It’s March 2019 in Egypt, and a team of archaeologists are excavating an ancient burial ground. Thousands of years ago, the early pharaohs were laid to rest in this sprawling necropolis, buried beneath tombs and pyramids that kept their contents concealed from public view while dynasties rose and fell. But the researchers persevere, and in the process, they hit upon something incredible.
Since the 19th century, groups of excavators have combed the ruins of Saqqara in search of relics from the region’s fascinating past. During Egypt’s First Dynasty, the earliest nobles were buried here, after all, meaning thousands of years’ worth of history lies hidden somewhere beneath the arid, rocky ground.
But in July 2018 a gilded burial mask was unearthed at Saqqara, with the discovery being the first in a string that have put work here firmly under the spotlight. And perhaps the most impressive find so far came several months later in March 2019, when archaeologists stumbled upon a tomb in a extraordinary state of preservation – despite its staggering age.
When we think of Ancient Egypt today, we tend to recall famous landmarks such as the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. However, even these priceless treasures don’t reveal that the Egyptian kingdom once covered much of the Nile Valley, where it served as the most influential civilization in the Mediterranean for nearly 3,000 years.
In around 3100 B.C., Egypt’s first pharaoh came to the throne – thus kick-starting a period known as the First Dynasty. For the next 30 centuries, then, a series of further dynasties ruled over the ancient kingdom until the first century B.C., when the region ultimately became part of the Roman Empire.
Yet while the kings of Ancient Egypt eventually faded away, their impact on the region can still be seen today. In fact, from the earliest dynasties onwards, the pharaohs showcased their vast wealth by building ornate and elaborate tombs. And even now we’re discovering monuments to rulers who died many thousands of years ago.
As previously mentioned, Saqqara has proved to be rich in treasures, too. The burial ground is less than an hour’s drive south of the famous Giza pyramid complex and is associated with Memphis – the capital of Ancient Egypt. Founded during the time of the first pharaoh, Memphis was located on the banks of the River Nile. And the once-thriving city is thought to have held some 30,000 inhabitants at its peak, making it the world’s most populous settlement at the time.
According to experts, meanwhile, the first kings to be buried at Saqqara were members of the Second Dynasty, who were laid to rest in galleries beneath the ground. They weren’t the last, though, as the tombs and monuments of many further pharaohs were constructed here, with the site remaining a spiritually significant location even into Roman times.
Today, the Saqqara necropolis is more than four miles long and almost a mile across. And ever since the 19th century, curious explorers have been delving into its tunnels and tombs in order to learn more about the ancient world. Sadly, though, the early days of archaeology in the region were marked by looting, and a number of priceless artifacts were illicitly removed as a consequence.
Perhaps the most famous structure at Saqqara, moreover, is the Pyramid of Djoser, which marks the final resting place of the Third Dynasty ruler of the same name. The pyramid is thought to date from the 27th century B.C., meaning it’s believed to be the oldest intact stone building complex in the world.
Yet while much of the Djoser pyramid complex was excavated during the 19th century, many of Saqqara’s secrets have nevertheless remained buried until recent times. In fact, during one four-year period from 1982 to 1986, some 35 tombs were discovered within the necropolis. And as the years have passed, even more wonders have resurfaced from the ancient burial ground.
In July 2018, for example, archaeologists at Saqqara stumbled across an incredible find: a rare burial mask, crafted from gilded silver. Then, four months later, another startling discovery was made at the location. This time, researchers found seven tombs buried beneath the necropolis, with each filled with the mummified remains of cats and scarab beetles.
But, amazingly, that was far from the last of the Saqqara discoveries. Yes, in December 2018 Egyptian officials announced that another tomb had been found. And this time, the structure was thought to be around 4,400 years old and equipped with amazingly preserved sculptures and paintings.
Then, on April 13, 2019, officials in Egypt made an incredible announcement. Apparently, an expedition led by Mohamed Megahed from the Czech Institute of Archaeology had been conducting excavations at a site near the Saqqara necropolis. And while there, the group had found a number of fascinating tombs.
The burial chambers found at this location are thought to date from the Fifth Dynasty, which began more than 4,000 years ago upon the commencement of the reign of pharaoh Userkaf. And this period of Egyptian history ultimately lasted for approximately 150 years, ending in around the mid-24th century B.C., when Unas, the last of his dynasty, died.
Apparently, Megahed and his team had located a number of Fifth Dynasty tombs at the site near Saqqara. In addition, they had also discovered a granite column with a dedication to Queen Setibhor etched on its surface. As the wife of King Djedkare Isesi, Setibhor was one of the dynasty’s last queens.
However, the most exciting discovery was still to come. At a conference attended by dozens of officials, Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Enani announced that another tomb had been discovered back in March 2019. And inside the space, it seems that archaeologists had found something truly incredible.
This tomb was also apparently from the time of the Fifth Dynasty, with experts dating it at more than 4,000 years old. But despite the structure’s great age, its interior was incredibly well preserved. In fact, the reliefs on the walls were as fresh and vibrant as if they had been recently painted.
It’s believed, moreover, that the tomb belonged to a man named Khuwy – an official who lived during the Fifth Dynasty. And in a statement, Megahed elaborated on the fascinating find. He explained, “The L-shaped Khuwy tomb starts with a small corridor heading downwards into an antechamber. And from there, [there is] a larger chamber with painted reliefs depicting the owner seated at an offerings table.”
