On 28 October 2020, Netflix released its first documentary on the ancient Egyptian civilization entitled “The Secrets of Saqqara Tomb.” The movie follows closely the efforts of a team of Egyptian archaeologists who discover the tomb of Wahtye, a prestigious priest from the fifth dynasty, within the Saqqara necropolis outside Cairo. The mysteries of the Tomb structure and the gradual uncovering of the tragedies around the lives of Wahtye’s family make the documentary a captivating historical thriller.
This breathtaking journey directed by James Tovell possesses yet another level of brilliance worth reflection. Such reflection does not only serve to highlight the beauty of the movie, but also this reflection underlines an important conceptual structure of the movie: time. The intersections and interactions of different temporalities within the movie transforms its story into a tale of different layers of time, histories, past(s), present(s), and futures. The clocks ticking in the background of the Saqqara tomb are neither one nor harmonized.
Archaeology, a modern science based on some sort of abstracting and harmonizing human history, becomes—in the quest for Wahtye’s secrets—a milieu for contending and interacting times. One can clearly enumerate at least five "Times" flowing throughout the outstanding Netflix oeuvre: the monetized modern time, the religious present time, the present of the discovery team narrating Wahtye’s story as a past, the past of the documentary progenitor "Wahtye," and the future Wahtye and his relatives imagined.
From the beginning of the excavation process, there are two parallel but separate times posing pressures on the team. The first is the monetized time of the archaeological season, set by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities along with the season’s budget. The second is the religious time of the approaching month of Ramadan, during which the tiresome processes of excavation should stop. The team faces pressure to make breakthroughs so the ministry will continue funding the project, and at the same time, these breakthroughs must be fully actualized with tangible discoveries before the season of archaeological work comes to a close. However, along with the temporal pressures of the bureaucratic monetized time of the ministry, there is the present religious time of Ramadan. The team must focus their efforts to finalize the mission before Ramadan comes and their work must come to a halt. Ramadan by itself is not a legal or bureaucratic deadline for the team, but the considerations of the fasting conditions make an exhaustive job like the one in Saqqara’s necropolis a sort of physical impossibility. So, time, money, and efforts all present important considerations the team must balance during their work in Wahtye’s perplexing cemetery.
These stressing times are complimented on the other hand by a mélange of musically flowing, nonetheless mysterious, set of temporalities. These temporalities are the present in which Wahtye’s whole life is narrated as a past, the past from which Wahtye was escaping from and capitalizing on, and the future towards which Wahtye and his family were oriented.
Like many documentaries, a present narrates the past of the movie's main characters. Wahtye’s life is read, deciphered, and formulated through the discovery team’s present (itself a past to the movie spectator). This very present within which Wahtye’s remnants were unearthed, decoded, and read is by itself charged with its own temporalities. The team’s values, beliefs, disciplines, life settings, and future ambitions are all vibrant agents in drawing the picture of Wahtye. The temporalities that echo loud within the voices of the team members are wide-ranging. There is the future imagined by ambitious young archaeologist Hamada, who is determined to stress his presence through his risky yet energetic attitude. Then there is the past that team leader Mohamed Youssef bets on in order to verify his pre-existing theories of the tomb and its findings. There is also the present of Dr. Amira Shaheen, a rheumatologist who salutes the remnants of Wahtye’s deceased family in a language full of Islamic respect and solemnity. What’s more, far beyond the daily scenes of the tomb, there is the present of Salima Ikram, the western-educated Pakistani Egyptologist who harmonizes all these efforts through the language of academic English and the jargon of science.
Along with this deeply entangled present that set for itself the mission of narrating and interpreting Wahtye’s life, there is also Wahtye’s very past which was by itself full of tragedies and drama. Wahtye, the high-ranking priest, is understood to have taken over his brother’s tomb, defaced any mention of him, and replaced it with his own life story and statutes. This is truly a past Wahtye was escaping from. However, at the same time, Wahtye was capitalizing on another past: his status and career as a priest, which enabled him to tell and retell his own story with the required respect, and—in Wahtye’s point of view—will allow him also a priest to evade the afterlife interrogation before Maat the goddess of Justice. By picturing himself on the walls of his tomb as an afterlife judge, Wahtye sought to turn around the expected punishment he would have faced due to his unjust takeover of his brother’s tomb. The past for Wahtye seems to be a tale of escape and reliance
Regardless of Wahtye’s reckoning with his past, he was an ancient Egyptian, like the rest of his family. This meant that the future of the afterlife represented the ultimate end goal. The Ancient Egyptian religious view, like many past and present religious systems, believed in the afterlife and resurrection. The fate of the individual during the afterlife depends totally on his deeds during his worldly life. This made Wahtye and his family prepare themselves for the afterlife by doing their best to keep the tomb well decorated and their bones conserved. Yet unfortunately, their conservation efforts were not perfected as they were all hastened by the plague scoring the lives of each of their family members. Tragically enough, both the discovery team and the discovered family were running out of time, as if time puts us all in a state of discomfort.
As a result, one can now clearly discern the sophisticated, entangled, and interactive web of times flowing all over the remnants of Wahtye and his family. The story did not suffice to be narrated in the past tense. Instead, it grabs with itself an array of temporalities that represent the concerns of everyone featured in this incredible documentary.
Eventually, one finds himself against a mosaic of times all working together to give us clues about the quest for Wahtye’s secrets. This mosaic consists of the monetized time that restrains the duration and money available for the mission, the religious time of Ramadan that restrains the possibility of exerting future efforts in the tomb once Ramadan starts, and the present time of the discovery team that is by itself charged with its own temporalities and narrates Wahtye’s present as a past spectacle. Besides this present, there is the past of Wahtye’s life, which projects the drama of his takeover of his brother’s tomb and the status of reverence Wahtye enjoyed. That status Wahtye will later capitalize on to escape the punishments set for his unjust takeover. Against all these times stands the deep-rooted orientation towards the future that all ancient Egyptians considered as an ultimate destiny. Wahtye, who had accounts to settle with the past, sought together with his family a blessed future during the afterlife—a hope Wahtye was eager to actualize at any price, no matter how moral or deceitful. Such a carnival of times entices one to watch again this beautiful work and encourages one to look for further mysteries in the rich history of ancient Egypt, the land of drama and grandeur.