The Lost ‘Baths of Cleopatra’

I spent most of 2019 and a little bit of 2020 on the research and writing for Egyptologists’ Notebooks. In many cases this meant going through the papers of the thirty or so travellers, scholars and artists whose stories form the basis of the book, and more importantly the writings, sketches, maps and plans they made of sites and monuments in Egypt including some built by one of the greatest figures from the ancient world: Cleopatra.


Cleopatra and her son Caesarion, Temple of Hathor, Dendera

These archives included, for example, the papers of Robert Hay, James Burton, Edward William Lane, and Joseph Hekekyan which are kept in the British Library. The size of some of these collections is staggering. The Hay archive for example, comprises approximately fifty folios, each of which might contain as many as 150 individual drawings. I quickly realised I was going to be seeing far more images than could ever be included in the book – agonisingly – and so began prioritising those that really stood out for some reason: many were just very beautiful or evocative, but the most interesting were the ones that showed a site or a view that has dramatically altered in the intervening years, or a monument that has since been moved or even disappeared completely…

In most instances I knew straight away what I was looking at. The artists were, naturally, drawn to the most striking sights, many of which are now famous as must-see places for visitors to Egypt: the pyramids of Giza, Karnak and Luxor temples, the colossi of Memnon, the Ramesseum, the Valley of Kings. These are places with which I’m very familiar of course, and had no trouble recognising in the drawings. In other cases I needed to look a little more closely to identify what I was looking at. The drawings weren’t always labelled and even when they were, the labels didn’t necessarily help. The names given to sites and monuments have changed over time; and while those we use today have, to some extent become standardised, that wasn’t the case to the same extent two centuries ago. With a bit of digging, however, I was usually able to establish what I was looking at. But in one or two instances I couldn’t, and one such monument, which appeared in more than one archive really caught my attention: the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’.

The ‘Baths of Cleopatra’

Before, I go any further, I should say now, for anyone getting too excited, that I never imagined that these ‘baths’ had anything to do with Cleopatra herself; it seemed much more likely that this was simply a colloquial name for a monument that was nonetheless probably ancient, and apparently quite spectacular.

The ‘baths’ were apparently somewhere in Alexandria and they appeared in drawings made by several of the individuals who appear in my book, including James Burton, Pascal Coste, and Hector Horeau. Burton and Coste had drawn plans of this monument, which appeared to comprise an elaborate series of chambers cut into the bedrock a short distance from the coastline, the largest incorporating a number of square-based pillars and opening, via a smaller, rectangular room, onto a circular chamber with smaller rooms, each identical in plan, leading off to the left, right and straight ahead. Large rock-cut monuments in Egypt are very often tombs and as I have an interest the ‘lost tombs’ of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra – both of which were in Alexandria – I was keen to know more.

Burton and Coste’s plans differed slightly e.g. in the number and arrangement of pillars but were sufficiently similar in their main features – which seemed quite distinctive to me – for it to seem clear that they showed the same thing.


Burton’s drawing. © British Library Board, add ms 25634 f.4

Burton’s archive in fact included two versions of the same plan (add ms 25634 f.4 and f. 5), one – the more finished looking of the two – with the heading ‘EXCAVATION in the ROCK on the COAST of ALEXANDRIA’, both annotated with the phrase ‘(The) Catacombs Alexandria’. To this Burton had added the following note:

“Most of the rooms so full of sand that a man cannot stand upright in them
Square holes in the ceilings of several rooms through which the sand has accumulated
In several places the wall has been cut through
All about this part of the coast are remains of baths and catacombs
The whole has been plastered and probably painted from the remains of red lines in [illegible] places and in the room A the ceiling is divided by radiating lines and in the center there appears to have been a stucco [illegible]”

Coste’s added to his drawing this label:

“alexandrie 1819
Plan genèral du catacomb et du bains de cléopâtre”


Coste’s drawing of the ‘catacomb’ and ‘bains’ (‘baths’) of Cleopatra. From Pascal Coste Toutes les Égypte (Marseilles, Éditions Parenthèses / Bibliothèque Municipale de Marseille, 1998)

Horeau’s drawing is a view showing the interior of the monument and is simply labelled (on the mount) ‘Bain de Cléopâtre’. Horeau included two human figures for scale in his sketch which appears to show a large and impressive room with a pediment above a large doorway, leading into another room, which the drawing seems to show has a domed roof. The latter is presumably the circular room in Burton and Coste’s plans, and indeed Horeau’s drawing also seems to show further rooms leading off it.


Horeau’s painting which is labelled ‘Bain de Cléopâtre. © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. The image, and catalogue entry are available via the Griffith Institute website, here.

This looked like a very impressive monument, and yet it was clearly quite different from anything I knew of in Alexandria, and I had never even heard of these ‘baths’ before. So what was this monument, and what happened to it?

The Griffith Institute catalogue entry suggested that the site was “Alexandria. Kom el-Shuqafa. Underground tombs of the Graeco-Roman Period.” Although I was already beginning to think that ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ might well have been a name that had long since fallen out of use, and there were certainly catacombs at Kom es-Shoqafa, I had been to visit them on several occasions recently and was confident that these ‘baths’ were something different. The idea that my esteemed colleagues at the Griffith might have got this wrong only served to deepen the mystery.

E M Forster and the ‘baths’ in Scotland

Not knowing what they were, and with plenty of other wonderful material to use in my book, I tried not to get too distracted by this and put the question to one side.

Then in February this year, when I had almost completely finished my work on Notebooks and was taking a short holiday in Scotland, I visited the country’s largest second-hand bookshop, Leakey’s, in Inverness. If you like books, and the thrill of discovering lost treasures, this cavernous, converted church, brimming with piles of unsorted books, is the place to be. Suzanna, my fiancée, and I spent a couple of hours combing the seemingly endless shelves and could have stayed longer, but in fact I had made my great discovery within a few minutes’ of arriving. I saw a copy of E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and Guide, and, to my delight, quickly found a reference in the index to the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ and even a map showing where they were. This I had to have!

Mine was a copy of the third edition of Forster’s book, published in 1961, so apparently the ‘baths’ had survived and continued to be known by that name at least down to that time. His map would allow me to try to locate them in the modern maps and even satellite images provided by Google, to see if I could tell whether not there was anything left to see of them, and if it might even be possible to visit.

Forster had this to say (pp. 197-8):

“About quarter mile S. W. of Fort Ramleh, and close to a small modern pumping tower, are the so-called Baths of Cleopatra. She had nothing to do with them, but they are worth seeing. The western outer wall, of limestone blocks, is well preserved. Steps lead up through it. Within are pavements of pebble mosaic, fragments of stucco, a stone with a drain groove, &c. In a chamber to the left, is an oblong bath nearly six feet deep; steps lead down to it and in the centre of its pebbled floor is a little depression; in the edge of the brim and on the wall opposite are niches, as if to support beams, and provision for the entrance and exit of the water can also be seen. Further on, past a small stucco cistern, is an entrance to a small room which contains an oblong bath to lie down in, quite modern and suburban in appearance; close to it, under a niche, is a footbath – the bather sat on a seat which has disappeared but whose supports can be seen. – These baths are all in the western part of the enclosure; the rest contains other and larger chambers but is in worse preservation. It is much to be wished that these baths, which have recently been excavated, could be protected properly; otherwise they will share the fate of the other antiquities within the military zone.1


Forster’s map of ‘Aboukir and District’ with the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ shown a little way inland. After Forster, E. M. Alexandria: A History and Guide (Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1968), 189.

So, apparently, the ‘baths’ were to be found a little outside Alexandria itself, around 20km along the coast around the western edge of the Bay of Aboukir. This was a surprise, as everything I had seen up to this point suggested the ‘baths’ were in Alexandria proper. I supposed that for Burton, Coste et al, they might nonetheless have considered this to have been the general area of Alexandria. And it would help to explain perhaps why I had never come across the ‘baths’ before – they were beyond the limits of the city, to which most visitors like me would confine themselves, and moreover, according to Forster, they lay in what was, by his time, a military zone. It’s a shame that Forster included no plan of the ‘baths’; his description made no mention of the circular room with a domed roof, but nothing he had written made me think he had not visited the very same monument drawn by Burton, Coste and Horeau. Perhaps the circular room and/or its dome had fallen into ruin and were no longer visible? As Forster wrote, “the rest contains other and larger chambers but is in worse preservation.”

Significantly, perhaps, Forster’s map seems to place the ‘baths’ a little way inland from the coast itself, apparently in keeping with Burton and Coste’s plans which show the greater part of the monument lying just inland from the shore.

At this point, I decided to ask a friend, Dr Daniele Salvoldi, who knows Alexandria very well, if he knew of the ‘baths’ and whether or not it would be possible to go and see them. This turned out to be a very long and productive exchange, and eventually led to the solution to the mystery. But before I reveal what that was…

Daniele knew of the ‘baths’ and had tried to locate them on a modern map, placing them in the area of the Ramleh Fort, in keeping with Forster’s description. One of his first thoughts was that there would be no way we could go and see them because of the military presence in the area.

He also pointed me to an article on the fortresses in the Aboukir area, which mentions the ‘baths’ as part of a description of El Tawfekeya Fort:

“It was once known by “El Shaheeneya” Fort. The fort … is currently used as Military Area and this is the reason that it’s not listed as a monument yet. It lies in the western part of Abu Qir, it is located on fortified hill very near to canope Remains (Cleopatra baths) & Omar Toson Island inside a military site. It was constructed in the period of Ismail pasha & was completed by Tawfeek pasha in the same style of Mohamed Ali’s forts.”2

The article describes how the area became the focus of the construction of coastal defensive buildings during the reign of Mohamed Aly – twenty-five fortresses had been built in the area by the end of his life – and notes that although these buildings are now of historical importance they are relatively little known and inaccessible due to the area retaining its military importance. It seemed to me that this might well help to explain the relative obscurity of the ‘baths’ today, despite their apparent grandeur and having been an important part of the itinerary for visitors in the early Nineteenth Century, and it struck me that the phenomenon of archaeological remains and historic buildings disappearing from view, creating a kind of archaeological ‘blind-spot’, due to the military concerns taking priority, is an interesting phenomenon in itself. In any case, it seems this would prevent me from making any investigations of my own on the ground, which would certainly have been in the planning for my next trip to Alexandria otherwise.

Misled by E. M. Forster

But then I got another message from Daniele with some surprising news.

He had been checking a copy of Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria. The Theatre of the Dead (Cambridge University Press, 2002) by Marjorie Venit, and came across the plan of a tomb complex that appeared to match the ‘baths’ more or less exactly. According to this, what Burton, Coste and others had seen was a monumental tomb-complex now known as the ‘Grand Catacomb’ in the Wardian district of Alexandria (sometimes also known as ‘Mex’). Daniele kindly sent me some snapshots of the relevant pages and it was clear he was right. But this was confusing, because Wardian is a long way – around 25km – from Aboukir, on the coast in the area of the old port.

‘What?’ I was left wondering… Had I misunderstood: are the ‘baths’ and the catacombs different things?  Maybe I have… Burton’s drawing makes no mention of any baths… And in fact Coste’s drawing is labelled ‘Plan genèral du catacomb et du bains de cléopâtre’ – ‘general plan of the catacombs and the baths of Cleopatra’ (my emphasis), but at the same time his map seemed to show them as being right next to one another. And Horeau’s drawing – labelled ‘Bain de Cléopâtre’ – seemed clearly to show the catacombs. So, it seemed there were both catacombs and baths in Wardian, separate from one another, but close enough to have become confused, at least by Horeau, and others (see below). And as for the ‘baths’ that were known to Forster and to the authors of the article on the Aboukir forts, these must have been something different entirely. In other words the name ‘baths of Cleopatra’ had, it seemed been attached to at least two different sites. It’s not difficult to imagine the famous queen’s name being associated with various sites and monuments in Alexandria, and given she is celebrated for bathing (albeit in milk), it should be no surprise that certain places associated with such an activity would come to take her name. There were plenty of such places in Alexandria it seems, and there are even baths in Turkey that go by a similar name: ‘Cleopatra’s Bath’.

Necropolis and the Grand Catacomb

In any case though, the spectacular monument that Burton, Coste and Horeau had visited in the first half of the 19th century was indeed the Grand Catacomb at Wardian.

This was a part of the ‘Necropolis’ area of Alexandria, as described by Strabo (writing shortly after the end of the Ptolemaic Period which ended with the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra by Octavian – Augustus Caesar – and the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire):

“Next, after the Heptastadium, one comes to the Harbour of Eunostus, and, above this, to the artificial harbour, which is also called Cibotus; it too has ship-houses. Farther in there is a navigable canal, which extends to Lake Mareotis. Now outside the canal there is still left only a small part of the city; and then one comes to the suburb Necropolis, in which are many gardens and groves and halting-places fitted up for the embalming of corpses”3

This is the area in which the spectacular discovery of the Gabbari necropolis was made in the 1990s during the construction of a road. The site was excavated by the Centre d’Études Alexandrines, led by Jean-Yves Empereur, and after just two seasons of rescue excavation had cleared forty-three collective tombs of the Hellenistic style, the largest containing 250 loculi, niches designed to house the remains of the deceased some of whom were cremated in the Macedonian tradition while others were mummified, as Egyptian custom required. These were tombs for the middle classes and were used over and over for generations; the excavators sometimes found the remains of as many twelve individuals in a single loculus, older remains simply being moved aside to make room for each new entrant.


