A flamboyant archeologist known worldwide for his trademark Indiana Jones hat believes he has identified the site where Cleopatra is buried.
Now, with a team of 12 archeologists and 70 excavators, Zahi Hawass, 60, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has started searching for the entrance to her tomb.
And after a breakthrough two weeks ago he hopes to find her lover, the Roman general Mark Antony, sharing her last resting place at the site of a temple, the Taposiris Magna, 28 miles west of Alexandria.
Hawass has discovered a 400ft tunnel beneath the temple containing clues that the supposedly beautiful queen may lie beneath. “We’ve found tunnels with statues of Cleopatra and many coins bearing her face, things you wouldn’t expect in a typical temple,” he said.
A fortnight ago Hawass’s team discovered a bust of Mark Antony, the Roman general who became Cleopatra’s lover and had three children with her before their ambitions for an Egyptian empire brought them into conflict with Rome.
They committed suicide – he with his sword, she reputedly by clutching an asp to her breast – after being defeated by Octavian in the battle of Actium in 31BC. “Our theory is that both Cleopatra and Mark Antony are buried here,” said Hawass.
The archeologist, best known in Britain for demanding the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and for promoting the Tutankhamun exhibition at the O2 dome in London, believes the temple’s location would have made it a perfect place for Cleopatra to hide from Octavian’s army.
Work on the site has been suspended until the summer heat abates and is due to resume in November, when Hawass will use radar to search for hidden chambers.
The queen’s life and death were immortalised in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and the Hollywood movie Cleopatra – starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who fell in love during the filming – but the location of her tomb has remained a mystery.
If Hawass is right, he could make the greatest archeological discovery in Egypt since Tutankhamun’s tomb was uncovered by the British archeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
Other experts are cautious, though. John Baines, professor of Egyptology at Oxford University, warned that searching for royal tombs often proved a “hopeless” task. He also doubted that Antony would be buried alongside his lover.
“It’s unlikely Mark Antony would have a tomb that anyone would be able to discover because he was the enemy at the time he died,” he said.
Hawass, however, remains defiant. “This is our theory. Others may disagree, but we are searching to see if we can prove it,” he said.