Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2008
Issue No. 889
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Spa retreat

A rock-hewn cave used by Christians hiding from official church authorities has been found by chance at Hammamat Pharaon on the west Sinai coast, reports Nevine El-Aref

It was an ordinary morning at Hammamat Pharaon (Pharaoh's bath), the mini-resort south of Ras Sedr on the west coast of Sinai where for centuries locals and travellers have enjoyed the spa waters of the natural hot spring. The water, smelling slightly unpleasantly of sulphur, bubbles from the rock inside a cave and flows down into the sea. In the cave, where the darkness is heavy with steam, clients were enjoying a soak in the rock bath, or else waiting their turn for a therapeutic treatment for rheumatism, skin diseases or other ailments.

Meanwhile, an Egyptian archaeological mission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) carrying out a routine cleaning operation in the area near the spring stumbled upon what is believed to be a fourth-century rock-hewn grotto decorated with Christian murals.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said last week's discovery was the second cave of its type to be discovered in Hammamat Pharaon and was only 25 metres away from first cave, which was used one to two hundred years later. The entrance to the new cave was blocked by a large amount of sand, stones and rubble. By removing all the dust and debris the team uncovered a one metre high vaulted entrance, which allowed the excavators to surmise that it could contain a church altar similar to the one found at Abu Suwera in Al-Tor, the capital town of South Sinai. However, further excavation revealed that the cave was not a church but may have been used by Christian followers or monks during the fourth and fifth centuries, a time of schism in the Christian doctrine of the Roman Byzantine Empire, when they needed to practise their preferred religious rituals far from the eyes of the leaders of the official church.

Tarek El-Naggar, director-general of South Sinai antiquities, said that the part of the cave so far excavated consisted of a large hall on two levels, the first level bearing some clay fragments and traces of a fireplace that burnt wood, and the second traces of ashes. On cleaning the fireplace the archaeologists uncovered a limestone floor and the remains of a large clay vessel.

The internal walls of the cave are covered with a layer of plaster decorated with red-painted Greek characters similar to those found in the first cave. A number of Byzantine-shaped crosses were also painted on the walls.

The cave found earlier had three adjoining vaulted halls; the first and third halls were plain and empty, but in the central one was a scene depicted in red paint of three notable Christian figures praying; from right to left these were St Mina, the Roman soldier who sacrificed his life to spread Christianity all over the globe, Iowans, the Alexandrian patriarch of the sixth century, and Asnasious, patriarch of the Constantine Church.

These portraits were enclosed within Greek prayer texts along with crosses painted in the style of the sixth and seventh centuries, and were similar to those found on the walls of St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. A three-legged chandelier was painted in black, along with remains of other drawings painted in yellow and red. On the left side of the scene were three niches decorated with old Creek texts painted in brown and black.

Culture Minister Farouk Hosni called last week's find a great discovery. "It will enhance the area of Hammamat Pharaon not only as a therapeutic destination but as an archaeological site rich in Christian monuments," he said.

It will also shed more light on a time when the Christian church was deeply divided by opposing doctrines, and how the various factions managed to retain their beliefs in the face of changing tides in the official religious stance.

Following the discovery, studies are being carried out to spruce up the site and make it accessible to tourists.

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