Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2005
Issue No. 757
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

All flights grounded

A mosaic floor with birds and a foliage design and a wooden ibis statuette are two of this week's main discoveries. Nevine El-Aref reports on the findings

Click to view caption
A part of the newly discovered mosaic

Egypt is overwhelmed with monuments from the past -- largely owing to the arid desert conditions which have preserved them so perfectly. Excavations at various archaeological sites are yielding discoveries with exciting historical significance, shedding further light on Egypt's early days.

This week at Pelusium, 25km east of the Suez Canal, an Egyptian-Polish team cleaning the area around a second-century Roman theatre discovered one of the most beautiful foliage mosaics ever found. The mosaic, which is nine metres long and 150cm wide, is a depiction of nature featuring a garden in bloom, with two birds singing on the branch of a tree and others flying over the roses.

"It is the most unique piece of mosaic ever found in Sinai," says Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of Lower Egypt Antiquities and leader of the Egyptian excavation team. He says the combination of glass, marble, clay and limestone together form an elegant mosaic that once decorated a part of the theatre floor.

Remains of entrance tickets have been also found in the sand. They and the mosaic are now under restoration so they can be placed on exhibition at Arish National Museum.

The discovery was made by chance within the framework of a development and restoration project for Pelusium's Roman monuments, which were badly damaged during the Israeli occupation of Sinai when the theatre zone was used as a military base for Israeli troops.

Pelusium, an ancient port city still largely buried under an expanse of mud and silt, lay at the mouth of the easternmost branch of the Nile. The site of Pelusium, which is also known as Tel Al-Farama, is four miles long and today is surrounded by the soft, salt-covered mud carried down by the Nile. Contemporary historians described the busy port and its quays, magazines, and customs offices for trade activities, some of which originated in Asia. There was also an industrial section with salt vats, pottery kilns, fish tanks, and textile workshops, as well as temples, baths, theatres, and racetracks.

Pelusium also served as a military fort. During the 26th (Persian) dynasty, it faced Palestine and served as the main fortress against attacks from the east. The written accounts of Herodotus describe Pelusium as being land granted by Pharaoh Psammetikos I to his Ionian and Carian mercenaries, although as yet no seventh-century BC remains have been found to prove he was correct. Herodotus also reports that in 525 BC the Persian army led by Cambyses defeated Psammetikos III at Pelusium. Again, so far there is no archaeological evidence to support this account.

What has been unearthed at the site is a 20-acre fortress surrounded by seven-foot- thick walls set with 36 towers and three gates. This has been dated by Egyptian and German experts to be from the late sixth century AD. Traces can still be seen of its destruction by fire, which may have been caused by the Persian invasion of 619 AD.

The Assyrians under Sennacherib were supposedly struck by pestilence at Pelusium. During the Graeco-Roman period, the city of Pelusium, being on the trade route to the Red Sea, served as a major production and export station. The city exported salted fish and garum (fish sauce). At this period the city was famous for its dyed linens. Pelusium also imported items from the Mediterranean such as wine, honey and oil. However this prominence did not last, and later on Sinai and Palestine became the main trade partners.

In 1910 French Egyptologist Jean Cledat came to Pelusium and made a sketch map of the ruins. Excavations were placed on hold during the two world wars and the Egyptian-Israeli wars, but resumed in 1982 after the peace treaty was signed between Egypt and Israel and Sinai was returned to Egypt. In 1991 the site was again brought to notice when it was realised that it lay in the path of the Peace Canal (Teraat Al-Salam). Together with the surrounding threatened sites it was divided up among teams from Egypt, Canada, Switzerland, and Britain. A joint Canadian-Egyptian team was assigned to excavate the western side of the Pelusium site, while the Swiss team surveyed around Kanais and a British team surveyed the southern side of Pelusium. Nearby sites such as Tel Al-Makhazan and Kanais were believed to be parts of a "Greater Pelusium".

Meanwhile at the sacred animal cemetery in the Upper Egyptian town of Tuna Al-Gabal in Minya, another joint excavation team from the Egyptology department of the universities of Munich and Cairo has unearthed a number of wooden statuettes. The statuettes, which feature the Ibis god, were found with remains of ibis mummies and a collection of bronze coins dating back to the reign of Queen Cleopatra VII. Udjat (eye of Horus) amulets made of faience and two demotic inscriptions were also found.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, says that one of the inscriptions is written in ink on a linen cloth used to close an ibis jar, while the other is inscribed on an ibis jar and belongs to a known series of similar inscriptions found last year. On it is written "Thorids, son of Iretherru".

Early studies carried out on the newly- discovered ibis statues and mummies reveal that these birds came from Hermopolis Magna, now Al-Ashmounein, where an ibis breeding farm was once found.

To the east of the animal cemetery, among the remains of mud-brick houses and towers, excavators found a beautifully carved wooden statue of Bes, the god of household and happiness.

Dieter Kessler, head of the German team, said that research carried out at this location indicated that it might have been used as a military unit or the house of a high-ranking army official. Further excavation in the area will reveal more about its real purpose.

Tuna Al-Gabal lies about seven kilometres to the west of Hermopolis and served as a necropolis for the ancient city of Hermopolis during the Ptolemaic and Graeco-Roman eras. Apart from tombs made for humans, there are huge hypogeal catacombs for thousands of mummified ibises and baboons, which were considered incarnations of the god Thoth.

Also in the necropolis are the remains of a Christian basilica and Roman waterworks including a 30m deep well and a waterwheel.

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