Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb
Duration: 114 Minutes
Genre: Science, Nature Documentary
Director: James Tovell
Producer: Richard Bradley, Charlotte Chalker, Eslam Fawaz, Magdy Rashidy, Caterina Turroni
Music: Jerry Lane
Cinematography: Ryan Earl Parker
Editing: Michael Rolt
Released On: 28 October 2020
Star Cast: Ahmed Zikrey Abdellhak, Ghareeb Ali Mohammed Abushousha Nabil Eldaleel Sabry, Mohyeldin Farag, Salima Ikram, Mustafa Abdo Sadek Mahmoud, Hamada Shehata Ahmed Mansour, Nermeen Momen Mohamed, Amira Shaheen, Mostafa Waziri, Mohammad Mohammad Yousef
There are worlds above us and worlds beneath, and this Netflix documentary ‘Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb’ explores the latter. It is a gripping narrative about an excavation mission at the 4,400-year-old tomb that was discovered near the Djoser’s step pyramid in the necropolis of Saqqara, outside of Cairo, in 2018.
From the second the tomb was found the researches had got curious about the mysteries attached to it. In this 114-min documentary, one can witness a compelling visual tour, as a group of Egyptologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, scientists, and diggers engage in a season-long mission of excavating coffins, remains, mummies, artefacts, and other precious belongings from the tomb of Wahtye.
One could have a zillion questions before starting this documentary as to who was Wahtye? How did he die? Whose remains are buried under the tomb? What do the hieroglyphs on the walls say about the story of Wahtye? This documentary turn-by-turn unfolds answers to each of these questions in an enthralling fashion.
Anybody who gets into a documentary about Egyptian archaeology might expect the topography to be a dry, scorching hot desert with a stark yellow tint over it, and this one is no different. ‘Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb’ takes you into the streets of Cairo and its farmlands. Just like the road which divides Cairo’s lush green topography to that of the barren Saqqara, the documentary deals with multiple dualities—like the layers of sand that divide the living and the dead. One can learn a lot about science from this movie.
The crew is a bunch of thrilling souls who leave their residence in the city to excavate human remains from the tomb, it is as though they are leaving life and venturing into a kingdom of death, or afterlife, which, of course, is the very idea that possessed the ancient civilisation of Egypt.
Hamda, an archaeologist says, “It’s a naturally morbid place.”
One of the best analogies brought out is when the documentary draws parallels between these ancient humans and the very crew is enforced to unearth them. Even Mustafa, the foreman of the excavations feels that the hieroglyphic depictions of Wahtye’s life mirror that of his own, and the gap of 4,400 years is a mere number on the wave of time. Anthropologist Amira, someone who says that she can sense ‘feelings’ from the bones unearthed, reaffirms this when she says that ancient humans are “exactly like us”.
The documentary is not a suspense for anyone as the ‘secrets’ here are in fact well known. The news about this tomb had made headline news across the world in 2019: the discovery in the Saqqara necropolis, just outside Cairo, of scores of mummified animals, including a lion cub, and an untouched tomb from the 25th century BC.
But what makes this an exceptional documentary is its focus on the entirely Egyptian archaeological team, quietly doing their bit to decolonise Egyptology and to demonstrate the emotional connection between the locals and the ancient civilization they are unearthing.
The film’s richly coloured photography, precisely defined sense of topography and nicely conceived illustrations combine seamlessly to make clear what could be a confusing welter of information from two parallel digs.
Director James Tovell is particular in using his ‘human’ aspect of the film in driving forward the story of the dead. The cinematography and the use of music are instrumental in getting you, the viewer, disconnected from the proceedings of Egypt, to feel the anticipation and excitement behind an incoming discovery.
The finds are extraordinary, and the commentaries on them by the participants are equally wonderful. This is fascinating stuff, smoothly put together, and carrying genuine human interest.
Moments like the excavation of a mummified lion and a wooden coffin are particularly riveting. ‘Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb’ strikes gold with its judicial use of resources and storytelling to deliver a compelling, enormously appealing story. At the end of the watch, don’t be surprised at all if you are overwhelmed and begin your own digging.
For anyone who is interested in history, this movie is your Bae. It is also a learning experience for people of all age who are just curious souls.