Military history on display
Egypt's military history is on display at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in order to celebrate three decades of excavations in North Sinai, writes Nevine El-Aref
The exhibition, entitled "Thirty Years of Excavations at the Eastern Gate of Egypt," displays a collection of 1,000 photographs and other items highlighting excavation work carried out at 15 archaeological sites in East and West Sinai since 1983. It was in this year that former head of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority (now the Ministry of Antiquities) Ahmed Qadri launched an international call to help Egypt in its mission to rescue Sinai's monuments and sites and explore the country's military history.
During the opening ceremony, El-Enany described the celebration as a commemoration of the work of all those who had spent their lives protecting Egypt's eastern gate and defeating the country's enemies from the ancient Egyptian era until today. He said the exhibition was important because it summed up efforts exerted by Egyptian and foreign archaeologists to explore Egypt's military history.
El-Enany and Al-Feki honoured 12 former ministers and heads of antiquities in Egypt, as well as Egyptologists who had played major roles in supporting or excavating at Egypt's eastern gate or had led recovery missions of Egyptian artefacts from Israel to their homeland.
Among those honoured were former minister of culture Farouk Hosni, former ministers of antiquities Zahi Hawass, Mamdouh Eldamaty and Mohamed Ibrahim, and former heads of the Antiquities Authority Gaballah Ali Gaballah, Abdel-Halim Noureddin and Ibrahim Bakr.
"This is a great event that pays homage to all the people who have helped the country explore Egypt's military history," Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Al-Ahram Weekly, describing the exhibition as particularly important because it displayed the results of excavations carried out by 27 Egyptian and foreign archaeological missions at 15 archaeological sites located east and west of the Suez Canal over the last 30 years.
It also showed the development of military buildings in the area from the ancient Egyptian era through the Graeco-Roman and Islamic periods.
Abdel-Maksoud said that wars and other political events had been the main reasons behind the suspension of excavations in North Sinai, although the actual excavation works started there as early as 1859 when the Suez Canal Company, responsible for building the original canal, had arranged for an international archaeological mission to excavate the area before the digging of the first Suez Canal started.
Abdel-Maksoud said that the mission had carried out archaeological surveys along the planned waterway from Suez to Port Said, as well as on the western and eastern edges of the Canal route. Archaeological fragments, pots, stelae, reliefs, Roman baths, a collection of mosaics, statues of the Pharaoh Ramses II and two Persian stelae had been discovered, and the then Suez Canal Company had built a museum in Ismailia, now the Ismailia Museum, to display them.
"Due to such discoveries, the planned path of the Suez Canal was changed to the one we see today," Abdel-Maksoud explained, adding that the original waterway was to have run from Qantara West to the Al-Bardawil Lake, but this was changed to run from Qantara West to Port Said. "This eventually led to the creation of Port Fouad," Abdel-Maksoud said.
He said that excavations were carried out in the area until the Israeli occupation in 1967. Israeli archaeologists excavated Sinai between 1967 and 1980 and unearthed several objects that were returned to Egypt after the signing of the 1977 Peace Treaty.
Negotiations to recover Egypt's artefacts from Israel took almost ten years as the 1977 Treaty did not contain binding clauses guaranteeing the return of these items to their homeland. But by calling upon the provisions of the UNESCO 1972 World Heritage Convention and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, Egypt had succeeded in having the Sinai antiquities returned in 1992.
When Egypt's military left Qantara East, the site was turned over to the Antiquities Authority along with objects bearing the name of New Kingdom Pharaoh Seti I. During the 1973 War, Egyptian soldiers building a military camp also stumbled upon ruins dating back to the reign of the Pharaoh Seti I, including objects bearing his cartouche.
The Antiquities Authority head at the time, Ahmed Qadri, launched a campaign to start excavations in these areas in order to reveal the secrets of Egypt's military history hidden under the sands. He also restored the Salaheddin Fortress at the Pharaoh Island in Taba.
Excavations in Pelusium had led to the discovery of a complete Islamic fortress from the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil, with its walls and 36 towers built on the ruins of a Roman fortress. Roman baths and mosaics were also found. A Roman theatre, considered to be the largest in Egypt from the 5th century CE, was uncovered in ruins, as the Israelis during the 1967 War had used the area as a military camp, leading to the destruction of archaeological layers over 250,000 square metres of land. These layers included the Pelusium amphitheatre, the city's main water station, and parts of the wall that once enclosed the Pelusium Fortress.
"It took ten years of restoration work to restore these sites," Abdel-Maksoud said.
FROM THE 1990S: In the mid-1990s, further excavation work was carried out at the Al-Salam Canal, Sahl Al-Tina, Qantara, Pelusium and Port Fouad, where several artefacts and other remains were unearthed, including the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, a Byzantine church and the remains of three more churches dating from the fourth and fifth centuries CE.
A cartouche of the Pharaoh Ramses II was unearthed engraved with Egypt's ancient name of Kemet. "This was the first time that Egypt's name had been seen on a monument built in Sinai," Abdel-Maksoud said. In antiquity, a route called the Horus Road led across the region, and this was the route along which Christian pilgrims once travelled, explaining the remains of churches from Rafah to Pelusium.
Excavations in the Tel Al-Borg area have revealed the remains of two limestone forts, one dating from the reign of the 28th Dynasty Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1475-1425 BCE) and the second from the 19th Dynasty. The latter was probably a Rameside fort as it bears the name of the Pharaoh Ramses II and is dubbed "the Mansion of the Lion."
