Bahariya - Valley of the Golden Mummies

April 17, 2001

I was introduced to Zahi Hawass by our mutual friend, Sherif. Zahi is in charge of the Giza Plateau. Zahi mentioned an ongoing number of discoveries made in the Bahariya Oasis since it was first discovered. Of the 10,000 mummies They anticipated were there, 450 have been discovered to date - each unique in its own way.

About the Bahariya Oasis -

Set in a depression covering over 2000 sq. km., Bahariya Oasis is surrounded by black hills made up of ferruginous quartzite and dolorite. Most of the villages and cultivated land can be viewed from the top of the 50-meter-high Jebel al-Mi'ysrah, together with the massive dunes which threaten to engulf some of the older settlements. 

The Oasis was a major agricultural center during the Pharaonic era, and has been famous for its wine as far back as the Middle Kingdom.  During the fourth century, the absence of Roman rule and violent tribes in the area caused a decline as some of the oasis was reclaimed by the sand.

Wildlife is plentiful, especially birds such as wheatears; crops (which only cover a small percentage of the total area) include dates, olives, apricots, rice and corn.

There are a number of springs in the area, some very hot, such as Bir ar-Ramla but probably the best is Bir al-Ghaba, about 10 miles north east of Bawiti.  There is also Bir al-Mattar, a cold springs which poors into a concrete pool

Otherwise near the Oasis is the Black and White deserts, though traveling to the White desert seems not practical from the oasis. The Black Desert was formed through wind erosion as the nearby volcanic mountains were spewed over the desert floor.

Finally, there are the ruins of a 17th Dynasty temple and settlement, and nearby tombs where birds were buried.

Ancient Mayor's Tomb, 102 Mummies Found in Egypt

May 24, 2000 - Reuters - Bahariya Oasis - Egypt

Egyptian archaeologists said Tuesday they had uncovered the tomb of a powerful but enigmaticPharaonic ruler and 102 Greco-Roman mummies, some wearing gold masks.

Gad Khensu Eyuf's 33-foot-deep tomb will furnish clues about a provincial mayor who dared in his lifetime to represent himself in temples in the same style as kings, Zahi Hawass, director of the Giza plateau, told Reuters.

He said his team of 20 had discovered the tomb of Eyuf in April in a tomb complex of nobles discovered in the 1930s in the town of Bawiti in Bahriya oasis, 250 miles southwest of Cairo, in the Western Desert.

Archaeologists and restorers have battled with ropes, ladders, dust and jagged rock since March inside a 1,000 sq. foot labyrinth to uncover unique statues, colorful wall reliefs, pottery and jewelry, said Hawass.

Some of the walls are covered in vivid depictions of Eyfu being prepared for the afterlife by Anubis, the god of death. Eyuf's 12-ton sarcophagus is adorned with rock-carved portraits and profiles of the mayor.

One surprise awaited the archaeologists in Eyuf's tomb.

``We found large quantities of hematite (a valuable iron ore),'' Hawass said. ``When I entered the tomb I felt the hematite prickle my chest like thorns. Perhaps Eyuf put the yellow powder to protect his tomb from unwelcome visitors.''

Hawass said archaeologists had searched in vain for almost a century over the exact location of the burial place of Eyuf, the mayor of Bahriyah in the 26th dynasty in the reign of Pharaoh Apris (598-570 BC) who built a temple called Apris in the oasis.

Influential Mayor

``So many archaeologists have sought to find the tomb of Eyuf because he was so influential,'' said Hawass. ``They also wanted to find out more information on why he was so influential.''

He said pioneering Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry had discovered in the 1930s the burial complex of nobles who served Eyuf and were buried beside him. But Fakhry failed to uncover the tomb of the mysterious mayor himself, Hawass said.

More than a decade after Fakhry's discoveries, villagers built houses over Eyuf's suspected resting place. It was only in March that Hawass and his team were given permission to destroy the houses and continue the search for the tomb.

