Egypt: The Tombs of Bahariya Oasis

The Tombs of Bahariya Oasis

by Dr. Zahi Hawass

The Tombs of Bahariya Oasis

This story was provided by Egypt Air from their Horus Magazine

Bahariya Oasis has revealed the secrets of the Valley of the Golden Mummies, but there are other major discoveries in the area and these sites will attract people from all over the world. We are going back to excavate the tombs of the upper classes and one can imagine what we are going to discover inside the tombs of those rich people. The last excavation of the tombs of the middle classes will be published in a book by Harry N. Abrams in New York. The book will be available in five languages, and will contain three hundred photos.

Bahariya Oasis includes major archaeological sites that we will explain in a different article and also introduce a beautiful modern site, known as the hot spring wells, in which you can swim in the evening. Another site is the English house, it is set atop a high mountain where you can sit and watch the sunset whilst eating the most romantic dinner.

"I believe that Bahariya will be another important destination for tourists, I visited this site three times now and I will go again... It is romantic, beautiful, quiet and very impressive site", said my good friend Mark Linz Director of the American University Press. Mark adds that the AUC Press will make the valley of the mummies book available to every tourist in Cairo.

Let me take you with me on an adventure in archaeology.


Burial Chamber of Ped Ashtar at Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

To enter this set of three adjoining tombs you climb down a shaft into a cave-like maze of rooms with rounded walls. The first tomb belongs to a man named Ped-Ashtar who lived during or just before the reign of King Apries in Dynasty 26. He was the grandfather of Zed-Khonsu-efank, the governor of Bahariya whose tomb is probably nearby although we have not yet found it. Ped-Ashtar was a high priest of Khonsu and priest of Horus, as was his father, Harkheb. His wife, Ta-Nefert-Bastet, was the daughter of the prophet Pedisi. The unusual name, Ped-Ashtar, means the gift of Ashtar. Ashtar was a Syrian goddess, which is indicative of the merging iconography in the Oasis then between Egyptian and invading cultures of the Third Intermediate and Late Period.

This is the oldest tomb in Baharyia after that of Amenhotep-Hui. Its three chambers, four pillared hall and vaulted ceilings were once painted with scenes representing the hours of day and night and the forty-two gods of the Judgement Hall. We know from Dr. Fakhry's descriptions that some of the images differed slightly from earlier standard tomb scenes. These alterations give us insight into how the religious practices might have gradually been changing at that time.

Gods and deceased in Bannantiu Tomb in Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

Earlier versions of the 'Book of the Dead', for example, list the number of the Souls of Pe and Souls of Nekhen, as three. The tomb of Ped-Ashtar showed only two for each god, while in the tomb of Thaty, there were four. In the Late Period the names of the Souls of Pe and Nekhen were the same as those for the four sons of Horus, which is unusual.

Another unique feature of this tomb was the way in which the names of the eight ancient gods of Hermopolis were inscribed. Amun and Amaunet were replaced by Nun and Naunet. In Pharaonic Egypt, Osiris was most often mourned by his wife and sister, Isis and Nephthys. In many of Baharyia's tombs, these traditional goddesses were replaced with Mert and Oadjit at the head and foot of Osiris sarcophagus.

The only other apparent addition to an otherwise typical scene of Maat introducing Ped-Ashtar to Osiris were the depictions of siphons, or long tubes, leading from one vessel on a table to a lower vessel beneath it. Historians believe this unique invention was brought to Egypt by the Syrians around Dynasty 18. There are no other instances of this type of device being shown before then.


Solar boat of the Sun God Ra at the Tomb of Thaty in Bahariya Osis, Egypt

Connected to Ped-Ashtar's tomb by a break in its northern wall is the tomb of Thaty, grandson of Ped-Ashtar, son of Pedisi. The pillared hall and two chambers had typical inscriptions of Thaty's titles and parentage, offerings to Osiris, scenes from the Judgment Hall, the journey of the Sun boat and journey of the Moon. His Family lineage was lovingly invoked and honored in the inscribed text as a kind of family tree of priests: Thaty the priest of Khonse, the repeater priest of Amun-Hour-Khomsu, Thaty, son of the same man Pedisi, son of the same man Ped-Ashtar, son of the same man Harkheb, born of N'as.

In one scene, Thaty's wife, Ta-Nefert-Bastet, was shown with his daughter raising their arms up in prayer for the deceased. What was different about their images was their unique style of dress. Egyptian women in the Old Kingdom always wore a plain white linen dress

Zahi Hawass in the tomb of Thaty in Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

with one breast bare. By the New Kingdom, dresses were close fitting with multi-colored patterns but covering the breasts. Here and in the tomb of Zed-Amun-Efankh, the wives wore robes of non-Egyptian origin with fringed edges and a scarf around the neck, one end falling over one breast, the other down their backs. A few wore sleeveless cloaks.

Though some fringes can be seen in earlier processions of Libyan women, this variation is found nowhere else but Phoenician and early Greek civilization. Therefore, we can presume that this wealthy family of priests and governors of Bahariya were marrying some of the newly-arrived foreigners to the area, the Greeks who were the leading merchants in the world at that time. The use of this fringe-style dress became more common in the Nile Valley during the Late Period as the Greek culture gradually influenced long-held Egyptian ways of life.

Dr. Fakhry also found eight sarcophagi in two chambers reused for Roman burials then robbed in modern times. They would have been lowered down a sand ramp through a side tunnel, which was then refilled. There is a hole in the wall leading to the tomb of Ped-Ashtar where thieves hammered through a false door.