Front cover of issue 15 of the Egyptian Archaeology: The Bulletin of the Egypt Exploration Society (1999) showing the loculi at Gabbari during the rescue excavations.

The ‘Grand Catacomb’ seems to have been built, or rather cut out of the living rock, for one or more individuals of higher status. The main axis of the tomb leads the visitor from a peristyle (i.e. surrounded with columns) court into the circular room with a domed rood from which leads to three triclinia – rooms with benches on three sides on which people would recline while dining – each containing undecorated sarcophagi. The discovery of a mosaic floor on the surface suggests there may at one point have been a funerary chapel above the hypogeum (underground part of the tomb). According to Venit, the prevailing view is that tomb should be dated to the Roman Period, probably the first two centuries CE (too late to be anything to do with Cleopatra!).

Venit’s brief notes on the tomb are based on the information published by Achille Adriani, the third of three great Italian archaeologists to hold the post of Keeper of the Graeco-Roman Museum at Alexandria – and by extension, archaeologist-in-chief in the city – following Giuseppe Botti and Evaristo Breccia. Adriani excavated the ‘Grand Catacomb’ in 1952 and was, according to Venit, ‘the only modern scholar in the first half of the twentieth century who actually saw the tomb’.4

Lost now, or found?

This last part, in particular, intrigued me. If Adriani was the only one to have seen the tomb in the first half of the 20th century, why, when it had apparently been so visible to travellers in earlier times? Perhaps it had been damaged, or surrounded by more modern buildings to the extent that visiting became far less appealing, and it lost some of its allure. In any case, more to the point, had anyone seen it since Adriani? Venit, whose book was published in 2002, says it is “Extant: partially preserved; at the north end of Bergouin Street among the lumber storehouses (fenced).”5

Could it still be there even now? Looking at the satellite view in Google Maps it was clear that the area had become heavily industrialised. Just inland from the Eunostos Harbour / Old Port where the tomb should have been I could see container ships, a canal, the circular buildings of industrial refineries, large dusty open spaces, a grid of streets with residential(?) buildings built very close to one another in between. Along the shore where I thought I might have found the ‘baths’ themselves, I could see only modern industrial buildings, and some vague outlines beneath the surface of the ocean that could have been anything. Could the catacomb have survived? It seemed unlikely.

I’d been gathering material for this piece for a few months, returning to it every now and again and found myself caught up in staring at the satellite images again not long ago. This time I looked again at Venit’s map first. She placed the ‘Grand Catacomb’ at one end of the middle of three distinctive diagonal shapes. I had no idea what these might be but decided to see if I could see any similar shapes in the satellite view and to my amazement I could. I zoomed in, and at the end of one of them, surrounded on one side by a busy road and on the others by a dusty area filled with cars and lorries, I could see what looked like a fenced area, apparently unencumbered by any buildings or vehicles, and exhibiting signs even of some vegetation, as if it was protected. Could this be it? I think it is. Is there anything really to see from the ground? I’ll have to wait till I can next get to Alexandria.


Map of the Necropolis area in modern times, showing the coastline and location of ‘Grand Catacomb’ in the Wardian district. After Venit, Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria. The Theatre of the Dead (Cambridge University Press, 2002),  fig. I, p. 2.


Satellite image from Google Earth showing thew same part of Alexandria, with the probable location of the Grand Catacomb marked with a red pin.


The same location zoomed in a little…


…and a little bit more…

In the meantime, I was still dying to know what if anything could still be seen of this monument. I had seen no image of it made later than the 19th century and not a single photograph.  The major publication of the tomb appeared to be Adriani’s Repertorio d’Arte dell’Egitto Greco-Romano Series C (Rome, 1966) but this was not a volume I was familiar with; there was no copy in the EES library, visiting the British library was proving very difficult owing to the COVID-related restrictions and second-hand copies were few and far between, and expensive. But, dying to see if the tomb was illustrated inside, and sensing that such a rare but important book would be a valuable addition to my library (an occupational hazard) I cycled over to a second hand bookshop in Finchley which appeared to have the only copy available for sale in the UK. And of course I bought it. I was very pleased to find that it includes a number of photographs of the interior of the Grand Catacomb, one of which I have taken the liberty of including here.


A view along the central axis of the Grand Catacomb following restoration, with the circular, domed room beyond the monumental doorway directly in front of the viewer. After Adriani, Repertorio d’Arte dell’Egitto Greco-Romano Series C (Rome, 1966), pl. 91.

I have subsequently gathered a number of other historic descriptions and images of the tomb – see the appendix below.

So what? (concluding remarks)

So what do we learn from all this? Maybe not that much. There’s nothing that’s really new to scholarship; Professor Venit and others familiar with the Grand Catacomb would have been able to tell me straight away what Burton’s drawing shows. And yet, her bibliography suggests she was unaware of that particular drawing, and perhaps also those of Coste and Horeau, so perhaps that’s something. And if the Griffith Institute can make a mistake about what and where the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ were then at least I know I’m not alone in my confusion.

I think there are a few wider points worth making too.

Confusion over the name. First, there’s the conflation of the baths i.e. the rock cut pools at the edge of the ocean, and the tomb complex, both in the Wardian district, which, together, were commonly and repeatedly referred to as the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ in nineteenth century drawings and literature. Second, there’s the fact that the name ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ seems to have been used subsequently, in the 20th century, to refer to a different place, in Aboukir. Third, while the Wardian site was referred to as the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ in the 19th Century, in modern literature the tomb complex is referred to as the ‘Grand Catacomb’ only – Venit makes no mention of the name ‘baths’ at all. This shouldn’t be so surprising as many sites are now given different names to those used two centuries ago – Belzoni believed he had discovered the ‘tomb of Psammuthis’ and not that of Sety I; the tomb of Ramesses III, also in the Valley of Kings, was known to many as the ‘Harper’s Tomb’ or ‘Bruce’s Tomb’ until the hieroglyphs decorating it could be read and the original owner identified. The temple known to many early visitors as the ‘Memnonium’ is nothing to do with legendary Memnon, king of the Aethiopians, but rather a temple of Ramesses II which we now call ‘The Ramesseum’. Memnon’s name still sticks to the famous Colossi however, even though we know the statues really represent Amenhotep III.

Disappearance of the site. By contrast with, for example, the famous Theban monuments which still (COVID-19 notwithstanding) attract thousands of visitors every year, the ‘Grand Catacomb’ seems to have disappeared from view almost entirely. For this reason, knowledge and memory of it has been lost almost entirely, and exists only in the pages of one or two obscure publications, and in the minds of a handful (I suspect) of specialists.

It seems very likely that there would not have been so much confusion had the ‘Baths’ been more visible over the years – they would have been visited, documented, and would have become more familiar.

I’m yet to have the opportunity to see whether anything can still be seen on the ground (I’ll let you know when I get a chance), but even the two Ministry of Antiquities inspectors I contacted in Alexandria were unable to tell me what or where this obscure but evidently spectacular monument was.

For a long time I have felt as though Alexandria has been somehow out of reach, a blindspot, for me at least. I only went myself for the first time in 2015 by which time I had been to Egypt dozens of times over almost twenty years and indeed it seems many frequent visitors to Egypt rarely go or are yet to make the trip. Why? Is it because archaeological sites are perhaps not as spectacular as elsewhere? Or is it, moreover, that they relate to a period of Egyptian history that somehow doesn’t pique the interest of so many? Too Hellenistic / Roman, or late to be as appealing as the New Kingdom monuments in Luxor perhaps. I was delighted to read this passage in Venit’s book  which articulates the thought far better than I could and shows that I wasn’t the only one to have had it:

“three major reasons conspire to keep Alexandrian monumental tombs almost entirely unknown beyond the few scholars who excavate in Alexandria or those who take particular interest in its monuments. First, now, as in the nineteenth century, Egyptian archaeology primarily focusses on the splendor of Egypt’s more easily visible and more exotic pharaonic past. Second, most tourists and the great majority of scholars arriving by air directly in Cairo find it even more convenient to avoid the city than did their nineteenth-century sea-dependent counterparts. Third, despite recent archaeological activity, the greatest number of Alexandrian tombs were excavated before World War II and, aside from the tombs at chatby published by Breccia, those at Kom el-Shoqafa that comprise Schreiber’s monumental work, and those excavated in the 1930s at Moustapha Pasha published by Adriani, they exist only in difficult-to-access preliminary reports.”6

Venit herself, clearly felt that monuments such as the Grand Catacomb were in danger of being lost, stating that one of the purposes of her book was:

“to preserve precious monuments that can no longer speak for themselves. Despite relatively few remaining tombs, most exist only in the pages of mouldering journals and antiquarian tomes, the greatest number of which are published in Alexandria and the others in Europe during the past century and a half. Few libraries in the United States own any of these volumes, and none owns all of them. Crucial volumes are not held in any library. For this reason, description that might otherwise be considered superfluous may be given at detailed length because, aside from the fact that many of the tombs are lost, the volumes in which they were published during the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth may very soon have joined them in demise.”7

What’s interesting, to me at least, is that what was clearly a very interesting and apparently spectacular monument, visited by the kind of people who were trying to make comprehensive records of the country’s monuments, have disappeared from view, not only physically, but also from the records, and from memory (is that important?)?

Venit’s reference to the obscurity of the literature shows that even when things are published something else is required for knowledge of them to be maintained. People need to have access to those books, to read them, to discuss them in their own writing and conversations.

We tend to assume that ancient sites and monuments became lost in the distant past and are then revealed by archaeologists in more modern times, and that those that survived since antiquity will now survive for good. The story of the ‘baths’ show how easily such things can be lost again.

NOTES:

1. Extract from Forster, E. M. Alexandria: A History and Guide (Gloucester, Mass., Peter Smith, 1968), 197-8.
2. Shahira Sharaf Eldin, Fatima Fekry, and Adel El Menchawy, ‘Abu Qir fortresses as vital assets for tourism motivation and community development’ Journal of Heritage Conservation 34 (2013), 48. Accessed online (here) April 2020.
3. Strabo. Geography, Volume VIII: Book 17. General Index. Translated by Horace Leonard Jones. Loeb Classical Library 267. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932. Pp. 39-41. Reproduced here.
4. Venit, M. S. Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, 132
5. Venit, M. S. Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, 198
6. Venit, M. S. Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, 5.
7. Venit, M. S. Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, 5-6.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Big thank yous to Dr Daniele Salvoldi for solving the problem and showing me what the ‘baths’ really were; to Dr Kate Sheppard for pointing me in the direction of the Kellogg, Gardner Wilkinson and Baedecker sources below; and to Dr Chris Elliott for directing me to Mayer’s drawings and to several other sources. Also to the British Library and Griffith Institute, Oxford for permission to reproduce the Burton and Horeau drawings respectively. Thank you all!

APPENDIX:

Historical Sources for the ‘Baths of Cleopatra’ or ‘Grand Catacomb’ of Wardian.

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of sources but these seem to be among the most interesting. Authors who feature in Egyptologists’ Notebooks are marked with an asterisk.*

Richard Dalton (1715-1791)

Antiquities and Views and Greece and Egypt (London, 1751-1752).


‘A Temple in the Catacombs at Alexandria’. Accessed online (here) December 2020.


‘Plan of the Temple in the Catacombs at Alexandria’. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

Frederik Ludwig Norden (1708–1742)*

Travels in Egypt and Nubia (London, Printed for Lockyer Davis and Charles Reymers, 1757), pp. p. 21-2. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

“The sepulchral grots begin from the place, where the ruins of the old city terminate, and they run to a great distance along the border of the sea. They are all dug in the rock-, sometimes one over another, sometimes one aside of another, according as the situation of the ground has permitted. Avarice, or the hope of finding something there, has caused them all to be opened. I have net feen a single one shut up ; and have absolutely found nothing within them. It is easy to judge, by their shape, and by their great number, of the use, for which they were designed. We may fay, that in general they have only a sufficient breadth to contain two dead bodies, one lying by another. Their length exceeds but very little that of a man, and they have more or less height, according to the disposition of the rock. The greatest part have been opened by violence; and that which remains of them intire is not ornamented either with sculpture or painting.”

