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Monday, April 15, 2019

News from Sohag - Al Ahram Weekly

News from Sohag

The excavation of a Ptolemaic tomb containing dozens of mummified animals, the restoration of a colossus of Ramses II, and the completion of the Osirion groundwater project make up recent news from Sohag, reports Nevine El-Aref

The colossus of Ramses II
The Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag made the headlines this week as a result of several archaeological activities.

Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany and ambassadors from 40 foreign, Arab and African countries flocked to the area to witness the announcement of a new tomb discovery in the Dayabat area, the unveiling of a colossus of Ramses II in Akhmim after its restoration, the completion of the Osirion groundwater project in Abydos, and the viewing of the area's Coptic monuments in the Red and White Monasteries and the newly inaugurated Sohag National Museum.

The first stop on the two-day visit was Dayabat where an exceptionally well-preserved Ptolemaic-era tomb of a nobleman called Toutou and his wife was uncovered containing dozens of mummified animals and birds.

The story of the tomb started in October when the Tourism and Antiquities Police arrested a gang carrying out illegal excavations in an area near the Dayabat archaeological mound. The gang had located the tomb but had not been able to enter it and explore what lay within.  

After the completion of the investigations, the Ministry of Antiquities appointed an archaeological mission led by Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), to start the excavations.

The Osirion

"Although it is a small tomb from the Ptolemaic period, it is exceptionally painted with beautiful scenes on the walls," El-Enany said, adding that these were decorated with exceptionally painted scenes in vivid colours depicting the deceased and his wife Ta-Shret-Isis in different positions before the gods.

The names of the members of their families are shown on the walls, as well as the different titles of the tomb-owner and his wife. Its inner chamber houses two limestone sarcophagi for the deceased and his wife as well as a very-well preserved mummy that has not been identified partially wrapped in linen.

A collection of 50 animal burials containing well-preserved mummified animals and birds was also unearthed, including falcons, eagles, cats, dogs and shrews. Waziri said that shrews can see well at night, and the ancient Egyptians thus believed they could cure blindness.

The Church of the Red Monastery

COLOSSUS RESTORED: At the Akhmim Open-Air Museum, also in Sohag, stands a colossus of the Pharaoh Ramses II, now shown for the first time after its discovery in parts in 1981.

The royal statue has been restored, reassembled, and re-erected beside the beautiful colossus of the Pharaoh's daughter-queen Merit-Amun.

"The restoration of the colossus is within the framework of the Ministry of Antiquities' efforts to promote the Sohag governorate's archaeological sites and make the area more tourist friendly as well as to continue its goal of preserving and conserving the area's monuments," Waziri told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said the colossus was found in 70 large and smaller parts, which were then restored and put on wooden beams for protection. The statue is 12 metres tall and weighs 45 tons. It is carved of limestone and depicts Ramses II standing with his left leg forward and holding rolls of papyri in his hands. He is shown wearing a short kilt with a belt decorated with zigzag lines with a safety pin bearing his name and a dagger.

Akhmim lies on the east bank of the Nile about 100km north of Luxor. As well as being the hub of ancient Egypt's weaving industry, it was once the capital of the ninth nome of Upper Egypt and the religious centre of the fertility god Min. The town has yielded remains dating from prehistoric times and through the Pharaonic period, including the Old Kingdom cemetery of Al-Hawawish that contains 848 rock-hewn tombs.

There is little data on Akhmim from the Middle Kingdom, but more material remains from later periods of history. A great temple dedicated to the god Min was built there during the ninth century BCE, and the remains of this structure later impressed the Arab historians who passed through Akhmim and mentioned seeing a gigantic temple larger than the Karnak complex in Luxor.

The White Monastery

One even reported that the sun had had time to rise and set before he had finished exploring the ruins. Akhmim was later a centre of Christianity in Upper Egypt, and during the Christian era the ancient temples were destroyed and the modern town erected over their ruins. The remains of Akhmim now sit atop a high mound, with archaeological wealth hidden beneath its foundations that has yet to be explored with potentially significant results.

Although many of the ancient buildings in Akhmim were dismantled to be used in the construction of other monuments at a later period, many of these later buildings still exist in their original locations. Among them are a Graeco-Roman temple and many fragments of statues of Ramses II and a beautiful limestone colossus of Merit-Amun, now re-erected in the museum.

The statue is 11 metres tall and depicts Merit-Amun wearing a close-fitting pleated robe and crowned with a modius decorated with serpents and the double feathers of a wife of the god Amun. The museum also houses a beautiful statue of the Roman goddess of love Venus and a collection of stelae and architectural elements from the surrounding structures.

Waziri said that a new visitor centre had been established, while a route with signs and maps containing information about every monument on the site was under development. A new lighting system is to be installed to make the site accessible at night. "All the work will be officially inaugurated next month after the completion of the restoration project," Waziri said.

A painted sarcophagus in Sohag Museum

OSIRION GROUNDWATER PROJECT: El-Enany and the delegation also paid a visit to the Temple of Seti I in Abydos near Sohag to inspect recent development and facilities being provided to visitors.

