Twenty miles south of Cairo, on the Nile's west bank, where riverfed crop fields give way to desert, the ancient site of Saqqara is marked by crumbling pyramids that emerge from the sand like dragon's teeth. Most striking is the famous Step Pyramid, built in the 27th century B.C. by Djoser, the Old Kingdom pharaoh who launched the tradition of constructing pyramids as monumental royal tombs. More than a dozen other pyramids are scattered along the five-mile strip of land, which is also dotted with the remains of temples, tombs and walkways that, together, span the entire history of ancient Egypt. But beneath the ground is far more—a vast and extraordinary netherworld of treasures.

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This article is a selection from the July/August 2021 issue of Smithsonian magazine

The excavation site
The excavation site is not far from Djoser’s Step Pyramid, which was thought to convey divine energy. Roger Anis

One scorching day last fall, Mohammad Youssef, an archaeologist, clung to a rope inside a shaft that had been closed for more than 2,000 years. At the bottom, he shined his flashlight through a gap in the limestone wall and was greeted by a god’s gleaming eyes: a small, painted statue of the composite funerary deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, with a golden face and plumed crown. It was Youssef’s first glimpse of a large chamber that was guarded by a heap of figurines, carved wooden chests and piles of blackened linen. Inside, Youssef and his colleagues found signs that the people buried here had wealth and privilege: gilded masks, a finely carved falcon and a painted scarab beetle rolling the sun across the sky. Yet this was no luxurious family tomb, as might have been expected. Instead, the archaeologists were astonished to discover dozens of expensive coffins jammed together, piled to the ceiling as if in a warehouse. Beautifully painted, human-shaped boxes were stacked roughly on top of heavy limestone sarcophagi. Gilded coffins were packed into niches around the walls. The floor itself was covered in rags and bones.

This eerie chamber is one of several “megatombs,” as the archaeologists describe them, discovered last year at Saqqara, the sprawling necropolis that once served the nearby Egyptian capital of Memphis. The excavators overseen by Youssef uncovered hundreds of coffins, mummies and grave goods, including carved statues and mummified cats, packed into several shafts, all untouched since antiquity. The trove includes many individual works of art, from the gilded portrait mask of a sixth- or seventh-century B.C. noblewoman to a bronze figure of the god Nefertem inlaid with precious gems. The scale of discoveries—captured in the Smithsonian Channel documentary series “Tomb Hunters,” an advance copy of which was made available to me—has excited archaeologists. They say it opens a window into a period late in ancient Egyptian history when Saqqara was at the center of a national revival in pharaonic culture and attracted visitors from across the known world. The site is full of contradictions, entwining past and future, spirituality and economics. It was a hive of ritual and magic that arguably couldn’t seem more distant from our modern world. Yet it nurtured ideas so powerful they still shape our lives today.

* * *

Travelers visiting Egypt have long marveled at the vestiges of the pharaohs’ lost world—the great pyramids, ancient temples and mysterious writings carved into stone. But Egyptology, the formal study of ancient Egyptian civilization, didn’t begin in earnest until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded at the turn of the 19th century and French scholars collected detailed records of ancient sites and scoured the country for antiquities. When Jean-François Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs, in the 1820s, the history of one of humanity’s great civilizations could finally be read, and European scholars and enthusiasts flocked to see not only the pyramids at Giza but also the colossal Ramses II statues carved into the cliffs at Abu Simbel and the royal tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings.

map showing where the archaeological dig and Saqqara necropolis are located
5W Infographics. Sources: Smithsonian Channel, At Land Productions, Lion TV

Apart from its eroding pyramids, Saqqara was known, by contrast, for its subterranean caverns, which locals raided for mummies to use as fertilizer and tourists ransacked for souvenirs. Looters carted off not only mummified people but also mummified animals—hawks, ibises, baboons. Saqqara didn’t attract much archaeological attention until the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, who became the first director of Egypt’s Antiquities Service, visited in 1850. He declared the site “a spectacle of utter devastation,” with yawning pits and dismantled brick walls where the sand was mixed with mummy wrappings and bones. But he also noticed the half-buried statue of a sphinx, and probing further he found a sphinx-lined avenue leading to a temple called the Serapeum. Beneath the temple were tunnels that held the coffins of Apis bulls, worshiped as incarnations of Ptah and Osiris.

