Secrets of Egypt

The historical documentary series concludes. This instalment looks at the ongoing hunt for the tomb of Alexander the Great – conqueror and self- proclaimed pharaoh of Egypt. Gathering together old sources and new evidence, the search moves from the necropolis of ancient Egypt to the city that the king founded, Alexandria.

For centuries archaeologists have scoured Egypt for the missing tomb of Alexander the Great. The story begins in 332 BC, when the Macedonian general arrived in Egypt and expelled the occupying Persians. He was hailed as a liberator by the Egyptians and promptly set about claiming the throne for himself.

Alexander shrewdly paid homage to the kingdom’s religion by visiting the temple of Amun and declaring himself the son of the great god – who is usually depicted in the form of a ram. “That gives him the religious propaganda, the legitimacy that he needs to underwrite his empire,” says Dr Robert Steven Bianchi. In due course, Alexander was installed as pharaoh – yet he spent only six months in the land that he had conquered.

Eight years later, after he died of a fever in Babylon, Alexander’s body became the contested property of his two generals, Perdiccas and Ptolemy. “There’s a tradition that he who holds the body of Alexander holds Egypt and holds power,” explains Bianchi. Ptolemy seized Alexander’s body and buried it – most likely in Memphis, Egypt’s historic capital – before defeating Perdiccas in battle. By choosing the necropolis at Saqqara as the king’s resting place, Ptolemy simultaneously respected Egypt’s traditions and established himself as Alexander’s heir. “He was killing several birds with one stone,” says author Nick Saunders.

Statues of Greek philosophers found at Memphis would seem to mark the site of Alexander’s original tomb, yet it is known that the king’s body was moved around 30 years after his burial – to Alexandria, the city that he founded. Alexander’s tomb was a well-known pilgrimage site in the heart of the city until at least the third century AD. Then, with the onset of the Dark Ages, the tomb was lost. The bustling Alexandria of today contains few clues as to its location.

Nick Saunders is one of several archaeologists determined to find the general’s resting place. “There is no ‘x marks the spot’,” he says. “The whole city has changed.” However, using ancient sources, he proposes that a busy junction in the city centre could be the spot he is seeking. Andrew Chugg, meanwhile, maintains that a crossroads next to the one remaining section of city wall is a more likely site.

However, Egypt’s leading archaeologist, Zawi Hawass, believes a location near the city wall is more probable. A dig in 1907 uncovered a buried alabaster tomb that has all the hallmarks of a Greek burial place. “If you look at the style of this tomb, it’s unfinished and it was under the ground,” he says. “It’s completely Macedonian.”

While the site of the tomb remains hotly disputed, a new theory has emerged to challenge all previous assumptions. It suggests that Alexander’s body was smuggled away by a cult that revered his name during the religious turmoil of the Dark Ages. The theory is connected to the discovery of an incredible cemetery in the desert near the Bahariya oasis. Is it possible that the mysterious people who lived and worshipped at this oasis were the final protectors of the great Greek ruler?

The historical documentary series continues. This instalment charts the life of Rameses II, the longest-lived pharaoh who is widely regarded as Egypt’s greatest ruler. New discoveries have shed more light on the king’s successful reign, while Egyptologists continue to debate the nature of his character and achievements.

Rameses II has often been called ‘Rameses the Great’. Ascending to the throne in c.1279 BC, he ruled for 66 years – longer than any other pharaoh – and is credited with bringing stability and prosperity to the nation. When his mummy was excavated, Rameses was found to be a small man, crippled by arthritis in his old age. Yet in life he was clearly able to impose himself on his people. The sheer number of temples constructed by Rameses in his own honour have prompted some historians to label him an egomaniac – yet modern Egyptologists now regard him as a powerful and decisive leader.

Scholars point to Rameses’s successful defence of the kingdom from hostile powers as evidence of his strength. Archaeologists have recently uncovered some of Rameses’s forts along the old coastline of Egypt. In 2007, Dr James Hoffmeier used satellite photos to pinpoint the location of Tjaru, a huge fortress that once housed thousands of soldiers. “If you wanted to maintain the empire, this is the place from which to do it,” he says.