Voyage d’Égypte et de Nubie Volume 1 (Paris, Pierre Didot l’ainé, 1795), pl. XIII. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

Richard Pococke (1704–1765)*

A Description of the East and Some Other Countries: Volume 1 (London, Printed for the author by W. Bowyer, 1745), p. 9. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

“To the west, beyond the canal of Canopus, and near a Sheik’s burial place, are some Catacombs ; they consist of several apartments cut in the rock , on each side of an open gallery: On both sides of these apartments are three stories of holes, big enough to deposite the bodies in. Here we may suppose the suburbs began, in which were gardens, sepulchres, and places to prepare the bodies for interment; as the quarter call’d Necropolis, or city of the dead, was to the west of the city. The Catacombs extended above a mile to the west, and there are a great number all along by the sea; many of them have been wash’d away by the water, which in such a long tract of time has gain’d on the freestone rock, as appears by the remains of them seen in the sea. I was in some grottos cut out of the rock, in long narrow galleries running parallel to one another, and some also crossing them at right angles. These I conjectured were those magazines in which they embalmed the bodies. The most extraordinary Catacombs are towards the further end, and may be reckon’d among the finest that have been discover’d; being beautiful rooms cut out of a rock, and niches in many of them, so as to deposite the bodies in, adorn’d with a sort of Doric pilasters on each side. The round room, and that leading to it are very beautiful, and so are the four rooms drawn in the plan with niches.”

Luigi Mayer (1755–1803)

Views in Egypt, from the original drawings in the possession of Sir Robert Ainslie, taken during his embassy to Constantinople (London, Printed by Thomas Bensley, for R. Bowyer, 1801), 26-7. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

“The catacombs of Alexandria, of which we have given a representation, are on the south of the old port, their present entrance being a small irregular hole, a few paces from the edge of a basin, that communicates with it. This hole is so narrow, that you are obliged to creep in feet foremost. Having passed it, you find yourself in a chamber of moderate size, but so filled with earth, that a man can hardly stand upright in it. Three sides of this chamber have each another cut out of it only eight feet square, and in three sides of each of these are square recesses, the fronts of which are ornamented with a kind of Tuscan pilasters, supporting a segment of an arch. From the first chamber you pass into various others. One is a parallelogram, about fifteen feet wide, the ceiling of which is a very flat segment of an arch; and at the farther end of it are two Tuscan pilasters, supporting an architrave, cornice and pediment, forming a large door, on each side of which is a small door, on each side of which is a small door ornamented in the same manner, only without the pediment. These three doors lead into a circular chamber of the same width, its roof a very flat dome resting on an architrave; and from this chamber you enter three smaller square chambers, with three recesses in each, exactly as in the first chamber. All these chambers are cut out of the solid rock, very neatly worked, stuccoed over. Some of them had square openings in the roof, to admit light, but these are now stopped up. They are all extremely dry, and similar in style; but how far they extend is impossible to say, they are now so filled, and the original entrance to them is now equally unknown.”

Mayer was clear that that and ‘baths’ were separate from the ‘catacombs’, his descriptions and drawings appearing separately from one another in his published account:

p. 33. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

“THE BATH OF CLEOPATRA As it is vulgarly called, is a large basin, a little to the west of the old port, on one side of which are three small square rooms, hollowed out of the solid rock.”

Description de l’Égypte. 2nd Ed. Antiquities, Volume V (Plates) (1823), pl. 42. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

Edward Daniel Clarke (1769-1822)

Travels in various countries of Europe Asia and Africa. Part the Second Greece Egypt and the Holy Land (London, R. Watts for Cadell and Davies, 1813), 286-9. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

“The Alexandrian guides to the Catacombs will not be persuaded to enter them without using the precaution of a clue of thread, in order to secure their retreat. We were therefore provided with a ball of twine to answer this purpose; and also with a quantity of wax tapers, to light us in our passage through these dark chambers. They are situated about half a league along the shore, to the westward of the present city. The whole coast exhibits the remains of other sepulchres, that have been violated, and are now in ruins. The name of Cleopatra’s Bath has been given to an artificial reservoir, into which the sea has now access; but for what reason it has been so called, cannot be ascertained: it is a bason hewn out of the rock ; and if it ever was intended for a bath, it was, in all probability, a place where they washed the bodies of the dead before they were embalmed. Shaw maintained that the Crypt a of Necropolis were not intended for the reception of mummies, or embalmed bodies; in which he is decidedly contradicted by the text of Strabo. Perhaps he was one of those who had been induced to adopt an erroneous opinion that mummies were placed upright upon their feet in Egyptian sepulchres, and therefore was at a loss to reconcile the horizontal position of the Thecce with his preconceived notions. We shall presently have very satisfactory evidence as to the manner in which embalmed bodies were laid, when deposited within these tombs by the inhabitants of Egypt, before the foundation of Alexandria. The original entrance to them is now closed, and it is externally concealed from observation. The only place whereby admittance to the interior is practicable, may be found facing the sea, near an angle towards the north: it is a small aperture, made through the soft and sandy rock, either by burrowing animals, or by men for the purpose of ransacking the cemetery. This aperture is barely large enough to admit a person upon his hands and knees. Here it is not unusual to encounter jackals, escaping from the interior, when alarmed by any person approaching: on this account the guides recommend the practice of discharging a gun, or pistol, to prevent any sally of this kind. Having passed this aperture with lighted tapers, we arrived, by a gradual descent, in a square chamber, almost filled with earth: to the right and left of this are smaller apartments, chiseled in the rock: each of these contains on either side of it, except that of the entrance, a Soros for the reception of a mummy; but owing to the accumulation of sand in all of them, this part of the Catacombs cannot be examined without great difficulty. Leaving the first chamber, we found a second of still larger dimensions, having four Crypta with Soroi, two on either side, and a fifth at its extremity towards the south-east. From hence, penetrating towards the west, we passed through another forced aperture, which conducted us into a square chamber without any receptacles for dead bodies; thence, pursuing a south-western course, we persevered in effecting a passage, over heaps of sand, from one chamber to another, admiring everywhere the same extraordinary effects of labour and ingenuity, until we found ourselves bewildered with so many passages, that our clue of thread became of more importance than we at first believed it would prove to be. At last we reached the stately antechamber of the principal sepulchre, which had every appearance of being intended for a regal repository. It was of a circular form, surmounted by a beautiful dome, hewn out of the rock, with exquisite perfection, and the purest simplicity of workmanship. In a few of the chambers we observed pilasters, resembling, in their style of architecture, the Doric, with architraves, as in some of the most antient sepulchres near Jerusalem; but they were all integral parts of the solid rock. The dome covering the circular chamber was without ornament; the entrance to it being from the north-west. Opposite to this entrance was chap, vii. a handsome square Crypt with three Soroi; and to the right and left were other Cryptae, similarly surrounded with places for the dead.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons (here).

Miner Kilbourne Kellogg (1814-1889)

Kellogg drew this pencil sketch of the ‘baths’ (compare with Mayer’s drawing above) in 1843:

Accessed online (here) December 2020. © Smithsonian American Art Museum

John Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875)*

A Handbook for Travellers in Egypt (A new edition, with corrections and additions, London, 1867), p. 88. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

“Nothing which remains of Alexandria attest its greatness more than the catacombs upon the coast to the westward. The entrance to them is close to a spot once covered with the habitations and gardens of the town, or suburb of the city, which, from the neighbouring tombs, was called the Necropolis. The extent of these catacombs is remarkable; but the principal inducement to visit them is the elegance and symmetry of the architecture in one of the chambers, having a Doric entablature and mouldings, in good Greek taste, which is not to be met with in any other part of Egypt.

Tapers, a basket of provisions, and, if the traveller intends to penetrate far into them, a rope, are necessary; and if he wishes to take measurements of the mouldings, a ladder. He may go either by land or water. The distance from the Frank quarter is about 2¾ miles. On the way he will pass several tombs at the water’s edge, some of which are below the level of the sea, and having been mistaken for baths have received the name of “Bagni di Cleopatra” If he happens to be remaining on board a yacht in the harbour, he will do well to take advantage of that time to visit them, as it will save a portion of the distance.

There are other catacombs to the east, which I shall mention presently (Rte. 2).”

Karl Baedeker (Firm)

Egypt: handbook for travellers. PART FIRST: LOWER EGYPT, WITH THE FAYUM AND THE PENINSULA OF SINAI (Leipzig, KARL BAEDEKER, 1878), p.220. Accessed online (here) December 2020.

In the friable limestone of the coast-hills are a number of tomb-chambers, the ceilings of which are borne by pillars of the rock left for the purpose ; but most of them have been destroyed by the inroads of the sea, and are now covered up. These chambers, which contain nothing interesting, have been styled the Baths of Cleopatra.

George Ebers (1837-1898)

Egypt: Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesque. Volume 1 (New  York, Cassell & Company, Limited, 1878).

Image via Wikimedia Commons (here).

*I’m not 100% certain that this is the Grand Catacomb at Wardian but I think it probably is, and I include it as it shows the situation at a rather later date than most of the sources given here.

Detroit Publishing Company, 1905: “Egypt. Alexandria. The Catacombs of Meks”.

Image via Wikimedia Commons (here).

‘Meks’ (or ‘Mex’) was another name for the Wardian area. This coloured photograph doesn’t show the ‘Grand Catacomb’ specifically but is nonetheless of interest for its date and general view of the coastline (compare with Mayer and Kellogg, above).

The Foreigner as Scapegoat: Lessons from Ancient Egypt and Today

By Chris Stantis and Anna-Latifa Mourad

The human story is replete with people migrating. 

For some, the pull to move across borders was driven by such prospects as economic riches or social ideals. For many others, they felt the push of persecution, violence, war, poverty, and environmental disasters. These stories continue to play out today, and entangled within the movement are all the narratives and feelings associated with migration: hope, adventure, fear, intolerance. Those feelings too are not new to the human story. 

Recreation of tomb painting from Egypt. Many of the people have colorfully patterned clothing, with the men sporting full beards. These are clues that they are foreign. Two Egyptian men are in the upper right, wearing plain white clothes with the goatees typical of Egyptian men.
Tomb painting of Asiatics from the ancient Near East. Note their colorful clothing and different hairstyles relative to the Egyptians in the top right corner. From the tomb of 12th dynasty official Khnumhotep II (No. 3), reign of Senwosret II, Beni Hassan.

As scholars researching migration and cultural interactions in ancient Egypt, we see much of the same reflected in the past. Our focus has been the period leading to and including the Hyksos Dynasty (ca. 1950-1550 BCE), the first time in recorded history that those of ‘foreign lands’ ruled Egypt. 

The migrant story, re-written

For many years, the Hyksos Dynasty (Dynasty 15) was defined by the accounts of a 3rd century BCE Egyptian priest, Manetho, as preserved in Josephus’s Contra Apionem of the 1st century. In this History of Egypt, the rise of the dynasty happened when “invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land [i.e., Egypt]. By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow”. This ‘race’ called Hyksos, or ‘king-shepherds’, then went on to destroy cities and temples. They massacred many and forced others into submission, demanding tribute from the Egyptians. Their ruler then built their citadel at the city of Avaris on the Nile Delta, establishing the first foreign dynasty of Egypt.

Seemingly corroborating this narrative of an invasion from the East are contemporary and near-contemporary ancient Egyptian accounts, including those dating to the reigns of Kamose, Ahmose, and Hatshepsut. Kamose and Ahmose fought against the Hyksos at Avaris, with Ahmose emerging as victor and founder of the New Kingdom and the Eighteenth Dynasty. Around seventy years later, Queen Hatshepsut mentions how she restored what lay in ruin since foreigners were at Avaris. She removed the footprints of those who ‘ruled without Ra’, likely referring to the Hyksos.

Stela of Kamose, recording his victory against the Hyksos. Luxor Museum.

In approaching these texts, Egyptologists, Biblical historians, and many others pondered on the origins of this enigmatic dynasty that evidently rose and fell in calamitous and violent upheavals, on the conquering migrants from the East and the Thebans who fought to re-establish Egyptian hegemony. The Hyksos were identified with various groups from the Near East. Some argued they were militaristically and technologically superior peoples who, because of their advanced weaponry and horse-drawn chariotry, were able to conquer Egypt.

Beyond trusting Manetho’s account without criticism, the story of the Hyksos’s rise to rule through an invasion from the East agreed with imperialist and Orientalist narratives of several western scholars. For some, it fit with a ‘unilinear narrative of world history’, wherein progress marched forward from ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures as direct antecedents of the ‘glory’ of European civilization. These clichéd worldviews are still carried on by a few modern academics, although some institutions are trying to move forward.

Who tells the tale?

Just as it becomes clear that migration, cultural contact and change is much more complex, a few scholars have also started to question the narrative of an invading group of Eastern foreigners

It became increasingly clear that Manetho was writing in a time when an invasion from the East was a common trope in the Egyptian literary tradition, especially after the Persian conquests of Egypt as well as Alexander’s invasion. His most detailed account of the Hyksos in Josephus’s Contra Apionem was part of a text that argues for the antiquity of Judaism and, in describing the rulers of Avaris, links their expulsion from Egypt with the founding of Jerusalem.

Who writes the narrative, and why, is important. The Egyptian accounts regarding the wars against the Hyksos rulers were written from the conquerors’ perspective. Queen Hatshepsut’s erasure of Hyksos’ legacy emphasised her special connection with Ra and justified her own legitimacy to rule Egypt. The Hyksos rulers were represented as foreign, illegitimate kings. Foreigners were to blame for the calamities in Egypt and expelling them would return the land to its former glory. 

