Desert in Egypt
Upon visiting Egypt, the fifth-century-BC Greek historian, Herodotus, described the land of the pharaohs as the ‘Gift of the Nile’. What he meant was that, without the life-nurturing waters of the great river, there would have been no Egyptian civilisation to admire and study. The Nile valley is a thin thread of fertility in an otherwise parched and desolate landscape – an oasis in the vast expanse of the North African desert. As a result, virtually all archaeological work undertaken by Egyptologists in the last two hundred years has been concentrated in the valley itself or along its edges where the pyramids and tombs are located. Little attention has been paid to the far desert regions which constitute ninety percent of modern Egypt’s land surface.
We are all familiar with the jewels of Egyptian civilisation – the Pyramids of Giza, the Temples of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings with its golden treasure of Tutankhamun. You may have visited Egypt yourself and been introduced to many more pharaonic sites and priceless artefacts than those I have just mentioned. But few of these splendours from Egypt’s fluorite tell us much about the beginnings of Egyptian history.
The origins of pharaonic civilisation have always been shrouded in mystery. What caused dynastic culture to burst forth in the Nile valley within such a relatively short period of time? It has long been recognised that “the emergence of pharaonic rule coincided with an entirely unprecedented series of phenomena” which formed the recognisable foundation of what we identify as pharaonic Egypt. There is little evidence of kingship and its rituals very much before the beginning of the 1st Dynasty; no signs of the gradual development of metal working, art, monumental architecture and writing – the defining criteria of early civilisation. Much of what we know about the pharaohs and their complex culture seems to come into existence in a flash of inspiration.
So what was the mysterious and sudden inspiration at the heart of the origins of Egyptian civilisation? The answer, I believe, is to be found in the Eastern Desert which separates the Nile valley from the Red Sea. There, in the rugged sandstone mountains, remarkable clues have been found. These clues come in the form of hundreds of prehistoric rock drawings. They depict high-prowed reed ships and their crews. Warriors are
shown dragging their vessels through the desert. Some of the boats carry as many as seventy-five crewmen.
I want to concentrate on the discovery of this prehistoric rock art and describe to you a typical expedition to locate and record these amazing images from Egypt’s most ancient past.
The expeditions into the Eastern Desert are logistically difficult operations. They have to be completed in a very short time because essential supplies are soon used up. Each survey, therefore, lasts no longer than a week. In these short bursts of activity we have to be highly mobile, moving from location to location in search of more signs of the predynastic rock art. Let me tell the story of one particular mission to give you the flavour of an Eastern Desert Survey mission.
We set off from Edfu, heading east along the desert road to Mersa Alam on the Red Sea coast. Just beyond the little rock-cut temple of Pharaoh Seti I at Kanais we left the asphalt road and struck north-east into the wide mouth of the Wadi Abu Ashayir el-Atshan. The desert surface was hard and flat. The convoy hurtled along, billowing clouds of dust in its wake. Within an hour we were deep into the complex wadi system which would be our home for the next five days. In prehistoric times these wadis were seasonal streams affording travellers and local pastoralists oases of shady refuge and life-giving water in an otherwise inhospitable environment. Over the last five thousand years the mountains of the Eastern Desert have become desiccated as the climate has turned much drier. Today, an expedition like the ones I lead need to be selfsufficient, because even the wells cut by the pharaohs are bone dry. Hardly surprising then that few Egyptologists have ventured into this harsh terrain. However, two hardy souls need mention here because they were the first to find what we ourselves have come all this way to rediscover and record.
In March 1907 British Egyptologist, Arthur Weigall, had visited Kanais temple. He arrived by camel and spent a couple of nights camped in the ruins of a Roman fortress close to Seti’s monument. In his book Travels in the Upper Egyptian Deserts, he mentions the discovery of early rock-art carved on the cliffs and boulders nearby. Weigall published a couple of plates of ink drawings which he had made on site. They show boats with high prow and stern, several carrying human figures or animals. This was the first occasion that these amazing Eastern Desert boats were revealed to scholars and the wider public.
