The search for the Lost Pyramid

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 18 Jul 2023

Zahi Hawass describes the making of the successful Netflix documentary Unknown: The Lost Pyramid that opened earlier this month

Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass


Unknown: The Lost Pyramid is a film made by Netflix, and I am happy to say that since it was first shown on 3 July it has become the number one film on the platform worldwide.

I am really proud that this is the first time that the world will have seen a film about the discoveries of two Egyptian archaeologists, in this case me and Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

This film was made after the Netflix film about Cleopatra that was attacked by many people on the grounds of historical accuracy. That film was a documentary and therefore should have been accurate. I said in many statements at the time that if anyone showed Cleopatra as being blonde, I would object, in the same way that I objected to her being presented as black African, on the grounds of accuracy.

Our film, unlike that on Cleopatra, has been seen by millions since it opened.

My friend TV presenter Tamer Amin in his talk show on the Al-Nahar channel was wondering why I was attacking Netflix because of the film about Cleopatra. I called him and said that Unknown: The Lost Pyramid, made two years ago, would be aired on the same channel. Netflix is an international TV company that can broadcast films that are good for Egypt, I said, mentioning that many Egyptian actors and actresses have made great films with Netflix.

The documentary about Cleopatra was not among these films. But our film is now number one on the platform, and we have to thank Netflix for producing this great film that shows that the company is not against Egypt.

During a lecture tour in the US in May and June, I gave 23 lectures in 23 different cities. When I talked about my discoveries at Saqqara, I showed the trailer of the film and thus promoted it to over 40,000 people.

I have received many great comments on the film. Andy Numhauser from Chili said he had cried when he saw the film, as it is so incredible. John Norman, president of World Heritage Exhibitions, said it was the best show on archaeology he had ever seen. “It was well done with perfect cinematography and sound. Plus you and Mustafa did a great job, very impressive, and I am so happy for you,” he said.

Bruno from Brazil said “very happy at the huge success of Unknown: The Lost Pyramid. Asked everybody that I know to watch.”

In Egypt, many young people have seen the film. Ambassador Dominic Goh of Singapore hosted a dinner for the Cleopatra Group of ambassadors of foreign countries in Cairo at which he showed the Netflix film.

The story goes back more than three years when I was in Los Angeles and met my friends Leslie Greif and Peter Isacksen. I had earlier made shows with them, such as Live from the Bahriya Oasis and Live from the Pyramids with Mary Bovitsh. Greif produced 10 episodes of a series under the title Chasing the Mummies that has now been seen on the US History Channel by a billion people all over the world.

I told Greif that we had made great discoveries at Saqqara and really wanted to make a film with Netflix. It is the only TV channel that can be seen all over the world, and it makes films in many languages. Our film has been translated into 199 languages, for example.

Greif is one of the best film directors in Hollywood, and he can also be the best salesman. He arranged for me to have lunch with two people from Netflix, and they were convinced about making the film. I presented the discoveries made during my expedition to the Pyramid of Teti and the site of Gisr Al-Modier. We also included Waziri’s excavations near the tombs of Mia and others in the shadow of the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

I presented the discoveries made around the Pyramid of Teti because Teti was worshipped as a god during the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom, and many people wanted to be buried beside him.

When we started the excavations, we found a new pyramid built for a queen called Neit. This queen had never been heard of before. We know that Teti, the first king of the Sixth Dynasty, married two queens, one called Iput and the other called Khuit, but now we had found a new queen, the daughter of the king and also the daughter of the god Geb, god of the earth, near the Pyramid of Teti.

We found about 22 shafts going down for about 20 to 30 metres and a limestone sarcophagus. I went down one of the shafts, found the sarcophagus, and excavated the skeleton inside. In another shaft, we found many coffins, most of them containing mummies. We also found a shabti figurine and two games, one called “game 20” and the other the sent game, which means cross. A box containing other shabtis was also found, along with a statue of the god Anubis and a statue of Ptah-soker.

A stela dated to the reign of Ramses II showed the deceased and his wife worshipping the god Osiris. Seated in front of them are their children by queen Nefertari. Another great discovery was a mummy with a golden mask.

