Since Egyptologists had lost interest in the site of Tomb 5, as it had been explored and looted decades ago, they were going to permit the building of a parking lot. Fortunately this did not occur, because unbeknown to the archeological world, there was a treasure not more than 200 feet beyond King Tut's tomb. No one realized that the rubble strewn rooms that previously had been used to store debris were of any value. Before giving their final consent, Dr. Kent Weeks, an Egyptologist with the American University in Cairo, wanted to be sure that the new parking facility wouldn't destroy anything important. Thus, Dr. Weeks embarked in 1988 on one final exploration of the old dumping ground. Eventually he was able to pry open a door blocked for thousands of years, and announced the discovery of a life time. "We found ourselves in a corridor," he remembers. "On each side were 10 doors and at the end there was a statue of Osiris, the god of the afterlife."
The tomb is mostly unexcavated and the chambers are choked with debris, Weeks is convinced that there are more rooms on a lower level, bringing the total number to more than 100. That would make Tomb 5 the biggest and most complex tomb ever found in Egypt, and quite conceivable the resting place of up to 50 sons of Rameses II. He was perhaps the best known of all the pharaohs, and believed to have been Moses' nemesis in the book of Exodus.
The Valley of the Kings, in which Tomb 5 is located, is just across the Nile River from Luxor, Egypt. It has never exactly been off the beaten track. Tourism has been brisk in the valley for millenniums: graffiti scrawled on tomb walls prove that Greek and Roman travelers stopped here to gaze at the wall paintings and hieroglyphics that were already old long before the birth of Christ. Archaeologists have been coming for centuries too. Napoleon brought his own team of excavators when he invaded in 1798, and a series of expeditions in 19th and early 20th centuries uncovered one tomb after another. A total of 61 burial spots had been found by the time the British explorer Howard Carter opened the treasure-laden tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922.
Britain's James Burton had burrowed into the site of Tomb 5 in 1820, and decided that there was nothing inside. A dismissive Carter used its entryway as a place to dump the debris he was hauling out of Tut's tomb.
In the late 1980s, came the proposed parking area and Weeks' concern. His 1988 Foray made it clear that the tomb wasn't dull as Burton said. Elaborate carvings covered walls and referred to Rameses II, whose own tomb was just 100 ft. away. The wall inscriptions on the companion crypt mentioned two of Rameses' 52 known sons, implying some of the royal offspring might have been buried within. Then, came last month's astonishing announcement.
For treasure, the tomb probably won't come close to Tut's because robbers apparently plundered the chamber a long time ago. Weeks does not expect to find any riches other than carvings and inscriptions, along with thousands of artifacts such as beads, fragments of jars that were used to store the organs of the deceased, and mummified body parts. These items tell historians a great deal about ancient Egypt during the reign of its most important king. "Egyptians do not call him Rameses II," Sabry Abd El Aziz, director of antiquities for the Qurna region said. " We call him Rameses al-Akbar which means Rameses the Great."
During his 67 years on the throne stretching from 1279 B.C. to 1212 B. C., Rameses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of Records. He built more temples, obelisks and monuments; took more wives (eight, not counting concubines) and claimed to have sired more children (as many as 162, by some accounts) than any other pharaoh in history. He presided over an empire that stretched from present-day Libya to Iraq in the east, as far north as Turkey and southward into the Sudan.
Today, historians know a great deal about Rameses and the customs of his day. However, the newly explored tomb suddenly presents scholars with all sorts of puzzles. For one thing, many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings are syringe-like, plunging straight as a needle into the steep hillsides. For reasons nobody yet knows, says Weeks, this one "is more like an octopus, with a body surrounded by tentacles."
The "body" in this case is an enormous square room, at least 50 ft. on a side and divided by 16 massive columns. In Rameses 'day the room would have seemed positively cavernous; now it is filled nearly to the top with rubble washed in over the centuries by infrequent flash floods. Anyone who wants to traverse the chamber has to crawl through a tight passage, lighted by a string of dim electric light bulbs where the dirt has been painstakingly cleared away.
At the end of this claustrophobic journey lies the door Weeks found, and the relatively spacious corridors beyond. It is here, as well as in two outermost rooms, that the artifacts were discovered. Weeks says, "The tomb was pretty well gone over in ancient times." The archaeologists have tracked down a record of one of those robberies which occurred in about 1150 B.C. A 3,000 year old papyrus fragment housed in a museum in Turin, Italy recounts the trial of a thief who was caught in the Valley of the Kings. He confessed under torture that he had broken into Rameses II's tomb and then returned the next night to rob the tomb of Rameses' children, which was across the path.
