Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 September - 6 October 2004
Issue No. 710
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nevine El-Aref

From the Nile to the Isère

As Egyptologists from around the world gathered in Grenoble, Nevine El-Aref was there to follow the controversies and delight in a world which combines the love of erudition with a passion for the past

The International Congress of Egyptologists (ICE), which is held every four years in a different country, returned to Grenoble, the capital of the French Alps, early this September for the second time since the second congress was held there in 1979.

Click to view caption
Workers unveiling Karnak Cachet in 1934; god Amun's musician; the magistrate of Thebe's Supreme Council; the divine servant of Amun at Luxor

The week-long congress was held at the ALEXPO conference hall, where the aura of Ancient Egypt was everywhere apparent. The halls and corridors were buzzing with almost 2,000 Egyptologists from around the world exchanging recent archaeological discoveries, studies and theories. The schedule was tight and covered a wide variety of subjects, but the studious atmosphere was disrupted from the beginning by a notable lack of organisation. One could not help but compare this shambolic congress, held in a modern European city, with its excellently managed predecessor which was held in March 2000 at the foot of Giza's Great Pyramid.

After an impressive opening ceremony at which Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), called on the president of the International Association of Egyptologists (IAE) to re-affirm the association's commitment to working with Egyptologists to help preserve this heritage which belongs not only to Egypt, but to the world, the congress soon got bogged down in faulty organisation.

A certain panic ensued when lecture hall venues were changed at the last minute without prior notification, with the result that many lecturers failed to turn up at their assigned locations.

The apologies and excuses only served to underscore the inadequate planning and preparation: the conference will be remembered by many for a microphone that did not work, a power point link-up that could not be made, and last-minute cancellations and changes of venue that had the participants running along the ALEXPO corridors, hunting here and there for the elusive event which they wanted to attend.

Moreover, the lack of translation facilities, or even a multi-lingual summary of the lecture in progress, resulted in frustration for the many individuals who do not master more than one European language. The English-language sessions naturally caused no problems for the majority, but when it came to the French and Dutch presentations, it was simply a mess. "I might as well have been totally deaf," Jennifer De Babwa, an archaeological architect told Al- Ahram Weekly, having missed out on a presentation about the art of early dynastic pallets, a subject in which she is especially interested.

Once things were sorted out, however, the sessions revealed the vast scope and richness of the subjects under review. For the first time there were 60 Egyptian archeologists, out of a total of 300 speakers, giving presentations at the week-long congress, the largest number ever.

The 20-minute papers, delivered simultaneously in five lecture halls on alternate floors of the ALEXPO complex, covered many subjects across the entire field, ranging from more traditional concerns such as art, religion, museology, linguistics, and archeological theories, to new discoveries, new readings of specific ostraca and stelae, the importance of implementing site management projects in different areas, and the use of geographical information systems.

Such congresses give scholars an opportunity to exchange views with their peers; and in some cases, this inevitably led to heated debate.

The most controversial issue was the claim made by two French architects, Gilles Dormion and Jean-Yves Verd'Hurt, that they had located Khufu's sepulchral chamber. Yosef Mizrachy, professor at the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, argued that Thutmosis III was not the great Egyptian Empire builder that he has traditionally been seen as, but that he merely maintained and enhanced the achievements of his predecessors also drew strong reactions.

The debate about the Great Pyramid started a week before the Dormion and Verd'Hurt gave their official presentation to the ICE, and it had already made headlines before the conference opened. However, Hawass stood his ground, and reiterated his refusal to allow the duo to probe into the Pyramid in order to prove their theory in situ, arguing that they were amateurs, without any affiliation to a scientific institution.

Hawass also pointed out that their request ran contrary to SCA regulations (for the full story, see Al-Ahram Weekly, 708).

The debate over Thutmosis III did not draw much media attention, despite the fact that he was an interesting king. Mizrachy claimed that this famous Pharaoh's military victory at Meggido was an act not of liberation but of colonisation, and that far from founding a great Egyptian Empire and creating diplomatic ties with neighbouring countries, Thutmosis III had merely continued the work his ancestors began. Mizrachy's theory drew a strong reaction from Sayed Mahfouz, professor of archaeology at Assiut University. He resisted Mizrachy's claim that Thutmosis III had taken chieftains and princes from the conquered territories to work as slaves in Egypt. He also quoted several documentary sources, engravings and texts, in support of the fact that Thutmosis III had created Egypt's military glory during the 18th Dynasty and expanded the country's borders, whence he is sometimes jocularly referred to as "the Napoleon of Ancient Egypt".

"Several names of territories he conquered and their locations can be found in engravings in his temple," Mahfouz told the Weekly. As for making slaves of princes of the countries he conquered, Mahfouz asserted that the claim was absolutely groundless. Thutmosis III had indeed brought princes and the sons of high-ranking nobles to Egypt, but he did so in order to bring them up in his palace, so that their children could be educated alongside the sons of the Pharaoh, in order to establish a close and lasting relationship between them.

