The secret tunnel of Seti I

Zahi Hawass , Wednesday 5 Apr 2023

Zahi Hawass describes the tunnel within the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king Seti I, discovered in 1817 but excavated over a century later

Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass



The present author initially heard the story of the tunnel within the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I from legendary member of the Abdel-Rassoul family, Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rassoul, who owned the Al-Marsam Hotel on the west bank at Luxor.

Since its discovery by Giovanni Belzoni in 1817, the tunnel has remained mysterious to archaeologists and other explorers. Although many have desired to discover its architecture and purpose, Egyptologists have been afraid to excavate it because doing so might result in damage to the rest of the tomb, which is magnificently decorated.

The initial examination of the tunnel, which took place in 2002, allowed a team from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to reach the location at which the last attempted excavations, performed by Sheikh Ali’s workmen, had ended due to safety concerns in 1960. Having established a plan for the excavation and restoration of the tunnel, the SCA team began its own work, which ran from September 2007 to March 2010.

During this time, they began to collect data not previously recorded in the nearly 200 years since the discovery of the tunnel.


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: On the evening of 17 October 1817, after several days of work in the Valley of the Kings, Belzoni located the stairway leading to the entrance of the tomb of Seti I.

Work continued into the early morning of the next day, revealing one of the largest and most beautiful tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Although the tomb’s furnishings had been looted long ago, the exquisite polychrome bas reliefs and the king’s unique alabaster sarcophagus prompted Belzoni to declare the tomb to be his most important and exciting discovery in Egypt at the time.

For this discovery, unlike many of his others, Belzoni left a detailed description of his adventure inside the tunnel in a monumental monograph. It is clear that Belzoni’s work there stopped at the stage of exploring the accessible section of the tunnel, however.

After 1817, accounts of other explorations do not exist until 1903, when Howard Carter carried out some work inside the tomb of Seti I. Nevertheless, it is evident that the tunnel was accessible to travellers, most probably to a shorter distance than that reached by Belzoni. Some modern travellers who had penetrated the tunnel had even used coal to leave graffiti (in bad handwriting) recording the dates of their visits on the rocks of the ceiling.

Early scholars and writers also visited the tunnel. Of these, only Sir Gardner Wilkinson left a useful account, which appears in his Modern Egypt and Thebes, Being a Description of Egypt, published in 1843. Wilkinson describes the tunnel leading from the burial chamber as “a vaulted saloon, 19 feet by 30, in whose centre stood an alabaster sarcophagus, the kenotaph [sic] of the deceased monarch, upon the immediate summit of an inclined plane, which, with a staircase on either side, descends into the heart of argillaceous rock for a distance of 150 feet.”

It is obvious that Wilkinson was not copying from Belzoni but describing what he saw inside the tunnel and that he furthermore took measurements. He noted that although Belzoni had penetrated inside the tunnel for 300 feet, rocks and debris fallen from the ceilings and walls blocked almost half of the accessible passage; thus, it had become very difficult to enter without excavating and supporting the ceiling.

In 1903, Howard Carter, as chief inspector of antiquities on the west bank at Luxor, carried out major restoration work inside the tomb of Seti I (KV 17) after many falls, major and minor, of reliefs from the ceiling and walls, especially those of the inner part of the tomb.

Carter’s analysis correctly determined the cause of the crisis, which had occurred in the tomb repeatedly. In his opinion, the unstable condition of the fragile tafla stratum, which directly carries the limestone stratum in which the tomb was carved, was responsible for the collapses of the door jambs and the ceiling.

Carter filled the holes and gaps between the rocks in the lower parts of the tomb walls and the carved gates with red brick masonry, as noted in his report. Carter’s brick masonry can be seen in many locations inside the tomb, especially in the burial chamber; however, the brick arches he built from the entrance of the tunnel and for a distance of eight metres to the south stand as his main work in the tomb.

In addition to the brick arches, he performed some cleaning in that part of the tunnel that had already been uncovered. Unfortunately, Carter’s report does not describe the tunnel and its condition. The materials Carter installed inside the tunnel to protect travellers and to facilitate their visits indicate that conditions there were not then as bad as they were when the later team began its work in 2007.

Carter’s comment on the tunnel (a tunnel Q excavated in the tafle stratum and leading to sepulchral chambers below) leaves no doubt that even the architecture of the accessible part of the tunnel was not clear and caused him describe the passages of the tunnel as chambers.

After Carter’s restoration and cleaning in the tunnel in 1903, no further attempts were made to carry out any work until the efforts of Abdel-Rassoul in 1960. Elizabeth Thomas, however, wrote that in December 1959 she “went down a partly encumbered slope for about 25 m to a small rough room; only a hole led beyond.”