A new visitor centre has been established at the entrance of the temple. It includes a hall showing the archaeological excavations being carried out at Abydos as well as information about the site and its monuments. A route with signs and maps bearing information about every monument at the site has been built and a parking area, entrance gate, and ticket and information office provided. A lighting system has been installed to make the site accessible at night.

The Osirion, an ancient Egyptian temple located to the rear of the Seti I Temple, was also inaugurated after the completion of a groundwater-lowering project to reduce the level of subterranean water.

Since its discovery by archaeologists Flinders Petrie and Margaret Murray in 1902, the Osirion has been suffering from a high level of groundwater, but after two years of work the groundwater-lowering project has been completed.

"This is the third groundwater-lowering project the ministry is conducting at archaeological sites," El-Enany told the Weekly. He explained that the project came within the work of the ministry to protect archaeological sites from high levels of subterranean water. In the last 30 days, El-Enany added, the ministry had succeeded in completing and inaugurating three groundwater-lowering projects at three archaeological sites.

The newly discovered tomb

The first was at the Kom Al-Shokafa Catacombs in Alexandria and the second at the Kom Ombo Temples in Aswan, both in cooperation with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Authority for Potable Water and Sewerage (NAPWAS).

The Osirion project was completed in collaboration with the National Contracting and Supplies Authority.

Waadallah Abul-Ela, head of the Projects Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, said the Osirion was a bath originally built on top of ancient springs 18m lower than the foundations of the Seti I Temple. The construction of the Aswan High Dam had contributed to the increase in the level of subterranean water inside the temple as well as the urban and agricultural development of Abydos, he said.

The project aimed at reducing the water level through digging six 60m wells equipped with two electronic water stations to pump water outside the temple to the main drainage system.

The Osirion consists of a vaulted corridor starting from the Temple of Seti I, a short passage that connects to the great central chamber, and a last chamber parallel to an antechamber. Elements of the building are made of granite similar to the temples on the Pyramids Plateau in Giza, and some scholars have suggested that it may be a copy or a previous building that was reused.

Although it has been dated to the reign of Seti I, some scholars disagree. The ancient Greek historian Strabo, who visited the Osirion in the first century BCE, suggested that it could be dated to the reign of Amenemhet III.

Abydos is one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt and was called in ancient times "Abdu", or "the hill of the symbol or reliquary" where the sacred head of the god of the dead and the underworld Osiris was buried and preserved. For this reason, the site was an important pilgrimage destination and necropolis from the Early Dynastic Period to Christian times.

During the Graeco-Roman period, the town gained its current name. It houses several archaeological sites such as the Um Al-Qaab (Mother of Pots) area that contains the tombs of early Pre-Dynastic chieftains and the burials of many of the early Dynastic kings. Closer to the floodplain are mud-brick enclosures serving the royal funerary cults of the kings of the First and Second Dynasties, of which the best preserved is Shunet Al-Zebib.

The remains of other royal and elite tombs and temples can also be found in Abydos. In North Abydos there is an area called Kom Al-Sultan that houses the remains of an early town and a temple of the god Osiris-Khentyamentiu. During the Middle Kingdom, a yearly procession celebrating the resurrection of the god Osiris after his murder at the hands of his brother Seth led from this temple to the tomb of Osiris at Um Al-Qaab.

In the middle of Abydos are the New Kingdom temples of Seti I and his son Ramses II. Behind them is the symbolic tomb of the god Osiris, the Osirion. In South Abydos, there are a small Third Dynasty pyramid, a mortuary complex for the 12th-Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret III, as well as a pyramid and temple built by the first Pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Ahmose.

In addition, there is a small temple thought to have been dedicated to the cult of Ahmose's principal consort, Ahmose-Nefertari, and a small chapel dedicated to his grandmother, Tetisheri.

The wall reliefs of the Seti I Temple are some of the finest in all the temples in Egypt. The temple has a unique design and contains the most complete ancient Egyptian king list. It has seven shrines dedicated to the deities Osiris, Isis, Horus, Amun-Re, Ra-Hor-Akhty, Ptah and Seti I as a deified king. At the back of the temple there is the Osirion, from whose chambers led the great hypogeum for the celebration of the Osiris mysteries built by the Pharaoh Merenptah.

About 300m from the Seti I Temple is the Temple of his son Ramses II. Although the temple is in ruins, its structure and plan can still be seen. Its walls are built of limestone, while its pillars are carved of sandstone. It has a portico, pylons and courts, as well as a pink granite portal, chapels and a hypostyle hall.

Its greatest attraction is the brilliantly coloured painted reliefs that are considered to be the finest in any monument built by Ramses II.

Mummified mice

ATHRIBIS: El-Enany also paid a visit to the site of Athribis (Al-Sheikh Hamad) located 10km south-west of Sohag, where he visited the excavation and restoration work carried out by a German archaeological mission in a Ptolemaic temple built by Ptolemy XII.

The mission is also studying the temple's wall reliefs. During the visit, El-Enany discussed measures to open parts of the temple to visitors in the near future.

Athribis houses a collection of Ptolemaic monuments, among them a temple dedicated to the lion goddess Repyt and a massive gateway of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes, who also began the construction of a temple against the slope of a hill. There are few remains in situ.