But who exactly was Khuwy, and what did he do to earn such an elaborate tomb? Well, according to al-Enani’s statement, as the north wall of the structure was inspired by the pyramids of the Fifth Dynasty, this in turn suggests that its inhabitant may well have been someone of great importance. The tomb’s entrance was also constructed in a tunnel style – another trait typical of the pharaohs’ resting places.
And, apparently, the vibrant paintings that line the tomb hold yet another clue to Khuwy’s true identity. According to experts, they were crafted using what are known as royal hues, including a distinctive type of green resin. That said, there is no evidence to suggest that the official was himself a member of the ruling elite.
Instead, it’s been speculated that Khuwy may have had a close relationship with King Djedkare Isesi. That’s the same ruler whose wife’s name was found inscribed on a column elsewhere in Saqqara. Coming to the throne some time in the late 25th or mid-24th century B.C., the king is thought to have ruled Ancient Egypt for 44 years or more.
And according to historians, Djedkare broke from tradition and declined to construct a temple dedicated to the sun god Ra. The monarch is also thought to have ordered missions to Sinai in search of precious metals and goods, and the Ancient Egyptians began to expand into the nearby territory of Canaan during his reign.
Today, however, Djedkare is known mostly for the series of reforms that he affected across Ancient Egypt. Apparently, he oversaw a dramatic upheaval of government, decentralizing power and creating something akin to a feudal system. Yet a number of historians now agree that the pharaoh’s approach was not a good one; indeed, it may have even contributed to the fall of the Egyptian state.
The Egyptian government reportedly wasn’t the only thing that Djedkare sought to reform, as he is also said to have presided over a series of changes to the funerary cults of the time. This set of protocols and rituals governed burials and were believed to guarantee safe passage into the afterlife for the deceased.
Interestingly, Djedkare is thought to have become the subject of his own cult after his death. And as the Fifth Dynasty rolled into the Sixth, the ruler continued to be held in high regard. In fact, it’s believed that the pharaoh was revered until the time of the Old Kingdom – some 200 years down the line.
Djedkare was buried in Saqarra, with his resting place marked with a stepped pyramid that loomed over 170 feet tall. Sadly, looters raided the tomb before excavation began in the 1940s, and the Fifth Dynasty ruler’s life remains somewhat unknown.
But just what kind of relationship did Djedkare have with Khuwy, the official whose tomb was discovered nearby? Well, acording to some, the elaborate nature of Khuwy’s burial suggests that he may have been closely acquainted with the pharaoh. In fact, some believe that there may have been a family connection between the pair.
Furthermore, some believe that the lavish decor of Khuwy’s tomb is also evidence of the very reforms that Djedkare ushered into place. But whatever the connection between the duo, experts hope that the discovery of Khuwy’s burial place may shed a light on the life of Djedkare. They also hope to find out why he might have been worshipped for such a long time after his death.
Perhaps some answers will come by way of the other relics that were discovered inside Khuwy’s tomb. Alongside the elaborate paintings, you see, the archaeologists involved also recovered pieces of vessels known as canopic jars. Apparently, these urns were once used to store entrails after a body had been embalmed.
Regardless of what may yet be revealed, however, the burial site has received considerable international attention. And on April 13, 2019, al-Enani welcomed more than 50 foreign ambassadors to the site near Saqqara, after which he gave them a tour of Khuwy’s tomb. Among the group were various dignitaries and cultural representatives, including Egyptian singer and actress Yousra, and together the invitees posed for photographs alongside the startling discovery.
Yet while experts may hope that the find will teach them more about Djedkare and his reign, Egyptian officials may be holding out for a slightly more tangible outcome. You see, the tomb is just one of a number of discoveries being lauded by the government in the hope that they will encourage tourists back to the country.
In 2010 Egypt welcomed over 14 million tourists – a great deal of whom may have been captivated by the nation’s historic sights. And at first, it was believed that there would be an upward trend in vacation-goers to the country, with as many as 16 million visitors predicted to arrive in Egypt throughout 2011. However, fate had something different in store.
On January 25, 2011, protests against the Egyptian government began. Frustrated by an increasingly brutal and corrupt state, various youth groups rose up, kick-starting social unrest that lasted for more than two weeks. And in the period of just a few days, one million visitors abandoned their holidays and left the country, according to The New York Times.
Furthermore, although President Mubarak ultimately stepped down on February 11, 2011, political unrest continued to plague Egypt for a number of years. And in response, visitor numbers remained low. Before the revolution, it’s estimated that tourism accounted for some ten percent of the country’s jobs; afterwards, though, the tourist industry was suffering losses of around $1 billion every month.
And the situation was only exacerbated in 2015 after the crash of a Russian Airbus A321 plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Allegedly brought down by a bomb, the aircraft broke up after departing the tourist town of Sharm el-Sheikh, resulting in the deaths of more than 200 people. Afterwards, some countries canceled all flights to the popular beach resort.
However, in 2017 holidaymakers began returning to Egypt. And the following year, more than 11 million people chose the country as a tourist destination. So, with the industry recovering, officials are keen to boost visitor numbers to the levels that they were at before the revolution.
Luckily for those seeking to improve tourism in Egypt, recent years have seen a staggering number of historic finds emerge from the region. And al-Enani declared 2018 as the Year of Archaeological Discoveries that December – reflecting the fact that each week had seen a new and exciting development in the field.
Meanwhile, authorities are optimistic that new finds such as the one made at Saqqara in March 2019 could help to further revive the country’s tourist industry. At the very least, hundreds of people have liked and retweeted the Ministry of Antiquities’s photographs from inside Khuwy’s tomb – suggesting, perhaps, that our fascination with Ancient Egypt is as strong as it ever was.