One can still see scenes of mummification by Anubis though the plaster is rapidly flaking off the wall. The purification of the deceased takes place before Thoth in the form of a baboon, and Isis is seen nursing her child Horus, a typical tomb scene. The only artifacts left behind were a few Osirian statuettes made of faience end two canopic jar lids topped with heads of Anubis.


Ta-Nefert-Bastet was Thaty's wife, daughter of Pedisi, born of N'as. She was also depicted in her own burial chamber wearing the same fringed clothes as her husband. Further evidence points to the probability that she was a descendent of a Phoenician or Greek Family.

Ta-Nefert-Bastet Burial Chamber in Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

Though still wearing the traditional black Egyptian headdress, she was painted with pink skin and black eyes. Her tomb, constructed behind Thaty's, was left unfinished. Why she was buried in a separate tomb from that of her husband we cannot say.

It was in this last tomb of Ta-Nefert-Bastet that I approached the opening under the wall one morning in October. I considered the possibility of waiting until some of our workers could carefully dig out a larger entrance for me to fit through safely. But my curiosity out-reasoned my reason! I got down on my belly and tried to peek under but the wall was too thick to see what was on the other side. I figured I would take my chances and climb under the wall, but just to be on the safe side I would bring my assistant, Mohammed Tiyab who was in charge of the excavation after the demolition of the houses.

The opening was about one and a half feet high. I wriggled through the opening of red sandstone like a snake. When my feet were clear of the hole I tried to stand up realized the space was only about three to five feet high. When we held up the light we suddenly saw ourselves with red hair, red clothes and red faces. We were covered in red sandstone. I laughed later when I saw myself in the mirror although I love this part of the adventure of archaeology.

The space appeared to be approximately ten feet long. Its ceiling was vaulted and painted with still colorful scenes of gods and goddesses from 'The Book of the Dead'. This was very exciting. This meant we were entering into yet another tomb and it did not show signs of water damage or vandalism. I looked around and saw a hole in the western wall. Dr. Fakhry could not have known about this or his notes would have mentioned it. Part of the sandstone must have crumbled away naturally since 1950. I brought my lamp closer to inspect the hole, which was about a square foot around, just large enough to put my light into. Mohammed was trying to peer into the hole at the same time, which was impossible. He kept asking me; what do you see, sir? What do you see?

I found myself saying the same words that Howard Carter said to Lord Carnarvon wonderful things... wonderful things! I looked at Mohammed and laughed at how red his face was, it was as if he was going to burst if he didn't get a look. So I told him to wait while I described everything in detail.

The room was about twenty feet long by six feet wide. Inside there was a large stone sarcophagus with a rounded lid. Unlike the other three tombs the lid was still on top, not cast on the floor. That meant it was intact! An undisturbed burial chamber actually containing a large anthropoid coffin surrounded by pottery and artifacts that I could not recognize because they were buried under the sand. My mind was reeling. Who does this tomb belong to? How many more rooms lay waiting next to these? Will they grant us more of a look into history? Could their mummies and funerary objects still possibly be undisturbed?

It is at moments such as these that it is vital to stay calm but also the most difficult. I stayed one hour, wondering what I should do because it appeared as if the chamber's entrance was directly above, where modern dwellings were situated. I decided to go back the next day to survey further. I took Ashry with me to figure out how we could enter the new tomb. I looked at other shafts that were excavated and found two shafts, two sandstone sarcophagi inscribed and never described before. I found that the vaulted tomb was decorated and that there could be a further two separate tombs. We concluded that the only way to enter it was to relocate the families form the next ten houses and demolish them. We arranged a meeting with the owners of the houses.

The residents there are very poor and very kind. In the course of our discussions, we realized that they had no legal right to the land, or any legal document to prove that they own the houses. Therefore, by law, the government could not give them any compensation. In order to begin excavation we counted twenty houses that needed to be cleared. I asked Ashry to write all the residents names and the size of each house. Then I wrote a report to the Department of Antiquities explaining the situation and asked them to assign a decree to demolish the homes under the protection of the police.

I then met with the mayor of Bahariya to see how we could help those people. We decided to give them each a piece of land but we could not pay them any money. When I met with the home-owners again to explain our decision I thought they would refuse but they were actually very happy. I was surprised and asked Ashry the reason. He smiled and said most of them have other houses in town.

Sarcophagi in Sheikh Soby Tomb in Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

One requirement we made clear to the authorities in charge of the demolition, is that the cenotaph of Sheikh Soby stay in its location. His spirit may help us in the discovery of something incredible. These tombs could prove very important to the history of Bahariya, now the most famous site in Egypt. I went to the site on a further two occasions just to be sure that the entrance of the tomb is really located under the houses.

My own team of archaeologists is eagerly awaiting the chance to move into completely virgin territory at Bahariya. Like a child sitting before a pile of unwrapped gifts, I can hardly wait until the first season of 2000 when we will enter this untouched tomb of Dynasty 26 and continue our excavation at the Valley of the Golden Mummies. Further excavations will be documented in the second edition of my book.

Site of the Tombs at Bahariya Oasis, Egypt

What else lies beyond these walls? What style of mummies will the newly discovered Cemetery of the Upper Class reveal? We will have to wait until next season to find out but I expect nothing less than spectacular!

This is why I love my work there is always so much more to uncover and every day is full of unexpected surprises. Now I feel there was a reason after all that I moved from the site at the Giza Pyramids to Bahariya Oasis. I can only call it destiny.

See also:

The Temple of Ain el-Muftella in the Bahariya Oasis

Last Updated:
August 21st, 2011