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Bahariya Oasis

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By Zahi Hawass Photographs by Kenneth Garrett

After 2,600 years a desert oasis yields the long-sought tombs of its legendary governor and his family.

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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. 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.

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The power of Zed-Khons-uef-ankh to move men and material is most evident in the two mammoth stone sarcophagi that protected his mummy. At great expense and labor they were transported across miles of sand and wasteland to his oasis tomb. Both were made of the finest stone of the age. The closest source for the inner alabaster sarcophagus was Hatnub, a quarry near Amarna on the east bank of the Nile, 130 miles (200 kilometers) from El Bawiti. The heavy outer limestone sarcophagus probably came from Tura near modern Cairo, according to Zahi Hawass, the tomb’s chief excavator. The expert craftsmen of Memphis, Egypt’s administrative center, carved the governor’s face into the stone, then a barge floated the finished product 150 miles (240 kilometers) down the Nile to a quay on the west bank where it was carried or dragged another hundred miles (160 kilometers) to Bahariya. Once there it must have been ceremoniously lowered into the tomb, where it lay for nearly 2,600 years before Hawass’s team lifted its 12-ton lid to search for the governor’s remains and his legacy.

Before the recent discovery of the gilded mummies at Bahariya Oasis made headlines, the most famous of Egypt’s scattered desert outposts was Siwa, 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the Mediterranean coast near the border of present-day Libya. Here, 2,400 years ago, one of the most renowned oracles of the time drew travelers across the sands in search of the prophesies of Amun-Re, the Egyptian sun god. In 332 B.C. one of those travelers was Alexander the Great. A believer in divine destiny, he wanted the blessing of the oracle to assure his dream of conquering Asia and his status as the son of Zeus-Amun. As ancient chroniclers report, he almost died on the journey. First his party ran out of water; then they were lost in a blinding sandstorm. Fate intervened when a sudden rainstorm and the sight of birds heading toward the springs of Siwa saved them. Alexander reached his destination and the oracle received him as the son of Amun and the future “Lord of Asia.”

—Jeanne E. Peters

Official Website of Zahi Hawass
Search the website of Zahi Hawass, the famous Egyptian archaeologist, for the latest news on the Giza Pyramids, tombs at Saqqara, and the mummies of Bahariya Oasis.

Egypt Guide, Egyptian Ministry of Tourism
Travel through dozens of ancient sites along the Nile from Alexandria to Aswan on the official website of Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism.


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