Zawyet El-Aryan

Zawyet el-Aryan, Egypt

Zawyet el-Aryan is located in the Giza Governorate, not far from the famous Giza Plateau.

To the west of this town, in a desert area, is a necropolis with five mastabas cemeteries and two complexes that were interpreted as unfinished pyramids.

This archaeological site is probably one of the most intricate mysteries in Egypt since the government declared it a “military zone” and it’s not possible to explore it.

The first excavations began in the late ‘800 and were studied during the first decades of ‘900. In the 60s the area was definitely closed and the site was forgotten by history.

Besides the five mastabas, are two “unfinished pyramids”.

The first is located 8km southwest of the Giza Plateau and was explored between 1839 and 1911.

The archaeologists who excavated the site never agreed on the actual dimensions of the complex, nor how big could the “pyramid” originally be.

They didn’t find any mummy or any funerary objects inside of it, and its aspect is that of a hill made of debris.

The structure that draws our attention, however, is the second complex, which is a real mystery.

In the northern area of Zawyet el-Aryan, a monumental man-made canyon divides the ground to form a huge corridor that goes underground, leading to subterranean chambers.

Zawyet el-Aryan

Archaeologists dated the complex to the Old Kingdom, between 4.000 and 5.000 years ago, although there is no agreement on this theory.

It was first described by Karl Richard Lepsius between 1842 and 1846 but was only explored in depth by Italian archaeologist Alessandro Barsanti at the beginning of ‘900, who managed to take photos and careful accounts that were published in the French Annales du Service des Antiquitès de l’Egypte.

Since the area was shut down shortly after, this is the only testimony we have as of today.

The first thing that one can notice upon reading the notes from Barsanti is that the archaeologist himself was not convinced that the complex was originally a pyramid at all.

Barsanti gained fame after he found Akhenaten’s tomb, but he couldn’t get much funding for his expedition and he had to focus only on this area, although he wrote that the surroundings had to be excavated too.

He was finally able to organize an expedition to clear the huge corridor from the sand, and he uncovered the walls of the artificial canyon: they were made out of limestone blocks 2 meters long and 3.5 meters high.

They were able to retrieve inscriptions and incisions, but no names to attribute the structure to were ever found.

Barsanti calculated that more than 4.200 cubic meters of rocks were inside the huge pit, with dozens of granite blocks.

During the February of 1905, the expedition began to see the end of the corridor as well as one of the most enigmatic structures in Egypt.

On the 12th of March the “oval sarcophagus” was finally discovered: a massive oval pink granite block with a lid on top of it.

Zawyet el-Aryan granite sarcophagus

At first glance, the sarcophagus seems more like a tank or a tub.

In fact, once the lid was removed, the expedition was able to retrieve a liquid that once filled the oval structure. Unfortunately, we still don’t know which liquid it was.

The granite tank was over 3 meters long, 1.5 meters deep, and 2.20 meters large.

Its dimension made Barsanti speculate that it must’ve been placed there before the corridor was built, otherwise the ancient Egyptians wouldn’t be able to transport it down those steep, narrow descending walls.

The Italian archaeologist was determined to excavate further, as the was convinced that the passages underneath the oval sarcophagus hid the true treasure.

He continued his campaign until 1911 when he was forced to quit to enroll in the war. In 1917, he died without ever going back to Zawyet el-Aryan.

Access to the complex has been restricted since 1964. No excavations are allowed, the original necropolis is overbuilt with military bungalows, and the shaft of the Unfinished Pyramid has allegedly been misused as a trash dump.

The condition of both burial shafts is uncertain and most likely disastrous.