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Bridging those gaps

Tuesday, July 19 2011 @ 10:04 AM CDT

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Monuments and artefacts uncovered during the past archaeological season in Aswan, Luxor and Alexandria have led to significant breakthroughs in understanding Egypt's ancient history, Nevine El-Aref reports

Almost 700,000 years ago, early humans began leaving traces of their wanderings in the land that is now Egypt. Much later Egypt, alongside its neighbour Mesopotamia, became the first cradle of human civilisation.

(Clockwise from top: Remains of Petah temple at Karnak; Statue of god Serapies unearthed in Alexandria and Painted block depicting royal scene )

Over the course of its history it witnessed the rise and fall of the kingdoms of ancient Egypt, the rise of the Greek and Roman empires, the establishment of the Coptic and Islamic periods and the colonial era " first under France, then Great Britain " until it finally regained independence.

Although discoveries over the length and breadth of Egypt have helped write the country's ancient history, several pieces of the jigsaw are still missing.

During this archaeological season from January to May, major discoveries carried out in the Hamdulab area on Aswan's west bank, Karnak temples in Luxor and Al-Baron in the Semouha district of Alexandria have helped fit missing pieces into the puzzle.

At Naga Al-Hamdulab, on the west bank of the Nile to the north of Aswan, a team made up of archaeologists " from Yale University, the University of Bologna and the Provinciale Hogeschool of Limburg under the leadership of Maria Carmela Gatto and Antonio Curci, along with an international research team from Egypt, the United States and various European organisations " has been conducting excavations for the last seven seasons. The project was set up to survey and rescue the archaeology of the region between Aswan and Kom Ombo in the southern part of Upper Egypt.

While proceeding with their work, the archaeologists located the oldest epigraphic and digital record ever found. It depicts a royal scene featuring a king wearing the crown of Upper Egypt.

Half a century ago, a part of this epigraphy was found near Naga Al-Hamdulab by Egyptian Egyptologist Labib Habachi. Gatto said, however, that this new and thorough study had brought to light a previously unknown but important early-dynastic cycle of royal images, also with an early hieroglyphic inscription. The site has been partially damaged in recent years, but reconstruction in drawings and digital images of the main panel have been possible thanks to new digital methodologies and to the availability of Habachi's photographs, which are now in Chicago House in Luxor.

Minister of State for Antiquities Zahi Hawass pointed out that these images and the short inscription, which were carved about 3200 BCE at the dawn of the dynastic period, were the earliest record of a royal Jubilee complete with all the elements known from later evidence: an Egyptian ruler wearing a recognisable crown of Egypt, and the royal court, "the following of Horus" as it was known in early dynastic accounts such as the Palermo Stone.

"The Naga Al-Hamdulab scenes are unique," Hawass said. He added that the scenes showed a link between the predynastic ritual Jubilee in which images of power " predominately boats and animals " were the chief elements, and the royal Pharaonic Jubilee, in which the image of the human ruler dominated events.

Gatto wrote in her archaeological report that the Naga Al-Hamdulab cycle of images could be said to show the emergence of the ruler as supreme human priest and incarnate manifestation of human and divine power. It is the last of the old nautical Jubilee cycles of the Predynastic Period, and the first of the Pharaonic cycles over which the king, wearing the regalia of kingship " here the oldest form of the White Crown " presides. She noted that it was also the first of such images with a hieroglyphic annotation. That text referred to a vessel of the "Following", probably the "Following of Horus", and may therefore be the earliest record of tax collection we have from Egypt, and the first expression of royal economic control over Egypt and most probably also Nubia.

Mohamed El-Beyali, the director of Aswan and Nubia monuments, said that the Naga Al-Hamdulab cycle of images probably dated from about 3200 BCE, corresponding to the late Naqada period. This, in other words, was the time between the Scorpion King (owner of tomb Uj at Abydos), the first king of Dynasty Zero, and Narmer, the first ruler of the First Dynasty. The discovery is so important that it is already figuring in a new documentary series currently being screened on the German satellite television channels ARTE and ZDF, and will soon be available worldwide.