The remaining part of the first fort was found on the east bank of the Al-Salam Canal. It consists of a moat built on a foundation of between nine and 14 layers of fired red brick, a material used only rarely during the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom. A small stelae dedicated to the Asiatic gods Resheph and Astarte was among the items found, and a number of horse and donkey burials were uncovered in the moat.
Other items recovered include several jar handles stamped with the cartouches of the Pharaohs Smenkhare and Tutankhamun and inscriptions from the reign of Tuthmosis III and a stone block of a deity with the name "Strong Bull" written on it. The walls of the fort are 100 metres high and are embellished with a number of rectangular mud-brick towers. Surrounding it is a two-km moat that was once filled with water.
At Tel Al-Heir, 25 km east of the Suez Canal, a French mission from the Sorbonne University in Paris found the remains of the Migdol Fort of the Pharaoh Seti I. This large fort once had soaring towers and a rest house for the pharaoh. It is believed to be the second most important military fort on the Horus Road after Tharo West, found in 2003 by an Egyptian team led by Abdel-Maksoud.
In 2004, the fort of Tharo East was discovered, which was once 500 metres long, 250 metres wide and featured walls 13 metres thick and a 12-metre southern entrance. It was once surrounded by a giant water-filled moat. "This is the largest fortress yet found in the area," Abdel-Maksoud said in comments to the Weekly, adding that the structure included 24 massive defence towers, 20 metres by four metres in size.
Along with Tharo West, the fort was once part of the eastern defences of the ancient Egyptian military town of Tharo and Egypt's gateway to the Delta. It was also the point where the ancient Egyptian army carried out military campaigns to secure the country's borders. The graves of soldiers and horses have been found in the area, attesting to the battle that once took place there. "The discovery is concrete evidence of the military events depicted on the reliefs of Seti I engraved on the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak in Luxor," Abdel-Maksoud added.
The reliefs narrate Seti I's campaign to smash rebel forces in the first year of his rule. Abdel-Maksoud said that the discovery also showed that ancient artists drew accurate topographical maps of the Horus Road that once stretched from Egypt to Palestine. According to the reliefs, 11 forts were built on this section of the road, although excavations have so far unveiled only five. The first was at Qantara East and the last was in Gaza.
Although the New Kingdom Pharoah Seti I was the founder of the Horus Road, Abdel-Maksoud said, several parts of a Middle Kingdom fortified barrier named the Al-Amir Wall have also been discovered along the military route. It is not clear whether this was once part of a wall linking the Middle Kingdom series of fortresses.
The existence of forts on the Horus Road has long been part of the historical record and was first revealed in the reliefs at Karnak. But their ruins were only excavated from 1859 onwards, when initial excavations started to dig the Suez Canal to link the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. In 2014, Abdel-Maksoud pointed out, excavation work carried out at Qantara East had uncovered an ancient logistics area, including a collection of administrative buildings, customs buildings, structures used to store grain, stables and a dormitory for soldiers.
PANORAMA AND VISITOR ROUTE: In 2015, when Egypt started the construction of the New Suez Canal, development work at archaeological sites on the Horus Road in the vicinity of the Old and New Suez Canal, especially those at Qantara East, began to make them more tourist-friendly.
A site-management component is to be included in the development project for the area that will include a tourist route for visitors to enjoy the different architectural styles of the surrounding ruins, information panels and a high-tech security and lighting system.
Abdel-Maksoud told the Weekly that a visitor centre, bookstore, souvenir shop and cafeteria would also be built. Two buildings displaying a panorama of Egypt's military history from the ancient Egyptian period to the modern era, similar to the October War Panorama in Nasr City in Cairo, are also planned for the area.
The panorama is to be built in the empty space area between the Old and New Suez Canals. El-Enany suggested that the building could be similar to the recent Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) in Marseilles in France as both buildings overlook the sea.
The MUCEM is a 15,000-square-metre cube built of steel and glass and surrounded by a latticework shell of reinforced concrete. El-Enany described it as a very distinguished building, adding that a similar building by the New Suez Canal would give an opportunity to vessels crossing the canal to admire the new panorama at night, in turn encouraging tourism.
"A design has not yet been selected, but suggestions are welcome," Abdel-Maksoud said. The panorama building, he told the Weekly, would not only include a display of Egypt's military history, but would also have a research centre and a digital library of documentary films, manuscripts, books and photographs relating to Egypt's military history.
The new building would display artefacts unearthed in the fortresses located along the Horus Road, including weapons, pots, chariots and the statues of the pharaohs who had led military campaigns to defend the country. Replicas of the military fortresses of Tharo and Tel Dafana would also be on display because they are the largest ever found on the Horus Road.
Photographs of other fortresses are to be exhibited in the new panorama to show the development of fortresses throughout Egypt's history. Digital 3D photographs of military scenes engraved on ancient Egyptian temples are also to be on show.
Abdel-Maksoud explained that the reliefs of Seti I engraved on the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall at the Karnak Temple in Luxor would be the main inscriptions on show. The reliefs, he continued, narrate Seti I's campaign to smash rebel forces, and Ramses II's Kadish War relief, also engraved on the Karnak Temple, would also be on show.
After visiting the planned panorama, visitors will be able to embark on a tour around the remains of the fortresses spread over six sites in Qantara East and West. The three sites in Qantara East are Tel Abu Seifi, Pelusium and Habuwa. Those to the West are Tel Dafana, Tel Al-Maskhouta, Tel Al-Seyeidi and Ain Sokhna.
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