummified bodies. No such jars were found in Bahariya. Neither were the wooden cases and coffins that were
used in earlier eras.
Though coins and other artifacts found with the mummies all suggest the dead
are from the first and second centuries A.D., archaeologists are still
working to determine precisely who these people were in life and how they
died. To assist them in finding these answers, the scientists are using such
forensic techniques as X-rays and DNA analysis. But some of the details
painted onto the mummies' breastplates continue to be baffling.
One of the pictures shows human figures, their heads crowned with what look
like halos. Who are they? Could they have been early Christians? Another
picture shows a man running. Could he be the Greek god Hermes, accompanying
the dead to the underworld?
As the archaeologists unearth and examine more mummies, they're hoping the
dead may give up their secrets about Egyptian life during the age of the Ptolemies and beyond.