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September 2001

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Egypt's Hidden Tombs Revealed

By Zahi Hawass
STIRRING UP THE DUST OF AGES, workers clear rubble from the 2,600-year-old tomb of Zed-Khons-uef-ankh, governor of a prosperous oasis in Egypt's Western Desert. Scientists had sought his tomb for more than 60 years. Now a team led by Egyptian archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Zahi Hawass has finally found the governor, his father, and his wife.
Found at last: the powerful man who ruled a flourishing outpost far from the Nile Valley
The streets of El Bawiti, the largest town in Bahariya Oasis, are busier now. Hotels have been built since more than 200 Greco-Roman mummies were discovered nearby. [See "Valley of the Mummies," by Donovan Webster, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, October 1999.] Yet El Bawiti hid an older secret. We have found the tombs of Bahariya's legendary governor, Zed-Khons-uef-ankh, his father, and his wife in a maze of chambers beneath local homes. Archaeologists had been looking for Zed-Khons-uef-ankh ever since my countryman Ahmed Fakhry found tombs of three of the governor's relatives in 1938. Zed-Khons-uef-ankh ruled Bahariya during Egypt's 26th dynasty (664-525 B.C.), a time when the isolated oases of the Western Desert were strategically important buffers against Libyan invaders. Source of fine wines, Bahariya thrived at the crossroads of caravan routes. Its governors were wealthy men with connections to the throne. Zed-Khons-uef-ankh built a chapel in a temple nearby with a relief depicting him as large as the pharaoh, a bold assertion from a powerful man we now know better.
The workers chanted and prayed to help us move the 12-ton lid of the sarcophagus.
Two years ago we broke into a mortuary complex below the Sheikh Sobi neighborhood. Who was buried there? A sealed doorway inscribed with Zed-Khons-uef-ankh's name tantalized us, but we had to wait until the next field season to enter the chamber, remove rubble, and then haul out bag after bag of yellow hematite powder of unknown origin. It was backbreaking work, but our reward was great: a massive limestone sarcophagus with a splendid face, probably the work of master sculptors in distant Memphis, and an inscription identifying its occupant—Zed-Khons-uef-ankh, governor of Waht- Smenkht, a previously unknown epithet meaning "deep-rooted oasis," which suggests a long, peaceful rule.
Days later the chamber echoed with the chants of workers as the lid was pushed aside, exposing a second sarcophagus, made of alabaster. I noticed a hole in its side, cut by looters during the Roman period. I waited with my notebook as its lid was removed. Inside, the wooden coffin and the mummy had decayed, leaving only dark organic matter.
As we combed the chamber and sifted the powder, we discovered remnants of the governor's beaded shroud left by the robbers a gold ba—winged symbol of the soul—and protective cobras. In between the sarcophagi we found a gold amulet of Qebeh-sennuef, guardian of the intestines, removed during mummification.

A team of servants for the afterlife

The sarcophagus of Zed-Khons-uef-ankh's father, former governor Padi-Iset, lay amid glazed ushabti, stand-ins for the deceased should the gods demand labor in the afterlife. Carved to look like mummies and inscribed with his name, Padi-Iset's ushabti were even finer than his son's.
Splendid adornments for the wife of a man who earned the pharaoh's favor

A surprise waited for us north of Zed-Khons-uef-ankh's burial chamber. Beneath a pile of caved-in sandstone we uncovered the sarcophagus of a woman called Naes. Inscriptions on 224 ushabti found beside her sarcophagus suggest that she was the governor's wife.
Looters paid little attention to her. Apart from a missing ornamental collar—her spine was broken at the neck by its hasty removal—most of her adornments remain where we would expect to find them in an undisturbed tomb. Her burial shroud was decorated with amulets of precious stone, as well as at least 84 gold beads. Embalmers replaced her tongue with a shield-shaped piece of gold. She wore a gold ring on her left hand, gold fingertips, and gold toe covers. A gold amulet with a heart (ib) below a sun disk re)—seen at right under her right fingertip covers—is a symbolic representation of Pharaoh Apries's birth name, Wah-Ib-Re. We think it was a gift to the governor from a satisfied king.
The splendor of their mortuary complex reflects the family's status. The gold objects in Naes's partly looted tomb are more numerous and of purer gold than those discovered in the undisturbed tomb of Iufaa at Abusir (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, November 1998). The governor's sarcophagi were transported to the site from quarries in the Nile Valley. Zed-Khons-uef-ankh seems to have ruled well and earned favor. We hope to learn more when we find his mother's burial chamber—she must be nearby. With luck we'll complete the family tree.


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