Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 September 2003
Issue No. 656
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Fish, ostriches and granite

Preparations to turn the site of the granite quarries of Aswan into an outdoor museum have brought to light new information on an area in use from ancient to modern times, as Nevine El-Aref reports

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Clockwise from top: a great quarried depression of an obelisk; diorite balls; a graffitti of ostriches walking in the desert; Tuthmosis III's hieroglyphic inscription; an obelisk
Aswan's quarries have been famous since the dawn of eastern Mediterranean history. The granite quarries of the Cataract region supplied the Ancient Egyptians with raw material to erect their obelisks, temples, tombs and colossi. To this day they remain the main source of granite for building construction in Egypt.

Over the ages the granite carvers stretched the stone to the limit of its size and durability. It has been eulogised, marvelled at and exported. But at least one semi-hewn block remained in situ, a monument in itself to its size and the craft of the quarrymen. The Unfinished Obelisk-- apparently abandoned after a fissure was found in the rock -- has been a tourist attraction for millennia, allowing laymen to view how gargantuan was the task of cutting such massive blocks, and giving tantalising clues as to what constituted a good piece of granite.

Studies made early on in modern times revealed that the burial chamber of Pharaoh Kheops, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, was constructed of granite slabs from Aswan; that the Pyramid of his son Khephren had one course constructed of granite; and that the lower third of the third Pyramid of Giza, Mykerinos's, was cased with this hard and durable stone. Through to Graeco- Roman times, the quarry was used to cut obelisks, sarcophagi and monolithic statues. Today artists taking part in the Aswan International Sculpture Symposium use the same, readily available granite as their chosen medium.

Surprisingly, and despite their importance, the granite quarries were not fully excavated until fairly recently. A large area of the site was obscured by a rubbish dump, while modern construction covered another portion. Under the Ministry of Culture's ongoing programme to clear and develop interesting sites, organise the monuments and make them more "visitor-friendly", a three-phase site management plan for the quarries was set in motion.

The first phase involved removing part of a large rubbish dump. This led to the find of a number of hitherto unknown granite pieces -- some cracked and others fragmentary -- as well as unfinished statues, columns, capitals and obelisks dating from various eras of Egypt's ancient history.

Last year, after a temporary postponement of work, the project went into its second phase. The season, according to Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, proved to be extremely productive. "We removed almost 100 cubic metres of sand and stone rubble and found more evidence of how the Ancient Egyptians quarried, carved and transported their magnificent monuments. We learnt a great deal," Hawass said.

Hawass went on to say that the team exposed an ancient harbour on the River Nile, once used to transport the monuments from Aswan to the various cities down river, especially to ancient Memphis and Thebes. "After brushing the sand and dirt off one end of the harbour wall we found that it was covered with scenes. One featured the god Bes, another a group of ostriches walking in the desert, and there were fishes swimming happily in a lake," Hawass said. "Some Egyptologists identified a school of dolphins, but since there are no dolphins in the Nile I consider them to be a species of fish called Thamus, well known in the Nile and still to be found in Lake Nasser."

Hawass said early studies of the graffiti suggested that the workmen carved these scenes to decorate the environment in which they worked, or perhaps that they were sketches to teach trainee artists. Signs marking the compass points north and south were found and, to the south of the Unfinished Obelisk, a hieroglyphic inscription of five lines dating from the reign of Tuthmosis III. This is an order from Tuthmosis III himself, issued in the 25th year of his reign, instructing the headman of the quarry to cut two huge obelisks for worship of the god Amun-Re in his temple at Karnak. A number of sculpting tools and diorite balls used by ancient workmen at various periods of Egypt's history to sculpt and polish the objects was also found.

The beds of neighbours of the Unfinished Obelisk also came to light. "A great revelation was the surprising discovery of seven great quarried depressions where obelisks were apparently cut out of the quarry and removed in ancient times," Hawass said. "One is in the same height of the obelisk now in Italy. We are planning to take the dimensions of the obelisks in both Karnak and Luxor temples in an attempt to determine whether they match up to the newly found depressions in the quarry."

The plan to transform the quarries into an open air museum entails leaving large objects in situ, and transporting to the site unfinished monuments or fragments of monuments from other places. "There are some unfinished Roman baths and an incomplete statue of Ramses II found in Shellal," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said. He added that other objects were found in the Nubian village on Elephantine and these would also be taken for display at the site.

The plan to develop the granite quarries as an attraction is to encourage travel agents to include Aswan on their itineraries. This major city, Egypt's border province with Nubia, may not boast the number of monuments of Luxor, but it is no less important. Along with the granite quarry and the Unfinished Obelisk, the ancient town of Elephantine has now been cleaned up and is open to the public. An interesting area is the tombs on Qubbet Al-Hawa, which include those of the first Old Kingdom explorers of darkest Africa, and there is also the fifth- century Monastery of St Simeon. It is unfortunate, therefore, that until today no more than a day is usually allocated in Aswan for groups travelling on Lake Nasser or Nile cruises, and that the time is used for no more than a quick visit to the new Nubia Museum and no more than a brief pause at the Unfinished Obelisk -- which lies conveniently near the main road.

The planned tourist route through the ancient quarry will add significantly to the local attractions of Aswan. It has been carefully planned, and all the objects will be suitably labelled with details of the sites from which they came. A new entrance to the archaeological site will lead visitors to a Visitors' Centre, where a 12-minute National Geographic documentary film will be screened covering the history of the site. There will also be information of the quarrying techniques in ancient times. The tour will then continue to the Unfinished Obelisk itself and to other unfinished objects in the quarry, and exit via the newly discovered port area, with its graffiti of ostrich and fishes, back to the main road.

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