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Death on the Nile
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By A. R. WilliamsPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett



Conspiracy, murder, revenge—it's all at Saqqara, a cemetery of ancient Egypt's rich and powerful.



Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

Princess Idut didn't live to adulthood. The limestone reliefs that line her mortuary chapel show her only as a child. Finely modeled scenes celebrating the abundance of the Nile River Valley surround her—fish and waterfowl, a crocodile snapping at a newborn hippo, cows with their calves, gaggles of geese—all normal decoration for a royal Egyptian burial. But something isn't right.
"Idut has replaced someone else," says Naguib Kanawati, professor of Egyptology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. "Look here," he continues, pointing to a rough patch by Idut's knee in a boating scene. "A foot has been erased, chiseled out and sanded over. And a man's kilt too." I can just make out the hint of a strapping male, standing tall, hovering behind the demure girl.
Princess Idut died around 2330 B.C. She was interred beneath her mortuary chapel, which stands near the pyramid tombs of her grandfather King Unas, and her father, King Teti, at the place now known as Saqqara. Site of Egypt's first monumental stone tombs, Saqqara was one of the most revered royal cemeteries of ancient Egypt—roughly equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery in the United States today.
When Idut's tomb was discovered in the mid-1920s, no one paid much attention to the altered reliefs. But recently Kanawati took a closer look and found traces of unexpected intrigue. "I've reread the hieroglyphs and identified the tomb's original owner," he says. "It was Ihy, a vizier, or prime minister, of King Unas." Like most wealthy, well-positioned Egyptians of his time, Ihy had spent years preparing his final resting place. So how did Princess Idut end up with it?
Kanawati's answer involves a tantalizing new theory about a palace coup and the mysterious circumstances surrounding King Teti's accession. "We don't know where Teti came from. We just know he married a daughter of Unas and became king when his father-in-law died. I think he came to the throne by force and Ihy opposed him, unsuccessfully." As an enduring punishment, Teti gave Ihy's tomb to a daughter.
This dynastic succession that once seemed so simple is one of many episodes acquiring a new spin at Saqqara, where burials span the entire 3,000 years and 31 dynasties of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Focusing on periods when the site was most heavily used by the rich and powerful, archaeologists are discovering evidence for the kind of cloak-and-dagger dramas that would make headlines today—conspiracies, assassinations, acts of revenge, scheming queens, ambitious politicians, and religious extremes.


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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The resurrection of the king as a god in the next world was an unshakable article of faith throughout ancient Egyptian history. What death meant for everyone else is still unclear, but evidence suggests that the king's relatives and retainers expected to join him, and that ordinary people held out their own hopes of moving on to the next world.

Excavating a group of modest graves in the desert north of Saqqara, a team of archaeologists from the Czech Institute of Egyptology in Prague has uncovered ceramic vessels believed to be beer jars. Left as votive offerings, they are full of fertile black mud—the promise of rebirth deposited by Nile floods each spring.

"The poor must have had the same feelings and expectations as the wealthy and powerful," says Ladislav Bares, a member of the Czech team. "It's like a carpenter and an archbishop today. They worship the same god, but the sophistication of their beliefs isn't the same."

— A. R. Williams

Did You Know?

Related Links
The Plateau: Official Website of Dr. Zahi Hawass
www.guardians.net/hawass/discoveries-main.htm
Tour the most recent tomb discoveries of Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities and one of National Geographic's explorers-in-residence.

Tour Egypt's Ancient History
www.touregypt.net
From the Valley of the Kings to the Great Pyramids to Zagazig in the Delta, discover the history of dozens of Egyptian travel destinations, fascinating facts about mummies, and other ancient mysteries on the official site of Egypt's Ministry of Tourism.

Animal Mummy Project in the Cairo Museum
www.animalmummies.com
Learn about how and why thousands of animals were mummified in the land of the pharaohs—both as pets and as offerings to the gods.

Explore the Pyramids
www.nationalgeographic.com/pyramids/
Who built them? How old are they? How did they originally look? Find out via photos, diagrams, maps, and more.
                        
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Bibliography
Baines, John, and Malek, Jaromir. Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Andromeda Oxford Ltd., 2000.

Kamil, Jill. Sakkara and Memphis. Egyptian International Publishing Co., 1996.

Lehner, Mark. The Complete Pyramids. American University in Cairo Press, 1997.

Silverman, David P., ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians. University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. Thames and Hudson, 2000.

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NGS Resources
Sloan, Christopher. Bury the Dead: Tombs, Corpses, Mummies, Skeletons, and Rituals. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Hawass, Zahi. "Egypt's Hidden Tombs Revealed," National Geographic (September 2001), 32-41.

Berger, Gilda and Melvin Berger. Mummies of the Pharaohs: Exploring the Valley of the Kings. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Fagan, Brian. Egypt of the Pharaohs. National Geographic Books, 2001.

Peck, William H., Karl W. Butzer, I. E. S Edwards, Barbara Mertz, William Kelly Simpson, Virginia Lee Davis, Edna R. Russman, Anthony J. Spalinger, Victor R. Boswell, Farrell Grehan. Ancient Egypt: Discovering its Splendors. National Geographic Books, 1978.

Hall, Alice J. "Dazzling Legacy of an Ancient Quest," National Geographic (March 1977), 292-311.

Williams, Maynard Owen. "At the Tomb of Tutankhamen: An Account of the Opening of the Royal Egyptian Sepulcher Which Contained the Most Remarkable Funeral Treasures Unearthed in Historic Times," National Geographic (May 1923), 461-508.

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