SHEIKH ALI: Claiming that he would need only one month to reveal the secrets of Seti I’s tunnel, Sheikh Ali Abdel-Rassoul was able to secure permission to work there from the Antiquities Department in 1960.

Lacking qualifications as an archaeologist or affiliation with a scientific institution, he was aided by the press in his endeavour and raised LE300, a large sum at the time, to fund his search for supposed hidden treasure. Unfortunately, his work was never documented except through brief news reports written by others.

As already mentioned, the author met Sheikh Abdel-Rassoul in 1973-1974 while working as inspector of antiquities. Abdel-Rassoul’s favourite topic of discussion was always the tunnel and its treasure. He regreted that he had had to stop the work after many complaints and negative reports from the engineer of the Antiquities Service concerning the safety of the workers and the critical state of the tunnel.

According to Abdel-Rassoul, 25 m from the entrance, the tunnel narrowed so much that only one man could crawl into it for a distance of 100 m, at which point the tunnel stopped. The tafla of the tunnel was unstable, and Abdel-Rassoul mentioned that during his work many accidents occurred because of the tafla rocks falling from the ceiling. The sound of the falling rocks would terrify the workers, some of whom even believed that there were genies (devils) living in the tunnel; others believed in the curse of the Pharaohs.

Abdel-Rassoul began his work by completely removing the debris from the first part of the tunnel. He was able to clean the first 45 m beyond the eight metres of Carter’s brick arches, and he was also able to create a support system for the ceiling of the tunnel with wooden beams and gypsum.

But due to the long distance that the workers carrying baskets filled with debris had to walk through the long tomb of Seti I, Abdel-Rassoul had to change his work plan. His interest in uncovering the architecture of the tunnel lagged, for his goal was to reach the end of the tunnel in order to see whether there were any hidden chambers. He therefore began to remove debris and stone rubble from a narrow passage inside the tunnel that allowed only one man to proceed further. The debris from this narrow passage was dumped in the area previously cleared.

This practice increased the dust inside the tunnel, making it impossible for the workers to breathe. Abdel-Rassoul had to spend a large portion of his funds to buy an air compressor to bring air into the tunnel. The new system was not efficient because, according to Abdel-Rassoul, every worker made a hole in the compressor pipe passing in front of him in order to get an immediate supply of fresh air; as a result, fresh air did not reach those working at the far end of the tunnel.

Giving the workers a raise in pay helped for some time, but in the end Abdel-Rassoul gave up and the work had to be terminated. The result was the partial excavation of almost 136 m of the tunnel.

Almost 15 years after the abandoned excavation, Sheikh Ali insisted on showing the present author the tunnel. They went together to KV17 and entered the tunnel for some distance. Nothing within could be seen due to poor lighting and because of the debris that filled the tunnel. Sheikh Ali made me promise that if I ever became an important archaeologist one day, I would excavate the tunnel.

His only personal request was to ask that if anything was discovered, the credit should go to Sheikh Ali. Abdel-Rassoul died in 1983, but the people of Qurna, especially those who worked with him in the tunnel, still remembered his promise to throw a party lasting three days for the village when he found the treasure of king Seti I.

The story told by Sheikh Abdel-Rassoul was not difficult to believe, especially after the later team began its excavation inside the tunnel. The air-compressor pipe with many holes, digging tools, and timber baskets used by his worker were found, along with other personal items, such as Abdel-Rassoul’s straw hand fan and cigarettes smoked by the workers. Moreover, the team’s work also revealed more information concerning Abdel-Rassoul’s work, as explained below.


BERKELEY AND THE SCA: After Abdel-Rassoul’s work was stopped, the dangerous state of the tunnel discouraged excavators, who showed no interest in continuing the project until 1979.

At that time, during the second season of work in the Valley of the Kings, the Berkeley Map Project of the Theban Necropolis, directed by Kent Weeks, explored the accessible part of the tunnel. He was able to produce the only available map. The measurements taken, as stated by Weeks himself, were of the passage dug out by Sheikh Abdel-Rassoul and not of the ancient tunnel itself, for the latter was filled with debris and not accessible to the end.

Weeks left a warning to any scholar who might plan to excavate: “the passageway in the tomb of Seti I is an extremely dangerous one to penetrate. Any archaeologist seeking to explore Q should be forewarned; the stone is fragile, the air is poor, the braces are weak. Care and study are necessary and, most important, proper equipment should be available before further exploration is undertaken.”

The Supreme Council of Antiquities decided in November 2007 to begin excavating the tunnel in KV17. It included the following goals: to undertake a study of the soil mechanics of the tomb and the tunnel prior to excavation; to determine and implement a method to protect the burial chamber from the debris that would result from excavation of the tunnel; to prepare for the conservation of the tunnel by using steel to support the ceiling; to install a railway system inside the tunnel to remove the debris; to build wooden stairs inside the tunnel to facilitate movement; and to choose the right personnel to work under the direction of the author.

