foxnews homefox home

Bill Pullman Chat

Photo Page

Webcast Video
  • 28k
  • 56k
  • 100k
  • 300k

    Map of the Tomb

    360° Tour of Egypt

    Make a Mummy

    Ancient Tomb
    Opened on Live TV

    An Ancient Oasis
    Is Rediscovered

    Producing TV From
    The Middle of Nowhere

    Egypt Has a Long
    History of Grave Robbers

    Disturbing the Dead

    The Pyramids and Sphinx

    Photo Essays
    Cemetery of Anubis

    Tomb Raiders

    Pyramids in Giza

    Cairo Marketplace

    Egyptian Treasures

    Egyptian Pyramids

    Mummy Dearest

    Death Masks

    Related Stories
    Bahariya Circa World
    War II: From English House
    to English Patient

    The Embalming Industry:
    Mummification for Faith
    and Profit

    Bahariya Has Much to Tell
    of Greco-Roman Egypt

    Greco-Roman Egypt Was
    a Culture in Transition



    Map of Bahariya

    Biography: Hugh Downs

    Biography: Zahi Hawass

    Fox Fast Links
    Link to Dr. Hawass' Site

  • An Ancient Oasis Is Rediscovered
    By Jonathan Broder
    BAHARIYA, Egypt — With the discovery here of buried tombs from Greco-Roman times containing an estimated 10,000 mummies, this sleepy Sahara Desert oasis is clamoring to come back to life again for the first time in 1,600 years.

    William Tolan/
    In Bahariya donkeys are the major mode of transport

    As far back as 2,000 years before the birth of Christ, Bahariya, a 772 square-mile bowl of greenery amid the desolate sands, was famous for the grape and date wine that ancient Egyptians produced here. Situated along a time-worn route that served various foreign conquerors, the oasis prospered — as evidenced by the gilded mummies of wealthy merchants that are turning up every day in ongoing excavations.

    Bahariya's good times lasted until the 4th century, when marauding tribes destroyed agriculture and allowed the desert to reclaim much of its rich farm land. Though some farming continued, the oasis — some 260 miles southwest of Cairo — languished as a desert backwater, one of several stops for caravans traveling between Libya and the Nile Valley.

    But with the discovery of the tombs three years ago and current excavations indicating they contain some 10,000 mummies — the largest mummy find ever — the oasis is suddenly in the international spotlight. The early excavations already have resulted in numerous news articles, and the latest finds will be the subject of a two-hour special, Opening the Tombs of the Golden Mummies: Live!, to be broadcast on Fox TV on May 23.

    Not surprisingly, Bahariya's small tourist industry is hoping such publicity will produce a new flow of visitors to the oasis, which has always taken a back seat to the more popular Siwa oasis, about 150 miles away in the Egyptian Sahara.

    William Tolan/
    German tour guide Peter Wirth gestures as he explains the geologic history of the Bahariya Oasis

    "When the discovery of the tombs was announced, I got calls from all over the world from people who wanted to come to Bahariya to see the mummies," said Peter Wirth, a German who runs a health spa here and has been leading desert tours for the past five years.

    Wirth anticipates the demand for tours will only intensify after the Fox broadcast and the publication of a book in September on the first season of digging by Dr. Zahi Hawass, the leader of the excavations.

    But at the moment, all that Wirth and other tour guides can promise would-be mummy fans is the opportunity, at some later date, to see five of the preserved bodies at a local museum. Hawass plans to put the mummies on public display and eventually to open their empty tombs to the public. No date has been given.

    But out of respect for the dead, all the other mummies — Hawass has discovered at least 250 so far — will be returned to their tombs after they have been examined. And with at least another 100 tombs still to be excavated — an archaeological labor that could last for years — Hawass reckons the dig site will have to stay closed to the public so work can proceed without interruption.

    William Tolan/
    The tomb of Sheik Mubarak
    "Since this discovery became very famous, everyone wants to see the mummies," Hawass told "But I am not permitting people to visit them. Except for the five mummies that I will place in a museum, we will keep the others in place after we finish our excavations."

    At some point, Hawass said, more of the tombs eventually may be opened to the public, including some with mummies inside. But he says he finds the idea distasteful.

    "I personally don't believe that mummies should be seen by people," he said. "I believe you should use mummies for education, not for a thrill."

    With so much attention focused on Bahariya, tour operators are quick to point out that even without access to the mummies for the foreseeable future, the oasis and its surroundings offer visitors a wealth of things to see and learn. In Bahariya's main town of Bawiti, a number of small hotels already offer guided safaris in rugged four-wheel drive vehicles that explain the history of the oasis and the surrounding desert.

    Indeed, Wirth, who is passionate in his love for the Sahara, says a tour of the oasis and the desert helps put the mummies — and much else in ancient Egypt — in historical context.

    While the guidebooks invariably mention the famous oasis wine that was produced here 4,000 years ago, Wirth points out that Bahariya and its environs is one of the oldest continuously inhabited spots on earth, with evidence of humans going back to the Stone Age some 30,000 years ago.

    At the time, Europe was in the grip of the Ice Age and the climate over North Africa was humid, covering it with lush greenery and water. Back then, Bahariya was a large lake. But as the ice receded about 15,000 B.C., the humidity dried up, and the Sahara was born. Fed by underground springs, Bahariya survived as an oasis, attracting early humans as they made they way from Africa to Asia.

    William Tolan/
    Lush foliage underscores how Bahariya prospered as an oasis in ancient times
    He notes that Bahariya's physical geography — a roughly square-shaped depression with four major springs and an entrance from the north — later became the floor plan for most ancient Egyptian tombs as oasis dwellers moved into the Nile Valley. Inside many of the square-shaped tombs uncovered there, four pillars — usually painted with palms — represented the springs to give the dead water in the afterlife.

    "The people took their mental images of the oasis with them," Wirth said.

    The lasting influence of Bahariya's geology made itself felt in other ways too. Archaeologists believe that Jebel Dist, a natural pyramid-shaped mountain on the edge of the Bahariya depression, served as a model for the man-made pyramids. And despite a series of foreign conquerors down through the ages, including the Persians, Greeks and Romans, the pottery found in Bahariya has always reflected Stone Age designs.

    Even today, life inside the lush groves of date palms harks back to a pastoral existence from another age. Many houses are still made from mud bricks, with roofs from the wood of palm trees and dried palm fronds serving as fences. Farmers still dry their dates on the roofs and move about on donkeys.

    And as if to underscore just how old Bahariya is, a massive Roman arch stands unmarked and ignored inside one oasis grove, a relative newcomer on this prehistoric landscape.

    Still, it is Hawass' discoveries of the mummified remains of some of these newcomers — the Egyptians who lived here from the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. — who have become Bahariya's biggest draw and its best chance for some kind of resurrection.

    "The discoveries have put Bahariya on the map," said Wirth. "If he doesn't open the tombs, it's a big problem. It is very important all this publicity doesn't just puff away."