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Egyptologists had long since lost interest in the site of Tomb 5, which had been explored and looted decades ago, and was about to give way to a parking lot. But for that parking lot, in fact, no one would have ever known the treasure that lay only 200 ft. from King Tut's resting place, just beyond a few rubble-strewn rooms that previous excavators had used to hold their debris.

Wanting to be sure the new parking facility wouldn't destroy anything important, Dr. Kent Weeks, an Egyptologist with the American University in Cairo, 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 last week announced the discovery of a lifetime. "We found ourselves in a corridor," Weeks remembers. "On each side were 10 doors, and at the end there was a statue of Osiris, the god of the afterlife." Two more corridors branched off from there, with 16 more doors on each one. Although 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 conceivably the resting place of up to 50 sons of Ramesses II, perhaps the best known of all the pharaohs, the ruler believed to have been Moses' nemesis in the book of Exodus. Says Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist with Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum: "To find large tombs is one thing, but to find something like this, that's been used for dozens of royal burials, is absolutely amazing." The cheeky London Daily Mail carried this headline: PHARAOH'S 50 SONS IN MUMMY OF ALL TOMBS.

The Valley of the Kings, in which Tomb 5 is located, is just across the Nile River from Luxor, Egypt. It's never exactly been off the beaten track. Tourism has been brisk in the valley for millenniums: graffiti scrawled on tomb walls proves 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 as well, for centuries at least. Napoleon brought his own team of excavators when he invaded in 1798, and a series of expeditions in the 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.

Given such long and unrelenting scrutiny, most archaeologists had pretty much decided there were no major discoveries left to make in this part of Egypt. Britain's James Burton had burrowed into the site of Tomb 5 back 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.

Then, in the late 1980s, came the proposed parking area and Weeks' concern. His 1988 foray made it clear that the tomb wasn't as dull as Burton had thought. Elaborate carvings covered the walls and referred to Ramesses II, whose own tomb was just 100 ft. away. The wall inscriptions on the companion crypt mentioned two of Ramesses' 52 known sons, implying some of the royal offspring might have been buried within. And then came last week's astonishing announcement.

For treasure, the tomb probably won't come close to Tut's, since robbers apparently plundered the chambers long ago. No gold or fine jewelry has been uncovered so far, and Weeks does not expect to find any riches to speak of. Archaeologically, though, the tomb is as good as a gold mine. The carvings and inscriptions Weeks and his colleagues have seen, along with thousands of artifacts littering the floors -- including beads, fragments of jars that were used to store the organs of the deceased, and mummified body parts -- promise to tell historians an enormous amount about ancient Egypt during the reign of its most important king. "Egyptians do not call him Ramesses II," Sabry Abd El Aziz, director of antiquities for the Qurna region, told TIME correspondent Lara Marlowe last week, as she and photographer Barry Iverson became the first Western journalists to enter the tomb since the new discoveries were announced. "We call him Ramesses al-Akbar-Ramesses the Greatest."

No wonder. During his 67 years on the throne, stretching from 1279 B.C. to 1212 B.C., Ramesses could have filled an ancient edition of the Guinness Book of Records all by himself: 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. And 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.

Ramesses is also much celebrated outside of Egypt, though many Westerners probably don't connect the name with the fame. In Exodus he is simply known as "Pharaoh," and Shelley's poem Ozymandias, inspired by the fallen statues at the Ramesseum, his mortuary temple at Thebes, takes its title from the Greek version of one of the ruler's alternate names, User-maat-re. "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" said the inscription on the pharaoh's statue in Shelley's sonnet. Though the poet was making the point that such boasts are hollow because great monuments eventually decay, Ramesses' achievements were truly magnificent.

Because of his marathon reign, historians already know a great deal about Ramesses and the customs of his day. But the newly explored tomb suddenly presents scholars with all sorts of puzzles to ponder. 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 Ramesses' day the room would have seemed positively cavernous; now it's 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. "It's like crawling under a bed," says Time's Marlowe, "except that it goes on and on, and the ceiling above your head is studded with jagged outcroppings of rock that are in danger of caving in."

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-most of them broken. "Clearly," says Weeks, "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 Ramesses II's tomb and then returned the next night to rob the tomb of Ramesses' children, which lay across the path. The absence of artifacts in the rubble above the floor suggests that the tomb remained undisturbed-except by floodwaters-for more than 2,000 years.

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.-strong evidence of stairways. Says Weeks: "I think there are more rooms on the lower level." Moreover, while the doors that line the corridors all lead to identical 10-ft. by 10-ft. chambers, the openings themselves are only about 2 1/2 ft. wide, 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. And cracks in these rooms and in four of the massive pillars in the larger chamber are clues that the floors are unsupported-that hollow areas lie below. Could they contain intact sarcophagi with mummies inside? "I'm hoping," says Weeks.

That hope is based largely on the paintings and carvings adorning the tomb walls. Because of floods, vibrations from buses, and a leaky sewage pipe built over the tomb's entrance, only hand-size fragments remain of some of the scenes painted by ancient artists. Others, however, are nearly whole. "Some of the paint," says Weeks, "is as bright and fresh as the day it was applied."

