Archaeologists revealed a rocky hilltop in northern Egypt on Sunday where they believe Cleopatra was buried 2,000 years ago by the side of her Roman lover Mark Anthony after she committed suicide with a self-inflicted asp bite.
The team, led by antiquities chief Zahi Hawass and Kathleen Martinez, an Egyptologist from the Dominican Republic, hopes that the site around the ancient temple of Taposiris Magna, erected to honour the Egyptian god Isis in around 300 BC, will soon reveal the legendary lovers' final resting place.
The team has worked there for three years -- the latest in a chain of digs since an expedition by Napoleon in the 19th century.
Martinez says that the find of a carved male head, a fragment of a mask with a cleft-chin, coins and other artifacts prove that this is Anthony's burial site.
And she is convinced that Cleopatra's body also lies somewhere on this rocky outcrop overlooking the Mediterranean, 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Alexandria.
"There are historic proofs in the works of (Roman chronicler) Plutarch where he says Cleopatra was buried with Mark Anthony," Martinez said.
A lawyer by training, Martinez said that trying to unravel the fate of the doomed lovers began as a hobby but has now become what Hawass said could be "one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century."
Martinez said she "always had the conviction that the tomb of Anthony and Cleopatra was in this temple. We have been looking for the right tunnels, but so far we have only found the entrance to other chambers.
"I studied Cleopatra for 14 years, and I came up with the idea that her death was a religious act, to be bitten by this asp and buried in this temple, so I started searching for the temple," she said.
"She couldn't be buried in a different place from Mark Anthony and be protected by Isis."
The theory was initially disparaged by experts, and after five years of research, it took another year for Martinez to get approval to dig.
But today even Egypt's antiquities supremo Hawass enthusiastically endorses the hypothesis, which could lead to the greatest discovery in the country since Howard Carter found the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun in 1922.
|Kathleen Martinez, an Egyptologist from the Dominican Republic, sits near a grave found at the temple of Tasposiris Magna near Borg al-Arab, 50 kms (30 miles) west of Alexandria|
Martinez admitted that "beginner's luck" may have played a part, as her team found a major clue in the form of a clay fragment linking the site to Isis just inches from where Hungarian archaeologists stopped working four years ago.
Using ground-penetrating radar, her own expedition discovered two large subterranean chambers and an intriguing passageway.
But the clock is now ticking because the site is close to one of the summer homes of veteran President Hosni Mubarak, and it risks being closed for six months.
"Since it's close to the summer home of Mubarak we can only dig until May. We don't know if we can reach the chambers we want: we've spent a lot of time clearing these tunnels, and we should not leave now, leave them open," she said.
The team has already discovered coins engraved with the images of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great. Twenty-two of the bronze coins showed Cleopatra's profile.
Those engraved with Cleopatra's image, and also an alabaster bust of the queen found at the site, showed that the queen was what Hawass described as a "beauty."
The coins, worn by age, show Cleopatra -- whom Shakespeare portrayed as a tawny beauty who enthralled Anthony -- to have been a robust woman with a large, hooked nose.
In recent years the image of the queen has come to be more associated with Elizabeth Taylor's sensual portrayal of her in the 1963 movie "Cleopatra."
Egypt's ruler more than 2,000 years ago, Cleopatra married Mark Anthony, one of the three men who ruled the Roman empire after the assassination of Julius Caesar.
But their wedding and Anthony's ceding of Roman land to Cleopatra helped set his fellow Roman leaders against him. A civil war ensued, and both Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide when all was lost.