As a young king, Rameses narrowly survived a battle against the Hittites of Asia Minor. Historians once considered this battle to be one of Rameses’s greatest blunders, but now many take a more sympathetic view. Others cite the king’s subsequent peace treaty with the Hittites as an example of his diplomatic skill. After 50 years of war, Rameses negotiated peace in what is believed to be the earliest treaty of its kind. “When you read the treaty, it actually comes across as a very modern-sounding document,” says Dr Peter Brand. “It has a mutual non-aggression pact and also a mutual defence treaty.”

Rameses’s glory is most visible in the vast building projects he undertook. “Pharaohs seem to have had a kind of competition going on – each one trying to outdo his predecessor by building bigger and better,” says Dr Salima Ikram. The period of prosperity ushered in by Rameses’s campaigns meant that he was able to fund a variety of projects, including the great hall at Karnak. “This place should have been the eighth wonder of the ancient world,” says Brand. The complex boasted 134 columns, each one 50ft high. For decades it has remained a mystery how the Egyptians built such a structure without cranes. Now, using computer graphics, Dr Brand outlines his theory on how such a feat was possible.

Perhaps Rameses’s greatest achievement is the world-famous temple at Abu Simbel, with its entrance flanked by four 65ft-high statues of the pharaoh himself. More than any other pharaoh, Rameses explicitly depicts himself as a living god. But rather than being a sign of his megalomania, historians hold that Rameses’s godlike self-image was a consequence of his growing empire. As a man, Rameses could not be in more than one place at one time – but as a god, he could be everywhere. “He could not do all of the things in detail that earlier pharaohs had done,” says Dr Kent Weeks. “He was at a higher level as the principle intermediary between man and every god in Ancient Egypt.”

No less impressive is the exquisite tomb that Rameses built for his beloved first wife, Nefetari, and the burial chamber that he prepared for himself. After his death at the remarkable age of 90, Rameses’s life became a blueprint for all the pharaohs that followed – yet few of them could match his accomplishments.

The historical documentary series continues. This episode explores the Valley of the Kings, the royal necropolis of the pharaohs. A new generation of Egyptologists presents revolutionary theories on why the pharaohs abandoned the pyramids as their burial sites in favour of these secret underground tombs.

Three and a half thousand years ago, Thebes was the heart of Egypt’s civilisation. Situated on the eastern banks of the Nile, the ancient city was the religious heart of the state. Four miles to the west of Thebes lay the Valley of the Kings, a massive royal cemetery comprising 63 underground tombs linked by a maze of tunnels. Unlike the pyramids of the 17th Dynasty, these burial chambers were hidden from view and lay undiscovered by modern man until the early 19th century. “Very gradually we’re unpeeling the layers,” says Egyptologist Nicole Douek. But several questions remain unanswered – why was the royal burial ground moved by the pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty? And why did Egypt’s rulers shun the grandeur of a pyramid monument for a series of underground burial chambers?

In 1902, Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, came across the entrance to a tunnel. The 600ft passageway was narrow, steep and littered with rubble. At the end of this treacherous path lay the deepest and oldest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Inside the chamber was a sarcophagus inscribed with the name of the queen Hatshepsut. The celebrated female pharaoh had also built a magnificent mortuary temple on the site to commemorate her long and successful reign.

For the first time, the two elements of burial chamber and mortuary temple had been split. One popular theory to explain this division is that Egypt’s pharaohs wanted to protect their graves from tomb raiders. But Dr Dan Polz disagrees with this view. “How can you possibly hide such a tomb from the locals, from the workmen?” he reasons. Instead Polz focuses on the significance of the positioning of the burial chamber. Hatshepsut’s tomb is directly across the Nile from one of the most important holy sites in Ancient Egypt, the Karnak temple. Dr Polz speculates that perhaps this linking line extends even further – to the afterlife. Did the queen have her body buried in this location to ensure her safe passage to the netherworld?

Further clues lie inside Hatshepsut’s burial chamber itself. On the walls of her tomb are hieroglyphics depicting the soul’s journey to immortality. The images are thought to be a kind of guide for the passage to the underworld. In her deep tomb, Hatshepsut was ensuring that she was as close to divinity as possible. “They might have been seen as a road map,” says Egyptologist Dr Kent Weeks of the hieroglyphs.