A granite temple from the reign of the 26th-Dynasty Pharaoh Haaibre is also to be found, as well as a structure of Ptolemy IX Soter with a pylon and enclosure wall. A Roman birth-house is also located in Athribis begun by Ptolemy XII Auletes and completed during the Roman period by the emperor Hadrian.

The birth-house was dedicated to the god Triphis and is fronted by a pronaos with two rows of six pillars that are still well-preserved. There is also an open court which may have been surrounded by a colonnade.

Seti I Temple

Several Roman emperors had their names carved on these buildings, and some of its blocks were used during the Coptic period in the construction of the nearby White Monastery. In the nearby necropolis there is a distinguished Ptolemaic tomb named the Zodiac Tomb which belongs to two brothers, Ibpemeny and Pemehyt. Its ceiling is decorated with pictures of the zodiac, and it dates to the late second century CE.


THE RED AND WHITE MONASTERIES: The delegation also embarked on a guided tour of the Red and White Monasteries while in Sohag.

Bishop Antonious Al-Shenoudi of the Red Monastery offered El-Enany a copy of the Quran, which El-Enany described as being testimony that Egypt and Egyptians were one. He said that the restoration project of the monastery was a way that the ministry could help protect and preserve one of Egypt's ancient Coptic shrines.

In collaboration with the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) and the Monastery administration, the ministry is carrying out a restoration project that according to the ARCE Website began in 2002 and had revealed magnificent painted surfaces.

Inside the Monastery's triconch sanctuary, a new limestone floor has been laid, new wooden doors and metal handrails installed, a new altar table built, and a new system of LED lighting designed and fitted in collaboration with Philips Egypt. The entire church has been rewired and a completely new electrical system put in place to support the lighting as well as the sound and video equipment required by the church.

Gamal Mustafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the ministry, said the Red Monastery was at the heart of a large monastic community in an area known as an important centre of ascetic life since the fifth century CE. It was an astonishingly rare example of the artistic integrity of late antique monuments in Egypt, he said, and was so-called because of the red granite taken from nearby Pharaonic temples used in its construction.

The monastery was built in the fourth century CE and modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. According to the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III, "anyone who has not visited Jerusalem must visit the Red Monastery in Sohag since going there is like going to Jerusalem."

The Red Monastery also borrows from ancient Egyptian architecture, with the outside of the building resembling a Pharaonic temple in its rectangular form. The outer walls slant upwards, and the carvings on the outer gates are also inspired by those on ancient temples.

The monastery has several icons, among them one of the Holy Eucharist, an icon of the Cross, and an icon of a net in the sea showing a spiral net with circles representing fish and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. The monastery also possesses an icon of the Last Supper dating from the 18th century and other ancient icons.

In 2013, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) added the Red Monastery to its World Heritage List for the Islamic World. The move was in recognition of Egypt's ancient civilisation and the country's many outstanding monuments.

The White Monastery, also on the itinerary, was built by Pope Shenoute in 441 CE on the ruins of an ancient Egyptian settlement. The church of the monastery is considered the best preserved, along with the one in the Red Monastery, from late antique Egypt.

The monastery acquired its colloquial names from the building materials used in its monumental church and is built principally of white limestone, some of it reused from a Pharaonic building. Within its church important sculptures and paintings have survived, dating between the fifth and 14th centuries CE. Archaeological remains from the ancient monastery still exist around the church and restoration work will continue.

SOHAG NATIONAL MUSEUM: The last stop on the visit was the Sohag National Museum, inaugurated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in August 2018 after 30 years of construction.

The museum is not just a regional museum, but is part of the ministry's strategy "to give attention and care to the Upper Egyptian governorates and to develop their resources," El-Enany told the Weekly. He added that the completion of the museum was a dream come true and the result of a promise by the ministry to Sohag and its inhabitants.

El-Enany and ambassadors to Egypt at Atribis

The museum does not only display the history of Egypt as a country, but also reveals the history of the ancient cities of Sohag, Abydos and Akhmim, sites that were the origins of Egypt's ancient civilisation.

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, told the Weekly that the aim of the museum was not only to reflect the unique history of the governorate from pre-history to modern times, but also to highlight Egyptian identity through the changes that have taken place in Upper Egypt.

The exhibition scenario focuses on six influential aspects of Egyptian life through the ages: kingship, the family, cooking and cuisine, faith and religion, employment, industry and textiles and handicrafts.

It displays a collection of 945 artefacts, most of them unearthed in different sites near Sohag and the rest having been carefully selected from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo's Bab Al-KhalK neighbourhood, the Textiles Museum in Al-Muizz Street in Islamic Cairo and the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo.

"The concept of the museum is no longer dependent on placing artefacts next to each other to illustrate ancient Egyptian civilisation," Salah said. "Instead, the Ministry of Antiquities has adopted a new philosophy to turn the country's regional museums into more educational, cultural and productive institutions."

Sohag is well-known for its distinguished textiles and its industry, Salah said, and the new museum has allocated a hall to the city's textiles. It is also friendly to the disabled, and the visitor route is provided with ramps to facilitate circulation.

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