Hawass's team also uncovered 102 mummies in seven tombs dating to the later Greco-Roman period in a 2.3 sq mile necropolis some six miles away from Eyuf's tomb.

Packed tightly in small caves carved into rock, many mummies still bore colorful scenes painted by mortuary artists. Others had shed their 2,000-year-old wrappings to reveal rusty-colored skin and bone.

One female mummy carried a child mummy on her stomach, while another mummy bore a mask showing people bearing offerings to ancient Egyptian gods. No intricate paintings adorned the walls like those on the tomb of Eyuf.

``We were able to date the mummies mainly by the way they had been mummified,'' said archaeologist Khaled Salah. ``During the Roman period, the intestines of the deceased were left inside the body and masks were plastered on to their faces before the bodies were sealed in their tombs.''

Mummies Found Last Year

Last year, archaeologists discovered 105 mummies of high-ranking Roman Egyptians in four tombs at the same site. The necropolis was dubbed ``The Valley of the Mummies'' after a survey last year suggested that up to 10,000 mummies could be lying under the soft sandstone.

` `The main difference in the mummies we found this year from last year is that some of them date to the Greek period (332-30BC),'' said Salah as he pointed out a mummy of a man wearing a Greek-style beard.

``Also this year, we were able to bring an x-ray machine on site which will help us do more check ups on the mummies and find out why they died,'' he added.

The site became a cemetery under 26th Dynasty ruler Ankkaenre, who ruled from 526 to 525 BC, but at least two thirds of the finds in the area are from the Roman period (30 BC-AD 395).

Not much was known about Bahriyah oasis until a town developed there in the sixth century BC. Its population grew under Greek rule. Alexander the Great built a temple there after he entered Egypt in 332 BC, but the town's heyday was in Roman times when wine was the chief export.

Today, Bahriya is a tranquil oasis of date groves and hot springs, off the tourist track. Its population has shrunk since Roman times and there are few foreign visitors.

``It was thanks to the wine trade that locals in Bahriya grew rich,'' said Hawass. ``That's why they were able to afford such lavish burials. But I think the water here was rich in iron and that killed off many of the town's inhabitants at a young age.''

June 16, 1999 - Bahriya Oasis, Egypt

Golden Mummies Discovered - 'Valley of the Mummies' is the biggest of its kind

Excavation of the tombs

Archaeologists have found some 105 mummies of high-ranking Roman Egyptians, many wearing gold masks, in the Western Desert.

Entrance to one of the tombs

Archaeologist Zahi Hawass said the mummies, buried more than 2,000 years ago. They were found in April in four tombs in the town of Bawiti in Bahariya oasis, 250 miles southwest of Cairo.

Hawass said the tombs are part of a vast necropolis found in 1993 after a donkey stumbled into it - from above the ground.

The mummies, in porcelain caskets or canvas wrappings, were untouched by tomb robbers even though they were found in an area where villagers collected stone for building.

The mummies are covered with a thin layer of gold and wearing gypsum masks. Sumptuous gilded death masks depict lifelike faces of real people, rather than stereotypical images.

The depictions were of wealthy members of a Greco-Roman civilisation who died in the 1st or 2nd century AD.

Packed tightly in small caves carved into rock, the mummies still bore colorful scenes painted by mortuary artists. One mask showed people bearing offerings to ancient Egyptian gods. Another had a crown with the insignia of Horus, the principal deity of living rulers.

Some of the painted dead looked not at the intruder but at each other - as they had, undisturbed, for almost two millennia. In one corner I saw a touching scene: a woman lying by her husband, her face turned affectionately towards him.

Families of men, women, children and babies rested in death together, some wrapped and embalmed in plain linen but many cased in cartonage, a durable plaster-coated pasteboard of linen and papyrus, with painted faces, elaborately gilded waistcoats and complex religious scenes.

Each mask was different, as were the visages painted on terracotta sarcophagi in an adjoining tomb. Not only had the bodies been preserved, but so had the expressions, even the hairstyles of the dead.

