Egypt’s fresh archaeological find fuels hopes for tourism revival

Egyptian archaeologists discovered 27 sarcophagi coffins in the town of Saqqara, part of a UNESCO world heritage site that hosts some of the world’s oldest pyramids.
Tuesday 22/09/2020
One of more than two dozen ancient coffins unearthed near the famed Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, south of Cairo. (AP)
One of more than two dozen ancient coffins unearthed near the famed Step Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara, south of Cairo. (AP)

CAIRO - Egyptian excavators have uncovered a 2,500-year-old archaeological treasure trove south of Cairo, adding to the country’s vast collection of prehistoric artefacts, as officials seek to revive a struggling tourism sector that is crucial to the economy.

Egyptian archaeologists discovered 27 sarcophagi coffins in the town of Saqqara, part of a UNESCO world heritage site that hosts some of the world’s oldest pyramids.

The wooden sarcophagi, which have not yet been opened, are full of colourful, detailed hieroglyphics, Egypt’s ministry of tourism and antiquities said.

Neveine el-Arif, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said that experts were looking into the origin of the coffins and would likely reveal more information about them next month. She said she was hopeful that further excavation work in the ancient necropolis would unearth more artefacts.

Egypt’s Saqqara plateau was once the site of at least 11 pyramids, including the Step Pyramid, along with hundreds of tombs of ancient officials, ranging from the 1st Dynasty (2920 B.C.-2770 B.C.) to the Coptic period (395-642). It is part of the necropolis of Egypt’s ancient city of Memphis, that also hosts Abu Sir, Dahshur and Abu Ruwaysh and the world-famous Giza Pyramids.

The archaeological find in Saqqara comes as Egypt’s tourism industry struggles to recover from years of downturn made worse by  the COVID-19 pandemic.

Egypt reopened its borders to tourists on July 1, but visitors have been slow to come back, leaving thousands of industry workers with little income as they approach what is usually the busiest season of the year.

Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri (C) inspects one of the 2500 year-old coffins discovered in a burial shaft at the desert necropolis of Saqqara, south of the capital Cairo, September 20. (AFP)
Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri (C) inspects one of the 2500 year-old coffins discovered in a burial shaft at the desert necropolis of Saqqara, south of the capital Cairo, September 20. (AFP)

Major tourist sites, such as the Giza pyramids, are bringing in few tourists and many hotels are operating under half capacity. As tourism accounts for some 15% of Egypt’s GDP, officials say the pandemic has cost the country around $1 billion a month since March.

The decline in tourism in recent years has driven a new surge in archaeological expeditions, which officials hope will draw in more visitors and create buzz around a new Grand Egyptian Museum set to open in Giza next year.

In October 2019, archaeologists unearthed 30 ancient wooden coffins with inscriptions and paintings in the southern city of Luxor, which will be showcased in the new museum.

Archaeologists also discovered a cache at Saqqara last year that included hundreds of mummified animals, birds and crocodiles, as well as two mummified lion cubs.

In another bid to bring in foreign tourists, Egypt has hosted a series of archaeological exhibitions abroad, including one in Prague, Czech Republic called “Kings of the Sun.”

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition in Prague, Egyptian Tourism Minister Khaled al-Anani noted the two countries’ history of cooperation in tourism and archaeological work and expressed hope that the antiquities display would encourage more tourists to travel to Egypt.