ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (Reuters) - High on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, buried deep under the crumbling limestone of a temple to the goddess Isis, archaeologists believe the body of Queen Cleopatra may lie.
The tomb of the Egyptian queen has never been found but archaeologists are discovering more evidence that Cleopatra's priests carried her body to the temple after her suicide, where it could lie with her lover Marc Antony.
"This could be the most important discovery of the 21st century," Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, told reporters on a tour of the temple on Sunday. "This is the perfect place for them to be hidden."
Archaeologists from Egypt and the Dominican Republic plan to start digging in search of Cleopatra's tomb as early as this year.
Researchers have found by radar what may be three chambers as deep as 20 meters under the rock. Historians believe, based on the Roman writer Plutarch, that Antony and Cleopatra were buried together.
Kathleen Martinez, a Dominican Republic scholar who pioneered the theory that Cleopatra could be buried in the temple thinks one of the chambers might contain the remains of the famous couple.
If Martinez, 40, and her team, who have been working on the site for three years, find bodies beneath the rock, they will look for cartouches bearing the name of Cleopatra or a crown to indicate the identity of any mummy.
The body of Antony, Martinez said, may still be adorned in the former general's Roman uniform.
Digging, however, may have to be postponed until the fall for security reasons, as the temple overlooks a Mediterranean summer home of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Archaeologists this week discovered a cemetery near the temple containing gilded mummies, indicating the burial of royals around the temple.
Archaeologists had previously overlooked the temple -- which was built by Ptolemy II around 300 BC -- focusing instead on a burial site in Alexandria submerged below the sea in an 8th century earthquake, Martinez said.
But the queen, thinking about posterity, may have felt safer in the rocky hill about 50 kms (30 miles) west of the city.
"She needed a place to be protected in the afterlife," Martinez said. "If she had used the other burial site, she would have disappeared forever."
The discovery near the temple of 22 bronze coins inscribed with Cleopatra's name, an alabaster mask with a cleft chin resembling the face of Antony, and numerous shafts and tunnels under the temple strengthened her belief the couple could lie beneath the limestone.
Cleopatra, facing possible captivity in Rome, killed herself allegedly by the sting of an asp. Antony is also thought to have taken his own life after his defeat to Octavian at Actium. (Editing by Farah Master)