Poles paved the way
Poland was the first of the eastern block countries to excavate in Egypt.Jill Kamil talks to the director of the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology in Cairo
Today the Polish Centre in Egypt has established a sound and impressive tradition. Excavations are running concurrently with restoration and conservation of many important sites, including the tiered temple of Queen Hatshepsut on the Theban necropolis, the Roman buildings at Kom Al-Dikka in central Alexandria, mural painting restoration in the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel (Deir Al- Malak) in the Naqlun desert south of the Fayoum, a Graeco-Roman town at Marina Al-Alamein, and archaeological activity at Saqqara West and Tel Al-Farkha in the Delta.
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Michalowski at ease; Tel Atrib in the Delta proved a training ground for Polish archaeologists; Wall painting from the Roman town at Marina Al-Alamein; Archaeologist Michalowski inspecting seated statue at Deir Al-Bahri; Fine inlaid box excavated from Naqlun; Fine quality mosaic unearth at Kom Al-Dikka
But there was nothing at the beginning of the 20th century to suggest that Polish scholarship could play a role of any consequence in archaeological research in Egypt. "Our country had ceased to exist as an independent nation, and those who travelled abroad carried Russian, German or Austrian passports," said Michal Gawlikowsky, director of the centre. "Some Poles visited Egypt to see the Pyramids or take a cure in the sulphur waters at Helwan, where a Polish pension called the Wanda catered for their needs. But there was no tradition of the kind on which the reputations of German, French and British archaeological activity in Egypt was founded. When Poland regained its independence in 1918, there were many needs more pressing than digging in a faraway land on the Nile. Egypt was then primarily known for its cotton and excellent tobacco, the famous Khedive Brand. Conversely, when the hero of independence Marshal Pilsudski stayed in the Helwan pension, nobody noticed until greeting cards arrived from Poland on his birthday."
There then seemed little chance for an ambitious young professor from Warsaw University to make his name in Egypt. But when appointed to the chair of Classical Archaeology in 1930, Kazimierz Michalowski, then 29 years old, resolved to project Poland into the international archaeological arena. He had completed a customary tour of the great museums and universities of Europe and had returned to Warsaw filled with enthusiasm. "This ambition became the moving force of his life; the goal he set himself in the face of great adversity, not the least of which was lack of understanding and just plain envy," Gawlikowsky said, adding: "Of course there were financial hardships."
In 1936, Michalowski was invited to join a French-Polish excavation in Egypt. He opted for a Graeco-Roman site and the choice fell on Edfu. Around the temple of Horus, which was built in Ptolemaic times, there are koms (mounds) concealing ruins of the ancient city of Apollinopolis Magna. In the first season, with the support from several Polish institutions, work started under Bernard Bruyère of the French Institute, and Michalowski directed excavations during the following two seasons.
"When World War II broke out, Michalowski languished in a prison camp in Germany for the next six years. Enforced idleness is the worst enemy so he started to teach hieroglyphics to his colleagues in captivity although it seemed unlikely that this knowledge would ever be of any use to anyone," Gawlikowsky said.
However, after the war he returned to Warsaw, threw himself into the task of rebuilding the National Museum and took his chair at the university. Few of his pre-war pupils were still around, and Egypt seemed as unattainable as the moon. Yet when a series of public lectures entitled "From Pyramids to Picasso" was given in the museum in 1957, people queued in the street, and it was clear that the public was interested in antiquity.
The opportunity for a comeback presented itself in 1957 when Egypt was looking for new partners after the Suez War and the political atmosphere in Poland had eased considerably. A site was chosen in the Delta, at Tell Atrib, now within the city of Benha. "This proved to be a training ground for Polish archaeologists, and for the next 40 years, as long as the development of the modern town allowed, they worked at the site," Gawlikowsky said. The foundations of an Egyptian temple were found, as well as a Roman bath and a scantily preserved Christian basilica. The most interesting results did not come until the last few seasons in the field, when they found the remains of what is thought to have been a Greek military settlement of the early Ptolemaic period, including a lot of terra- cotta figurines, which inspired their discoverer Karol Mysliwiec to write a book entitled "Eros on the Nile".
The next landmark in Michalowski's career came when, as a visiting professor at Alexandria University, he was asked to have a look at the underground parts of the Nabi Daniel Mosque in the very heart of the city; several people had claimed that was where the tomb of Alexander the Great was to be found.