Now, many scholars understand that the rise of the Hyksos was influenced by a growing number of migrants from the Near East and their descendants who had grown up in Egypt. From the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom, and indeed earlier, are clues supporting the movement of various peoples into Egypt. Recent research suggests that the site of Tell el-Dab’a in the northeastern Nile Delta, identified with Avaris, the Hyksos capital, was an international hub at least by the late Twelfth Dynasty, prior to Hyksos rule. It was a destination for many of diverse backgrounds who travelled there temporarily, and permanently. 

So far, no evidence of a sudden, wide-sweeping invasion of Egypt has been discovered. Instead, recent studies suggest that the Hyksos’s rise to power was more likely linked to complex processes that transpired over a long period of time. These were not only tied to an increase in the number of individuals of Near Eastern origin, or influenced by Near Eastern cultural elements. They were also related to their interactions with other groups among and around them at Tell el-Dab’a, in the Eastern Delta, across Egypt, as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean. The rise of the Hyksos Dynasty was intertwined with the destabilising political situation in Egypt, and the growing regionalisation that helped the leaders of a diverse population in the Eastern Delta to establish independence.

An idealist might think that cultural diversity and integration go hand-in-hand, but modern sociological studies are finding this is not always the case. Foreigners are often representations of external threats as well as the cause of all things wrong with society. Despite the Theban portrayal of the inhabitants to their north, the Manethonian tradition, and the decades of scholarly works influenced by these accounts, research is now starting to shift to incorporate the complexities of migration, cultural encounters, and cultural transformations. It has become necessary to not only question invasion but also how different groups at Tell el-Dab’a, and across Egypt, reacted, adapted, and negotiated their identities following political and social shifts that saw several dynasties come and go. Accordingly, the introduction of ‘advanced’ weaponry and technology as commonly attributed to the Hyksos invasion must also be reassessed. While the influx of migrants into ancient Tell el-Dab’a helped introduce new and different ideas into Egypt, their adoption was not so simple nor guaranteed. In fact, the mechanisms of transmission are far more complex, the foreigners not only to ‘blame’. Certainly, however, their interactions with local inhabitants across time and space together with those of their descendants, their allies, their enemies, other waves of migrants, and so on and so forth, were all influential in transforming Egypt into what became the New Kingdom. 

It is interesting, then, how the story of the Hyksos and those under their rule, has been retold across the centuries, each account offering some glimpses into how the Dynasty rose and fell, but much about contemporaneous approaches to foreigners and migrants. It is thus our aim to sift through these layers, to edge closer to the history of the people who lived during the Hyksos Dynasty.

Reflections

We, the authors, have tasted the migrant experience. One is a first generation immigrant, raised between two cultures and in two lands. Both of us have lived part of our lives as skilled migrants outside our own home countries, a privileged position where we were welcomed for the ‘value’ we bring but expected to follow a prescribed set of rules to be perceived as ‘good immigrants’.

We believe looking to the past informs the present, offering vital insight into the dynamic complexities of a recurring phenomenon that we will continue to face in the future. At a time when borders are more pronounced, it is interesting that identity has once again become a prevalent topic. A quick browse through recent news headlines clearly shows how migration continues to be a major topic of discussion around the world. As we all continue to (re-)define who we are, maybe the unraveling history of the inhabitants of Tell el-Dab’a can offer us lessons how, across time, migration can shape identities and, in many and varying ways, some very obvious, others more subtle and complex, it will lead to transformation. Also, perhaps unfortunately, it is revealing how the story of migrants can often be hidden or molded according to the motivations of history’s writers.

Chris Stantis (Bournemouth University) is a bioarchaeologist with a wider research background in archaeological chemistry, migration, and diet. Anna-Latifa Mourad (Macquarie University) is a historian and archaeologist exploring the links between cultural encounters and socio-cultural transformations. Follow them on Twitter – @ChrisStantis and @anna_latifa.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 668640)

Editor’s note: I’m really pleased to be able to publish this post by Drs Chris Stantis and Anna-Latifa Mourad. Their investigations into the origins of the ‘Hyksos’ people and their influence on Egypt is a great example of how scientific research can cause us to revise our understanding of events in the past but also, perhaps more importantly, to challenge pre-existing narratives of those events. What’s so striking here is that the movement of people from one place to another and the resulting interactions between different groups was a part of life for many people in the ancient past, just as it is today. And by understanding how the story of the events of the past has been told, we can begin to think more critically about how the events are present are told to us too, and how some of the subtleties and complexities of the interactions between different groups, can be overlooked. Many thanks to the authors! – CN

 

Decolonising, Egyptology & the dirty little secret

“The dirty little secret is that some disciplines don’t need to be decolonized, they just need to be shut down entirely”

“Here’s looking at you, Egyptology…”

Screenshot 2020-07-09 at 18.16.06

I saw these lines posted to Twitter recently.

I describe myself as an ‘Egyptologist’ – see the banner of my website and the short description at the top of all my social media accounts etc. I make a living from the subject, and have been doing so for the best part of twenty years. So, I have a vested interest in the discipline not being shut down entirely. Still, I recognise that these tweets are a response to the ways in which Egyptology is, undeniably, problematic. Shutting it down entirely might seem dramatic, but this is perhaps exactly the kind of message that is needed if we are all to wake up to the ways in which it is problematic and to try to change things for the better.

It’s worth saying that in addition to what I do now – writing, lecturing, media work – from 2001 to 2016 I was employed by The Egypt Exploration Society,1 a British organisation founded in 1882, the year Britain bombarded Egypt in order to put down a revolt and protect its own economic and other interests, taking effective control of the country in the process. The organisation is responsible for the excavation of thousands of ancient artefacts, many of which were subsequently removed from Egypt and distributed to museums around the world in exchange for financial support for the continuation of its work.2 It is very much a part of the establishment of Egyptology internationally. So for this reason in particular, you might think that, as regards the debate about decolonising Egyptology, I would be something of a dinosaur, with views that are the very opposite of progressive. I hope this isn’t the case however – even if it’s what the hardliners think, and even if what’s below makes it seem as though I still don’t get it. Even though I do have a vested interest in Egyptology, it’s clear that there is a problem to be faced – in Egyptology as with cricket, something else I’m rather partial to, but can see is problematic for similar reasons, and in which I don’t have any vested interest (“You can’t understand the history of cricket without understanding the history of empire. You can’t appreciate the rivalries between these, and other, teams, without appreciating the relationship between our countries, what’s been given, and what’s been taken.” as I read here recently).

When I saw the tweets above I wondered if there was an accessible and concise explanation as to why (some might say) Egyptology should be shut down. And I started scribbling some notes on why this might be the case. I have subsequently seen it suggested that Dr William Carruthers (author of the second of the tweets and with whom, by the way, I’ve been on friendly terms for years now)’ introduction to the Histories of Egyptology volume which he also edited, provides such an explanation. And since I first drafted this piece Will has very helpfully posted further concise thoughts in this thread.

What follows are my own thoughts. I hope those closer to the cutting edge of the debate will forgive me; I’m posting this in the hope of bringing the debate to a wider audience, and of learning more myself, and absolutely welcome comments, criticisms, additions etc. in the comments below. Thanks!

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (James Baldwin)

How is the study of the ancient past in Egypt to continue in the future?

1. Should the name (‘Egyptology’) be changed?
2. Should Egyptology be practiced in different way(s)?
3. Should it be shut down entirely?

I imagine that for those writing the tweets at the top of this post, #1 would not be enough and in any case it would be quite difficult to think of another label that would provide an effective substitute, at least one that would supplant the existing term quickly enough. Much as #3 might be a nice idea for some it would be too much for many others – would anyone really wish for the study of a few millennia of years of history to be completely closed down? I hope that would seem unnecessarily counter-productive even to the hard-liners. Which leaves option #2.

I think #1 and #2 probably both merit a bit more explanation but before we get to that, it’s probably more important to try to explain…

Why is Egyptology problematic?

Here’s a starter for ten…

Egyptology is a product of colonialism, the process by which certain countries, mostly European / ‘western’, including Britain, exploited certain other countries for political, territorial and economic gain. These countries, including Egypt, are generally located in Africa and Asia, and many of them happen to have long and rich histories, and are often very rich in archaeological remains.

Colonialism created and compounded inequalities, to the benefit of the colonialists, and the detriment of the colonised. Colonial countries got richer from the resources of the colonised countries, and maintained control of these resources – material and intellectual – ensuring that that situation continued.

Even after the colonised countries gained political independence to some degree the advantages the colonisers had gained, allowed them to maintain their advantages.

The end result is the creation and exacerbation of political, social and economic inequalities and injustices across the world, which continue to exist to this day in various forms. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is a response to problems that have their roots in colonialism. As Egyptology does.

Knowledge. Egyptology, the acquisition of knowledge about Egypt’s ancient past (see below for more on the definition), was formalised by the colonialist nations. It has spread and promoted knowledge of ancient Egypt to western audiences but was developed in ways that ensured it would always be largely inaccessible to the people of Egypt and other countries outside the west.

Academic exclusivity. Egyptology is an academic pursuit which finds its principal expression in written form, mainly, to this day, in three European languages: English, French and German. The necessary literacy in these languages is more easily accessible outside Egypt. Egyptian scholars wishing to succeed in the study of their own country’s ancient past have to learn the Europeans’ language(s), not the other way around. Even for those students who are competent with the languages, access to the necessary literature is not easy: libraries in Egypt are not necessarily accessible to all and often not very well-stocked, and books are more expensive and harder to come by for Egyptians. Some scholarship is published in other languages including in Arabic, but realistically, any scholar wishing for their work to gain acceptance in international circles must publish in one of the three dominant languages, and ideally through an established journal or publishing house, almost all of which are also based in colonial countries.

Looted material remains. The excavation of the physical remains of Egypt’s past – the sites and monuments – particularly in the nineteenth century, was undertaken by colonialists eager to remove what they could for display in their own countries. Even though this process gradually slowed over time with the creation of a national antiquities service and institution of laws governing the removal of objects (it was halted completely in 1983), thousands of objects left the country and would never return. More importantly, perhaps, even those which remained in Egypt were kept in institutions controlled by colonialists, i.e. by the Antiquities Service, in the national museum collection. And even after the Service passed out of the hands of Europeans into the hands of Egyptians (1950s) it was still run according to the rules of a discipline – Egyptology – which continued to be practiced and led primarily outside Egypt.

Operating comfortably and securely in someone else’s country. Egyptology has, for more than a century, given many in colonialist nations a reason to be interested in, and to travel to, Egypt. Egyptologists, in sharing what they have learned about Egypt – through an ever-growing body of literature – have provided others in their countries with the skills to navigate the foreign country and culture of Egypt that has allowed thousands to contribute – however unwittingly – to the process of maintaining an undue influence there. In other words, the colonialist nations were able to take control of countries like Egypt initially perhaps by military force, but that control was subsequently strengthened in much subtler ways. By the late 19th century, British people, collectively, were generally richer than their Egyptian counterparts, more knowledgeable of other countries, languages and cultures, and able to enjoy the benefits of their countrymen having established institutions around the world that would provide them with the support and protection that would allow them to travel and experience others’ countries safely, comfortably and with confidence – providing further opportunities for their exploitation.

Egyptologists’ experiences and the accounts they shared – some of which might, if only in the incidental details, have prepared others to study or visit Egypt, while others were much more explicit in assisting potential visitors (see e.g. the guidebooks published by John Murray or Baedecker in the later nineteenth century, or those of John Gardner Wilkinson a few decades earlier) – did nothing to redress the injustices of colonialism, and everything to allow the injustices it created to be extended.

A familiarity with foreign countries and culture, acquired through an interest in archaeology etc, has often been used for advantage in other ways. For example, in the Second World War, many archaeologists and ancient historians were recruited by military intelligence because of their knowledge of the language, customs and geography of particular regions. On occasion, archaeological work has sometimes provided the cover for military reconnaissance work. And even today, archaeological expeditions remain a part of the ‘soft power’ efforts of former colonial countries wishing to retain influence even long after political control has long been formally relinquished. Was the British Academy’s sponsorship of foreign archaeological missions in the decades following the second world war a matter purely of interest in archaeology, or were their other purposes? These are important issues that we, as archaeologists and historians, should give more time to investigating critically.

So, back to my original question: How is the study of the ancient past in Egypt to continue in the future?

1. Should the name (Egyptology) be changed?

The word ‘Egyptology’ or at least ‘Egyptologist’ (‘Égyptologue’ in French) was coined in the nineteenth century to mean someone pursuing the study of Egypt, but specifically ancient Egypt. ‘Egyptologist’ is a somewhat nebulous term which can be applied to specialists with a variety of different skills; what they have in common is the application of their skills to the study of ancient Egypt, usually defined as the people and cultures of the territory of Egypt from the very earliest times to the Arab conquest, but usually no later. The discipline is therefore an ‘area specialism’ in keeping with other disciplines focussing on other ancient cultures from specific parts of the world, and is also limited by chronology. I’m struggling to think of any other discipline whose name implies no chronological boundaries when the reality is different. ‘Assyriology’ is the study of people and culture from a particular region, at a particular time in history, but the name derives from the ancient culture and bears no direct relation to any modern culture. Similarly, specialists in the ancient past of other places or cultures are referred to by descriptors which make it clear that it’s the ancient culture that’s under study. ‘Nubiology’ – the study of ancient Nubia – could perhaps be criticised on the same grounds as Egyptology (and perhaps therefore also falls into the category of disciplines that some argue need to be shut down entirely), but it is a much smaller and less-well known or celebrated field and its influence has been much less widespread. Egyptology, by contrast, as I wrote here recently, “has succeeded in spreading and promoting knowledge of this one aspect of Egypt’s past around the world, to the exclusion of the others. This has been highly successful, to the extent that there is now very widespread interest in pharaonic Egypt, to the detriment of the other parts of the country’s heritage.”