By four o’clock our convoy had travelled eighty kilometres from the asphalt road at Kanais. We then pitched our tents and camped for the night on a dune above the wadi floor. At eight o’clock the next morning we found ourselves at the entrance to the ‘Canyon of the Boats’, discovered on one of our earlier expeditions. Here, in the shade of the sandstone cliffs are dozens of rock-drawings previously unknown to Egyptologists. Again, they depict large high-prowed reed ships, as well as hunting scenes, goddess-like female figures with arms raised above their heads and chieftains with tall-plumed head-dresses. We have no contemporary texts to tell us what event is being depicted or why these extraordinary illustrations are to be found here in the vastness of the Eastern Desert. There are tantalising clues to be found in the strange spells and incantations of the Pyramid Texts of half a millennium later which hark back to a time of myth and legend known to the Egyptians as the primeval age or ‘First Time’. But these prehistoric rock drawings, now coming to light, provide us with a real insight into the people of this First Time. They left us their images here in the Eastern Desert and it is up to us to try and understand who they were and why they were here. Three hours of careful logging of the exact location by satellite GPS (Geographical Positioning System) and recording the details of the drawings was all the time available before we had to strike north once more in the direction of the black mountains of Gebel esh-Shalul. There we stopped for a late lunch in the narrow gorge which, on a previous expedition, was found to be the only route through to the Wadi Zeidun. Whilst the team examined and copied a short hieroglyphic inscription pecked out on the smooth rock-face. The readable part of the pharaonic text simply said ‘Overseer of the gold mines, Amenhotep’ – evidence of an 18th Dynasty mining expedition into the ancient gold fields which were scattered all around here but are now completely exhausted. Refreshed, fed and watered, it was time to clamber back into the four-wheel drives and head out into the Wadi Zeidun which sweeps round in a great arc before spilling into the wide expanse of the Wadi el-Kash drainage system. On we went, past herds of wild camels and the occasional fleetfooted gazelle, sometimes at break-neck speed over hard, flat ground, at other times crawling (all wheels engaged) through the soft sand and dense shrub of the wadi bed which snaked across our path. In today’s street-lit world we have lost all sense of the astonishing beauty of the night sky. Only in places such as this, hundreds of miles from civilisation, can you witness the true glory of the heavenly realm. Tucked up in a sleeping-bag your eyes are drawn skyward to observe the majestic march of Orion (Osiris) across the sky, followed by the bright star Sirius (Isis). The ancient Egyptians believed that the stars were the myriad transfigured souls of the dead. But they also developed an amazing mythology surrounding the death of the Egyptian king. The divine essence of kingship, carried within the body of Pharaoh, could not die – it was immortal. So, when the mortal king passed away, his soul began a dangerous journey through the underworld on a great ship which took the spirit of the deceased monarch from his tomb, in the western desert, eastwards towards the land of sunrise. The night sky was somehow understood to be a giant mirror reflecting that dark ocean of the underworld through which the king’s soul journeyed. As above, so below. When it finally reached the eastern horizon the divine essence of kingship was reborn as the rising sun in a place called the Isle of Flame (represented by the dawn glow). The ship which transported the spirit of the king and the accompanying gods was made of reeds. In fact it was identical in shape to the boats found on the desert rocks which we were busy recording. It too had upturned prow and stern and a central cabin. Just such a giant ship (this one made of Lebanese cedar) was found buried in a pit beside the Great Pyramid at Giza, waiting for Pharaoh Khufu to undertake his magical journey to the Isle of Flame.
Another early morning start before dawn enabled us to reach the Wadi el-Kash by 8.30. After travelling westwards for twenty kilometres we turned south, back in the direction we had come but down one wadi system further east. This was the only way to reach Site 26. Two hours of tortuous manoeuvring through a tangle of rocks and pristine sand-dunes saw us into a wide wadi with a rich vein of vegetation running down the middle. This suggested that, in ancient times, there may have been a spring or perhaps even a small lake here.
The main rock-face at Site 26 is covered in extraordinary art. At the centre is a large boat (over one metre in length) in which stand five figures. The two tallest wear plumes on their heads and carry bows in their hands. Three smaller figures appear to be children. The iconic image gives the impression that you are standing before a sacred family. There is no other image in the desert quite like it. Up and to the right of the main boat is another smaller vessel with eleven crewmen and a chieftain figure carrying a throw-stick shaped like a boomerang. He too has tall twin feathers on his head. Another scene, on a small rock below the main wall depicts a ‘dancing goddess’ with raised arms standing in her boat but, this time, her vessel is being dragged by five figures. On the opposite side of the wadi from Site 26 are more drawings. One is of particular interest. It shows a chieftain in a boat with animal’s figurehead at the prow. The chieftain wears two plumes and carries a pear-shaped mace. These pear-shaped maces were introduced in the Nakkada II predynastic period, which is an indicator as to the general time when the high-prowed boats were being carved in the desert.The hidden wadi in which Site 26 and the other rock-drawings are located is a treasure house of prehistoric art, so much so that we have dubbed it the Wadi Abu Markab el-Nes – the ‘Valley of the Boat People’. Its exact location is known only to a few and we believe that our expedition is the first to reach the place since Hans Winkler discovered it in 1937. Site 26 and the other boat people locations so far discovered have all been photographed, logged and described for a catalogue entitled ‘The Followers of Horus’, published by the Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary Sciences in 2000.