Town for some of Egypt's first Christians
One of the oldest Coptic cities ever found has been uncovered at Ain Al-Sabil in Dakhla Oasis, Nevine El-Aref
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Above: the church's colonnade hall; from left to right: Byzantine bronze coin featuring the face of a knight, the second side of the coin featuring the knight while defeating an enemy; two limestone ostacas; Below: walls of church extensions
On the eastern side of Dakhla Oasis a dozen archaeologists are brushing away the sand from the ruins that lie scattered over an expanse of four and a half feddans in the area known as Ain Al-Sabil. They are also searching for artefacts that could help decipher the history of this site, which already suggests that it was one of the earliest known towns of the Christian period.
It was not until 2008 that archaeologists began to explore Ain Al-Sabil in their quest to find out more about the history of Dakhla Oasis and to add further to its tourist attractions.
In 2009 an Egyptian mission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) began excavating on the northern side of Ain Al-Sabil, where they uncovered an intact residential house. The house still bears all its architectural elements, consisting of a central hall surrounded by several living rooms, a heating room with a stove, a kitchen and a main entrance gate and stairs. A number of bronze coins, clay pots and inscribed ostraca (inscribed clay shards) were also unearthed inside the house. These artefacts enabled archaeologists to suggest that Ain Al-Sabil date to about the early fourth century AD.
Studies carried out by American archaeologists on these ostraca revealed that they referred to the sales and purchases of a man named Thomas Shammas, who used to sell goods to the inhabitants of the town.
This discovery has whetted the appetite of archaeologists to continue excavations.
In 2010 and 2011 excavations revealed more of the history of Ain Al-Sabil. Remains of a large, basilican-style Coptic cathedral were found.
The cathedral comprises an entrance building called a propylaeum; a forecourt contained within four colonnaded porticoes; an entrance hall or porch; and the nave flanked by side aisles. These aisles run parallel to the nave and are separated from it by an arcade. The transept and the nave intersect to form a cross.
One of the most notable features of the cathedral is the clerestory, which is a second level area formed by the central nave being taller than the aisles. This creates a higher roof along the centre and typically means that the sides will be buttressed. A wooden alter adorned with paintings of angels was also unearthed, along with a collection of icons showing Jesus, the Virgin Mary, angels and saints.
Excavations carried out inside the cathedral uncovered a horde of Persian coins that date the cathedral back to the fourth century. A number of residential houses and service buildings were found nearby.
During a routine cleaning of the cathedral's northern walls excavators found what is believed to be a cupboard with wooden doors decorated with geometrical designs. Some believe that this could have been used to store ritual vessels and other items used in services, such as incense burners and chandeliers. Another cupboard was also found at the cathedral's east wall.
Clay pots were discovered, along with a wooden door 90 centimetres wide that was used to separate the church from the rooms of the inner sanctuary that were used solely for prayer by priests.
"I am very happy with what the mission has found, because it is the first time this area has been explored," Mohsen Sayed Ali, head of Islamic and Coptic Antiquities at the SCA, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that this new discovery could not only form another archaeological attraction but might lead to finding other settlements that could be dated to different eras as well. Ali said excavators had also uncovered a number of houses, bronze coins dating from the third and fourth centuries, and a number of clay pots. Excavations are now in full swing and it is hoped to uncover more of the city.
Dakhla Oasis is one of seven oases in Egypt's Western Desert. It is located in the Al-Wadi Al-Gedid governorate and consists of several communities spread over a wide area in a string of sub-oases.
Dakhla is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful oases in Egypt. It contains more than 500 hot springs including Beer Tarfawi and Beer Al-Gabal, as well as appealing mud-brick housing and mediaeval ruins in the towns of Al-Qasr and village of Balat, both of which are ancient in origin.
Dakhla's capital is Mut, which has been the main town since the 18th Dynasty. Ain Asil in Balat was the seat of the government from 2,500 BC, and before that the less settled Neolithic and earlier populations inhabited the area. The British traveller Sir Archibald Edmonstone made the first recorded visit to Dakhla in 1819, and was followed by several others. However, it was not until 1908 that the first Egyptologist to visit Dakhla, Herbert Winlock, explored its monuments. In the 1950s the Egyptian Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry began explorations there and discovered the ancient capital of Ain Asil. After his death in 1973 an expedition from the Institut Fran³żais d'Arch³©ologie Orientale carried out excavations in different places in Dakhla. The Dakhla Oasis Project initiated its programme of detailed multi-disciplinary studies there in 1978.
Dakhla has significant Old Kingdom remains. It was an important centre when Egyptians expanded their territory in that period, probably in search of natural resources in the desert. It has been established that eight successive governors of the oasis resided in a fortified garrison there, surrounded by a defensive mud-brick wall with watch towers. The palace of the oasis governor has been found, together with texts written in cursive hieroglyphics, and, on the hilltops, even graffiti left by soldiers who manned the observation posts.
Dakhla Oasis is dominated on its northern horizon by a wall of rock. The present capital, Mut, was named after the ancient goddess of the Theban triad, while Al-Qasr -- originally a Roman citadel -- was the mediaeval capital of the oasis. Old Qasr is a labyrinth of mud-walled alleys with elaborately carved wooden lintels, and an Ayyubid mosque and minaret survive until today.