Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 January 2010
Issue No. 981
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gold treasure, ancient tombs and mediaeval walls

The new decade has set off to a good start with excavations yielding valuable finds in Saqqara and Islamic Cairo, Nevine El-Aref reports

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Clockwise from top: Salaheddin wall; the base of the tower; golden coins; Hawass brushing the sand off a tomb at Saqqara; Islamic golden coins in a clay jar

Abbasid gold coins in Fayoum, two rock- hewn tombs in Saqqara and a four- cornered, mud-brick tower on the wall of Islamic Cairo are the latest antiquities discovered in Egypt.

Wherever a mission digs in Egypt it is obvious that they will come up with a treasure. An archaeological mission from the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of Warsaw University excavating in a monastic building at Deir Al-Malah Monastery at Naqlun in Fayoum recently unearthed a decorated clay cup of Aswan production full of coins. The hoard consists of 18 gold coins and 62 fragments of coins, all of them provisionally dated to the Abbasid period.

Under the charred remains of a collapsed wall, archaeologists also uncovered a chandelier and a well-preserved oil lamp, both made of bronze.

"The whole treasure was found inside a room that seems to have been hastily abandoned during a fire," said Woldzimierz Godlewski, head of the Polish mission. He added that the monastic complex of Naqlun was built in the early sixth century AD, while the area excavated this season dated to the seventh century and was destroyed by a massive fire in the eighth or at the beginning of the ninth century AD.

At Saqqara, an Egyptian archaeological mission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) stumbled upon what is believed to be two large 26th-Dynasty tombs during a routine excavation at the Ras Al-Gisr area at Saqqara, near the point of entry to the necropolis. Zahi Hawass, secretary- general of the SCA and the director of the mission, explained that the two newly-discovered tombs were cut into the limestone rock of the hill. The first one, the largest yet found at Saqqara, is composed of a large rock-hewn chamber followed by a number of small rooms and corridors. Outside the tomb on its eastern side are two large walls, the first made of limestone and the other of mud brick.

Hawass said that during excavation the team had found two chambers full of dust that led to another room, where a number of coffins, skeletons and pots were found. This chamber has a corridor that leads to a smaller room with a seven-metre deep burial shaft.

At the northern end of the tomb the team found a room full of clay pots and fragments along with ancient coffins and mummies of eagles.

Hawass said early investigations revealed that the tomb could be dated to the 26th Dynasty. It was reused several times during its history, and was most probably robbed at the end of the Roman period. As for the second tomb, Hawass continued, the team found a number of Saite-Period clay pots and coffins scattered inside a sealed limestone room.

"I am very happy that our team has found such important tombs at the beginning of 2010 as it highlights that the Saqqara necropolis is still hiding many of its secrets," Hawass said.

In Islamic Cairo the scene is different. Following 10 years of archaeological excavation of the walls of Islamic Cairo, a mission from the Institute Français d'Archaeologie Oriental (IFAO) has found an imposing four-cornered tower composed of large mud bricks 40cm in length.

Stéphane Paradines, head of the mission, said the tower measured 14 metres from north to south and eight metres east to west, and was still preserved up to four metres in height. The tower was connected to a wall -- also constructed in mud bricks -- measuring 3.7 metres in width and preserved to 15 metres in length and two metres in height. The façade of this wall is very well preserved, and even has its original render of yellow mud. The foundations are composed of two courses of limestone. Paradines said excavations at Bab Al-Tawfiq, carried out in 2004 to 2005, confirmed that the wall and tower were part of the fortification of Vizir Badr Al-Gamali, since another section of the same mud-brick wall is adjoined to this monumental door and is dated by an in situ inscription to 1087-1091 AD.

Excavation work now covers more than 2.5km of the eastern wall of Islamic Cairo from Borg Al-Zafar in the north to Bab Al-Wazir in the south, while the studies are focussing on the evolution of the defensive systems from the end of the 10th to the end of the 12th century. This is because the Fatimid and Ayyubid fortifications of Cairo cover an important period of the history of the military architecture of the Arabian world.

In fact, Paradines said, Salaheddin's defensive stone wall was built between 1173 and 1177 AD (these dates are based on an inscription above one of the gates found by experts from the Aga Khan Foundation). The Ayyubids therefore did not destroy the Fatimid fortifications but they kept the old wall, which was later destroyed by Mameluke urban development. The space between the two town walls at the excavated sites of Darassa, Bab Al-Tawfiq, Bab Al-Gedid and the site beside Borg Al-Zafar served, as the mission observed, was a circulation zone for the soldiers. An imposing four-cornered tower was found in Darassa.

Since 2007 the French mission has excavated between Borg Al-Zafar and Bab Al-Gedid, where they discovered the same mud-brick Fatimid wall measuring 50 metres in length and including four square towers.

"Investigation will continue in this area in order to provide more data and give to the SCA a site that can be visited as an archaeological park," Paradines said.

To conclude, Paradines continued, the Archaeological Triangle of the Darassa parking lot and Borg Al-Zafar was the only place in Fatimid Cairo that had been explored methodically and scientifically by archaeologists. For more than 10 years now, the team has excavated and documented the remains of mediaeval Cairo from the Fatimid to Mameluke periods. The Darassa parking lot is to be transformed into an archaeological park by the Aga Khan Foundation. The major focus of interest will be the exhibition of the two town walls of mediaeval Cairo, the wall of Badr Al-Gamali from the 11th century, and the fortification of Salaheddin from the 12th century.

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