Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb: how Ancient Egyptian treasures were found undisturbed after 4,400 years
The expectant crowd waiting outside the narrow entrance to a recently discovered cavern in the Egyptian desert is becoming increasingly alarmed. Their boss Sabri Farag, who goes by the very impressive title of director general of the Saqqara Necropolis, has been inside for too long.
Worried that he has fallen down a deep shaft, they start anxiously crying out: “Sabri, Sabri, Sabri, are you all right?”
After several very tense minutes, Farag finally crawls out of the dusty hole. His face suffused with delight, he tells his waiting colleagues he was unable to respond to their shouts because what he saw inside had rendered him speechless. He beams: “I nearly passed out from sheer joy!”
The cause of his joy? A unique find. In November 2018, Farag’s team unearthed an astonishing ancient Egyptian tomb. A perfectly preserved gallery of statues, decorated with exquisite colours and hieroglyphics, it had lain under the sand quite untouched for 4,400 years.
A hidden treasure
Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, described it as a “one-of-a-kind” discovery.
Hidden behind a false wall in another, frequently looted tomb, this archaeological treasure trove was buried in a previously unknown section of the pyramid complex in Saqqara, 15km south of Cairo, a Unesco World Heritage site and the site of the first-ever pyramid.
Further research revealed that this was the resting place of Wahtye, a high priest to King Neferirkare, who reigned during the Fifth Dynasty of the pharaohs. A team of several hundred archaeologists was immediately dispatched to the tomb to try to locate Wahtye, his mother, wife and four children.
Fortunately for the rest of us, a camera crew was on hand to record the search for Wahtye and his family. The result is Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, a gripping two-hour documentary released on Netflix.
At the start, Dr Mohammed Youssef, the lead archaeologist on the Saqqara excavation, cannot contain his excitement. “If we can find the whole family buried in the sand after 4,400 years, that would be better than finding gold.”
Secrets under the sands
Saqqara has a bewitching quality to it. Hamada Mansour, an archaeologist on the dig unalloyed, says: “Saqqara is a magical place. The secret of its enchantment is that under its sands are treasures dating back more than 4,000 years.”
James Tovell, who spent 40 days on site directing The Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, says: “What I can’t get over is the sheer age of this stuff. If you go back 2,000 years to the birth of Jesus Christ, you are still not halfway to Wahtye.
“This tomb has been sitting there waiting in the darkness all that time – 4,400 years ago, the lights went out, and now they have come back on again. Everything that has ever happened in recorded history has happened since then. That is mind-boggling.”
Wahyte – high priest of retouching
It emerged during the dig that the high priest Wahtye had an ego the size of Egypt. Nabil Eldaleel, an archaeologist who decodes the hieroglyphics in the tomb, calls Wahtye “An egotist. He mentioned his own name a lot in the tomb and put up a lot of statutes of himself.”
James Tovell, who directed the documentary, sees contemporary parallels in Wahtye’s relentless self-aggrandisement. “We think of it as an entirely modern phenomenon that everyone wants to filter their image online to make themselves look something more than they are.
“But that is exactly what was happening way back then. The real Wahtye was a man with a club foot who suffered from poor health. But through his avatar in the tomb he… created this huge, powerful, perfect image of a man to last for all eternity.
“That’s fantastically modern. When people find our Instagram posts in 4,400 years’ time, will they be saying, ‘In 2020, was there this entire tribe of people who were all perfectly thin and only took great photos’?”
Youssef puts into words the unalloyed delight of disinterring artefacts that have been lying there for so long: “To be the first to hold something in your hand after thousands of years is incredible. Millions of people dream of doing this work.”
Along the way, the archaeologists inevitably unearth things that may be upsetting, such as the bones of children. Mansour reflects that it can be unbearably moving: “My heart breaks when I see the remains of the child. Any father who loses his children is left with a scar inside him.”
The Netflix documentary also underscores how much the ancient Egyptians can teach us. “For instance,” Youssef says, “how did they move thousands of kilograms of heavy granite thousands of kilometres using just their hands?”
Paradise by the Nile
According to Tovell: “They loved life. The big misconception is that they were obsessed with death, but they were actually obsessed with life. They wanted it to continue because it was so wonderful.
“They lived in beautiful paradise oases by the banks of the Nile. They really looked after that world and wanted it to carry on for ever.”
He emphasises one final thing: “The ancient Egyptians kept their civilisation going for a very, very long time by cherishing the land and passing it down from generation to generation. Maybe we should heed that lesson.”
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb is available on Netflix
Text quote: inews.co.uk