One of the mummies was about five feet in height. She had a beautiful gilded plaster crown with four decorative rows of red curls ending in spirals that framed her forehead and extended behind her ears.

"We didn't find any names or titles of the deceased but the amount of gold and royal insignia would suggest high political status," archaeologist Mohammed Aiyadi said.

A trove of items including pottery, copper and jewelry found beside the mummies was being examined to date the mummies more precisely.

"We did find Greek coins but this was because the Romans in Bahriya continued to use Greek coins until new Roman ones came from Alexandria," Aiyadi said.

Hawass also found mourning statues, images of women, and pottery. Also very common were cheerful statues of the gnome-like Bes, a round-bellied, drolly-leering dwarf whom Hawass calls "the god of pleasure and fun." Patron of dancers and musicians, Bes also protected households and pregnant women. A meter-high statue of Bes in a corner is the only thing that brightens the atmosphere of the Bahareya Museum's single exhibition room besides the glitter of the displaced deceased.

The people of Bahareya named Zeszes from the Middle Kingdom onward, but whose name in Greco-Roman times is uncertain - appear to have made a special cult of Bes. A temple dedicated to him was found in the 1980s in the center of Bawiti, the only one ever recorded in Egypt.

One suspects this is because there was a lot of merriment in early Bahareya. For centuries, the oasis was a famous wine-producing region. (Bahareya today harvests a wide variety of fruit, from dates to apricots to, yes, grapes.) Previously discovered wine presses, vats and blenders attest to the happy industry that seems to have supported the oasis' economy.

Many Greek coins (which the Romans didn't bother to replace in commerce), were left in the tombs for the dead to use to bribe those who would ferry them to the nether world. Scarabs and jewelry made of carnelian, faience and copper were scattered with the coins. Abundant water, the presence of natural hot springs and a fairly moderate climate (despite being surrounded by some of the most forbidding wasteland on the planet) must have combined to make life in classical Bahareya more than bearable for most people. No wonder they wanted to repeat it after death.

Hawass said the site became a cemetery under Ankkaenre, who ruled from 526 to 525 B.C., but at least two-thirds of the finds in the area were from the Roman era. "The Romans preferred to be buried next to historic and religious sites of previous Egyptians rather than establish a new site," he said.

"The Romans were clearly in awe of the Egyptians, but it was the Greeks who began to imitate their culture," Kent Weeks, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, said. "This is clearly seen on mummies of the period and the extent of ancient Egyptian motifs found on them."

The best-preserved mummies found in Bawiti, including a female with gold-plated breasts, have been transferred to a museum nearby. More fragile specimens have been left in place and archaeologists plan to cover them with glass cages.

Not much is known about Bahriya oasis before a town developed there in the sixth century B.C. Its population grew under Greek rule, and Alexander the Great built a temple there after he entered Egypt in 332 B.C., but the town's heyday was in Roman times.

The Bahariya mummies are a remarkable record of life and religion in an affluent community that was one of the premier wine-producing regions of antiquity, the cemetery complex is also an archive documenting the development and combination of cultures.

Here is the weft of history, the melding of funerary and religious tradition over the centuries. The inhabitants of the area are thought to have begun burying their dead at the oasis site soon after the founding of Bahariya following the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332-331 BC, and did so into the 2nd century AD. Roman rule of Egypt started shortly before the birth of Christ.

Grapes and dates grown in the region were exported to the Nile Valley and then to Rome and to Athens, and while this produced considerable wealth for local notables, there is evidence of democratisation in the tombs. Some of the most magnificent mummies, buried with pottery, amulets, ornaments and other artefacts, lie beside the simplest, linen-bound corpses.

In addition to providing clues to the social structure of the time, the mummies may also go some way towards revealing the demographics, while analysis of bones and teeth may explain what these people ate and how they died.Yet perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the find is the evidence of the artistic development in the gilded masks and scenes painted on the mummy cases, in a strange early echo of naturalistic portraiture.