Some papers were more technical, such as that given by Hisham El-Leithi, who made a close reading of five wooden stelae from Thebes; or that by Shafia Bedeir, professor of archaeology at Ain Shams University, who presented the hypothesis that the engraving on a sarcophagus currently displayed at the Egyptian Museum, along with other pottery found in Thebes and miscellaneous documents, reveal that the Priest Toth-Im-Hat of the 23rd Dynasty was one and the same person as the Theban king of the same name of the late 23rd and early 24th dynasties. Ali Radwan head of the General Arab Archaeologists Union, also gave a scientific lecture describing the style of the pre-dynasty art through studying pots, tombs and funerary collection.

The conference was also attended by the general public, who were particularly interested to know details of new discoveries. Hawass reviewed the recent excavations carried out by the SCA at Giza, Saqqara, Akhmim and Aswan, and outlined site management projects being implemented at several archaeological sites.

His audience was enchanted when he presented a series of step-by-step slides showing the stages in the discovery of a first-dynasty skeleton of a lady wrapped in linen who had died at the age of 35. Examination of her skeleton revealed that she had a broken neck and blood spots on one of her legs. "Until now we do not know the reason for her early death, but anthropological studies will surely reveal more of this skeleton's secrets," said Hawass. Moving to Akhmim, a fertile archaeological area in the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag, Hawass revealed that a major discovery had been made: the remains of a colossal statue of Ramses II, considered to be the largest limestone seated statue of a king ever found. This colossus is thought to be about 13 metres high and to weigh some 700 tonnes (see Al-Ahram Weekly, No 703).

In Aswan, at the site of the unfinished obelisk, a well-preserved graffito shows a group of swimming dolphins and swans along with a representation of Bess, the god of joy. It was found while cleaning the area as part of the major site management plan that is now nearing completion, and is scheduled to be officially inaugurated next month. Two empty obelisk pits belonging to Tuthmosis III have also been found.

At Giza, Hawass revealed the discovery of an intact mastaba tomb dating from the first intermediate period, which is located on the causeway of Menkare's Pyramid. The tomb contains a cache of pottery and 440 small clay stelae in the shape of slaves and soldiers. Discoveries at Saqqara have been equally exciting. Christiane Ziegler, chief curator of the Egyptian department at the Louvre, described the new discoveries made while cleaning the area north of Unas's Pyramid. A vast Old Kingdom funerary complex was discovered surrounding the site of the mastaba tomb of Akhthetep, a monument that was removed intact to the Louvre during the last century. It was while searching for the original site of the small mastaba, which has now been identified, that the whole complex came to light. The tombs found are intact and contain an abundance of funerary furniture and several mummies. "So far we do not know the exact date of this necropolis, but there is evidence that it could date to the 26th Dynasty," asserted Ziegler, who promised that the forthcoming archaeological season would be very rewarding. She mentioned that during the excavations, vestiges of mud brick and inscribed stone from the Coptic period had been found, which probably originated at the nearby monastery of Saint Jeremiah.

Archaeologist Jonathan Van Lepp described how in 1994 the Space Shuttle Endeavour had been launched carrying with it radar instruments that could capture images of Earth that would be useful to scientists in a wide range of disciplines. One of these images revealed what may be successive levels of an unknown ancient city in Egypt, near Abydos.

This important scientific revelation shows long straight regular lines, and perpendicular engagements that strongly indicate that they are man-made. Van Lepp pointed out these structures are located in the region where the earliest known vestiges of Ancient Egyptian civilisation have been found, and mentioned that the putative site is larger in scale than the currently known city plan of ancient Hierakonpolis.

Van Lepp added that Hierakonpolis is famous for the discovery of numerous royal objects, which some scholars believe may have been votive offerings designed to formalise alliances with important rival centres. He said that the fact that early dynastic kings chose Abydos as their final resting place shows that it was far more important than Hierakonpolis. However, he continued, as nothing has yet been discovered that is important enough to deduce that Abydos was itself the capital city, "it is possible that this radar image shows the remains of this capital city." An exciting thought indeed.

Michelle Marlar reported on behalf of the joint Pennsylvania-Yale Institute of Fine Art-New York University mission about their work within the area of Kom Al-Sultan in Abydos. Here the remains of a large stone temple have been found. On the surface a few blocks and part of the pylon are visible; the rest of the monument appears to have been destroyed. But according to Marlar, early examination in 2003 revealed numerous painted and relief fragments with characteristic Late Period elements, as well as limestone foundation blocks. Cartouches belonging to Nectanebo I and II confirm that one phase of the temple was indeed constructed during the Late Period, while various pieces of sculpture and fragments of wooden temple equipment indicate that a New Kingdom temple preceded it.

