ABUSIR, Egypt — They are characters straight out of central casting.
Kathleen Martinez, a soft-spoken camera-shy Dominican archaeologist, is the brain behind the operation. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s media-hungry leading archaeologist, is the publicity brawn, a modern day Indiana Jones who courts international media attention by donning his leather hat and scouring the Egyptian deserts for lost treasure.
Together they may be on the verge of Egypt’s most important archeological discovery: the tomb of Cleopatra and Marc Antony.
It’s a discovery that would allow archaeologists and historians alike to write the final chapter of the world’s most famous love affair.
“If we would be lucky and discover the tomb of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, this would be the most important discovery of the 21st century,” Hawass opined, standing directly above where he hopes the two might be buried, surrounded by his now-familiar gaggle of local and foreign media.
The journey began five years ago when Martinez arrived on Egyptian soil intent on finding the lost queen. She visited sites all over the country and, well-versed in history, concluded that Antony and Cleopatra were likely buried under the Temple of Isis and Osiris, 50 kilometers west of the city of Alexandria.
She initially received little support from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which oversees all of Egypt’s ancient sites and none-too-ironically is run by Hawass. The common belief was that Cleopatra was buried in a site now under water.
The council gave Martinez two months to conduct surveys around the temple, and she quickly began discovering chambers far below the earth. This, in itself, was a significant turn of events, since ancient Egyptian culture traditionally outlawed building underneath temples.
In 2005, Hawass’ interest piqued, the two began more extensive excavations in and around the temple.
“[The site] was important because [Cleopatra] could represent the legend of Osiris and Isis, which was important for the way she died and for the legacy she wants for the future,” Martinez said, referring to the gods that ancient Egyptians (mainly) believed had themselves engaged in a passionate love affair.
The ever-authoritative Hawass echoed this sentiment: “It’s a sacred place of Osiris and Isis, and this could be a perfect place for Marc Antony as Osiris and Cleopatra as Isis to be buried.”
Martinez was also guided by the historian Plutarch, who wrote that Octavius Caesar allowed the couple to be buried together and that Cleopatra had chosen an Isis temple (among the several existing at the time) as the burial site. Octavius had defeated Antony in a struggle over the leadership of the Roman Empire. According to legend, the ill-fated lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, then decided to kill themselves.
Since 2005, Hawass and Martinez have discovered a number of chambers and passageways under the temple.
Further discoveries this year outside the temple complex gave the two reason to be optimistic that they might be closing in on the greatest archaeological find in modern times.
“When we started this excavation in 2005, nobody thought we’d find anything. Four years later, we’ve discovered so much,” Martinez said.
Early this year, having failed to find the tomb inside the temple, the two began excavating several hundred meters outside the temple. There, they’ve discovered 200 skeletons, 20 tombs, and 10 mummies — two with gold gilding on the sarcophagus.
“Inside [the tombs] we found 10 mummies. And two of them had gold gilding,” Hawass said. “And this to show that those people were very important, and they should be buried beside someone important.”
They have also found 22 coins bearing Cleopatra’s name and likeness.
All of this has led Hawass and Martinez to believe they’ve found the supporting cast for a royal burial.
Two months ago, the team brought in technology capable of surveying the earth under the temple.
What the radar imaging found, both said, was stunning.
Within the series of chambers and passageways they had already discovered, they found three chambers, 20 to 25 meters underground, that seemed to be at the center of activity.
The team is now working at a furious pace to open these three chambers, one of which they believe may contain the lovers' remains.
Adding to the excitement, Martinez said, was the fact that the excavations so far have given no indication that the tombs have been tampered with since burial.
But the great discovery may not come as quickly as the two had hoped. President Hosni Mubarak’s summer house is a couple miles away, and security forces have, therefore, forbidden anyone from working in the temple between May and October.
If Hawass and Martinez can’t enter the chamber by month’s end, they’ll be forced to bide their time until the fall.
Neither has any idea whether they will be able to beat the clock.
And even if they do, there is no guarantee they’ll find what they’re looking for, meaning that the legend behind the demise of the famed Pharoah and her lover will endure.
More dispatches on Egypt:
How to save an oasis
Face time at the Cairo Zoo
The great Suez slowdown