At Karnak temples on Luxor's east bank, the scene is different. A team from the French-Egyptian Centre for the Study of the Karnak Temples (CFEETK) has discovered the wall that once enclosed the New Kingdom temple of the god Ptah and a gate dating back to the reign of Pharaoh Shabaka of the 25th Dynasty (712-698 BCE).

Christophe Thiers, director of the Ptah temple programme at Karnak, said the epigraphic, architectural and photographic surveys had brought about some very interesting results regarding the history of the monument. Excavations were mainly led on the remains of the first enclosure wall linked to the first Ptolemaic gate. This stage of the work, Thiers said, aimed at determining the chronological relationship between the last enclosure wall of the temple and the southern structures, especially the remains of an important gate in front of which still remain two black granite bases of columns.

Thiers added that close to this enclosure wall the team found a fifth and sixth century Coptic settlement.

Even though robbers had disturbed the area by digging huge pits, the team uncovered parts of mud-brick walls that pre-dated the New Kingdom temple to Ptah. The contours of this structure were unclear, as it had been destroyed to build the temple.

Mansour Boraik, director of Luxor monuments, said the restoration and conservation programme centred on the loose blocks, which were in a very poor state of preservation, and that when possible the blocks would be replaced on the walls.

Restoration has also started on the main gates of the Shabaka and Ptolemaic eras. An important part of the work was to remove an older attempt at restoration with black cement, to consolidate the stones and to apply new mortar. The work inside the courtyard and the chapels is focussing on the painted reliefs, which are being cleaned and consolidated.

Nadia Licitra of the University of Paris IV led the excavations on the Treasury of Pharaoh Shabaka, located in the northern part of the Amun-Re enclosure. The main colonnade was unearthed a long time ago, but recent excavations have revealed some stone elements including doorjambs, lintels and cavetto cornices belonging to a door and to a niche. These were engraved with very well-preserved, blue-painted inscriptions in the name of Shabaka.

This season, the excavation area was extended westwards where a Ptolemaic building was uncovered, partially built upon another East-West sandstone gate to the Treasury. On both sides of the two doorjambs, the Pharaoh is depicted offering the justice sign of Maat to the god Amun-Ra. the red and blue colours, which are still preserved, have been consolidated.

Dominique Velballe, professor at the archaeology department at the Sorbonne, says French restorers are now carrying out comprehensive work to reconstruct the temple and open it to the public next year. She describes Shabaka's gate, which is decorated with paintings and is very well preserved, as a very distinguished gate that once closed off the jewellery hall of the Pharaoh.

South of Alexandria in Semouha, an Egyptian archaeological mission working at Al-Baron has discovered the first ever Roman civil basilica to be found in the region. It was located on top of a Ptolemaic temple dedicated to the Alexandrian triad of deities: Isis; Serapis and Harpocrates. This temple was one of two temples found in the so-called province of Usis that the Roman historian Strabo mentioned on his visit to Alexandria in 24 AD. The team has also unearthed a number of terracotta statues.

Director of Alexandria antiquities Mohamed Mustafa says two parallel rows of granite and limestone blocks, as well as parts of granite pillars were also found.

"These ruins give the impression that it could once be part of a larger building dating to the Roman period," Mustafa said. He added that early investigations revealed that it could have been a court, a club, or a building used for trading activities.

Osama El-Nahhas, head of the excavation mission, said that unearthing a number of terracotta statues onsite, featuring the goddess Isis breastfeeding her son Harpoctrates, and the god Serapis, without stumbling upon any religious objects, suggested that the edifice was a Roman civil basilica.

The archaeologists also found a number of clay lamps decorated with human figures and ancient deities. The most outstanding object is a lead statue depicting a soldier riding his horse. Some ovens were also found, as well as a number of clay vessels filled with human bones. Studies of the bones revealed that they dated from the sixth century AD and belonged to people aged between 25 and 30 years.

"This is a unique discovery for Alexandria," Hawass said, adding that it was the first time that a civil basilica had been found in Alexandria and that it confirmed that the area of Al-Baron was the one mentioned by Strabo as Usis. "Now is the time to expand excavations in order to uncover the Usis province," he said.


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