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
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
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
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
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
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
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.