The most important decision was, in fact, simply to proceed with work in this tunnel because there was fear among scholars of working there. Also, there was the consideration of realising Sheikh Ali’s dream by working with a scientific team. Of course, the fundamental reason to proceed with the excavation was to put an end to the long debate between scholars about the function of the tunnel of the tomb of Seti I.

It is clear that the stability of the tunnel’s structure was the first aspect on which excavators, including the discoverer of the tomb and subsequent visitors, commented. However, after Abdel-Rassoul’s activities in the tunnel, almost all conservation studies and restoration treatments focused solely on the tomb itself, to the exclusion of the tunnel.

Stories of the horrible sounds of rock falls witnessed by Abdel-Rassoul and his workers in 1960 reflect the fact that the tafla stratum, or Esna shale, was in an active state of swelling and shrinkage. This was a problem to which Abdel-Rassoul contributed by placing more than 50 workers, breathing and sweating from the heat and heavy work, inside the tunnel, in addition to compressed air and also the water poured to reduce the amount of dust.

These factors contributed to the severe swelling and shrinkage of the Esna shale, into which the accessible part of the tunnel was dug. Consequently, the constant pressure of the tafla on the ceiling, the side walls, and the floor led to the catastrophic deterioration of the structure.

Now, with the full discovery of the tunnel inside the tomb of Seti I, it is clear that this tomb represents a unique style in the Valley of the Kings, cut through three main geological formations of the mountain. Starting with the lowest, these are the Tarawan Formation, the Esna Shale Formation, and the Member I marl of the Thebes Formation. Prior to this excavation, the only geological information available indicated that the tomb was cut into the lower part of Member I and the Esna shale.

The tunnel of Seti I provides a unique opportunity to study the Esna Shale/Tarawan Formation sequence and the different strata of the Esna shale (namely, the upper Esna shale and the lower Esna shale). The first 55 m of the total length of the tunnel were cut into the upper layer of the Esna shale, which is reddish shale combined with marl and limestone. After 55 m, a further 80 m of the tunnel penetrates into a lower stratum of greenish Esna shale directly overlying the Tarawan Formation, a composition of marl and limestone that varies between the dark and white chalk.

The Thebes Formation, especially the Member I formation, cannot be considered a good choice for the execution of perfect bas-reliefs of a royal tomb like that of Seti I. It was only the complete closure of the tomb in antiquity that protected it from the main threat of water and the penetration of deposits by flood rains over thousands of years.

The deterioration of the tomb architecture and decoration began from the time of the discovery and opening of the tomb in 1817 and lasted until 1994. Most of this damage resulted from the repeated swelling and shrinking of the Esna shale. The swell and water intake tests performed on samples from the tunnel demonstrated that water absorption of the Esna shale tafla is immediate. Humidity changes and treasure hunters have also contributed to the deterioration of the rock structure and decoration.

The first 9.7 m of the tunnel were completely covered by Carter’s brick vaults, and thus nothing can be said about the original tunnel architecture or measurements behind these. Based on evidence from some intact points in the tunnel and the last 42 m, which are well preserved, the whole tunnel followed a fixed measurement of 5x5 royal cubits, or 2.6 m in height and 2.6 m in width. Some cracks can be seen easily in the brick vaults; these, monitored since November 2007, are proving to be stable.

Behind Carter’s brick vaults and for a distance of about 45 m, the floor was completely covered by debris. Large amount of debris were stored between each wall of the tunnel and wooden barriers made by Abdel-Rassoul. The ceiling was irregular, and only the original corner line of cutting the ceiling from the walls can be recognised in different places.

Abdel-Rassoul installed a large number of wooden beams to support the ceiling in this area, which ends with a narrow opening, three metres in length, on the west side. Nothing could be seen beyond except the hard flash-flood deposits that covered the original architecture and showed no disturbance made by Abdel-Rassoul, who continued his work for about another 50 m with the same method after passing this narrow opening.

At a distance of 110 m, the passage made by Abdel-Rassoul through the flash-flood deposits became very narrow (one metre in width and 1.2 m in height), and the wooden supports of the ceiling became infrequent and installed at reasonable distance from each other, until the team reached what Abdel-Rassoul had believed to be a room. It took the shape of a cave, its ceiling having the form of a dome as a result of the fall of large amount of the Esna shale.

This was the last reachable area in the tunnel achieved by both Abdel-Rassoul and the SCA team before the latter began its work. The total accessible length of the tunnel was almost 135 m.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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