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Ancient Egyptians in Arabia

Friday, November 12 2010 @ 10:34 AM CST

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The discovery of a hieroglyphic engraving in Saudi Arabia suggests that the ancient Egyptian empire extended further than previously recognised, reports Nevine El-Aref

Archaeologists from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) have discovered what is believed to be the first ever ancient Egyptian royal artefact to be unearthed in Saudi Arabia.

The object, a rock engraving endorsed with a dual cartouche of Pharaoh Ramses III, was found at the northern town of Tabuk in Taima Oasis, 400km north of Medina. A Pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, Ramses III ruled from 1185 to 1153 BC.

The discovery was made during routine excavations carried out within the framework of an SCTA archaeological survey being conducted on several sites in the kingdom to establish relationships with other civilisations in different historical periods.

Taima is the largest archaeological site in the kingdom and the Arabian peninsula. The remains of ancient walls reveal that habitation of the oasis can be dated to as far back as the Bronze Age. Taima is mentioned in ancient texts dating from the eighth century BC, and excavators recently found the royal complex of the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (556-539), who spent 10 years in Taima. Last year they also discovered a fragment of a cuneiform text mentioning Nabonidus.

Ali Ibrahim Al-Ghaban, vice- president of antiquities and museums at the SCTA, says initial studies have uncovered evidence that the direct trade route used during the reign of Ramses III connected Taima to the Nile Valley. Both Taima and the neighbouring oasis, Madyan, were famous for their excellent incense, copper, gold and silver, which were in demand in ancient Egypt for religious ceremonies and in the production of jewellery and funerary objects.

The trade route started in the Nile Valley and passed through what is today the port of Suez, where inscriptions of Ramses III have been found. It then crossed the Sinai Peninsula, passing through Wadi Abu Ghada and Nakhl Oasis, where there was another cartouche of Ramses III.

"Discovering the route will be a turning point in studying the routes of civilisation between Egypt and the Arabian peninsula," Ghaban says. He adds that he is expecting more cartouches of Ramses III and other ancient Egyptian rulers to be discovered, especially along the section from Al-Hasmi to Taima.

Ghaban points out that some ancient Egypt relics have been found at a number of archeological sites in Saudi Arabia. Among them are the burial sites in southern Dhahran in the kingdom's eastern province and in Al-Fau, capital of the Kindah Kingdom in the southwestern part of the Najd Plateau. In Taima itself, Ghaban says, most of these pieces are pottery and ceramics with a turquoise coating dating back to various periods of antiquity.

"This discovery is one of a series of new discoveries that will be announced following further study and investigation," Ghaban told reporters at a press conference held at the National Museum in the King Abdul-Aziz historical centre in Riyadh. He added that in view of its geographic location the Arabian Peninsula had long been a land of dialogue and peaceful exchange. He said that the call of King Abdullah of Jordan, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for dialogue between faiths and cultures was a manifestation of this deep-rooted tradition in the Arabian Peninsula.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says he is delighted with the discovery. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that it reflected ancient Egypt's dedication to extending its civilisation to reach its neighbours; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and North Africa. It also highlighted the trade route in the area. Hawass explained that Egypt extended its empire outside its boundaries during the 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties, an era known as Egypt's golden age. Hawass has expressed his willingness to help the SCTA in restoring the new find and excavating more sites.

Ahmed Said, professor of the ancient Egyptian civilisation at the Antiquities Department of Cairo University, told the Weekly that several ancient Egyptian artefacts had previously been discovered in the Arabian peninsula, including an ancient Egyptian amulet found in the area of Felka in Kuwait. He continued that this discovery highlighted the alliance between Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. Pharaoh Tuthmosis III mentioned cities in the Arabian peninsula when he drew up the king list at Karnak, and in the Egyptian Museum is the sarcophagus of a merchant from South Arabia (now Yemen) named Zayed Zayed, who in his day was a famous trader of incense and stones. This merchant lived a long life in Egypt and was buried in the Saqqara necropolis. Said says that this highlights the probability that the Egyptian empire extended eastwards beyond its boundaries well before the reign of the legendary South Arabian queen of Sheba in 900 BC, and at least as far back as the 20th Dynasty in the 12th century BC and perhaps even longer to 2000 or 3000 BC.

He told the Weekly that next to the cartouche newly discovered in Taima Oasis was a Thamudi text with drawings of the Arabian moon god Capricorn. Said suggests that there could be three reasons for finding a cartouche like this in the area. First, it suggests that Ramses III may have gone towards the east to build trade bridges to replace its alliance with northern countries that were threatened by the appearance of the sea people and their attacks on Egypt. Second, it could indicate individual transport, and that Egyptians who travelled to Taima drew a cartouche to pay homage to their gods. Third, it could represent a royal journey, with the Pharaoh engraving his logo to reconcile with the principle god of the region.

Since the site is close to the Egyptian capital at the time, which was in modern Sharqiya, the ancient Egyptians may have used the rocky northern Arabian peninsula as a quarry for materials for their gigantic monuments rather than journeying on towards the south. It could take time to find the truth. "This will not be decided until the deciphering of the Thamudi text," Said says.


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