What alternative names might there be for the study specifically of Egypt’s ancient past? ‘Egyptian archaeology’ perhaps? It would perhaps be easier if we did not use the same names for the place and its people (Egypt / Egyptians) at all points in history, by contrast with other ancient cultures whose names are not those used in modern times (Assyria, Babylon, Inca). Perhaps this in itself is problematic. The word ‘Egypt’ come from the Greek ‘Aigyptos’ and was passed down to us through ancient Greek texts. It probably derives from the ancient Egyptian ‘hut-ka-Ptah’ – the name for the temple of Ptah, the major religious institution within the capital city of Memphis, a name which came to be used for the entire country. In any case it is not the name used by the people of the modern country. The name the modern Egyptian people use is ‘Misr’ which is the classical Arabic form of the older ‘Mizraim’, the name used in Hebrew, and Aramaic, a version of which was also used in earlier times in Neo-Babylonian, Assyrian and Ugaritic. There isn’t really an ancient name for the country and its people which could be used to distinguish those studying ancient Egypt from those studying any other aspect of the country.

But we’re digressing here, none of this is going to solve the problem here.

2. Should Egyptology be practiced in different way(s)?

I’m sure many Egyptologists would agree that study of the past in Egypt should be approached differently. But in what ways might any changes help address the challenge of decolonisation?

A different name? See above.

Do away with unhelpful chronological divisions (i.e. ‘pharaonic’, ‘Coptic’, ‘Islamic’)?

As I wrote in my earlier post on ‘Questions of National Identity’ “It is true that there has been an inappropriate / awkward / unhealthy divide between various different parts of Egyptian history, the divisions being chronological but also relating to a certain dynamic between indigenous Egyptian people and influence from outside: ‘pharaonic’ (pagan) = ‘Egyptian’; Ptolemaic (Graeco) -Roman, Coptic (Christian), Islamic = something different.”

The difficulty here is that there is simply too much to learn so it makes sense for the study of Egypt’s past to be divided into specialisms, and, interestingly, if you ignored the current divisions and started again I suspect you might end up splitting the subject along the same lines, as the divisions are not only chronological; they also involve religious beliefs, language, script, iconography, art and architecture – the study of each of which requires specific expertise / skills.

Nonetheless, providing more modern context for the study of ancient Egypt would probably be very helpful. It’s always seemed to me that historical topics are best explained and understood against the backdrop of the relevant chronology and geography (and associated terminology); perhaps the study of Egypt’s past should always at least begin with an overview of Egyptian history from the Predynastic to the modern day. Of course the later history of Egypt would inevitably allow for the teaching of the colonialism of Britain and other countries, and for the history of the discipline, and why it is problematic in its current form.

Return ancient Egyptian objects currently in museums and other collections outside Egypt?

Monuments remain in museums, the vast majority having left during the colonial era or decades following it.

Is this OK or not? The apologist’s thoughts on such things might include the following:

• They were bought out of Egypt a long time ago and there is no point in trying to reverse what is now history
• The biggest and best collections of Egyptian objects remain in Egypt, those outside act as ‘ambassadors’ advertising the glories of ancient Egypt
• Museums outside Egypt are better equipped to look after ancient objects than those in Egypt.

The last of these is particularly offensive – it’s plain incorrect, aside from being a massive generalisation – I only include it here in order to dismiss it, as this is a view one still occasionally hears.

Those who think it’s problematic that there are so many Egyptian objects in museums outside Egypt might argue the following:

• The objects were removed at a time when Egypt and the Egyptian people had no agency in the process; they were taken for the benefit of those taking them and their countries, to the detriment of Egypt, whose people had no recourse to prevent it from happening.

• The objects symbolise the domination of the countries in which they are displayed over Egypt;3 that they continue to be displayed suggests the domination continues (especially when there are accompanied by no information explaining the circumstances of their departure from Egypt4).

• The return of such objects to Egypt, even if only of a representative sample, would be a powerful symbol of the colonialist nations’ acceptance of the ills of colonialism, and that the problems it has caused continue to be very relevant today, and that positive action is required if the problems are going to be solved.

Stop doing archaeology

Those who have worked in the field in Egypt (myself included) will know that it is a curiously nationalistic pursuit even to this day. There are many archaeological projects run entirely by Egyptian archaeologists, most under the auspices of the government Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA), but some by universities. Other projects are referred to as ‘foreign missions’. Most are ‘international’ and involve the participation of, at the very least, the mandatory MoTA inspector, and very often Egyptian excavators, facilitators and others as well. In many cases though, teams are predominantly composed, at least in terms of the specialist, academically qualified members – archaeologists etc. – of participants from one particular country, leading to the team being described with reference to that particular country – ‘the British’, ‘the French’, ‘the German’, ‘the American’ and so on. Many such projects are sponsored by and/or operate under branches of the government of those countries, some of which have substantial permanent bases in Egypt, whose work in large part is to support such projects. The ‘foreign institutes’ include the French (IFAO), Germans (DAIK), Americans (ARCE), and so on. Some of these have their roots in the colonial era. Funding for these projects often comes directly from the governments concerned, and they are no doubt seen as symbols of national prestige and pride, and thus play an important part in the ‘soft power’ efforts of the foreign countries concerned, efforts designed to ensure the maintenance of the influence that, though diminished since the colonial era, remains in existence, and therefore, arguably, remains a part of the problematic legacy that needs to be addressed.

Return control of Egyptology to Egypt

The antiquities service – now the MoA – has been in the hands of Egyptian officials since the revolution of the 1950s finally ended British control of the country. As mentioned above, antiquities law has prevented any objects from leaving the country since 1983. The ministry has for many years now required foreign expeditions to include increasing numbers of Egyptian specialists as trainees and, increasingly, fully-fledged team members. Many expeditions and institutions have also provided training opportunities in Egypt, and opportunities to travel to Europe and elsewhere for study and research. I was grateful to have been able to a play a small part in this kind of thing while I was at the EES and subsequently, with The Robert Anderson Trust. The long term aim of all of this is to bring about a situation in which the greater part of the work in Egyptology is undertaken and led by Egyptian specialists.

—–

No doubt there are other aspects of Egyptology and practices employed by Egyptologists past or present, which could be considered problematic. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. This is a very complex debate, but it’s one we’ve got to have and I hope there are at least a few ideas here that might get people thinking. Do let me know via the comments below.

*Many thanks to Dr Will Carruthers (@w_carruthers) for inspiring this piece, and to Dr Kate Sheppard (@k8shep) for reading a draft and providing many useful comments and criticisms.

UPDATE 24 July:

I have now removed the word ‘Maya’ from the above list of “ancient cultures whose names are not those used in modern times” as the Maya language and other aspects of Maya culture continue to be practiced today.

I’d also like to add that a number of comments on the above have been posted to Twitter – to follow the discussion please see here.

NOTES:

1. The Society has recently taken very laudable steps to begin confronting its problematic past – see here.

2. This has recently been the subject of an important study, ‘Artefacts of Excavation’ led by Dr Alice Stevenson.

3. See Moser, S, Wondrous Curiosities. Ancient Egypt at the British Museum (London and Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006)

4. See Colla, E, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2008), especially his chapter on ‘Artefaction’.

Questions of National Identity. In response to, and support of, a recent EES seminar

Yesterday (12 June) I listened to a very interesting discussion hosted by the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) on the subject of “Good Archaeology, Bad Archaeologists?” (for discussion online see #EESUnpackingColonialism).

The talk began with a very frank and honest re-assessment, by the Society’s Director, Dr Carl Graves, of the EES’ work and place in history, focussing on the colonial context in which it began and has been operating, arguably, ever since. The EES is part of the wider problems that are part of the legacy of colonialism. So how should this be addressed?

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An image of Swiss Egyptologist, Edouard Naville, excavating the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri in in 1890s. Dr Carl Graves used the image in the webinar to illustrate the colonialist aspects of the EES’ work. Image ©EES and available via Flickr here.

Carl emphasised that in attempting to redress the situation the lead should be taken not by the anyone from the colonialist nations – to avoid compounding the problem of European / western domination and control – but by those from the colonised nations, in this case Egypt. And so, the audience was then treated to an excellent and very thought-provoking discussion led by Heba Abd el Gawad, an Egyptian Egyptologist (follow Heba and the discussion on Twitter, here).

Heba posed some very interesting questions about what should constitute Egyptian heritage. Carl had noted the view that ancient Egypt was seen by the west as part of its own heritage, whereas more modern (Arab, Muslim) Egypt was seen as being something different, ‘eastern’ and therefore ‘the other’.

It is true that there has been an inappropriate / awkward / unhealthy divide between various different parts of Egyptian history, the divisions being chronological but also relating to a certain dynamic between indigenous Egyptian people and influence from outside: ‘pharaonic’ (pagan) = ‘Egyptian’; Ptolemaic (Graeco) -Roman, Coptic (Christian), Islamic = something different.

Egyptology – a discipline spawned, practiced and mastered by the west (a situation that largely obtains to this day) – focusses mainly (albeit not exclusively) on the first of these, and has succeeded in spreading and promoting knowledge of this one aspect of Egypt’s past around the world, to the exclusion of the others. This has been highly successful, to the extent that there is now very widespread interest in pharaonic Egypt, to the detriment of the other parts of the country’s heritage.

As an example, as noted in the discussion, the ‘Egyptian collection’ in most archeological museums focusses only on pharaonic objects, and few contain much if anything from later periods. Similarly, organised tours to Egypt focus on ancient monuments but pay little attention to other aspects of the country’s heritage or more modern identity.

(Incidentally, as someone who has often worked in the tourist industry in Egypt, it seems to me that Egypt may be inadvertently complicit in this. Most tourism is industrial in scale with large numbers accommodated in large, luxurious hotels, conveyed around the country in big air-conditioned buses, and shepherded around the sites in large groups. Tourists are otherwise encouraged to stay in their hotels including in the evenings when they might otherwise take the opportunity to explore the streets and find a local restaurant or shops, and not to explore the cities and towns they might be staying in. Some attending the webinar commented that when they had had the opportunity to explore the streets in Egypt they had enjoyed it very much. The authorities may feel that large groups provide the best return financially, and/or are easier to control when they can be kept within hotels and buses in their groups. But this encourages a separation from the real, modern day Egypt – which has very much to offer of course – and the fantasy that the country is all about ancient sites with perhaps a waiter in a tarbush to reinforce a few colonial ideals.)

Heba set out to confront this issue, showing a series of images of Egypt which challenge the stereotypes. Are images of sparkling white laundry, shop-window displays of lingerie, or an ancient figure carrying a gas cylinder, representative of Egypt? Yes.

The question here seems to be one of national identity. How should Egypt present itself? This is not a question for me to answer, except to say that history and heritage, of course, have a significant role to play.

(On the identity that Egypt may wish to construct, however, I note that several large sculptures (an obelisk from Tanis and series of sphinxes from Karnak) have recently been erected in Tahrir Square, the location of the current national collection of antiquities (until the Grand Egyptian Museum takes its place when it opens next year), but also the focus of the protests that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and numerous expressions of protest in the years that followed.)

Meanwhile, in the UK…

Questions of national identity are also relevant to my own country of course. The news here is currently dominated by stories of the protests connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the demand for a fairer and more tolerant society in which everyone is treated equally, regardless of their ethnicity or any other aspect of their personal history and heritage. As part of the protest, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, which had stood in the centre of Bristol since 1895 was pulled down by activists and thrown in the river Avon. Sadly, the suggestion of local artist, Banksy, that the statue be re-erected but only as part of a lasting image of its toppling, is not to be taken up, I gather.

There has been a backlash against this, most notably from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who argues that removing statues is tantamount to trying to alter or censor history (see his tweets, here). His argument is crashingly naïve. The existence of statues, and their erection, placement and maintenance, is not an unbiased record of historical events. They reflect a story which someone has chosen to tell. Someone chose to celebrate these individuals and their actions (and not those of others). The choice to create, erect and find a place (usually somewhere suitably prominent of course) was made in the past, but keeping them there is a choice also. It says, ‘this was the story we wanted to tell then, and it remains the story we want to tell now.’

The question for us, then, as it is in Egypt, is, ‘what are the stories we want to tell?’. The story of someone like Edward Colston is very important in 2020 but not because he is someone we should celebrate, but someone whose activities we now consider despicable and a lesson for all humankind in how not to do things. That story is not best told by exhibiting a statue of him in a prominent public position – such images are intended, and understood, to depict people whose achievements should be celebrated, or events that have changed history in a positive way.

