Scientists have uncovered what may be the largest underground tomb ever found in Egypt's fabled Valley of the Kings--a mausoleum in which may lie buried 50 sons of Ramses II, the red-haired Pharaoh of Exodus who ruled Egypt at the zenith of its power more than 3,000 years ago.
"We were the first people inside parts of the tomb in 3,000 years," said Kent R. Weeks, an Eygptologist at American University in Cairo who made the find public Monday.
"This tomb is unique in Egyptian history," said Adel Halim Nour ed-Din, president of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities. "It seems to be a mausoleum with many burial chambers intended for many of Ramses II's numerous children."
Archeologists excavating the tomb so far have identified 67 chambers--about five times more than is common in other tombs in the valley where so many of ancient Egypt's rulers were buried. Scientists suspect that there are dozens more burial chambers hidden at the end of sloping corridors that appear to lead to a lower level.
From the names inscribed on the tomb's richly decorated walls and from fragments of ornate funeral gear on the floor, scientists have determined that at least four of Ramses II's many sons were interred there. The evidence leads them to believe that 50 of his 52 sons are buried in the tomb.
Among them was the Pharaoh's first-born son--Amon-her-khepeshef--who, according to the Old Testament, died as the result of a divinely inspired plague at the time of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
The explorers have found fragments of human mummies in the debris-choked burial chambers. They also have found thousands of fragments of furniture, pottery, jewelry and beads. They have identified inscribed stone vessels, offerings of food and stone sarcophagus fragments.
The Valley of the Kings is a deep cleft in limestone hills with sheer walls near the southern city of Luxor. The region was favored as a burial ground for rulers, royals and hundreds of officials of the New Kingdom, which lasted from 1550 to 1070 BC.
The tomb was discovered in 1989 near a proposed parking lot at the entrance to the valley, as part of a survey of three burial sites in the area. From wall decorations, researchers later determined that the tomb was intended for the royal sons of Ramses II.
Archeologists from American University's Theban Mapping Project, in cooperation with the Egyptian government, worked the site for several years. But it was not until last February, when they thought they had neared the end of their exploration, that the unique architectural character of their find was revealed, Weeks said Monday.
It was then that they broke through a doorway in a central chamber to reveal a 60-foot-long passageway leading past 16 more chambers to a large statute of the Egyptian god Osiris. Extending off to both sides were two more corridors, each lined with doors into an additional 16 rooms. At the end of each of those passageways, there are stairs and sloping corridors leading to even more rooms.
"The tomb plan is one of the most confusing I have ever seen," Weeks said in a telephone interview from his Seattle home. "The layout looks like the tentacles of an octopus.
"There is a 90% certainty that there is a lower level with even more chambers. We will be working in the tomb for at least half a dozen more years," Weeks said.
The entrance of the tomb leads 16 steps down a single narrow stairway through a doorway into a small chamber about 10 by 16 feet. That leads into a second small chamber, in what appears to be an architectural scheme common to most Egyptian tombs, Weeks said.
But there ends the resemblance to anything Eygptologists have previously encountered. The second chamber opens into a large, unusual chamber about 50 feet square with a ceiling that is supported by 16 pillars. Eleven sealed doorways lead from this chamber.
So far, the archeologists have gone through only one of those doorways, which revealed the long passage and its additional 48 rooms. They do not know what lies behind the other doors.
"Wherever we have found an exposed wall, we are finding some traces of decoration," Weeks said. "Some of the walls we have exposed so far are beautifully preserved. There is elegant carving. Some of the paintings have been damaged by flash flooding over the last 3,000 years."
Today, the tomb is almost completely filled with debris, reaching to within a few inches of the ceilings in most rooms the scientists have examined so far.
Exploration of the tomb has been suspended while engineers investigate its structural stability. Weeks said he hopes to resume the excavation in July. The work has been largely underwritten by a Los Angeles philanthropist, Bruce Ludwig, and several other private donors.