SECOND SITE: The second site was Gisr Al-Modier, and this made Netflix really interested.

Greif arrived with Isacksen and film director Max Suleiman. I told them the story of this site where I was looking for a lost pyramid. In 1954, Egyptian archaeologist Zakaria Ghoneim had excavated the Pyramid of Skhemkhet at the site, and inside the burial chamber he had found a sealed sarcophagus that was placed there 5,000 years ago.

He decided to open it. President Gamal Abdel-Nasser had earlier gone to see the discovery of the Boat of Khufu that was found by Kamal Al-Mallakh on the Giza Plateau, and journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal advised the president to go to witness the opening of this sarcophagus as well. However, when it was opened it was found to be empty. I still do not understand why this was so.

I thought that there must be a pyramid for Huni somewhere who had come to the throne after Sekhem-khet of the Third Dynasty, so we began to look for this “lost pyramid”.

Suleiman interviewed me and Greif, and Isacksen was around to listen. He asked me how I had developed my passion for archaeology, and I explained that from the age of 16 I had dreamed of being a lawyer, and so when I finished high school I went to the Faculty of Law at Alexandria University. I bought the books, and then discovered that I would never love being a lawyer as it involved reading so many books.

I then moved from the Faculty of Law to the Faculty of Arts. I could not choose which department to be in, but some students told me that a new department had opened called archaeology. I asked them what I would do when I graduated, and they said I could work in translation.

I joined the Archaeology Department, but I am sorry to say that I was not a good student and did not study. I graduated with the lowest rank of degree, but at that time the government guaranteed a job to all university graduates, so I got a job as an inspector of antiquities.

 However, when I went to the Department in Cairo, I found that the people there had no ambition. I decided to leave the department and to train as a diplomat. I passed the written exam but failed the oral. I tried to transfer to tourism, but couldn’t, and so found my way back to antiquities.

When I was there, I met Gamal Mokhtar, head of the then Antiquities Organisation, who said I would have to join an excavation. I did not want to do this, but he said he would cut my salary if I didn’t. I went to the site by train and was unhappy and unused to staying in a tent.

However, one day one of the workmen came to me and said that a tomb had been found and that I was needed to help in the excavation. He gave me a brush and asked me to help clean the site. While I was doing this, I found a statue in a niche, a beautiful statue of the goddess Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. It was then that I found my true passion for archaeology that later changed my life.

Suleiman did a lot of interviews with me for the Netflix film, but the most interesting question he asked me was who is Zahi Hawass. I think that he asked me this question more than 20 times.

During the interviews, Essam Shihab, my assistant, called me to say that we had found a cache with nine statues in it. I went to look and found one of them was a double statue of a man and his wife. She was holding his hand in love and affection. We did not find the name of the statue, but later, after the filming had finished, we found a false door in the same area giving the name of the owner of the door and the statues as Misi.

We found another shaft, and Suleiman followed me going down it. It was a surprise to find three statues of one person named Fetek and beside him a sarcophagus with a mummy in it. There was also an offering table with all the items that Fetek would have in the afterlife written on it.

A day later, I visited Marina, the producer of the show. She smiled all the time and was very nice and used to look at all the footage after shooting. I told her that the next day would be a great day, as we had found an intact sarcophagus dating back 4,300 years and would open it live for the show.

We arrived at the site early and were all waiting to see what we would discover inside the sarcophagus. The workmen put me inside a basket, and I went down about 60 feet underground. I saw a sarcophagus behind a stone vessel and pottery dating to 4,300 years ago. I examined the sarcophagus and found that no one had touched it since the Fifth Dynasty.

I called for Reis Ammar, the supervisor, and one of the workmen to open the lid, which weighed six tons. They began to use a machine known as “the devil” to raise it. I was standing with a flashlight in my hand, waiting for the moment to put my head inside the sarcophagus. The moment came, and until now I cannot explain the feeling: I saw a beautiful mummy covered with gold, the oldest mummy in good condition ever to be discovered.

Suleiman only showed 20 per cent of the film he made with me in the Netflix show, and possibly the rest would make another hour at least. I called Suleiman to ask him, but he is a diplomat and did not give me a straight answer. As a result, the final film omits many great photographs.