After 500 years, use of the royal necropolis ceased forever. The last tomb ever constructed in the Valley of the Kings was that of King Ramesses XI. His burial chamber lies unfinished because a new generation of rulers took over and moved the capital north to Delta. Suddenly the community of tomb builders was forced to disband. In search of a way to eke out a living, the men turned to pilfering the very tombs they themselves had built. “If we had everything that was ever buried there, we would have literally mountains of gold,” says Nicole Douek.

Thursday 18th December at 8:00pm on five

The historical documentary series continues. This episode explores the extraordinary life of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt. Depicted throughout history as a temptress who ruined two generals of Rome, scholars now believe that Cleopatra possessed great political ability and knowledge. Despite a lack of physical evidence of her reign, they are able to piece together the story of her rule during the dying days of Ancient Egypt.

Cleopatra has been popularly remembered as the great beauty whose affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony precipitated the conquest of Egypt by the Romans. But historians now believe that she was the victim of Roman ‘spin’ intended to blacken her name. “They turned her into a salacious harlot – this bubble-headed sex kitten who’s jumping in and out of bed with any available Roman,” says Dr Robert Steven Bianchi.

Cleopatra was only 18 years old when she became queen, yet she was able to fend off Roman interest in Egypt for over 20 years. She was the product of a Greek dynasty of rulers founded by Alexander the Great’s general, Ptolemy, 300 years earlier. The Ptolemy dynasty brought a distinctly Greek touch to their rule, whilst retaining Egyptian culture and religion. “The mixing of Greeks and Egyptians resulted in a melting pot, and Alexandria was typical of that,” says Dr Christina Riggs.

Alexandria, Cleopatra’s capital, was the heart of the civilised world, home to an enormous library and the legendary Pharos lighthouse, which stood 400ft high. Bianchi describes the city as a “glistening marble metropolis” – a centre of knowledge and power. But it was the very riches of Alexandria, coupled with the agricultural wealth of the Nile Valley, that put Egypt at risk of invasion.

Moreover, the ruling dynasty was riven by internal weaknesses. Cleopatra was locked in a power struggle with her brother when the first fleet of Roman ships arrived with Julius Caesar at the helm. It was Caesar’s intervention on Cleopatra’s behalf that secured her the throne. In due course, she became his lover – yet modern scholars believe their union was an alliance of equals. “They both wanted world domination and they realised that – united – they would be able to realise that dream,” says Bianchi.

However, physical evidence of Cleopatra’s rule remains scanty. The great temples of Egypt display few hieroglyphics pertaining to her life, and her palace lies under the harbour of Alexandria. “Her renown is worldwide, but within the city that she ruled, there are very few signs of her presence,” says researcher Colin Clement. While archaeologists search sites in Alexandria, one clue as to her rule exists in the form of coins bearing her head.

These artefacts show Cleopatra’s evident ability to manipulate her image. On the coins, intended for use in the Greek world, she is depicted as a classical Greek beauty. Yet in her most famous carvings at the temple of Dendera, she is portrayed as pure Egyptian, resembling the goddess Isis. She also used the carvings to give legitimacy to her union with Caesar by rendering him as the Egyptian god Horus. In the process, she established Caesarion, her son with the Roman general, as her heir.

Cleopatra maintained her influence with the Romans after Caesar’s death by allying with Mark Antony. Yet her downfall came when Antony lost a naval battle with his rival, Octavian. Antony committed suicide and Cleopatra joined him in death rather than become Octavian’s prisoner. She could stem the tide of history no longer, and Egypt became a province of Rome – ending 3,000 years of the pharaohs. It would be another 2,000 years before Egypt regained its independence. “She is the last page of the last chapter of the glory that was Egypt,” Bianchi says of the legendary queen.

Saturday 13th – Friday 19th December, 2008

Thursday 11th December at 8:00pm

The historical documentary series continues. This episode explores the development of the pyramids, from underground burial chambers to soaring structures that revolutionised architecture. The film reveals the name of the man who designed the very first pyramid and shows how his ideas were refined and perfected, until pyramids eventually fell out of fashion altogether.

The pyramids of Egypt are the most enduring monuments of the ancient world. Around 80 of them still exist, but most of these were built in a short 100-year period, and they remain one of the world’s greatest mysteries. In a time before iron tools, with very little engineering knowledge, how and why did the Egyptians embark on such massive projects?

