Workmen cleaning a heavily traveled tourist area of a fabled temple stumbled across an ancient hoard of statues of pharaohs and gods, a discovery that researchers called a potential gold mine of historical data.
Officials said five statutes so far have been dug up inside the famous Luxor Temple in Luxor, a Nile River city about 450 miles south of Cairo."There are other statues still buried, and only small parts of them are showing," Sayed Tawfik, chairman of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. "We will know more when we dig them up."
He said he expects the statues to represent leaders and deities from a 750-year period that ended about 500 B.C., shortly before the Persians conquered Egypt.
Displaying the find to President Hosni Mubarak on Friday, Egyptologist Aly Hassan described it as "the most important find of the end of the 20th century."
Notable from the first half of the century are the discovery of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun across the Nile River from Luxor in 1922; a fabulous golden trove found in the Nile Delta at Tanis in 1939; and a dismantled full-size boat found beside the 4,600-year-old pyriamid of Pharaoh Cheops in 1954.
Hassan said the Luxor Temple discovery turned up by chance on Jan. 22 during routine cleaning of an area at the western end of the temple's Amenhophis III courtyard, rimmed by towering and majestic columns.
Three of the five statues found so far have been identified, he said.
One is an 8-foot quartzite statue of Pharaoh Amenhophis III, who ruled Egypt in 1391-1353 B.C. and founded the existing Luxor Temple. The others are life-size or larger.
Another statue, 51/2-feet long and made of black diorite, depicts the cow-headed goddess Hathor, guardian of women, beauty and love. The third identified statue, made of granite, is of General Haremhab, a soldier who usurped the Egyptian throne at the end of the 18th dynasty after Tutankhamun and his caretaker Aya died.
He said the Amenhophis III statue became visible as workers were cleaning.
"Nobody expected such a find because the area is visited by so many tourists each day," Hassan said.
Until Friday, the cache remained covered and under guard. Antiquities officials debated whether excavating the relics would damage the fragile temple and jeopardize the stability of columns.
Luxor Temple, an island of stone beauty beside the Nile, is considered the most endangered monument in the Luxor area, undermined by a rising water table and a river of sewage water flowing beneath it.
During its construction, the temple underwent continual changes and additions, including changes ordered by Tutankhamun, Ramses II and Alexander the Great.
After the reign of Amenhophis III, ancient Egypt's religion underwent major upheaval when his son and successor Akhenaten ordered that a new god, Aten, be given precedence over the existing array of deities. His agents hacked the name of Amun, the long-favored god of Thebes, from monuments throughout Egypt.
The new discoveries give evidence of the turbulence, as the name Amun was chiseled from Amenhophis's statue. Egyptian officials said the cache surely will yield historical data from the period of religious frenzy and violence. Antiquities officials said the statues probably were hidden by temple priests.
"We can expect to find such caches from time to time," said Zahi Hawass, archaeological adviser to the culture minister and director of Giza Plateau. "We think these objects were buried by priests trying to hide them during periods when strife was occurring throughout the country."