It is exciting to discover "first ever" monuments, and the Ptolemaic therapeutic baths discovered in the Shedia area of the western Delta are one such discovery. Ahmed Abdel-Fatah of the SCA told the Weekly that a number of shrines found in the area containing Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman deities reveal that Egyptian deities were worshipped alongside Graeco- Roman gods. Abdel-Fatah declared that the unearthing of a statue of Isis in the form of the goddess of the Alexandria port has revealed the maritime nature of Shedia and suggests that it remained a port through to Byzantine times.

Gihan Zaki, a researcher at France's Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), told the conference that manuscripts of Arab chroniclers Al-Yaquti and Al-Kidrissi reveal that the inhabitants of Philae worshipped Ancient Egyptian deities even after the Islamic invasion. "This conclusion is also substantiated by Greek and Latin manuscripts," she said. Congress participants were delighted with Zaki's conclusion, because it is the first time that the manuscripts of Arab chroniclers have been used to prove such a theory.

Mention must also be made of two more light- hearted presentations which attracted a large audience. One dealt with children books, and the other with the role of horses in Ancient Egypt. The first was given by children's book writer Amal El-Gayar, whose has published seven volumes for the under-12 year olds. "As a journalist interested in archaeology, I felt that one of my duties was to create simple books for children that could reveal to them their magnificent past," she told the Weekly. El-Gayar takes advantage of the latest archaeological events and uses them as the point of departure for her writing. For example, during the inauguration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, she wrote a story about a small child in Ancient Egypt who toured the library, exploring every inch in it. The return to Egypt of the mummy of Ramses II and the centennial of the Egyptian Museum are among the other events that have inspired this talented writer. El-Gayar's most recent work is about Champollion and his long journey towards deciphering the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. Aymen El- Ashmawi, an inspector from Sharqiya Governorate, revealed that the Ancient Egyptians were devoted to their horses and gave them names compounded with that of the god Amun. Aymen Abdel-Moneim, head of the Historic Cairo Development Project, and Injy Fayed, head of the Cultural Development Section at the SCA, reviewed several projects that have been carried out by the Ministry of Culture and the SCA.

Abdel-Moneim outlined the steps currently being taken at several sites in and around the Nubian temples of Abu Simbel, Kalabsha and Philae, including restoration and conservation, and the creation of visitor's centres. He pointed out that activities at Philae were focussed on improving tourist access, lighting, conservation and restoration. Other Nubian temples, such as those of Amada and Seboua, will have new paved access roads.

Fayed presented Egypt's strategy to raise public awareness of its national heritage through museums all over the country. She pointed out that the SCA strategy focusses on civil society in general, and on children in particular. In the last two years, she told the conference, two schools -- one for adults and one for children -- have been established at the Egyptian Museum; while elsewhere, sculpting workshops for children under the general title "Sculpting on Sand" have been organised on Egypt's beaches at venues as varied as Alexandria, Agami, Hurghada and Sharm El- Sheikh. Fayed also explained how, following the example of the associations created by the Louvre and the British Museum, the SCA has declared the establishment of the first-ever Egyptian Museum Association, which aims at raising the cultural awareness of the masses, developing the museum's facilities and services, and providing funds to upgrade the museum's exhibition theme.

Among the events planned are seminars, conferences, archaeological nights and a week dedicated to archaeological documentary films. The SCA has also launched its "100 Books" project, which aims at translating 100 books on archaeological subjects from different languages into Arabic, in order to make them available for Arabic-speaking researchers and readers.

One conservation project presented at the congress that stood out was that described by Amira Abu Bakr, head of the conservation department in Alexandria. She outlined the restoration history of a wooden life- size statue of the god Serapis, now on display at the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. She revealed that for many years the inhabitants of Theadelphia in Fayoum, where the statue was found, thought that it was part of a large tree that had grown in the area. Consequently, they had used some of its wooden bars to warm themselves during colder winters. It was only in 1932, when the statue was already in a state of serious deterioration and decay, that it was recognised for what it was, and it took nearly two years to restore it to its present condition.

"Today's archaeological teams need a multitude of skills in order to accurately interpret a site in historical context," pointed out Geoffrey Tassie, who spoke of the need to upgrade excavation methodology and approaches. He criticised the excavation techniques that have been used for nearly 200 years, saying that it was absurd that there were no manuals on archaeological methodology, field guides or standards. In doing so, he made the obvious point that excavation is a destructive process, and stressed that the most important duty of an archeologist is to generate as much data as possible during the process. Single context recording is one of the best methods of doing this. The open area approach to excavation is widely used in Europe, he added, but only at a few sites in Egypt. Here the older Wheeler-Kenyon box-grid approach is still largely in use. Tassie wondered aloud why advanced methodology and approaches have been largely ignored by Egyptologists.

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