The Osiris Shaft at Giza

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 3 Mar 2020

Zahi Hawass describes the challenges of excavating the water-filled Osiris Shaft on the Giza Plateau, the burial place of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops


According to the popular ancient Egyptian belief, the god of the underworld in ancient Egypt was Osiris, who had been saved by his wife Isis from his evil brother Seth, who took on a “devil” role everywhere, even when the world was created.

In the ancient Egyptian story, Seth held a banquet and made a beautiful coffin that the ancient Egyptians appreciated. He announced that anyone who fitted inside the coffin could claim it as his own. Osiris tried, and Seth closed the coffin in on him and tossed it into the sea. The coffin floated to Lebanon on the sea and became a pillar in the palace of the king of Byblos. Isis then searched for her brother and husband, and she even worked as a servant in the palace of the king to do so. As a result, she was able to bring the pillar back to Egypt, where she hid Osiris’ body.

Seth was still keen on making trouble, and after finding the body, he cut Osiris into 14 pieces, which he threw all over Egypt. Isis searched all over the country for these pieces and was able to collect the pieces of her husband in order to bring him back to life. The only missing piece was Osiris’s phallus. There is a beautiful scene on the wall of the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, the place that was said to contain Osiris’s head and the birthplace of his son by Isis Horus. In this scene, Isis is shown flying in a shape of a kite above the body of Osiris and restoring his phallus, and it was in this way that she and Osiris were able to conceive Horus, whom she raised. Horus later took revenge on his uncle and eventually became king of Egypt.

The 14 locations of Osiris’ body were called pr-wsir in ancient Egyptian, meaning the “palace of Osiris”. The Greeks used the word Busiris, and in Arabic it came to be known as Abousir. One of my own great discoveries at Giza was the “Osiris Shaft” that has become a fascinating site for many people who obtain special permission to visit it on the payment of a fee. In ancient times, people used the water-filled shaft for swimming, and even to the present day many people, including archaeologists, have entered the shaft. For centuries, however, the importance of the Osiris Shaft escaped even the most learned scholars.

This water shaft has become the stuff of legend and Internet rumour. It opens in the causeway linking the Sphinx to the Second Pyramid and descends in several places to a depth of nearly 100 feet below the plateau. It received its name from the crystal-clear water that fills its bottom chamber. This unfinished water-filled cavern is entered from a higher chamber that contains niches filled with granite stone coffins (sarcophagi). One of the empty niches contains a shaft in its floor that leads to the flooded corridor. Wading into the darkness, one can hear the echoes of ground water dripping from the rock walls.

I decided to investigate this shaft. Excavation of the second level revealed six rooms cut into the rock, with these containing two granite sarcophagi, pottery, and bones. Analysis of these dated this level to the Late Period or about 500 BCE. The last level was about 82 feet underground and was completely filled with water. We stayed for two months draining the water from the shaft and working inside it, and I felt I might end up blind and deaf from all the dust, mud, and noise of the water. This was the most difficult excavation I have ever been involved with.

After the excavation had been completed, I looked down into the water and saw the remains of four pillars surrounded by a wall. Inside them was part of a large, granite sarcophagus with the lid off. This discovery reflected the words of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus when he said that king Cheops, the builder of the Great Pyramid, was buried inside a granite sarcophagus and there was water near his Pyramid. People have always wondered about this, but no one had ever discovered the exact location. Even Herodotus admitted that he had never seen the burial with his own eyes because he had not been able to go down the shaft. He must have based his writing on the words of guides.

I made my second discovery from this excavation after moving the lid of the sarcophagus. I found that the configuration of the architectural features of this chamber resembled the hieroglyphic word pr, meaning house. It is known that the Giza Plateau was called nb wsir nb restaw, or the “the house of Osiris, Lord of Rastaw”. The latter refers to the underground tunnels, and most likely the name of the plateau reflects the tunnels inside the Osiris Shaft. The final chamber we found was most likely a symbolic tomb for the god Osiris, who was believed to control the underground tunnels, the tombs of the kings, and all those buried under the ground.

In the Late Period, the ancient Egyptians cut a tunnel about six metres long on the west wall of the Shaft. We sent a boy through the tunnel to explore, only to find that it was closed off and did not lead to any more chambers. To derive the date of the shaft, a boy was also lowered into the water-filled tomb on a rope to collect artifacts. From the objects retrieved, we dated the shaft to the New Kingdom or about 1550 BCE.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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