PART TWO: The second part of the film is about Waziri’s excavation of a large area containing shafts with many great coffins dating back to 500 BCE. He also found many artefacts near the coffins, with the most important being a papyrus more than 20 m long of the Book of the Dead now called the “Waziri Papyrus”.

Waziri appears with me twice in the film, with the best scene being at the end on the Giza Plateau in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Khufu where we are shown hugging each other. Many people called me to say that this was the best scene in the film.

Suleiman decided not to make the film as a documentary with a foreign voiceover, and instead he asked me to be the narrator. The company has now made a film that has entered the homes of millions of people all over the world, and we have Netflix to thank for this as well as all the friends who worked on the film.

“When Netflix agreed to do the show, I partnered with Dan Cohen at Story Syndicate to produce the show with me,” Greif later told me. “I brought in Peter Isacksen as executive producer to oversee the entire production. We hired Suleiman, a very talented Emmy-winning director.”

“Having produced shows with you for over 20 years, and with the Egyptian government, I was able to use my relationships and practical working experience to get all the proper permissions and organise all the local crew. I thought it very important that our crew be primarily Egyptian and not from other countries.The Egyptian crew did a fantastic job.”

“On the creative front, I was responsible for breaking the story and overseeing the script.
It was also extraordinarily important to establish a cinematic style that would separate our Netflix production from the ordinary shows that normally appear on Discovery or NatGeo” in the US.

“I monitored the storylines over the many months to make sure that both, you, Waziri, the antiquities, the government, and the country were all shown accurately, respectfully, and positively. During the editorial process, I worked closely with Suleiman to make sure that the final film had a clear narrative and that it shared your journey with the audience portraying both your and Waziri’s life’s work to inspire the world and future archeologists about Egypt’s rich culture.”

“As executive producer, my ultimate responsibility was to ensure the quality, integrity, and reputation of all involved. I am proud to have worked with a fabulous team lead by Suleiman and Peter.”

Suleiman said about the film that “it is incredibly humbling. I couldn’t believe it at first: the number one film on Netflix in 190 countries! How is that even possible? Our film even beat the latest action movie starring [US actor] Chris Hemsworth. That is unheard of for a documentary.”

“It’s even being compared to the Indiana Jones film now in movie theatres worldwide. I loved the Indiana Jones films as a kid, and those films are  in part responsible or me wanting to be a director perhaps. To be mentioned even in the same breath as that film series today because of this film is a dream come true.”

“There are a lot of amazing moments in our film. From the beginning with Dr Hawass standing in an empty desert at sunset wondering what he will find… hoping that he will find the lost pyramid of an ancient king from the earliest days of the Pyramid Age… through a chain of stunning discoveries that leads him like a trail of clues to the end when we discover one of the largest structures ever found at Saqqara,” Suleiman said.

“But my favourite parts are the moments in which we witness Dr Hawass make history. In front of our cameras he discovers some of the oldest fully intact mummies ever found in Egypt. These are mummies that are over 1,000 to 1,500 years older than those of king Tut, Ramses, and the other royals of the 18th Dynasty.”

“Most of the mummies that are that old, be they of kings or high officials, are in terrible condition… and hardly ever undisturbed and intact. But these were perfectly preserved, covered in stunningly beautiful beads and glittering gold. One of the archaeologists on the team said to us that he wonders, had he been alive four and a half thousand years ago, if he would have been permitted to even stand in the presence of these people.

“To stand in the presence of those people even today is an honour. It truly takes your breath away. But that discovery is only the beginning of something even bigger, which you’ll have to see for yourself at the end of the film,” Suleiman said.

“Those final moments of the film, in which we see Dr Hawass make what could be the discovery of a lifetime and hear him dream about his future, have a huge emotional impact on me, even after over a year of editing the film.”

“Because archaeology is not a search for treasure. Is about the journey that takes you to making the discovery. And that’s something that until this film has never been captured. And even when you make an incredible find, you are humbled by the fact that there is always more to be uncovered.”

“As Dr Hawass says, ‘the story is never over.’” 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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