Since then, excavations have revealed a history of burials and cult ceremonies spanning more than 3,000 years, from Egypt’s earliest pharaohs to its dying breaths in the Roman era. Yet Saqqara has remained overshadowed by the glamour of Luxor to the south, where in the second millennium B.C. pharaohs covered the walls of their tombs with depictions of the afterlife, and the Great Pyramids just miles to the north.

Mohammad Youssef
Mohammad Youssef, the site director, prepares to explore a shaft tomb. The shafts can descend 30 feet, and open at different levels into niches and chambers. Roger Anis

It certainly took a while for Mostafa Waziri, the archaeologist directing the latest project, to be converted to Saqqara’s charms. He spent most of his career excavating in Luxor, but in 2017 he was appointed director of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (making him, among other things, a successor to Mariette). The new job entailed a move to Cairo. Continuing to dig in southern Egypt was therefore no longer practical, he says, but on his doorstep was another great opportunity: “I realized it was less than one hour from my office to Saqqara!”

Working with an Egyptian team, including Youssef, the site director, Waziri chose to excavate near a mysterious temple called the Bubasteion, dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, that had been cut into limestone cliffs near the site’s eastern boundary around 600 B.C. A group of French archaeologists had worked nearby for decades, where they found, among other discoveries, the 14th-century B.C. tomb of King Tutankhamen’s wet nurse, Maia. But Waziri targeted an area that the French team had used to pile the debris from their excavations, calculating that whatever lay beneath it had remained untouched.

Local laborers
Local laborers helped to excavate using a traditional winch known as a tambora, which can raise objects weighing close to 1,000 pounds. Roger Anis

His approach paid off. In December 2018, Waziri announced the discovery of a 4,400-year-old tomb, intact and ornately carved, that belonged to a high-ranking priest named Wahtye. The next season yielded intriguing caches of animal mummies—not just cats but a cobra, a lion cub, a mongoose and even a scarab beetle. Then, in September 2020, the team unearthed a vertical shaft dug 30 feet down into the bedrock, the first of the “megatombs.” In separate niches at the bottom were two giant coffins, and when the archaeologists cleared the surrounding debris they found dozens more. “I had to call the [antiquities] minister,” says Waziri. “He asked me, ‘How many?’” Eight months later, Waziri is still counting.

* * *

In a simple conservation lab set up at the site, Youssef and his colleagues admired the first coffin to be removed from the shaft. Sealed with black resin, it was roughly human-shaped but huge and squat—more than 7.5 feet long and 3 feet wide—with a wide, impassive face. Removing the intricately carved wooden lid revealed a glint of gold: A second coffin was nested inside, complete with gilded mask. Beautifully preserved, it showed the face of a woman with large, kohl-lined eyes. The rest of the inner coffin was intricately painted in blue, green and red, and included flower and leaf motifs and a depiction of the sky goddess, Nut, with outstretched wings. Most exciting, though, were the hieroglyphs, because they provided valuable information about the occupant: not just spells to aid her journey to the afterlife but details of her family, as well as her name: Ta-Gemi-En-Aset.

Research field station tent
The Bubasteion, dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, was likely built in the 6th century B.C. near Saqqara’s eastern boundary. The tent is a research field station. Roger Anis

These details and the distinctive style of the coffin indicate that she lived during the sixth or seventh century B.C., at the start of Egypt’s Late Period, when a pharaoh named Psamtik I reunified the country after a period of instability and foreign invasions. Egypt was strong and prosperous once again, a global power alongside Babylon and Persia. Psamtik also revived the powerful city of Memphis, then home to around two million people, and nearby Saqqara to hold its dead. According to Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum in England, the name Ta-Gemi-En-Aset means “she who was found by Isis.” The coffin inscriptions describe her mother as a singer, and include a symbol representing a sistrum, a musical rattle used in temples. Price suggests that Ta-Gemi may have belonged to the cult of Isis, and perhaps played a role in rituals and festivals in a nearby temple devoted to the goddess.

The second coffin retrieved from the shaft was similar to Ta-Gemi’s, and it also contained an inner coffin with a gilded mask. This time, the portrait mask showed a bearded man named Psamtik (probably in honor of one of several pharaohs of this period who shared the name). At first, the team wondered whether Ta-Gemi and Psamtik were related. The hieroglyphs revealed that their fathers had the same name: Horus. But their mothers’ names were different, and further discoveries revealed a different picture.

