Egypt: Golden Mummies - Bahariya Temples and Tombs

The Discovery of the Valley of the Mummies

by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Director of the Giza Pyramids and Saqqara,
Undersecretary of the State for the Giza Monuments

Bahariya Temples and Tombs

Bahariya Oasis, which was inhabited in ancient times well beyond its present borders, is now host to several archaeological sites that are scattered throughout the surrounding desert in various stages of restoration. Among these are a few new sites only recently opened for public viewing and exploration; some are only part of an extended complex of monuments where excavation has not yet begun or is just beginning. The first monument is the oldest structure yet found in Bahariya, dating to about 1295 BC; the next group of three -- two tombs and a temple -- date to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, and the fifth monument is a Greek temple to Alexander the Great, the only one of its kind in Egypt.

At the site of Garet-Helwa, almost two miles south of Bahariya's ancient capital of El Qasr (now in El Bawiti), lies the tomb of Amenhotep Huy, governor of Bahariya. George Steindorff first discovered this New Kingdom site in 1900. It is the oldest known tomb found in the Oasis thus far, dating from the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty to the beginning of the Nineteenth, although since my team and I began to survey its outlying area in 1999, other tombs from earlier and later periods have started to surface. Because the Twelfth Dynasty kings of the Middle Kingdom paid attention to this strategically located settlement, it is highly possible that the area around the ancient capital will offer up some of the richest archaeology of the area.

Bahariya enjoyed a resurgence of power and prosperity in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. To date, we have reopened three tombs that reflect the wealth of this era. The pharaohs and local leaders for whom these monuments were so reverently constructed represent some of the last of the native Egyptian rulers. My hope is that, even as we continue to unearth the more spectacular golden mummies of the prosperous Greco-Roman era, we can gain perspective about the redistribution of Egypt's power by studying earlier Oasis structures.

Take, for example, the tomb of Zed-Amun-efankh. The surroundings in which he was buried, the wall paintings, and the great lengths to which the tomb builders went to give him privacy and security all attest to his having been a remarkably powerful man in the community. During the reign of Ahmose II, residents of the Oasis had an opportunity to make a sizeable fortune relatively quickly. These businessmen became the most powerful individuals of the Oasis at this time, just as powerful as the priests, if not more so. It was no longer a matter of who was noble or pious enough to deserve such a "house of eternity," but who was wealthy enough to afford the builders and the materials. The same scenes and words previously reserved for god-kings were, by the Late Period, used for the rich.

The tomb of Bannantiu, son of Zed-Amun-efankh, had a tomb that was even larger and more elaborately decorated than his father. The two most important scenes in Bannantiu's burial chamber show him standing before the gods in the Hall of Judgment, having been accepted for eternal life. His family status, in spite of the lack of religious or political credentials, earned him special treatment and entry into the afterlife. What is striking and interesting from a historical perspective is how a merchant could purchase himself such preferential treatment by the gods.

After Ahmed Fakhry concluded his excavation, he wrote: "There is no doubt that the tombs of the other members of the family are still buried, either under the houses of El Bawiti or in one of the ridges surrounding it. It would be a good thing to find one day the Tomb of Zed-Khonsu-efankh." If the three tombs of this man's relatives are any reflection of the wealth of his family, and if his tomb has not yet been plundered, then it will surely be a spectacular discovery. I believe we are close.

An important key to understanding the site was exploring its relationship to the Temple of Alexander the Great. This temple was built in 332 BC, when Alexander the Great came to Egypt. Initially, he traveled from Memphis northward to establish the new city of Alexandria. Later he made a long journey to visit Siwa and to meet his father, the god Amun, whose temple was built in this area.

I believe that Alexander the Great traveled two different routes on these two journeys and on his journey to Memphis he passed through Bahariya Oasis. This is one major reason that a temple dedicated to Alexander the Great was constructed at Bahariya Oasis. This temple is unique because it is the only one in Egypt that was built for a living pharaoh. After Alexander the Great left Bahariya, he stayed for one month in Memphis, ruling the country as pharaoh.

I believe that, in Greco-Roman times, people chose the area as their burial place because of its proximity to the Temple of Alexander the Great. It appears that the cemetery was in use until the 4th century AD. The temple was excavated by the late Egyptian Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry, who dedicated part of his life to excavating and exploring sites in various Egyptian oases such as Bahariya, Siwa, Farafra, Kharga, and Dakhla.

Alexander's temple consists of two chambers built of sandstone, a common construction material in Bahariya. An enclosure wall surrounds the temple, and behind it the priests built their homes. To the east of the temple, the administrator of the temple constructed his home, and in front of the temple were built forty-five storerooms of mud-brick. The temple's entrance and stone gateway opens to the south, and a granite altar about 1.09m in height was erected to the south of the entrance. The altar, inscribed with the name of Alexander the Great, has been removed and placed in the Cairo Museum.

Fakhry found a small statue of the priest of Re, among many other artifacts in the mud-brick storerooms, during his 1938-1942 excavation of the temple. Examination of these objects led the excavator to believe that the temple was in use from the time of Alexander the Great until the 12th century AD. Many pieces of broken pottery decorated with human figures and geometrical designs were uncovered. A number of pottery sherds inscribed with the Greek and Coptic languages, known as ostraca, were also found. One of the ostraca was inscribed with Syric and has been dated to the 5th century AD. Other artifacts, such as lamps and pottery vases, were also found.

The inner sanctuary of the temple is beautifully decorated with scenes of Alexander the Great presenting offerings to his father, Amun, and of Alexander the Great, accompanied by the mayor of Bahariya Oasis, presenting offerings to the god Amun. The cartouche of Alexander the Great was once inscribed in the sanctuary walls, but no trace of it remains.

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