Archeology: Unearthing Egypt's God Of, Er, 'Ferti

He is politely called the god of "fertility," but the Egyptian deity Min had a lot more on his mind than agriculture. Invariably depicted with a large, erect penis, he was the god Pharaoh would pray to when he needed Egyptian women to conceive more soldiers for his Army, and his favorite offering was lettuce, considered a powerful aphrodisiac by the ancient Egyptians. Ninth-century Arab travelers who visited the temple to Min in Upper Egypt, built by Ramses II around 1300 B.C., came away wowed, describing it as larger than Karnak--but the site was long ago lost and buried by the modern city of Akhmim. A tantalizing trace turned up 15 years ago during an excavation for a post office, in the form of a giant statue of Ramses' Queen Meritamon--one of his several dozen wives, and also (as was customary with pharaohs) his daughter. But no further discoveries were made at the site.

Until three months ago, that is, when authorities nabbed a grave robber who had broken through the wall of a crypt in Akhmim's cemetery. They recovered the head of a large Ramses statue and notified Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt's powerful antiquities department. Hawass's exploratory excavation established that this was, indeed, the site of the famous temple. Next year he plans to begin exhuming and moving thousands of graves to get at the temple, whose size can only be guessed at from the distance between where Meritamon's statue was found and the Ramses head: 492 feet. As Hawass recounts in his new book, "Secrets From the Sand," even some educated modern Egyptians believe in the power of the god Min. One Cairo doctor he mentions credits a Min statue in the Temple of Thoth with helping his wife conceive a son. What will happen if they unearth an entire temple dedicated to Min, the gods only know.