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The New York Times -- June 14, 1999

Egypt Excavating Huge Necropolis in Western Desert

BAWITI, Egypt -- Mohammed Ayadi has spent six years digging through sand and broken rock to peek into the afterlives of long-ago residents of Egypt's Western Desert.

He has inspected rows and stacks of 2,000-year-old mummified remains three miles outside the Bahariya oasis town of Bawiti, then closed the tombs again. Now, some of the 106 Greco-Roman tombs are being excavated, and Ayadi said Sunday that some may begin to be opened to the public within months.

"Every chamber inside is full of mummies," Ayadi, chief antiquities inspector at the site, said as workers pulled protective plastic from tomb No. 54, revealing both elaborately encased and simply wrapped mummies.

Just how many mummies are beneath the four-mile strip of desert isn't clear -- estimates run from 5,000 to 10,000-plus. Archaeologists have found 105 mummies in the four tombs excavated in the past few months, said Zahi Hawass, head of the team.

Hawass, speaking in Cairo on Sunday, said the tombs are "like festivals of mummies. ... The discovery is very important because it gives you an idea about daily life."

Ayadi, blowing fine sand away from a plaster shell known as the cartonnage to reveal an ornately painted male face, explains what is known about the people inside tomb No. 54.

"This is a rich family because we see decorations around the chest and jewels in the face," he said.

Designs painted on the man's chest indicate he had four sons and probably was athletic, explained Ayadi. His wife, also inside an intricately painted cartonnage, was lying next to him in the chamber, one of seven carved inside the 25-foot-by-10-foot family tomb containing 29 bodies.

Walking to a chamber on the other end of the tomb, Ayadi nods toward four mummies wrapped in plain linen, blackened over the centuries. They were family, he said, but clearly less well-to-do than the others.

Western Desert oases, including Bahariya, 215 miles southwest of Cairo, flourished during Greco-Roman times. About two miles from the newly excavated cemetery is the Temple of Alexander the Great, one of many oases temples from the era.

Slight depressions of loose sand in the stony desert floor are telltale signs of a tomb beneath. Generally, the stone ceilings have collapsed over the years, damaging many of the mummies within.

A temporary wood ceiling protects tomb No. 54; it eventually will be replaced with a restoration of the original.

Ayadi, who would like to one day excavate and open all 106 tombs to visitors, said that at least No. 54 should be ready for tourists within a couple months. Most of the mummies will stay in their chambers, protected from overly eager visitors by glass panels.

Hotel and business owners in Bawiti, where the living number about 7,000, are hopeful that the site will open to the public soon.

Special permission from antiquities officials is needed to see many archaeological treasures in the area, including the temple -- which is still being excavated -- and even the town museum. Arriving without such permission has prompted many unsuspecting tourists to cut short their visits, hurting the local economy.

"People will hear about this (discovery)," said Saleh Sharif, owner of the Hotel Alpenblick. "So, if they really do open it, this will be a great thing."

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