Knowledge and understanding of the past could not be more important in this, and it is incumbent on those of us who have some expertise in the field to try to ensure that we take the opportunity to help move society forwards. Subject specialisms might not necessarily be directly relevant to the issues of the day, but Egyptology is, as noted above, essentially a colonialist pursuit in its origins at least, and I was pleased to see that John P Cooper (someone who may be familiar to anyone reading this page from his work on the Nile and navigation in the medieval period, and the recipient of an EES Centenary Award a few years ago), had contributed powerfully to the debate on the urgent need for colonialism and empire – warts and all – to be taught to all children in British schools, in a letter to The Guardian recently (here).

What aspects of our history might inform our national identity now? One that is more inclusive, fair, tolerant, aware of the failures of the past, of our part in some of the ills of the world, and how we have profited from the kind of actions what we could never now, in good conscience, repeat?

A big thank you to the EES, Carl Graves, Stephanie Boonstra and Heba Abd el Gawad for such a thought-provoking discussion and for bravely tackling such difficult and sometimes divisive issues. There’s a lot for us all to learn and this fascinating and important conversation will no doubt continue for a long time. Be sure to be a part of it via #EESUnpackingColonialism, @GawadHeba, @excavatedegypt and
Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage – آثارنا المتغربة.

Online Lectures – Beyond the Lockdown…

I began giving lectures online shortly after the current lockdown began, initially as part of the wonderful EES series, and have been doing so independently since.

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Title slide for the second of my online talks, on the period ‘After Akhenaten’. almost 700 people registered for the three performances of this one.

I had initially thought they would provide a welcome distraction for me, and perhaps a few others if anyone was interested in listening in, but they’ve proven to be much more successful than I could have imagined. Lots of people have been in touch to say how much they have enjoyed them, and to ask if they will continue after the lockdown. I hadn’t thought that far ahead… One benefit of doing things online is that they’re accessible to anyone with an internet connection, regardless of where in the world they are, which is far more people than could ordinarily travel to lectures on ancient Egypt. So I can reach more people online than I could via traditional lectures. I can also direct people straight to other resources online – things they can read if they want to take their interest further etc. (see, for example, the page of links relating to my talk on ‘People at Amarna’) Ironically, despite the fact that participants in an online lecture are separated from one another, sometimes by thousands of miles – I have been amazed at the number of countries and cities represented by people joining in! – there is a strong sense of togetherness and even community beginning to form, now that attending such talks has become regular event for many. It had never occurred to me how enjoyable it would be to be in touch with some many people in so many places, some near to me in London, some very far away, some familiar to me, others not. To be able to chat to people all of whom share a passion for Egyptology, before and after the lectures, whether it’s about the weather where they are are or where I am, or on the true identity of pharaoh Neferneferuaten, it’s been a joy, and I see no reason why it would not continue to be as enjoyable even after we are all allowed out again.

So, I’m now hoping to be able to carry on with the lectures, and a few other activities online, whether we’re in lockdown or not. In order to ensure I can cover the costs of my Zoom subscription (and my time!) there will be a small charge to attend some of the lectures in future. I’m not doing this to make a fortune, I just want to be able to carry on doing what I’m doing. I hope charging won’t put too many people off and that some of you at least will still want to join me for the next few talks. The details are here; I’ll be updating the page regularly as I’m ready to add new topics and dates.

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Next online lecture: SEARCHING FOR IMHOTEP (3 and 8 June)

Thanks for reading this, thanks to all of you who have joined the talks so far, and an especially big thank you to those who have made contributions via the ‘Support my work’ page – I’ve been really touched and encouraged by the response to this, and determined to find a way of carrying on my online activities. I hope to see you at another talk soon, or elsewhere online!

Very best wishes, stay safe and well,
Chris

Ethiopia 2021

I’m absolutely delighted to announce that I’ll be visiting the ancient sites of Ethiopia with Ancient World Tours (AWT) in 2021. Further information including the itinerary are available here.

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I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egypt’s relationship to other cultures and it was my interest in Egypt’s 25th Dynasty – the period when Egypt was ruled by the kings of Kush and on which my PhD was based – that led me to their visit the remains of their great kingdom in Sudan with AWT in 2018 and again in 2019.

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The pyramids of the Northern Cemetery, Meroë, Sudan.

Discover Ethiopia‘ is intended as a continuation of AWT’s exploration of the lands to the south of Egypt. Ethiopia takes its name from the Greek ‘Aethiopia’ meaning ‘burnt face’ and was the name given in ancient times to various groups living in the territories to the south of Egypt, including the Kushites.

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Kushite kings. The cache of statues discovered at Kerma in 2003.

Over the course of more than a thousand years, while Egypt suffered repeated invasions and was taken over not only by the Kushites but groups of Libyans, Assyrians, Persians and ultimately Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies and the Romans, Kush remained independent. It was eventually supplanted by another great African power, Axum, whose capital lies in modern Ethiopia.

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The throne hall of the Kings of Makuria at the site of their capital, Old Dongola, Sudan.

The Kushite kingdom came to be divided between three successor states, Nobadia, Makuria and Alodia, all of which eventually converted to Christianity, as did Axum. Having seen a little of the ancient Christian kingdoms of Sudan, I’m curious to know more about Axum and also how it and the land we now call Ethiopia, the mark Christianity left in the archaeological record at sites like Lalibela and in the place reputed to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant…

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If you think you might be interested in coming along please read on here!

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Searching for Smenkhkare

My book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt came out in paperback yesterday, and I’m just beginning to think about going back to Egypt looking for ‘missing tombs’ with a fourth group this October. One of the individuals I talk about in Chapter 3 is a little-known pharaoh called Smenkhkare. He (or perhaps she…?) was a pharaoh of the Amarna Period and probably ruled either towards the end of Akhenaten’s reign as a co-regent, or after Akhenaten’s death as his successor (whether immediate or not).

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Looking out across the desert plain where once Akhenaten’s capital city stood, taken from the area of the North Tombs

This pharaoh’s name is absent from all the kinglists however, and only came to light for the first time in the early nineteenth century in tomb no. 2 at Amarna, which belonged to a high official, Meryre (ii), the ‘Overseer of the Royal Harem of the Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti’.

The tomb is to be found among the northern group at the site (more info via The Amarna Project here), and preserves a number of important scenes showing Akhenaten ‘at home’, the tomb owner being rewarded by Akhenaten, Akhenaten receiving tribute from representatives of a number of foreign groups, and, most importantly for us here, the tomb owner being rewarded by Smenkhkare.

Egyptologists today still rely on the six volume series The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna by Norman de Garis Davies, the definitive publication of the decoration in the tombs. By the time de Garis Davies visited tomb no. 2 in the early twentieth century the scene had been badly damaged by robbers and the cartouches identifying the royal figures in the scene in question had been lost.

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de Garis Davies’ image the scene of Meryre being rewarded by Smenkhkare and Meritaten. The cartouches (oval shapes enclosing royal names) of the king were originally present at the top right of the scene where de Garis Davies shows a large damaged area. Davies, N de Garis, The Rock Tombs of El-Amarna Part II. The Tombs of Panehesy and Meryra ii (Archaeological Survey of Egypt 14; London, The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1905) 

Fortunately, however, the great expedition of Karl Richard Lepsius had visited the tomb in the summer of 1845 and copied the decoration before this vandalism had occurred.

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The cartouches as they appeared in Lepsius’ monumental publication: Lepsius, C R Denkmaeler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien III, pl. 99a (Berlin, 1849-59)

The two largest cartouches, at the left hand end, are those of Akhenaten’s god, the Aten. They are read from top to bottom, right to left as follows: ‘Re, ruler of the two horizons, who rejoices in the Horizon, in his name of light, which is the Aten’ which is the later of two versions of the Aten’s full name. Of the other three smaller cartouches, that at the left, and the one in the centre are the names of Smenkhkare, the larger of the two figures in the centre of the scene. They are read from top to bottom, left to right: ‘The King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Ankhkheperure, the son of Re, Smenkhkare Djeserkheperu’. The cartouche at the far right relates to the smaller of the two figures and reads ‘the Great Royal Wife, Meritaten.’

Although it’s possible that the figures had originally been carved as representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti the cartouches make it clear that they were eventually intended to represent two different individuals.

Smenkhkare: male or female?

Since the tomb was recorded a number of further inscriptions with Smenkhkare’s name have come to light but it all amounts to relatively little, which seems strange given the Meryra scene makes it clear that this individual was Pharaoh of Egypt. We don’t know whether he reigned alongside or after Akhenaten, and the picture has been confused by the presence of the throne-name ‘Ankhkheperure’ in a number of inscriptions but as part of a longer, different royal name from that in the tomb of Meryra, which seems to have belonged to a female pharaoh. This other name included the element ‘Neferneferuaten’ which is known to have been a name held by Akhenaten’s famous queen, Nefertiti. For many, this makes for a straightforward conclusion: Smenkhkare was simply another name used by Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten/Nefertiti, and Smenkhkare was therefore a woman.

More recently however, as the evidence has been further scrutinised, many have come to conclude that there were in fact two individuals who both used the throne name ‘Ankhkheperure’, one called Smenkhkare who was male, and another called Neferneferuaten who was female.

Of course in this case the scene in the tomb of Meryra ii makes much more sense: the image gives no indication that Smenkhkare was not male and the presence of pharaoh’s wife at his side otherwise takes a bit of explaining.

Visiting the tomb

I have been lucky enough to visit the North tombs at Amarna on several occasions in the last few years. The tombs are by no means all open to visitors; no. 2 is not among those that are regularly visited by tourists but on a recent trip I decided I had to do everything possible to see it and with the help of some friends and a very helpful guardian, I did. I thought we’d be able to walk there but that’s not how it’s done. Here’s what happened…

Once I realised what it was going to take to get there I understood why he was initially so reluctant. As you’ll see from the video the tomb lies a short motorbike ride away from the main group of tombs in the north, and at the top of a steep pathway which has been made a little easier in modern times by the installation of some steps, but is still a bit of an effort in the heat. The guardian started coughing at one point as we hiked upwards, getting slower with every step. “Enta kwayis?” (“Are you alright?”) I asked him. “Tammam” (“OK”) he said, and then “Cigaretta” – blaming his cough on the smoking not the climbing – which made me laugh.

I knew the scene had been badly damaged more than a century ago and didn’t expect to see very much but I hoped I might be able to make out the odd trace of what Lepsius, de Garis Davies and others had seen. There is almost nothing however. The rays of the Aten above the two figures were visible (see – if you squint perhaps – below), and perhaps with better lighting and more time it might have been possible to make more out, but in the circumstances it looked to me as though almost everything else had gone.

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The pillared hall in the tomb of Meryre ii. The wall which once bore images of Smenkhkare and Meritaten lies beyond and inbetween the two pillars in the image on the left; the wall itself is on the right. Can you see the Aten’s rays at the top?

What a shame. Without the scene having been seen and recorded in the mid-1800s our knowledge of Smenkhkare would be so much poorer. And had de Garis Davies been the first to see it, the cartouches having been removed, he would probably have concluded that the figures were those of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, no different from the vast majority of the others at Amarna. It has come to be one of the most iconic scenes for the study of the period, and now it’s gone. A useful reminder perhaps that our knowledge of the ancient past can be transformed by a single piece of evidence. We must be thankful for what we’ve got, but how much more might there once have been?

Another copyist, and a new book…

Incidentally, since I first drafted this piece a few months ago I’ve been working on a new book which tells the story of the history of archaeology and discovery in Egypt through a series of ‘Egyptologists’ Notebooks’. While looking at the glorious, unpublished drawings of the Scottish explorer Robert Hay I decided to see if he had copied the cartouches of Smenkhkare and Meritaten in tomb no. 2 when he visited in 1827, almost two decades before Lepsius. The tombs at Amarna had only recently come to the attention of western explorers in 1824 when they had been ‘discovered’ by the pioneering English Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson. In fact Hay, who had arrived in Egypt the same year and was a close friend of Gardner Wilkinson’s, was very annoyed that the existence of the tombs was only revealed to him three years later when their mutual friend, James Burton took him there: “this piece of knowledge has been kept a secret, and has been guarded with as much care as ever miser watched and fondled the largest treasure ever told!”

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A page of copies and notes made by Robert Hay during his visit to Amarna in 1827 and now in the British Library (Add MS 29847 f63). His copy of the cartouches of Smenkhkare and Meritaten from the tomb of Meryra ii are in the bottom right hand corner (see also below).

Although Hay and the artists he worked with were excellent copyists it seems they couldn’t see the signs as well as Lepsius’ team could – the coronation name Ankhkheperure is clear but the birth name, Smenkhkare and Meritaten’s name are not. Lepsius was one of the great pioneers of the study of the ancient Egyptian language and had the advantage of a much better understanding of Hieroglyphs than Hay could have had at a time when Champollion’s system of decipherment had only just been announced and was still only at a fairly rudimentary stage.

