Unearthed Tales Along the Nile

MORE than three millennia ago, Pharoah Ramses II reigned over Egypt for 66 years. One of the greatest rulers of the ancient world, he was a warrior and builder of massive monuments. Yet historians have much they don't know about his life and times.

All that is going to change dramatically. In February, a tomb that may contain the remains of 50 of Ramses II's 52 sons (by many wives) was discovered by a team led by Kent Weeks, an egyptologist at the American University in Cairo. It is the largest tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes, some 300 miles south of Cairo on the Nile River.

The discovery of Tomb 5, as it has been designated, is a tale of archeological intuition and detective work. The area above it was to become a parking lot for tourist buses. Dr. Weeks, who had been mapping the valley and its sites, asked for a delay while he made sure nothing of interest would be destroyed. Both an ancient papyrus and notes an explorer had made in 1820 suggested a tomb at the site, just 200 feet from the famous tomb of King Tutankhamen, found intact in 1922.

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Tomb 5, with at least 67 chambers, dwarfs King Tut's tomb. And it is highly likely, he says, that a lower level will be discovered containing sarcophagi and mummies of Ramses II's sons. Although ancient grave robbers apparently removed valuables such as gold and jewels, Weeks believes that no one had entered the chambers in at least 2,000 years. What remains is the real treasure trove for archaeologists and historians: artifacts, carvings, inscriptions, and wall paintings, some as bright and fresh as the day they were completed.

Though scholars don't all agree, Ramses II has long been considered the pharaoh under whom the Israelites made their exodus from Egypt. In Exodus 11:5, the pharaoh's first son is slain as part of a sign that pharaoh should release the captive people. The tomb may yield clues as to the fate of Ramses II's firstborn and thus shed new light on Bible history.

It will take years of study for Tomb 5 to divulge its secrets. Its contents will add context to the huge monuments erected by Ramses II that still draw amazed appreciation today.

The Israelites who fled the pharaoh left no such massive physical evidence. But their concept of the one loving and all-powerful God remains much more alive -- as fresh, relevant, and powerful today as in ancient times.

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