An engineer from Cairo’s Ain Shams University uses a Lidar scanner
An engineer from Cairo’s Ain Shams University uses a Lidar scanner to map the 4,300-year-old tomb of a high-ranking official named Pinomis. Roger Anis

The team dug deeper, a painfully slow process that involved the help of local laborers, who scooped out the sand by hand and hauled basketsful of debris to the surface using a traditional wooden winch called a tambora, the design of which hasn’t changed in centuries. Below Psamtik’s burial niche was a room filled with many additional coffins, covered in rubble and damaged by ancient rockfalls. The bottom of the shaft led to a second, even bigger cavern, inside of which were jammed more than a hundred coffins of different styles and sizes. There were also loose grave goods, including ushabtis, miniature figures intended as servants in the afterlife, and hundreds of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statuettes. There were even coffins buried in the base of the shaft itself, as if whoever put them there was running out of space. The result was a megatomb described by the research team as the largest concentration of coffins ever unearthed in Egypt.

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Great collections of mummies and coffins have been found before, but never grouped so densely together. This was mass burial on an astonishing scale, and it shines a light on Egyptian culture at a moment of transition. In the Old Kingdom, in the third millennium B.C.—Djoser’s time—the elites appear to have favored private family spaces such as the priest Wahtye’s rock-cut tomb, which included an ornate, above-ground chapel for visitors lined with painted reliefs, inscriptions and statues of Wahtye himself. Burial shafts dug into the floor of such tombs were dedicated to particular family members. By the Late Period, some 2,000 years later, well-to-do Egyptians such as Ta-Gemi and Psamtik were packed into tight, shared spaces like cheap crates. Why did people who could clearly afford expensive coffins settle for such a crowded resting place?

According to Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, in England, they did so in part because by then the practice was simply routine. Shared tombs became popular across Egypt around 1000 B.C., driven by economic necessity as the kingdom faced a period of instability and collapse. When Psamtik I restored order in the seventh century B.C., the practice stuck. “We know that from the Late Period, that’s how burials are done,” Dodson says.

Old Kingdom tombs
Old Kingdom tombs such as Pinomis’ were spacious and ornate. By the Late Period, 2,000 years later, coffins crowded rough-hewn shafts. Roger Anis

Campbell Price, of the Manchester Museum, adds that the answer also has to do with Saqqara’s pyramids. The necropolis had always been a center for religious cults, from the time high-ranking Egyptians were first buried there, often in low, flat-roofed tombs called mastabas, and probably long before. To help bring the country together after turbulent times, Psamtik encouraged a revival of traditional rituals and belief; after a long period as a backwater, Saqqara exploded again in popularity. Far more than a local cemetery, says Price, it became a pilgrimage site, “like an ancient Mecca or Lourdes,” attracting visitors not just from Egypt but from all over the eastern Mediterranean. Buildings such as the Step Pyramid were already thousands of years old at this time, and people believed their creators, such as Djoser and his architect Imhotep, were gods themselves. Cults and temples sprang up. Pilgrims would bring offerings, and they vied for burial spaces for themselves and their families near the ancient, sacred tombs. “Saqqara would have been the place to be seen dead in,” says Price. “It had this numinous, divine energy that would help you get into the afterlife.”

The variety of burials inside the shafts
The variety of burials inside the shafts, from simple wood boxes to painted coffins and stone sarcophagi, suggests that individuals from across the Late Period’s middle classes were buried together. Roger Anis

That created conditions for a thriving commercial operation entwined with the spiritual one, resulting in a kind of real estate market for the dead. “It’s a business,” says Dodson. There was probably a sliding scale of options available. Senior officials and military officers were interred in large tombs near the Old Kingdom pyramids of Unas and Userkaf, for example, while the poorest in society were probably buried “in the desert in a sheet.” But the wealthy middle classes appear to have opted for a shared shaft, perhaps with a private niche if they could afford it, or were simply piled with others on the floor. If you wanted to be close to the magical energy of Saqqara’s gods and festivals, Dodson says, “you bought yourself a space in a shaft.”

The coffin of a man who likely lived during the Late Period.
The coffin of a man who likely lived during the Late Period. The winged goddess Nut protects the mummy inside; a funerary prayer, in hieroglyphs, is above his name and parentage. Roger Anis

The supersized burials unearthed by Waziri’s archaeology team reveal how intense the desire for particular locations became—and how profitable they were. Instead of digging new tombs, the priests in charge of burials reused older shafts, expanding them and, Price and Dodson suggest, cramming in as many coffins as they could. The cliffs of the Bubasteion, overlooking the landscape and close to the main processional route, may have been one of the most sought-after spots of all.