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Detail of the cartouches from the Hay manuscript. The cartouches of the Aten, and name Ankhkheperure are clear, but those of Smenkhkare Djeserkheperu and Meritaten were clearly already damaged by this time. There was obviously enough remaining for Lepsius’ team to have read the names in full however. Interestingly, this was one of few pages in the massive Hay archive that had already been photographed digitally when I looked at them in June 2019 so I obviously wasn’t the first to take in interest in Hay’s record of this inscription – no surprises there!

Read more

You can be read more about Smenkhkare, Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten and Nefertiti and where they might have been buried in Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt – order your copy via Amazon or (in the UK) from your local bookshop via Hive.co.uk.

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Searching for the tomb of Imhotep

In April 2015, when I was in the early stages of writing Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, I took a little field trip to Saqqara to look for the tomb of a man who, legend has it, was the architect of the first pyramid, a man who became a god and gave his name to a Hollywood bad guy. I was going to look for the tomb of Imhotep.

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Imhotep in deified form, temple of Hathor, Deir el-Medina

I had no expectation of finding it of course – a lot of better qualified people have spent much longer than a day trip would allow trying and failing to do so, but I wanted at least to go and have a look at the northern part of the site where, for various reasons, his tomb is thought to have been. The trouble is much of the evidence is completely invisible on the surface, buried under the sand.

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Wandering across the North Saqqara plateau

I was looking for several very large Third Dynasty mastabas in and around the area of the Sacred Animal Necropolis (SAN) which was discovered by Bryan Emery on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society (EES) in the 1960s and, though little known despite its importance, is visible.

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Image of the EES excavations at North Saqqara in the 1960s, looking north west towards the pyramids of Abusir. Courtesy of The Egypt Exploration Society

‘Mastaba’ is the Arabic word for the kind of platform or bench commonly found to this day outside Egyptian houses, where members of the household sit to while away the day or to chat. It’s also the name given by Egyptologists to a particular kind of tomb with a superstructure of roughly the same cuboid shape but on a much larger scale. These evolved out of the simple mounds overlying shallow tombs that constituted the earliest monumental burials in Egypt. By the time of Imhotep and his king, Djoser, in the early Third Dynasty, the grandest were giant, rectangular mudbrick buildings rising to ten metres in height and over fifty metres in length, and incorporating numerous chambers and little niches where offerings could be placed and rituals performed. The bigger the mastaba, the wealthier or more important the individual buried there, we assume.

The largest of a group of five such monuments at Beit Khallaf in Middle Egypt gives you a good idea of the size and shape. There are dozens and dozens like this at Saqqara, some completely unexcavated. There’s an awful lot you can see when you go to the site, but there’s an awful lot more that you can’t.

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Mastaba K1 at Beit Khallaf

I wanted to go and get closer to some of the things you can’t see, which I also suspected wouldn’t be well-known even to the local inspectorate, so it was obvious that I was going to have to give some thought to how I was going to find what I was looking for. In the event the trip led my was very good fun even it led my two companions to think I was crazy; more importantly it enabled me to take several photos that eventually made their way into the book, and so I thought it might be worth explaining what I did.

Technical preparations (WARNING: the next part’s a bit geeky)

My idea was this: if I could take a smart phone or other GPS-enabled device I thought I ought be able to walk out into a featureless desert and still have some idea of where I was. Furthermore, if that device had a data connection and was able to display my location on a satellite image or map, and if that map could be annotated with the position of the monuments I was looking for, I would be able to say when I’m standing on the spot (as in ‘X marks…’) even if nothing was visible on the surface.

So, first of all, I spent a day or so in the library at the EES poring over the published archaeological maps, then staring with equal intensity at Google Earth to see which, if any, of the main archaeological features at Saqqara I could see on the satellite images. I also did the same thing in reverse, looking for archaeological features in the satellite images and trying to identify them on the maps. To my delight the main temple area of the Sacred Animal Necropolis showed up very well, which was exciting in itself: the SAN is one of the most important sites in the EES’ history – I was Director of the Society at the time – and yet it’s well away from the parts of the site that are frequented by visitors and I had never been. I knew that two of the most important mastabas for my search, numbers 3510 and 3518, lay in the same area. One, 3518, was very visible in the satellite images so I was able to drop a virtual pin onto that location; 3510 was totally invisible however.

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Satellite image annotated with the approximate locations of various archaeological features (as far as I could identify them…). Explore the map here

The structures that weren’t visible, at least not clearly, were more of a challenge. In those cases I had to improvise. It wasn’t the most scientific of methods but I came up with the idea of re-sizing the satellite image to the same scale as that of the published maps, and then, using the scale given on the latter, measuring the distance from something visible on both, e.g. SAN, to the mastaba I wanted to locate, and transposing the invisible line between the two from the printed map to the satellite image. I then dropped another virtual pin onto the satellite image at the appropriate spot, having again squinted even harder at it this time looking for suspiciously rectangular shadows. Not the most accurate way of doing things perhaps but I thought it would give me a decent chance of identifying any vaguely visible mudbrick on the ground that might have been part of what I was after. I also knew that in case where there really wasn’t anything visible at all, precise accuracy wouldn’t be that helpful anyway, as there still wouldn’t be anything to see, but knowing I was in the right area, close perhaps, would be enough.

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My somewhat unsophisticated(…) way of transposing now disappeared monuments marked on paper maps onto a satellite map on my laptop screen

The result of all of this was the map you’ll find here, and this is what I took with me to Saqqara. Once I arrived in Egypt, however, I realised there would be a few further technical obstacles to overcome. Firstly, for some reason, maps like this one, although created in Google Maps via a web browser, could not at the time be viewed in the Google Maps app for iOS, meaning I would not, as I had hoped, be able to open the map on my iPhone / iPad and simply watch myself as a blue dot wandering towards the virtual pins on the map. In order to track my movements I would instead need to open the map in a web browser, which would allow me to see where I was in relation to any landmarks visible in the standard version of Google Maps, but not my custom map with the important locations marked. I decided the best I could do would be to take screen grabs of the annotated map while online, and then flick between the two – Google Maps to see where I was, and the screen grabs for comparison with the location of the archaeological features once I knew I was in the right area. Then of course I could start to look for evidence of the features on the ground – any mud brick peeping through to the surface etc.

As a backup, I also bought a GPS unit for my camera which I had hoped would allow me to pinpoint my exact location of each photo I had taken once I was back at my desk. On-site I would use my iPad (bigger screen than an iPhone, easier to see though not that easy in very bright, direct sunlight…) to get me as close as possible, and the location of the photos to check once I was back at home and online.

To the site

And so, in April 2015 I set off for Saqqara with Essam Nagy of the EES’ Cairo Office. On arrival we were warmly welcomed by colleagues from the local Ministry of Antiquities inspectorate. Mohamed Youssef Morsy showed us an Archaic Period mastaba close to the southern end of the North Saqqara plateau which he had recently excavated. Following this another member of the inspectorate, Tamer Radwan, accompanied us on our mission to try to find the locations I was looking for.

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Mohamed Youssef Morsy who showed me the site of his recent excavations

A number of the archaic mastabas are still very visible along the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Nile Valley, which was very encouraging.

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One of the Archaic mastabas still visible along the escarpment edge, overlooking the Nile Valley

Wandering northwards across the desert, the Main Temple Complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis was easy enough to find which was quite a thrill.

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The main temple complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis

This would have been a very sizeable and busy area devoted to the maintenance of the cults of various gods in the form of sacred animals – ibises, baboons, falcons, cows and others – mummified examples of which were buried in huge numbers by visitors hoping to gain the favour of these deities, in the vast network of catacombs the ancients cut out of the bedrock underneath the plateau. Emery’s excavations revealed not only the catacombs, mummies, and temple area but a vast quantity of material shedding light on all aspects of life from the Late and Ptolemaic Periods during which the site was in use. Despite the importance of the site it is little known and hardly receives any visitors now, which added to the thrill of course.

Mastaba 3518 is quite close to the Main Temple Complex and was also quite easy to see, a huge mass of mudbrick emerging from the sands.

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The remains of Emery’s mastaba 3518, emerging from the sands

I was much more reliant on the satellite maps to locate 3510 but I was satisfied that I had come close enough to this one and two further mastabas which it has been claimed may be potential candidates for Imhotep’s tomb but are totally invisible having only ever been spotted in an image of subsurface remains produced by a geophysical survey carried out in the early 2000s.

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Attempting to locate mastaba 3508 of which nothing appeared to be visible on the surface. Bright sunshine made viewing the satellite maps a little difficult…

The brief survey complete, Essam and I took the opportunity to visit ‘beit Emery’ the house built by the great excavator and continued to be used by EES teams until it was passed over the Ministry of Antiquities for use as a storage facility a few years ago.

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Essam outside ‘beit Emery’ the house built by the great archaeologist in which he lived during his ‘quest for Imhotep’

Along the way we found some of the light-gauge railway cars he and other archaeologists used to carry vast quantities of debris away from their excavations. They were just dumped near the house he and later EES teams lived in, and had started to disappear beneath the drift sand, rapidly becoming yet another layer of the history of the site.

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The full story of Emery’s ‘quest for Imhotep’ forms the first chapter of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt which will be published by Thames and Hudson on 11 October 2018 (pre-order here). The photos I took during the trip are here (Facebook), and displayed with their precise positions on the map, here (Google Maps).

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More on that black sarcophagus and the GOLD inside…

Just a quick update following my previous post on the black sarcophagus discovered in Alexandria in July (2018). The results of the first investigations into the three skeletons discovered when the sarcophagus was opened on 19 July* have now been made available. They represent the bodies of a young woman of perhaps 20 to 25 years, and two men, one who died in his 30s, and the other in his 40s (as reported e.g. in ahramonline and The Indepenedent). The elder man’s skull exhibits a round cavity which seemed to have healed over prior to death, and may be evidence of trepanation.

Perhaps more interestingly (I’m not a specialist in human remains) the sarcophagus did, it turns out, contain a little ‘treasure’ after all, in the form of a gold object of uncertain type, and three gold plaques, roughly square in shape measuring 3 to 5 cm across.

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The four gold objects discovered inside the sarcophagus. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from ahramonline.

Each of the plaques is decorated with a simple motif in low relief, apparently applied using the repoussé technique (hammering the design from the reverse side). One appears to show the pod of an opium poppy, the second something like a palm frond or perhaps an ear of corn (as suggested via LiveScience), while the third shows a coiled snake. It has been proposed (here) that the designs relate to military rank, but the snake immediately put me in mind of the agathodaimons – beneficent snake demons – flanking the entranceway to the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa. The iconography isn’t quite the same but it’s an interesting connection with perhaps the best known tomb in Alexandria.

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Entranceway to the burial chamber in the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa, flanked by coiled agathodaimons

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Detail of the agathodaimon to the right of the entrance to the burial chamber of the main tomb at Kom es-Shoqafa

*Mea culpa: I should have mentioned that that brilliant source of information on new discoveries made in Egypt, Luxor Times, posted a wonderful series of photographs showing all the stages in the opening of the sarcophagus here. The insertion of wooden wedges in between the sarcophagus basin and lid to prize it open put me in mind of a favourite object of mine: the mallet left behind by robbers in Mastaba 17 (Fourth Dynasty, reign of Sneferu) at Meydum. No improvement in technique required in over four thousand years…

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The black sarcophagus lid being wedged open. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from Luxor Times.

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Sarcophagus in mastaba 17 at Meydum with its lid partially displaced by robbers, one end raised on top of a mallet which was inserted to help roll the lid back

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The robber’s mallet still trapped in between the sarcophagus basin and lid. #redhanded

You’ll find more on the opening of tombs, robberies etc in my book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, which will be out in October. For more info or to pre-order please go here.

That black sarcophagus in Alexandria

On 1 July 2018 the Egyptian ministry of Antiquities announced that it had found “an ancient tomb dating back to the Ptolemaic period (containing) a black granite sarcophagus considered to be the largest to be discovered in Alexandria. … the tomb was found at a depth of 5 m beneath the surface … An alabaster head of a man was also found and most probably belongs to the owner of the tomb.” This is the full announcement:

The discovery of a previously unknown ancient tomb in Egypt is not that uncommon. Scroll back through the Ministry of Antiquities’ Facebook page (here) which it uses to circulate regular reports about its activities and you will see brief reports on numerous such discoveries made in recent weeks and months. Highlights include the revelation of the tomb of Ramesses II’s army general, another belonging to a Goldsmith, the pyramid of a Thirteenth Dynasty princess, and even a workshop where the bodies of the recently deceased were mummified. Just this week it was announced that the burial chambers of two high officials of the Middle Kingdom had been found at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. Egyptian archaeology can sometimes seem relentlessly thrilling.

The fact that the discovery of the black sarcophagus was made in Alexandria piqued my curiosity more than most such stories however, as I have recently been writing about the possibility that the tombs of two of the most famous figures in the ancient world might yet be awaiting us in this part of the world: Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

Alexandria

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The main harbour in Alexandria. The remains of some of the most important monuments of the era of the Ptolemies and Cleopatra have been found beneath the ocean here

When the archaeology of this great ancient city has been the focus of media interest in recent years it is usually because of discoveries made underwater. Many of the most important monuments of ancient times were built along the Mediterranean shoreline, and then destroyed when, in 365 CE, an Earthquake lowered the level of the sea floor by several metres, inviting the ocean to flood anything that had been built too close to the water’s edge. This new discovery was made on dry land however. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the find was described by the Ministry as follows:

“It is noted that there is a layer of mortar between the lid and the body of the sarcophagus indicating that it had not been opened since it was closed in antiquity.”

