The miners' goddess
As world attention was focussed on a gold and copper mine in Chile, it emerged that there may have been a failed bid to steal one of the remaining sandstone statues of the goddess Hathor, the ancient Egyptian protector of miners. Nevine El-Aref
accompanied the statues as they were transferred to a Sinai gallery for restoration
Some few thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians made their way overland to the Sinai peninsula -- or travelled there across the Red Sea -- in search of minerals. Their chief targets were the turquoise and copper veins which had been mined in the Sinai mountains since time immemorial.
Once they had achieved mastery over Sinai, the Egyptian overseers set up a large and systematic mining operation at Serabit Al-Khadim in South Sinai, where they carved out great quantities of turquoise which was so highly valued that it became an important part of ritual symbolism in their religious ceremonies. Even today, pure, unveined turquoise is weight-for-weight more costly than gold.
To mine the turquoise the Egyptians would hollow out large galleries in the mountains, carving at the entrance to each as a representation of the reigning Pharaoh who was the symbol of the authority of the Egyptian state over the mines.
During the 12th Dynasty, when Serabit Al-Khadim was the centre of copper and turquoise mining and a flourishing trade was established, a temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor was built on top of a massive, rocky outcrop at an altitude of 1,100m above sea level. One of few Pharaonic monuments known in Sinai, the temple is unlike other temples of the period in that it contains a large number of bas-reliefs and carved stelae showing the dates of the various turquoise- mining expeditions carried out in antiquity, the number of team members; and the goal and duration of each mission. From dynasty to dynasty the temple was expanded and beautified, with the last known enlargement taking place during the 20th Dynasty.
To reach the temple the visitor must pass through a sequence of 14 perfectly-cut blocks that form ante-rooms, and even a small pylon, before reaching the central courtyard. At the far end of this courtyard are the sanctum and two grottos, where the deities Hathor and Sopdu were adored and where their images still remain. This part of the temple was accessible only to the priests and the Pharaoh. Regrettably, a British colonial attempt to reopen the mines in the mid-19th century led to some of the reliefs being destroyed.
The site of Serabit Al-Khadim, which sits on top of a mountain 2,600 feet above sea level, was discovered by the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1905. Petrie unearthed several royal and private sculptures, stelae and sacrificial tools dating back to the time of the Fourth-Dynasty King Senefru.
Petrie also found vestiges of the Proto-Sinaitic script, believed to be an early precursor of our modern alphabet. These scripts began with hieroglyphic signs used to write the names of the people who worked in the mines and to keep account of their labours. The signs developed into an "Aleph-Beta" script that recorded a Proto- Canaanite language.
The Serabit Al-Khadim temple resembles a double series of stelae leading to an underground chapel dedicated to Hathor. Many of the temple's large number of sanctuaries and shrines were dedicated to this goddess who, among her many other attributes, was the patron goddess of copper and turquoise miners. As we have seen, the earliest part of the main rock-cut Hathor Temple, which has a front court and portico, dates from the 12th Dynasty and was probably founded by Pharaoh Amenemhet III, during a period of time when the mines were particularly active.
A number of scenes depict the role Hathor played in the transformation of the new Pharaoh into the deified ruler of Egypt, which took place on his ascension to the throne. One scene depicts Hathor suckling the Pharaoh. Another scene from a stone tablet depicts Hathor offering the Pharaoh the ankh symbol, or key of life.
This older part of the temple was enlarged upon and extended during the New Kingdom by none other than Queen Hatshepsut, along with Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III. This was a regeneration period for mining operations in the area after an apparent decline during the Second Intermediate Period. These extensions are unusual for a temple in the manner in which they are angled, that is to the west of the earlier structure.
On the north side of the temple is a shrine dedicated to the Pharaohs who were deified in this region. There are numerous stelae on one wall of this shrine. A little to the south of the main temple is another shrine, smaller than the one to the north, this time dedicated to Sopdu, god of the Eastern Desert.
Last year the whole site was subjected to restoration and documentation in order to make it more tourist-friendly and accessible to visitors. Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the central administration for Lower Egypt antiquities, said that the restoration, which took about a year on a budget of LE500,000, removed all the signs of time that marred the temple's walls and reliefs. It also consolidated them and strengthened the fabric and colours of the wall paintings.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said that every relief had been photographed, drawn and videotaped on all four sides and then returned to its original position. A site management project is now being carried out.
Early this month, however, with the site almost ready for its official inauguration, the archaeologist in charge of the temple reported that one of the six remaining sandstone statues of Hathor was missing from its original display inside the open court of the temple. The statue, which was erected during the reign of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Amenhotep III, features the lower part of the body of Hathor seated on a chair and holding the ankh symbol in her hand.
Six hours after the reported theft, with the help of the antiquities and tourist police and members of the local resident Bedouin community, the statue was found inside one of the mines tunnelled into the mountains during the ancient Egyptian era to extract turquoise.
Investigations revealed that the statue had not been stolen as was first thought, but had been hidden as part of an ongoing feud between two rival Bedouin tribes. It was the Bedouin themselves who led the police to the hiding place.
Abdel-Maqsoud confirmed that it was impossible to steal a statue of this description for three reasons. First, the temple was located 1,100m above sea level and is difficult to reach. Second, the statue was too heavy to carry over the rocks to reach the road. Third, Abdel-Maqsoud said, the site was protected by local Bedouin who did not allow strangers to enter the site, and furthermore the temple was guarded by a team of 24 guards and 10 archaeologists who made daily tours of inspection.
The SCA is currently removing the six statues in the temple to Qantara Sharq galleries for restoration and to await a second removal to the new Sharm El-Sheikh National Museum, which is planned for completion in 2011.