* * *

Last October, the archaeologists found a new shaft beneath the ruins of the Bubasteion—the chaotic, painted chamber illuminated by Youssef’s flashlight. It was another megatomb, bursting with some of the finest coffins and mummies yet discovered, as well as grave goods including a falcon-topped wooden box (possibly a canopic chest, used to store internal organs removed during mummification) and numerous painted Ptah-Sokar-Osiris statues, one of which contained seeds, a symbol of rebirth.

Many of the burials date later than the other finds at Saqqara, to the era of Greek rule in Egypt following the Late Period, after Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s top generals, founded a new dynasty of pharaohs in 305 B.C. With the Ptolemaic pharaohs came strong Greek cultural influences, particularly at the Mediterranean capital of Alexandria, home to some of the finest scholars of the Hellenistic world, such as the mathematician Euclid and the physician-anatomist Herophilus. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the Greek world settled elsewhere in Egypt, and many were awarded plots of land. Public life was Greek-run, but in private life, including religious worship, there was considerable freedom, and many of the new arrivals appear to have adopted Egyptian beliefs and customs, including mummification. As time went on, says Dodson, “more people who self-identified as Greeks were being buried according to Egyptian customs.” Saqqara was as busy as ever, and the new discoveries suggest the priests were still squeezing as many bodies as possible into the shafts.

A conservator cleans a statuette
A conservator cleans a statuette of the composite deity Ptah-Sokar-Osiris; each god was associated with creation or rebirth and venerated at Saqqara. Roger Anis
A jar from a shaft
A jar from a shaft seemingly engraved with the face of Bes, a beneficent deity with grotesque features who protected against evil beings. Roger Anis
Unprotected remains
Because the shafts were used by Egyptians of different means, archaeologists have found unprotected remains, such as this skull, along with expensive coffins. Roger Anis

In a nearby shaft, the team unearthed cat mummies along with human remains. Previous excavations had discovered a huge cat necropolis at the Bubasteion, where the animals, sacred to the feline goddess Bastet, were embalmed and left as offerings. It was one of many local animal cults. Just north of the Bubasteion is the Anubieion, a temple complex dedicated to the jackal-headed god of death, Anubis, where mazelike tunnels are estimated to have held millions of mummified dogs. Beyond that are catacombs once filled with mummified ibises, hawks and baboons. To the west is the Serapeum, where Apis bulls were laid to rest.

A coffin bearing the well-preserved mummy of a woman named Ta-net-Imen, dating to the Ptolemaic era more than 2,000 years ago. The gilded mask attests to her wealth and status.
A coffin bearing the well-preserved mummy of a woman named Ta-net-Imen, dating to the Ptolemaic era more than 2,000 years ago. The gilded mask attests to her wealth and status. Roger Anis
A painted wood coffin
A painted wood coffin, with faux-kohl-lined eyes, containing the well-preserved mummy of an unknown high-ranking official from the Late Period. Roger Anis

These cults always existed at Saqqara. Their roots stretch back to predynastic times, and they thrived especially in the Late Period, during the renaissance inaugurated by Psamtik, perhaps because they were seen as archetypally Egyptian, says Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist based at the American University in Cairo—a symbol of national identity when foreign influence was an ever-present threat. But they became even more popular under the Greeks, with millions of animals bred to order, presumably on nearby farms, and often sacrificed shortly after birth. Waziri and his colleagues found animal mummies of varying qualities, which were probably priced accordingly. X-rays reveal that some “mummies” have no cat remains inside at all. And the mix with human bones suggests that if priests ran out of space in the dedicated animal catacombs, they simply commandeered older human tombs. The animal cults, in other words, became an ever more significant economic and spiritual force, helping to drive Saqqara’s final flourish. Or as Price puts it: “Saqqara was like an enormous, divine magnet or battery, powered by all these animal mummies.”

To the Greeks, part of the appeal of such Egyptian customs may have been the ease of making a personal plea to the gods, by visiting a stall selling mummified animals and choosing from a range of prepared products on offer. And the reward would likewise have been appealing: the promise, unique to Egyptian theology at that time, of an eternal afterlife of splendor. By contrast, “Greek ideas for the afterlife were pretty dull,” says Price. In classic Greek literature, for example, the dead were mere shadows inhabiting a dark underworld. The Babylonian and Jewish traditions had very exclusive notions of heaven; eternal life was reserved for the gods. But Egyptian texts covering the walls inside the Saqqara pyramids describe the king’s soul rising up after death to join the sun in the sky. By around 2000 B.C., resurrection spells were written onto coffins directly, enabling even ordinary citizens such as Ta-Gemi to make the journey to idyllic, golden fields. Although the details of the afterlife changed over time, the most desirable postmortem destination during the Ptolemaic period was the “Field of Reeds,” an agricultural paradise with unfailing harvests and eternal spring.

