Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 February 2003
Issue No. 625
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Spanish show

The Egyptian Museum is putting on a series of exhibitions highlighting the work of foreign missions in Egypt. Nevine El-Aref viewed the current display


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The ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Oxyrhynchus (modern Al-Bahnasa); artistic version of a damaged wall in a church showing Jonah being eaten by the whale (left) and expelled (right); an eagle with an ankh in its mouth; and some objects on exhibition in Cairo Museum
Objects recently discovered by foreign missions working in Egypt are being displayed in a special area next to the main marble staircase in the Egyptian Museum, which recently celebrated its centennial. Exhibitions will be rotated, each lasting for a month.

The first is the harvest of a two-month Egyptian- Spanish mission conducted in 1993 at a group of cemeteries at Al-Bahnasa, 15kms west of Beni Mazar on the bank of the Bahr Al-Youssef Canal. Some 60 items are on display, ranging from Egyptian and Graeco-Roman artefacts to Christian and Islamic. Among them are Saite period Osirian statues and offering tables and meticulously restored paintings from a Byzantine chapel featuring biblical scenes; one particularly delightful piece features Jonah being swallowed by the whale and then regurgitated. Another features an eagle, ankh in mouth and with outstretched wings.

Al-Bahnasa, the site of the ancient Egyptian provincial town of Per-Medjet, developed into the flourishing Graeco-Roman city of Oxyrhynchus, a name derived from the word for "fish" which was an object of reverence there.

Today what used to be a fertile area where acacia, sycamore and date palms grew plentifully over an area of about 360 acres, and where great numbers of wild animals could be hunted in the Western Desert, is a somewhat featureless landscape largely obliterated by contemporary housing.

The upper necropolis of Oxyrhynchus, where all the objects now on display in the museum were discovered, was originally identified by the scholar Denon, a member of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century. It was subsequently sporadically excavated and systematically pillaged by scholars searching in the dump heaps for valuable papyri, which they found in vast quantities. In fact the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, which have been studied for more than a century, made the site famous.

"It was only following the discovery of the Saite tombs in 1982 that an archaeological mission of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities) undertook systematically to excavate Al-Bahnasa," Tohfa Handusa, professor of archaeology at Cairo University, said. "In 1992 the mission of Barcelona University joined to form an Egyptian-Spanish mission with the aim of studying the topography of the whole area."

It is not rare to find a site that contains monuments of different historical eras in layers of strata. "But what was unusual in this case was to find them so quickly, and in such a confined area," Handusa said.

The oldest tombs on the necropolis date from the sixth century BC and were constructed of carved blocks of white limestone. They consist of various vaulted chambers, some containing stone sarcophagi, others inscriptions.

The Osirian statues and offering tables on display were originally found in a catacomb dedicated to the god Osiris. Located west of the village, beyond the rampart beneath a natural mound in the middle of the desert, this yielded a recumbent statue of Osiris 3.4cms long as well as a number of small effigies of Osiris.

"Each of the niches of the catacomb bears an inscription dating the complex to the Ptolemaic period," Joseph Padro, head of the Spanish Mission, said. "These inscriptions also give the name of the Osirion, Per-Khef, which means the structure can be linked to the decorated blocks which were found by the late French scholar Sauneron in the antique markets of Cairo in the 1950s." Padro went on to explain that, although the galleries had been pillaged, a large number of small objects nevertheless remained, "Especially those used in the funerary rites of Osiris: small boxes with pyramidal covers, bowls, small loaves, cakes and amulets," he added.

Other tombs of the Roman period were discovered around the catacomb. In construction these imitate the earlier vaulted Saite tombs, but are on a smaller scale. One has been restored and has wall paintings of mythical subjects.

Padro pointed out that a wealth of literary evidence had been found at the site, including scriptural writings, magical texts, and laws. "These gave us a true image of the financial, administrative and social conditions then prevailing; laws governing the sale and purchase of land, wills and gifts," he said. "Some of the texts concerning the collection of taxes indicate to what extent the citizens were overburdened [by the Romans]."

It was above these Pharaonic and Roman tombs that a large Byzantine necropolis was discovered. Early studies of a raw-brick structure revealed that it could be a chapel where the first Christian inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus practised their funeral rituals. Unearthed were tempera-decorated Christian wall paintings, such as those exhibited at the museum. Padro described them as "sober paintings simply executed in red and black on a white background -- which represent, by means of crowns and crosses, the mystery of the crucifixion and the resurrection".

Hassan Ibrahim Amer, a professor of archaeology at Cairo University who accompanied the mission, commented on the preservation and conservation of the paintings. "Accumulated salts had to be removed, and then the surface of the whole painting was covered with adhesive gauze immersed in a mixture of paraloid and acetone," he said. "When the cloth was dry it was possible carefully to remove the decorated layer of the painting from the wall without risk of breakage." The process was completed when the gauze was removed by using a solvent and the posterior surface was placed on a new support. At that stage, gaps could be filled in and the painting retouched according to restoration criteria in order to recreate the image in its entirety.

The important and much-neglected site of Oxyrhynchus, which -- according to surviving written texts -- once contained Egyptian temples in honour of Osiris, Graeco-Egyptian temples to Amun- Zeus and Isis-Hera, Greek shrines to Demeter, Dionysus, Hermes and Apollo, and Roman shrines to Jupiter, Capitolinus and Mars, is benefiting from modern excavation and conservation techniques. Once again it is on the archaeological map, this time not for texts alone but for archaeological evidence that might cast further light on the community that produced the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

"This exhibition hall will be permanently devoted to objects found by foreign missions in Egypt," says Mamdouh El-Damattai, director general of the Egyptian Museum. "Displays will be set up according to a specific schedule. Every mission will be able to exhibit some of its recent discoveries."

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