The pharaohs adopted the pyramid shape because they believed it would transport them to the afterlife. Indeed, the ancient Egyptian word for ‘pyramid’ shares its root with the verb ‘to ascend’. “So there’s a direct relationship between the form of the pyramid and the ascension of the king into the celestial realm,” says Dr Melinda Hartwig.

The physical origins of the pyramid lie in the earliest Egyptian tombs, which were simple underground chambers. These tombs were covered with a mound of stones, which in turn became a building, called a mastaba. When one king built a wall around his tomb, his architect decided to build a two-storey mastaba so that it could be seen over the wall. This two-storey structure evolved into the first pyramid, the six- tiered Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

This development marked a great leap forward in design – dubbed “a miracle of architecture” by Zahi
Hawass, Egypt’s foremost archaeologist. The oldest stone building in the world, the Step Pyramid contains three miles of tunnels and a burial chamber, where the pharaoh Djoser stored his worldly goods for the journey to the afterlife.

This leap forward was the brainchild of the royal architect, Imhotep – a man whose significance to the development of architecture is hard to over-state. “He is the first man to change architecture in the world,” says Hawass. Archaeologists are now seeking Imhotep’s tomb – a finding that could eclipse the discovery of Tutankhamen’s resting place in importance.

However, it was Djoser’s successor, Sneferu, who refined the pyramid design. Dr Jonathan Foyle visits his three markedly different efforts, beginning with the eight-step pyramid at Meidum. This was ollowed by the ‘Bent’ Pyramid, so-called because the angle of its sides changes gradient halfway up. “Did Sneferu’s builders think, ‘right, let’s get this finished and move on, shall we, because this is a failed experiment’?” muses Foyle.

Sneferu then perfected the design with the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, the blueprint for all those that followed. The largest pyramid of all – the Great Pyramid at Giza – was built a few years later by Sneferu’s son, Khufu. “When Khufu became king, he had to either live in the shadow of his dad or do something even more special,” explains Dr Robert Steven Bianchi. Dr Hawass ventures inside the Great Pyramid to throw light on its unique structure and reveal some surprising new facts about the workers that built it.
Ultimately, the vast cost and manpower involved in building the pyramids quickened the end of their era. The pharaohs also struggled to protect them from grave robbers, and it became fashionable to build hidden tombs – such as those in the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamen was found. Yet the pyramids have had a lasting impact on the world, and every modern structure owes them a debt.

The historical documentary series continues. This episode explores the legacy of the Scorpion King, an Egyptian ruler who predated the pharaohs.

Recent developments, such as the excavation of the king’s tomb, have revealed surprising new details about early Egyptian civilisation.

In southern Egypt in 1898, a British archaeologist named James Quibell discovered an ancient Egyptian macehead depicting a king by the name of ‘Scorpion’. The artefact, a ceremonial type of club, was dated to 200 years before the first dynasty of pharaohs. “The Scorpion mace head radically changed people’s perceptions,” says Dr Reńe Friedman. “It took them back to a time for which they have no texts.”

Little further evidence of the Scorpion King’s life was found until a few years ago, when Professor James Darnell discovered a set of rock carvings in the desert. Darnell believes these images depict the king’s success in unifying the rival cities of Upper Egypt. The carvings shed further light on the predynastic era, also known as ‘Dynasty 0’, and establish the Scorpion King as a key figure in the foundation of Egyptian civilisation.

If King Scorpion unified Upper Egypt, it is widely believed that his successor, King Narmer, united the whole country. This theory is based on a stone tablet dubbed ‘the first historical document in the world’, which depicts Narmer wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Darnell believes that the macehead was created by Narmer to honour his “spiritual and political predecessor”, Scorpion – the man who paved the way to Egypt’s unification.

But the most remarkable breakthrough of all came when Professor G̈nther Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute stumbled across the Scorpion King’s tomb in the middle of the desert.

Excavations revealed a 12-room structure filled with pottery stamped with the ‘Scorpion’ symbol. An ivory sceptre proved that this was the burial place of a king. Archaeologists believe the tomb was a prototype for later burial chambers. The stone mound that covered the site eventually developed into the step-like structure of the pyramids. “Without this period, we would not see the great volumes of
pyramids and tombs in the Valley of the Kings,” says Egyptologist Zahi Hawass. But the greatest surprise was the discovery inside the tomb of small ivory tags carved with hieroglyphics, which pre-date known forms of writing by at least 200 years.