"It did not take long to see that the structure under the mosque was a plain cistern," Gawlikowsky said. "But the neighbouring mound of Kom Al- Dikka immediately excited his interest. The remains of a Napoleonic fort had just been removed by the Alexandrian municipality in preparation for the development of a 10-acre area, and when the first foundation trenches were dug, antiquities came to light. "Michalowski was asked to evaluate them and it soon became clear that the site was far too valuable to be sacrificed to progress."
Forty years later the Polish mission is still at Kom Al-Dikka, excavating at the very heart of ancient Alexandria and restoring its remarkable Roman buildings. During this time several archaeologists have made Alexandria their home, Wojciech Kolataj among them. "A passionate architect-cum-restorer who retired last year, Kolataj left a vivid memory among all who knew him," Gawlikowsky said. "The present director of the project is Grzegorz Majcherek, who has been on the dig for the last 20 years (see box)."
Since 1959, Polish archaeology has had a permanent foothold in Egypt, for many years the only such institution from Eastern Europe. The Polish Centre, dependent on Warsaw University, is lodged in two elegant villas in Heliopolis, where public lectures are given and where scholars and students can stay and work. "It was no easy matter for Michalowski to maintain his creation afloat, to secure often grudging approval and usually meagre financing," Gawlikowsky said. "He was often asked, especially back home, why a country of no great resources should spend money on excavations abroad, and he used to say that the civilisation of ancient Egypt was of great relevance to the whole world and that every civilised nation should be proud to have a part in research. This usually muted objections."
A new challenge presented itself in 1961, when the Egyptian authorities invited the Polish mission to undertake restoration of Hatshepsut's mortuary temple in Deir Al-Bahri. "This great monument and fine example of Egyptian architecture had been reduced to rubble by earthquakes and falling rocks from the high cliff above," Gawlikowsky said. "Work was started there in the early years of the 20th century, resulting in clearing most of the temple, but only lower parts were restored. Thousands upon thousands of stone fragments waited to be reassembled in a gigantic jig-saw puzzle, which continues until today."
The shattered wall reliefs of the upper courtyard have now been reassembled, the reliefs of the rock- cut sanctuary have recovered their former hues. Although the temple was officially opened to the public by President Mubarak in March 2002, work nevertheless continues, notably in the side chapels next to the temple of Thutmose III, nephew and successor of Queen Hatshepsut. These were discovered by the Polish team while they were looking for missing fragments from Hatshepsut's temple. It is to be hoped that an on-site museum will be built in Deir Al-Bahri to show the rich history of the place and many magnificent objects found there.
One of the newest and most remarkable sites to be excavated by the Polish mission is at Marina Al-Alamein, so named after a tourist village on the northern coast close to the famous battlefield. A small town existed there in Roman times, its ancient name as yet unknown. Literally rescued from the path of bulldozers clearing the area prior to construction of the tourist village, the Roman settlement has undergone excavation and restoration for the last 15 years by a joint Egyptian/Polish mission. Besides houses and public buildings there are tombs, cut deep into the rock and marked at ground level by dining chambers, offering places, and pillars. Some ancient Egyptian burial customs were popular at this nameless Roman town just as they were among Greek-speaking citizens of Alexandria itself. "Tiny as it was, the town reflects in many ways life as it may have been in Alexandria," Gawlikowsky said.
The discovery of mummies invariably engenders excitement, and perhaps one of the most exciting excavations are led by Mysliwiec was in Saqqara West, where no tombs were apparent or, indeed, expected. Yet suddenly he found himself unearthing mummies, tightly packed together. Hundreds were found, dating from the Late Period, just laid down in sand. The first, and until now the most spectacular discovery at Saqqara West was the outer offering chamber of the mastaba of a vizier named Meref-nebef, adorned with paintings showing the vizier, his many wives and children, girl dancers at banquets, and birds and butterflies in his gardens.
"A tantalising find in an unfinished tomb nearby defies explanation," Gawlikowsky said. It is a huge wooden harpoon, too large to be of any practical use; it was deposited on the floor of the tomb beneath severed heads of various animals.
"Ours has been, and still is, a great archaeological adventure."
Polish scholars and students of three generations of Polish scholars and students have come in scores to Egypt every year. Many have adjusted to life here, and many have been marked for life by the experience. While the Pension Wanda in Helwan no longer exists, its ailing guests have been replaced by rather more vigorous diggers of the Polish Centre in Heliopolis.