two statues and a false door
Left: A life-size wood statue found in Pinomis’ tomb. In his left hand is a long staff; in his right (now empty) was probably a baton. Both signified his rank and authority. Center: This remarkably preserved false door, considered a gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead, was found in the tomb of Pinomis, which also houses his wife and children. It’s inscribed with funerary prayers. Right: A bronze statue of the god Nefertem inlaid with precious gems. Typically depicted as a young man with a lotus-flower headdress, the deity was associated with rebirth. Mohamed Elseaidy and Nagm Eldeen
The Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, is home to the world’s largest collection of pharaonic antiquities, from the predynastic eras to the time of Rome. Roger Anis

After Cleopatra ended her life in 30 B.C., bringing the Ptolemaic era to an end, Rome ruled Egypt. Whereas the Greeks had integrated into Egyptian culture, the Romans remade it, imposing their laws and administrative systems and, in time, their newly adopted Christian faith. At Saqqara, the last Egyptian mummies date to the third century A.D. Despite the cultural triumph of Rome, however, some Egyptian iconography lives on in Christian narratives. Many scholars have noted similarities between Egyptian and Christian religious symbolism, for example in stories of the goddess Isis and her son Horus and the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. “A lot of the iconography in Christianity is derived from ancient Egypt,” says Ikram, of the American University in Cairo.

The tilted mask on coffin
The tilted mask on this coffin, carved separately, may indicate that the deceased could not afford higher-quality construction; the coffin is otherwise unadorned. Roger Anis

Which is not to say that these images were necessarily appropriated directly; rather, in antiquity these influences ran in many directions. The historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, of Oxford, notes that Christian ideas of the afterlife in particular drew heavily on Greek belief, which by then had developed a “vocabulary” for concepts such as Plato’s notion that the human soul “might reflect a divine force beyond itself.” Plato, for his part, was influenced by Pythagoras, who is thought to have studied in Egypt in the sixth century B.C. “By the time Christians were beginning to construct their own literature,” MacCulloch writes in Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “their writers clearly found such talk of the individual soul and of resurrection completely natural.”

* * *

Today, the pace of discoveries at Saqqara remains high. “We found something last Saturday,” Waziri said recently, buzzing from excitement. “But I can’t tell you about it yet.” Salima Ikram is working with Japanese archaeologists just north of the Bubasteion, where some coffins appear to have been deposited directly in the sand. The archaeologist Zahi Hawass recently reported finding a temple belonging to a previously unknown wife of the Old Kingdom pharaoh Teti. A group working near Unas’ pyramid found a Late Period mummification workshop, complete with embalmer’s platform, incense burner and rock-cut channels to drain the blood. Waziri hopes to discover workshops where the wooden coffins were made. “What we found in the last three years,” he says, “is not even 10 percent of what we will find.”

two figures at dig site
The recent digs have already unearthed hundreds of coffins. "We need to know more about them and their lives, to complete our history," says archaeologist Ahmed Zikrey. Roger Anis

Egyptologists, meanwhile, are eager to study the hundreds of new mummies and coffins. “The interesting thing would be to try to map these people onto the landscape,” says Price. He has previously used geophysical techniques to probe below the ground at Saqqara, which revealed the remains of numerous temples lining the processional route to the Serapeum, but this approach can’t yield texts or names to identify which gods were worshiped at these sites. Now we can add the “social layer,” he hopes, to discover who the people working in these temples were and what they believed. Ikram says the coffin inscriptions might identify relationships between individuals, perhaps revealing if families were buried together or with people of similar occupations.

Already, though, the recent discoveries are helping to redefine this necropolis not as a silent graveyard but as a vibrant economic and spiritual center, filled with temples, embalming houses, stalls and workshops. There were offerings and burials to suit all budgets, profit squeezed out of every encounter, and above all, the fierce determination to defy earthly mortality and survive forever. The secret of Saqqara, then, wasn’t death. It was life.

Additional research by Caterina Turroni, Marianne Tames-Demauras and Sam Kassem.

Watch the Smithsonian Channel program Tomb Raiders” when it premieres on Monday, June 21, at 8 pm ET. Check your local cable provider for listings.

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