When Zakaria Ghuneim opened the sarcophagus that had bean sealed for over 5,000 years inside King Sekhemkhet’s burial chamber in Saqqara only to find it empty, disappointment filled the chamber.
Among those present were the then President Jamal Abdul Nasser and senior revolutionary commanders as well as a number of reporters from newspapers and news agencies from around the world. The news of the empty coffin spread, although Zakaria Ghuneim had found a bouquet of funeral flowers placed on the coffin, which confirmed the existence of the king’s mummy intact inside it. Newspapers and news agencies ascribed the empty coffin to the curse of the Pharaohs.
When the Valley of the Kings tomb KV-63 was discovered last year, the whole world was taken back by the spectacular discovery, especially as it was the first in the Valley of the Kings since Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the tomb of the Golden Pharaoh, Tutankhamen. The new tomb is located directly opposite King Tutankhamen’s tomb. I was surprised at the presence of thousands of journalists and reporters who came from all over the globe to attend the press conference that we held in Luxor to announce the great discovery.
The entrance to the tomb lies approximately 5 meters beneath the earth’s surface and its floor accommodates only five people. The moment before discovery is one of the most significant moments in a man’s life. It was the moment of knowing the unknown and entering a place that had remained sealed for over 3,000 thousand years. Several international television commentators ask me how I felt before I entered an underground pathway that had remained closed to mankind for thousands of years. Personally, I like to enter tunnels and underground pathways before any one else does. I carry a torch and site workers sometimes tie a rope around me if the shaft leading to the burial chamber is deep. I have experienced many difficult situations during these operations, which I will deal with in forthcoming articles.
When I unearthed the tomb of the governor of the Bahariya Oasis and we started to remove the stones that blocked the entrance, small pieces of stone scratched and cut my body as I crawled through, sometimes like sharp knives, but the excitement of what I was close to seeing and of the adventure itself made me forget everything, even that some such shafts might have contained poisonous snakes and scorpions!
It is interesting that when I was seven, I was scared of the dark, and when my late father asked me to fetch something from the local store in Damietta’s Ubaidia village, I would ask my late brother Mahmoud to accompany me. When I happened to walk alone along a dark street, I imagined that demons were following me and I would always look back as I rushed home, relieved finally when I reached my house at midnight. When I entered an underground pathway, I would remember that moment of fear as a young boy. However entering a tomb and awaiting the result is different. I reached the end of the governor’s tomb after crawling 20 meters and feeling my body bleeding, but when I suddenly fell upon a sarcophagus that bore hieroglyphic inscriptions (and we knew who the tomb belonged to), I forgot about the blood and pain and only the joy of the discovery remained.
I was first to enter the KV-63, carrying a torch that shed light upon a unique, beautiful scene of seven sealed coffins and large jars that had been hidden for thousands of years. As I announced the discovery, news soon spread everywhere about the unknown tomb. We opened the coffins but found no mummies—only mummification material such as natron, linen and oils. Inside the sixth coffin, we found pillows, which we could not account for had probably been placed there for the dead to enjoy in the hereafter, corresponding to god Osiris waiting to judge the deceased. Among the coffins, there was a small gilded coffin. Coffin 7 was observed by the international media. When I arrived at the Valley of the Kings at 8am, it was silent although there were thousands of tourists and reporters. I went inside the tomb and remembered the coffin opened by Zakaria Ghuneim in the presence of President Jamal Abdul Nasser that was found empty. I asked the Egyptologist Otto Schaden to open the coffin in front of the reporters, so the workers and Schaden began to open it very slowly. With the coffin now opened, we looked inside but did not find the mummy we expected.