Whoever had been buried in this sarcophagus was, it seemed, still in there, undisturbed.

Archetypal Archaeology

It seems to me that intact ancient Egyptian tombs are the archetypal archaeological discovery, at least as far as the popular imagination is concerned. Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun represents the ultimate, real life example (although pedants will note that in fact that tomb wasn’t quite intact, having been entered shortly after the burial and the contents slightly disturbed), and the inspiration for countless fictional discoveries since, from the setting for the start of various The Mummy movies, and (how could I fail to mention) the opening to the classic Dr Who story, The Pyramids of Mars, among many other films etc.

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Professor Marcus Scarman enters an ancient Egyptian tomb at the beginning of the Dr Who serial Pyramids of Mars © BBC 1975.

This new tomb in Alexandria was never going to be quite like that however. In this case, it was not the tomb – which seems to have been composed of a shaft of 5m depth, and not much more – but the sarcophagus, that was intact.

More clues?

I’m often asked to provide comment on news stories like this for television and radio. To be honest it can be quite difficult to add anything very insightful because we specialists usually have little more to go on than the very sketchy information provided in the press. We are accustomed in our own research to referring to far more detailed reports and it often feels a little unnerving being asked to comment publicly without knowing more. But that’s how it works, and we do our best.

Based on the information provided, directly or indirectly by the Ministry’s statement and the photos and press reports that followed, my assessment was as follows:

The tomb seemed to consist of a simple, if quite large shaft, rectangular in plan and of 5m in depth, but not much more. This was undecorated (as shafts usually are).

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Image of the shaft (at bottom right) taken from a video posted to The Guardian online via YouTube (here). This photo does a better job than most in circulation of showing why it is so difficult to recover much of the archaeological evidence of ancient Alexandria: the ancient city now lies underneath the very densely populated modern city. This shaft came to light when one of the local inhabitants was excavating the foundations of a modern building. It’s very likely that there is still much more underneath other buildings like the ones shown here.

The shaft was found in Al Karmeli Street in the Sidi Gaber district to the north east of the main harbour, a little way outside the area we believe the major royal buildings of the Ptolemaic Period to have been located.

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Satellite image of Alexandria showing the location of the black sarcophagus (the green pin). To explore this Google Map of the location of key ancient sites go here.

We were told that the burial was thought to date from the Ptolemaic Period (323 – 30 BCE). This seemed reasonable to me. The burial couldn’t have been made much earlier than this: Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE on an earlier, much smaller settlement called Rhakotis, but didn’t really take shape until building got underway during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter (reigned 323–283 BCE) and his son and successor Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BCE). This shaft burial was very unlikely to have been older than the Ptolemaic therefore.

The sarcophagus itself may have been a little older however. It was made of a black granite, a hard and expensive stone, and was very large indeed (265 cm in length). Its lid is of a common Late Period (26th – 30th Dynasty) type. While the underside is flat so as to sit flush on top of the sarcophagus basin beneath, its upper surface reaches a greater height at the head end so that in profile it slopes upwards. Looking down onto the lid one sees a central column which from left to right is horizontal to the ground, but either side of this the surfaces slope downwards, so that on end the lid takes on a trapezoid shape, like a pitched roof with a flat central section. The head end of the lid is curved.

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Image of the sarcophagus lid still in place in the shaft. Copyright Ministry of Antiquities, taken from the announcement here.

These features correspond to other well-known sarcophagus lids. A quick (if unscientific) search of museum collections online and my own photo collection provided a few comparable examples, including these ones:

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Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the sarcophagus of Wereshnefer, Dynasty 30–early Ptolemaic Period, from the tomb of Wereshnefer, Saqqara. Further info and more images here.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the sarcophagus of Wennefer, Dynasty 30–2nd Persian Period, from the tomb of Wennefer, Saqqara. Further info and more images here.

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Sarcophagus of an Apis bull bearing an inscription of year 2 of pharaoh Khabash, a rebel who led a revolt against the second wave of Persian oppressors in approximately 338 to 335 BCE. In situ in the Serapeum at Saqqara.

All of these are dated approximately to the Late Period i.e. the period around or immediately before Alexandria was created.

So how could a Late Period sarcophagus end up being used for a Ptolemaic-era burial? There is a simple explanation: sarcophagi such as this would have been extremely expensive, and only the very wealthiest would have been able to afford to commission a new one of their own. There are, unsurprisingly therefore, lots of examples of sarcophagi such as this having been re-used. In this case it’s not difficult to imagine that the sarcophagus was made during the Late Period but was perhaps abandoned and then re-appropriated at a later date, perhaps bought for a knock-down price from the quarry or workshop where it was cut, and transferred to Alexandria after it had come into being as Egypt’s capital. The abandonment might also explain another of the features of this particular sarcophagus: it was undecorated. This is a great shame as any inscriptions would probably have provided the name of the owner and perhaps a little information about him or her. Even better, a name might have allowed us to connect the deceased with sources elsewhere, allowing us to flesh out their story.

So who was buried inside this sarcophagus?

It seemed that only by opening it would we be able to find out. What was revealed turned out not to be quite what everyone was hoping for. The Ministry of Antiquities’ announcement was as follows:

While the sarcophagus may have been intact insofar as it hadn’t been violated by robbers it seems the mortar seal had not been sufficient to prevent the ingress of dirty water from a nearby leaky sewage pipe. All that was left inside apart from a pool of stinking red-brown water, were the skeletal remains of three separate individuals who, it has been suggested may have been soldiers, owing to one of them exhibiting signs of having suffered an arrow wound to the head.

Whether there will be more to learn about who these people were, beyond their gender, age, cause of death and perhaps their relationship to one another, remains to be seen.

Not the tomb of Alexander the Great … So where was he buried?

One thing we can be fairly clear about now is that this was not, contrary to suggestions made by some observers, the tomb of Alexander the Great. It seems likely there was some great monument built to house the body of this great figure, it was probably in Alexandria, and it’s never been found so it’s perhaps not surprising that any discovery of a monumental tomb in the city would prompt such speculation.

Writing a book called Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt as I have been for the last couple of years has turned out not to be great for my nerves, given the frequency with which new tombs are found. Every time a new discovery is announced I get a sinking feeling: what if they find one of the tombs that my book says are currently missing but might soon be discovered?

In this case, fortunately, I knew I had no need to worry. A number of classical texts tell us that Alexander was, ultimately, laid to rest in a mausoleum in Alexandria known as the ‘Sema’ or ‘Soma’ a very grand monument built to house not only his burial but also those of his successors, the Ptolemies. This great edifice was built during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 BCE) and was still standing at least a few centuries later when, we are told, it was visited by the Roman Emperor Caracalla (198-217 CE). The sources are frustratingly vague about its location however, and no trace of it has ever been found in the archaeological record, leading some to speculate that it may yet await discovery.

Alexander’s body must also have lain somewhere else in the decades prior to the construction of the Sema, presumably in an earlier tomb perhaps dedicated to him alone. Various anonymous tombs of approximately the right date, and of Macedonian, rather than Egyptian, style have been suggested to have been the first Alexandrian tomb – the grandest monuments at Shatby, and the ‘Alabaster tomb’ are of Macedonian style and the right approximate date – but again the clinching evidence has been lacking, and for most scholars there is no surviving trace of this earlier tomb either.

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Some of the grander tombs at Shatby, a district of Alexandria just north east of the palaces district, exhibit features which correspond to what we might expect of the first tomb of Alexander – they are very grand, and Macedonian in style but there is nothing explicitly to connect them with Alexander

The recently discovered shaft and sarcophagus certainly did not fit the descriptions we have of the Sema. Some might have thought it another candidate for the earlier tomb but if this one ever is found it will surely not be sealed as we know Alexander’s body was moved from it to the Sema.

Still, I wasn’t surprised that Alexander’s name was mentioned in all the speculation prior to the sarcophagus being opened, and I wasn’t unhappy about that either. As I’ve noted elsewhere, Egyptology thrives on sensational stories, particularly the possibility that something thrilling like an ancient celebrity’s tomb might be discovered, and I don’t see any great harm in this kind of speculation provided such claims can be effectively rebuffed by those with specialist knowledge (as was the case in the film here, a representative of the Ministry of Antiquities quickly quashing the idea).

The sarcophagus also reminded me of a favourite object of mine, which is perhaps the closest thing we have to the evidence of Alexander’s tomb.

The ‘tomb of Alexander’ in the British Museum*

In 1798 the British defeated Napoleon’s army in the ‘Battle of the Nile’ in Aboukir Bay, around 30km north east of Alexandria. Having seen off the enemy the British set about taking charge in Egypt. One aspect of their business was the seizure of the choicest antiquities which the French had been collecting. The most famous of these was a lump of granodiorite, the remains of a stela of the reign of Ptolemy V bearing a text written in three scripts: the cursive, handwritten form we call Demotic, and the more formal hieroglyphic script (both used to write the ancient Egyptian language), and ancient Greek. It was found to have been re-used as part of masonry of a fort near the town of Rashid or ‘Rosetta’ and is now known as the ‘Rosetta Stone’. At the time, another potentially important object had come to the attention of the British authorities. They had heard that the French were in possession of ‘the tomb of Alexander the Great’.

This turned out to be the basin of a very large sarcophagus of the pharaonic period. It was found within the courtyard of a mosque, el-Attarin, in the centre of Alexandria, and had been known as Alexander’s tomb thanks to a local legend that was at least a few centuries old by that time. At this point, at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the decipherment of the Egyptian language was still a couple of decades away. The Rosetta Stone is now world famous because its inscriptions allowed Jean-Francois Champollion to decipher the ancient Egyptian language and, from then on, for the vast quantity of ancient texts that were already known by that point to be read for the first time in the modern era. When this knowledge was applied to the sarcophagus from el-Attarin mosque, which had by that time made its way to the British Museum, it became clear that it was in fact made for the last pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, Nectanebo II. So not Alexander’s sarcophagus after all. Or could it have been? As mentioned above, there is plenty of evidence for sarcophagi having been re-used….

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The sarcophagus of Nectanebo II now on display in the Egyptian sculpture gallery in the British Museum

Nectanebo II was the last ruler of pharaonic Egypt. His reign came to an end when he was ousted by Artaxerxes III, the first ruler of a second wave of Persians to take control of the country. He was said to have fled to Nubia and never returned to Egypt. The Persian Empire was Alexander’s great enemy, and it was Alexander who, in defeating them, liberated a very grateful Egypt from their rule. The three Persian emperors who ruled the country during that brief period, Artaxerxes III, Artaxerxes IV and Darius III, were hated in Egypt.

In the period immediately following Alexander’s death in 323 BCE in Babylon there was considerable uncertainty about how and where Alexander should be buried and who should succeed him as ruler of his vast empire. It seemed that responsibility for burying Alexander would rest with whoever was to be his successor. Ptolemy, an army general who had been one of Alexander’s closest confidants, wanted to take charge of Egypt, and made a decisive move in autumn 321 by stealing the body before any of his rivals could do anything about it.

Having brought the body to the Egyptian capital at Memphis Ptolemy sought to capitalize on Alexander’s popularity with the Egyptians by drawing a direct connection between the great man and Nectanebo. In one legend, perhaps created or at least encouraged by Ptolemy himself, Nectanebo visited Macedon after the Persian invasion in the guise of the Egyptian god Amun, and seduced the Macedonian king Philip’s wife who subsequently gave birth to a child: Alexander. How very convenient for Ptolemy in his attempts to become the legitimate ruler of Egypt, that Alexander’s father should have been at once both the last native pharaoh, and also Egypt’s premier god.

In order to seal the deal for himself Ptolemy needed to give Alexander a full and proper burial in Egypt, and having been pursued there by his rivals he must have known he had little time. But where to find what he needed to create a suitable monument to receive the body of his master? In the normal course of events when a new pharaoh came to the throne one of his first acts would have been to commission a grand tomb for himself, and everything to go in it, including a monumental sarcophagus. Nectanebo would have been no different – his sarcophagus was probably made relatively early on his reign. But of course it never served its intended purpose, because Nectanebo was chased out of the country never to return. Could it simply have been lying around unused? If so, what better receptacle could there have been for Alexander’s body than a sarcophagus created for his mythical father? And when the newly built city of Alexandria was finally ready to receive the body of its founder a few years later, could it have been transported in that very same sarcophagus? Is that how this object came to be in the courtyard of el-Attarin mosque. And could the legend that this was ‘Alexander’s tomb’ in fact have been based in truth?

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When you’re next in London I recommend you go and take a look…

Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt will be published in the UK on 11 October 2018 and in North America on 28 November. Pre-order from Amazon here.

*My writing on Alexander’s tomb, here and in the book, draws extensively on the work of Andrew Chugg (here) and Nicholas J Saunders’ Alexander’s Tomb in particular.