The Romanised Egyptians seem to have � adapted the funerary techniques of their Pharaonic predecessors in crucial ways: not only were the bodies of the dead to be preserved for the afterlife, their semi-realistic images were also painted to last. Pharaonic death masks were Everyman and Everywoman. Many found under the sands of Bahariya are distinct individuals.

These are by no means the first gilded Greco-Roman death masks from the period - British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie began studying them in 1888 - but they are some of the most beautiful and the most numerous preserved in a single site.

"The mask served as a substitute for the head of the deceased, endowing the individual with the attributes of deities and assisting his or her passage to the afterlife," accor- ding to Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, a recent book published by the British Museum.

The confluence of techniques is evident in the red-haired woman who caught the archaeologist's eye when he first entered the tomb. "While her hairstyle was clearly Roman, reminiscent of terracotta statues of the period," Dr Hawass wrote in the American magazine Archaeology, "the iconography of her mask, painted with deities that protected the deceased and eased her passage into the afterlife, was pure Egyptian."

Yet while incorporating Egyptian symbolism, the mask-painters of Bahariya seem to have been intentionally painting people with individual characters, pasts and, given the afterlife, futures. The images are personalised, sometimes in touching ways. One female mummy is depicted with elaborate make-up, her large eyes accentuated by eyeliner, leading to speculation that she may have been unmarried in life and was beautified in death to enable her to find a groom in the afterlife.

The mummy masks of Bahariya provide a fascinating parallel to portraits found tucked into the linen shrouds of mummified corpses of another community from the same period. Painted on thin panels of wood or cloth, these depicted, with astonishing realism, a people of Greek origin believed to be descendants of Alexander the Great's mercenaries, who lived in Egypt between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.

One of the earliest forms of portraiture discovered so far, this art flourished briefly and mysteriously before vanishing, just as inexplicably, with the onset of Christianity.

Scans of the mummies' skulls in these cases have revealed how accurate these portrait painters were, prompting the belief that their images were painted at the time of death, to be carried in a funeral procession and kept with the mummified body as a lasting memorial. These portraits are incredibly modern and naturalistic, produced with confident brush strokes using wax and natural pigments such as those found in egg yolk.

Similar, less sophisticated techniques may have been used to paint the masks in the Bahariya tombs, by modelling the images directly on the faces of the dead or dying. It is still not certain how these faces were produced: perhaps in some cases the painter knew the deceased, fashioning the masks and painting from memory, or perhaps both masks and portraits were painted before death.

The directness and expressiveness of the images in both cases seems to provide a link between ancient and modern portraiture, somehow vaulting across the idealised human representations of the intervening centuries.

No one has looked on these faces for at least 1,800 years, for the Bahariya Oasis cemetery is also unique in its pristine state. Few tombs, and none of such size and quality, have been found by archaeologists before the looters.

Even the tomb of Tutankhamen, opened in the 1920s, showed signs of having been visited by grave-robbers. The tombs in the Valley of the Golden Mummies were discovered when a donkey, ridden by an antiquities guard along the dusty road to the small town of Farafra, tripped after its leg slipped into a hole leading to the entrance.

That stumble revealed an entire forgotten population not just of faceless mummies, but of people with wives, husbands, children, lives, beliefs and personalities, which they took with them in death.

The discoverer peered down into the hole, and a gallery of ancient eyes in different faces stared back, unblinking, into the light.

Today Bahriya is a tranquil oasis of date groves and hot springs off the tourist track. Its population has shrunk since Roman times and there are few foreign visitors.

But archaeologists hope the wealth of mummies and temple ruins in the area will put it firmly on the tourist map.

Only those mummies in the Bahareya Museum, which Hawass has pledged to improve, will be on view.

The archeologist predicts that complete excavation will take at least a decade.

They expect to find up to 10,000 mummies.

The experts hope to return them all to their original condition.