Professor Dreyer believes these hieroglyphs are phonetic symbols that correspond to place names in Ancient Egypt. This appears to be prove that writing first developed in Egypt, rather than in Mesopotamia as previously thought. “We don’t know about events or persons without writing,” says Dreyer. “From King Scorpion’s tomb, we regained 250 years of the history of mankind.”

These revelations have shattered long-held notions about the rise of Egyptian civilisation – which was once thought to have been started by outsiders from Mesopotamia. It is now clear that this ancient society developed in North Africa over many hundreds of years. Moreover, recent excavations have uncovered evidence of thriving cities that pre-date even the Scorpion King.

Renée Friedman has found the ruins of a settlement dating back 700 years before the first pharaohs, where the remains of breweries, bakeries and potteries are visible. “No one had expected this kind of advanced civilisation at this period,” she says. There is even evidence that these pre-dynastic Egyptians built giant wooden burial chambers that were precursors of the pyramids. If this is the case, then the Scorpion King is an important link between two lost worlds.

Beginning on Five this week is a new historical documentary series probing the secrets of Ancient Egypt. In the first episode, scientists attempt to unravel the mystery of a 3,000-yearold ‘screaming’ mummy. The man was recovered from a tomb devoid of the usual trappings of Egyptian burial, with his features locked in a screaming expression. Who was this man and what does his fate reveal about the ancient Egyptian attitude to the afterlife?

In the vaults of the Cairo Museum lies a coffin containing a most unusual mummy. Discovered in a burial chamber in 1881, ‘Unknown Man E’ has puzzled generations of Egyptologists. He is sometimes known as the ‘Screaming Man’ for the gruesome scream that appears to contort his mouth. The nature of the man’s burial also throws up numerous questions and contradictions. Now, for the first time since 1886, scientists take a closer look at the mysteries surrounding his identity and his death.

The Victorian Egyptologists who first examined Unknown Man E were struck by the way in which his burial defied ancient Egyptian tradition. The man’s hands and feet were tightly bound and, although he was found in the company of many famous pharaohs, his coffin was unmarked. In Egyptian lore, to be buried without one’s name was to be denied passage to the afterlife. The 19thcentury autopsy also indicated that, contrary to standard techniques, the mummy’s organs were not removed before embalming.

Even more unusual was the mixture used to preserve the man, which has not been found in any other mummy. “The plastering made of natron and quicklime is a very unusual technique and it was one of the things which so disturbed the observers when they first unwrapped him,” says author Dylan Bickerstaffe. Moreover, the Screaming Man was wrapped with ‘impure’ goatskin – another factor thought to prevent a man’s entry to paradise.

Based on the findings of the 1886 examination, Egyptologists have developed a number of theories regarding the man’s identity. Author Susan Redford, among others, suggests that he may be Pentewere, a son of Ramasses III, who was once part of a plot to seize the throne. The conspirators were caught and executed, and Pentewere was allowed to take his own life. If Unknown Man E is the disgraced prince, it suggests his unusual burial was the final punishment for his treason.

Another theory maintains that the man may have been an Egyptian official who died outside his country and was embalmed by foreigners who did not fully understand Egyptian methods. “This is somebody abroad trying to imitate Egyptian techniques and doing the best with what they had,” says Bickerstaffe. A third theory holds that Unknown Man E may be a foreigner – possibly a Hittite prince who died on his way to marry Tutankhamun’s widow.

This last theory appears to be ruled out when facial anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson scans the mummy’s head and uses a computer programme to reconstruct his face. “I don’t see anything in this particular skull that suggests he wasn’t ancient Egyptian,” she says.

Meanwhile, the mummy is removed from storage and taken for a CT scan. Radiologist Dr Ashraf Selim delivers his initial report, including the mummy’s age at death and the condition of his body. The original autopsy is found to be highly flawed when evidence emerges that the organs have indeed been removed. But further revelations throw fascinating new light on the identity of the Screaming Man, and raise yet more questions…

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