11 - 17 November 1999
Issue No. 455
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Ancient stables, churchesBy Nevine El-Aref
Excavations at various archaeological sites within Egypt have been yielding discoveries with exciting historical significance, shedding further light on Egypt's ancient past.
An American-Egyptian team searching for roads used in military and commercial movement have unearthed one of the ancient trade routes through the Western Desert.
The excavation, started three years ago, now reveals that the road extended from Luxor (ancient Thebes) to Naga Hammadi (where the Nile takes a great curve before resuming its northerly flow). Mohamed El-Saghir, head of the Egyptian antiquities department at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said the road has an extension leading to the Kharga Oasis, adding that seven areas of the vast thoroughfare have already been excavated.
El-Saghir explained that the route was a regular trade route during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but took on a new function when Ahmose, "father" of the New Kingdom, recognised the road's importance for military movement. Under the reign of Ahmose -- celebrated as the leader who finally expelled the Hyksos occupiers -- the route became one of the main military and trade roads of Egypt.
Ruins of military fortresses and observation towers are located along the road and hundreds of rock engravings on both sides of the road depict the commercial transactions and military battles that took place. These inscriptions, El-Saghir noted, reveal major projects undertaken by powerful kings like Amenemhat I and Senusert, as well as high-ranking officials. One unique inscription narrates the famous story of Senuhi, a military commander who, for political reasons, left Egypt and escaped to the north during the rule of Amenemhat I.
The excavation of the Luxor-Naga Hammadi road fortuitously supplements archaeological exploration into Ahmose's reign. Last year, using new excavation techniques, an Austrian-Egyptian team discovered the foundation of Ahmose's palace in Tel Al-Daba'a (in the Sharkiya Governorate), which has been identified as the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris. Remains of a Hyksos fortress have survived, along with some pottery and reliefs.
El-Saghir explained that because the ruins in Sharkiya lie beneath agricultural land, the mission initially used high-tech equipment, such as the magnometer and radar, to check for the presence of antiquities. Land that is revealed to contain antiquities by these methods is rented from the farmers. The crops are subsequently uprooted and the soil drained of water to prepare the site for excavation. Preliminary searches with this technique have made it possible to identify major sites in the Delta once thought to have been lost forever beneath layers of accumulated Nile silt.
The last few weeks have been particularly fruitful for archaeological teams. Two weeks ago in Qantir village, also in Sharkiya, a German-Egyptian archaeological team located the horse stables of Ramses II, covering around two acres of land.
"This is the biggest and oldest horse stable ever found in the world," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general of the SCA. Gaballa went on to explain that the stables were found on the site of the 3300-year-old city of Piramesse (Per Ramses, or "house of Ramses"), 115 kilometres northeast of Cairo. The stables, sub-divided into several rectangular areas, each with its own gate, were built by the king to breed more than 400 horses for purposes of war, hunting and recreation.
"Horses were very important in the expansion of the Egyptian empire and these stables were built in a very strategic location -- close to the trade routes leading to Lebanon and Syria and not very far from the Hittite empire," said Gaballa. Bronze pieces of battle chariots and stones for attaching trappings to the horses were found in the stables.
As recently as last week, an Egyptian mission uncovered a church dating back to the 6th century AD in Qubbet Al-Hawa, on the western bank of the Nile. The discovery is valuable in that it dates to a significant period in Egyptian history. Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni explained that the church is located close to Old Kingdom noblemen's tombs. "This shows that the Pharaonic tombs were reused during the Coptic era," he said.
The architectural style of the newly discovered church resembles Nubian churches -- not surprising given its proximity to Nubia. It has a main central dome surrounded by a number of smaller domes. A collection of coloured frescoes, some showing a group of monks, others depicting Jesus surrounded by angels and holding the Bible in his left hand, adorn the inner walls. A Byzantine icon shows Jesus with his disciples. Arabic graffiti found in the church was made by visitors of later periods.
Abdallah El-Attar, head of the Islamic and Coptic department at the SCA, explained that a hermit's cell was also found in the excavation. "It is a hole leading to a rock-hewn tomb, decorated with representations of a seated nobleman." On the north-eastern side of the church, an ancient wall adorned with purple crosses links the church to the tomb and the hermit's cell.
As archaeological teams scour lands from the Delta to Aswan, Egypt's rich history continues to rise into view. Such a rewarding season for archaeological research can only spur further activity, and as methods grow more sophisticated and innovative, we can expect productive seasons to come.