Hieroglyphics above each painting make it clear that the pharaoh's first, second, seventh and 15th sons, at the very least, were buried in Tomb 5. Many of the engravings show Ramesses 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 Ramesses' oldest son, Amen-hir-khopshef, could be especially significant to religious scholars. Although Egyptian records don't even mention the empire's dealings with the troublesome slaves known as the Israelites, Exodus 12: 29 says that "at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon." Cautions Weeks: "I'm not saying that we'll prove the validity of the Bible." But scholars are hungry for any new information about this crucial time in Judeo-Christian history.

Ramesses' place in history, meanwhile, has been amply documented. The ruler himself saw to that. In fact, grandiosity was part of the job description for pharaohs. One of their primary duties was to make sure the gods were properly thanked for their continuing bounty and protection (and begged for them when they were in short supply). The accepted way to do that was to erect plenty of heroic structures-and then to adorn them with detailed records of the pharaoh's good and dutiful works. Says Kenneth Kitchen, professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and the author of an authoritative book on Ramesses II: "He was determined to do this better than anyone else."

The great building boom got under way as soon as Ramesses took the throne at age 25, right after he discovered that the great temple his father Seti I had begun at Abydos was a shambles. The new pharaoh summoned his courtiers to hear his plans for completing the work. From there he went on to build dozens of monuments, including a temple to Osiris at Abydos, expansions of the temples at Luxor and Karnak and the cliff temples at Abu Simbel, which were rescued from waters rising behind the Aswan Dam in the 1960s.

Another part of the pharaoh's job was to fight constant battles with encroaching enemies. Four years after Ramesses succeeded Seti, the Egyptians' age-old rivals the Hittites appeared on the horizon from the north. The novice pharaoh hurriedly raised an army of 20,000 soldiers, a huge number by the standards of the day, and marched up through the present-day Gaza Strip to confront a Hittite force nearly twice as big. The battle ended in a stalemate; after many more inconclusive skirmishes over the next 15 years, Muwatallis' successor, Hattusilis III, requested a peace treaty, and the Egyptians accepted.

The treaty lasted for the rest of Ramesses' reign. The peace was helped along, no doubt, by his strategic marriage to Hattusilis' daughter Maat-Hor-Neferure in 1246 B.C.-a wedding that almost didn't come off when Ramesses and Hattusilis got into an argument over the dowry. The pharaoh later married another of the Hittite king's daughters, whose name is unknown.

The Hittite princesses were Ramesses' seventh and eighth wives; he had taken his first two, Nefertari and Istnofret, at least a decade before he ascended to the throne. Then there was also a harem. "If he got tired of huntin', shootin', rootin' and tootin'," says Liverpool's Kitchen, "he could wander through the garden and blow a kiss at one of these ladies." By the time he took over from Seti, Ramesses had at least five sons and two daughters. One of Istnofret's sons was Merneptah, Ramesses' 13th boy, who eventually succeeded him (the older ones are presumed to have died before their father did). Family ties were particularly close for the pharaohs: Ramesses' remaining wives were his younger sister Henutmire and three of his daughters: Bint-Anath, Meryetamun and Nebettawy.

Although they had little choice in their marriage partners, women in the royal families of ancient Egypt were generally considered the equals of men. Two of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, in fact, belong to the female rulers Hatshepsut and Twosret. Huge statues of Ramesses' first and most important wife Nefertari stand next to those of the pharaoh at Abu Simbel, attesting to her significance.

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. But finally, at 92, the pharaoh went to join his ancestors -- and some of his sons -- in the great royal necropolis, or city of the dead, 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 had even stuffed peppercorns into the monarch's nostrils to keep his aquiline nose from being flattened by the wrappings.

Ramesses was then placed in a sarcophagus and interred, along with everything he would need to travel through the afterlife: 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; offerings of food and wine; jewelry and even furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable. It's likely, say scholars, that Ramesses II's tomb was originally far richer and more elaborate than King Tut's.

Unlike several other tombs in the valley, Ramesses' 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, though, is a completely different story. "It's unique," asserts Weeks. "We've never found a multiple burial of a pharaoh's children. And for most pharaohs, we have no idea at all what happened to their children." Archaeologists either have to assume that Ramesses II buried his children in a unique way, Weeks says, or they have to consider the possibility that they've overlooked a major type of royal tomb. "It's very obvious," he says, "that there are whole areas that have to be looked at more closely, and not just in Luxor."

Before that happens, though, there is still an enormous amount of work to do in Tomb 5. Archaeologists still haven't resolved many basic questions -- when the tomb was built, for example, and over what period of time it was used. Some answers could pop up as the excavations progress. Says Kitchen: "Let's hope the tomb yields a whole lot of new bodies. Then the medicos can get to work on them and find out what these princes were like, whether they had toothaches, how long they lived."

And what happened to Ramesses' dozens of daughters? Were they buried in a similar mausoleum, perhaps in the Valley of the Queens, a few miles to the southwest? That is where many pharaohs' wives and princesses and some princes are buried. "Why not?" asks the Oriental Institute Museum's Teeter. "The daughters of pharaohs were certainly important. The Valley of the Queens hasn't been as thoroughly explored as the Valley of the Kings, so there could be a lot of surprises there."

Weeks' team, meanwhile, plans to return to Tomb 5 for the month of July. Their goal is to get far enough inside to 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, though, 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 Ramesses 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, they hoped, from the rabble and robbers. What they never counted on was the need for parking lots.