Additional artifacts could lie buried if, as Weeks believes, the tomb had an unusual split level design. The ceilings of the corridors to the left and right of the statue of Osiris slope downward and then drop abruptly about 4 ft. Moreover, the doors that line the corridors all lead to identical 10 ft. by 10 ft. chambers. The openings are only about 2.5 ft. wide which is too narrow to accommodate a prince's sarcophagus. That suggests to Weeks that the rooms weren't burial chambers but rather chapels for funeral offerings.
Hieroglyphics above each painting make it clear that the pharaoh's first, second, seventh, and 15th sons were buried in Tomb 5. Many of the engravings show Rameses presenting one or another of the newly deceased young men to Re-Harakhty, the god of the sun; Horus, the falcon headed god of the sky; or Hathor, goddess of motherhood, who is often depicted as a cow. These scenes reflect the belief that pharaohs were demigods while alive and that life was merely a short term way station on the road to full deity.
Anything that researchers learn in Tomb 5 about Rameses' oldest son, Amen-hir-khopshef, could be especially significant to religion scholars. Cautious Weeks is quoted as warning: " I'm not saying that we will prove the validity of the Bible,but scholars are hungry for any new information about this crucial time in Judeo-Christian history."
The great buildings boom got under way as soon as Rameses took the throne at age 25 and discovered that the great temple his father Seti I had begun at Abydos was in shambles. The new pharaoh summoned his courtiers to hear his plans for completing the work. Then, he went on to build dozens of monuments, including a temple at Luxor and Karnak and the cliff temples at Abu Simbel which were rescued from waters rising behind the Aswan Dam in the 1960s.
In an age when life expectancy could not have been much more than 40, it must have seemed to his subjects that Ramesses would never die. At 92, the pharaoh went to join his ancestors and some of his sons in the Valley of the Kings. His internal organs were removed and placed in vessels known as canopic jars, and the body was embalmed and gently wrapped in cloth. Archaeologists found that the embalmers has even stuffed peppercorns into the monarch's nostrils to keep his aquiline nose from being flattened by the wrappings.
Rameses was then placed in a sarcophagus and interned, along with everything he would need to travel through the afterlife. A few of these items were: The Book of the Dead, containing spells that would give the pharaoh access to the netherworld; tiny statuettes known as Ushabti, which would come alive to help the dead king perform labors for the gods; offering of food and wine; jewelry and even furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable. It's likely, say scholars, that Rameses II's tomb was originally far richer and more elaborate than King Tut's.
Unlike several other tombs in the valley, Rameses' has never been fully excavated. A French team is clearing it now, and the entire tomb could be ready for visitors within five years, but it is not expected to offer archaeologists any surprises. Tomb 5 is a completely different story. Weeks says, "We have never found a multiple burial of a pharaoh's children. We have no idea at all what happened to most of the pharaoh's children." Archaeologists either have to assume that Rameses II buried his children in a unique way, or they have to consider the possibility that they've overlooked a major type of royal tomb.
Archaeologist still haven't resolved many basic questions about Tomb 5 such as when the tomb was built and over what period of time it was used. Some answers could arise as the excavations progress. Says Weeks " Let's hope the tomb yields a whole lot of new bodies. Then, medicos can get to work on them, and find out what these princes were like, whether they had toothaches, how long they lived."
Weeks' team plans to return to Tomb 5 for the month of July. Their goal is to penetrate enough and explore the staircases and lower level. Weeks estimates that it will take at least five years to study and map the entire tomb, protect the decorations, install climate controls and electricity and shore up the precarious sections. Says Abdel Halim Nur el Din, secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities: " We're in no hurry to open this tomb to the public. We already have 10 or 12 that they can visit." It is more important to preserve the tombs that have already been excavated, say the Egyptians, than make new ones accessible.
The recent find gives scholars hope that more can be discovered even in this most explored of Egypt's archaeological sites. Notes the antiquities department's Abd El Aziz: " We still haven't found the tombs of Amenhotep I or Rameses VIII," he says. " We have 62 tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but in the Western Valley, which runs perpendicular to it, we have discovered only two tombs.
The pharaohs would be pleased to know they have held on to a few of their secrets. After all, they dug their tombs deep into hillsides, where the crypts would be safe from the rabble and robbers. However, what they never took into consideration was that one day someone would propose the building of a parking lot on this site.