The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
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Monday, May 16, 2011

On and around Thoth Hill Day 4 [2008]

I do believe that our driver, Mahmoud, is getting better: either that or he has bought himself a new alarm clock, which I very much doubt. Anyway, we departed the house on time, destined this time to explore the northern wadi besides Thoth hill. The Hungarian mission that carried out the conservation work to the temple of Sankhkare and the associated excavations that took place explored this wadi in the late nineties and had made two important discoveries that till this time still have not been properly published into the public domain.

Situated deep towards the end of this small wadi we discovered a natural opening in the vertical hill side that had a spoil heap within its confines. The spoil heap was made up of fine dirt, bat droppings and broken sherds of what looked like on first appraisal blackened stone, the kind you usually find in either tombs or temples where the ceilings have been blackened by the burning of incense or other smoke induced material. The spoil heap also contained a significant amount of pottery, some fine ware and some random pieces of cairns, etc. But the most impressive piece had to be the dressed lime stone block (undecorated) with distinct chisel marks, denoting that it had definitely originated from a structure of some kind. We continued to look around the vicinity but could not find any further evidence to support any type of structure in the wadi. Therefore, we deduced that the spoil heap did in fact originate from the either the top of the hillside, which was approximately 20 to 25 meters or so above our heads, the natural niche did in fact have an crevice that we could not see into and this may be an opening, or means of entrance to a tomb or cave like structure that the spoil heap had originated from. This was an obvious deduction, but unfortunately there were no means for us to ascend this part of the hillside without causing injury too ourselves. But knowing me (John), I decided that to give it a go and climbed as far as I could, clinging to the frail surface of the hillside for dear life as it crumbled beneath my feet. Not exactly the best way to spend an afternoon and especially not in this heat. But I managed to get with a few meters of the opening before the hillside got the better of me and I found myself in a situation which I had to make a decision as to whether it was so important for me to see the opening and climb into it or to climb back to the safety of the ground and find an alternative route to the opening. I choose to climb back down. If only I was 10 years old again... remember those days when you would jump off anything, climb any tree without fear of death, well its true as you get older you do actually begin to think, how much it will hurt when you fall 20 meters onto t a stone surface with jagged edges.

So as I had been trying in vain to find a route to the opening via the vertical hills die, Maria on the other hand had been sensible and found a pathway that led up the hill, which needed neither crampons nor a degree in mountain climbing. So, together we climbed the pathway, finding ourselves atop of the wadi vein now. We began to locate the crevice, which must lay at least 5 meters or so beneath the top of the hill. We found one area that could have been a logical choice, but again it was impossible to scale downwards. So, we decided to take our first break of the day, coffee and those all important rock cakes came in handy to restore one’s senses.

After our break we decided to give it up as a bad job and gave into the fact that we could not find a safe access to this particular area that really does need further investigation, only to ascertain where the dressed lime stone block came from. So, we descended back down to the ground level of the wadi vein. I must add at this point that it was not decided that quickly or unanimously by the both off us: I wanted to continue around the edge of the hillside to see if there were any further signs of mans intervention in this area, but Maria on the other hand was not happy with this idea and had to convince me that it would be safer for us to return to the ground level and continue our exploration of the main wadi. She made me see sense in the end.

The wadi itself has unfortunately been disturbed by the 4x4 tracks, so much in as that it is difficult to see whether there was an actual pathway in the wadi or and was it wide enough to carry anything in or out for that matter on a sledge system, but as I say this was now impossible to ascertain due to the amount of modern traffic that had created deep tyre gullies and moved the top sandy surface to its edges. There was, however, a significant amount of pottery sherds on the surface, some of the larger pieces had unfortunately been broken by the modern vehicles, but there was still a reasonable amount that could be verified as being from various periods, with a larger proportion attributed to the Greco/Roman period. We did manage to locate some fine pieces of what were water “flasks” at one time.

It was at this point that we decided to split off so we could cover more of the wadi: Maria headed off into one of the smaller wadi veins, while I continued on to the next.

It s a little like “the wizard of oz”, but instead of following the yellow brick road I was following the pottery sherds. This led me to a tight crevice which had been subject to much water erosion previously. I climbed into the crevice finding myself in an enclosed area that had only one means of exit. I climbed again hoping to find the trail of pottery, but found nothing of any significance. Maria by this time had joined me at the ground level and proclaimed that she too was following a pottery trail. I turned to climb out of the crevice and too found more pottery. When we met at the ground level we were able to ascertain that the pottery we were following was from the same piece: a water cairn of some description. We had the base in two parts and some of the body as well: it seemed that whoever had broken the cairn must have been on top of the hill overlooking this part of the wadi and the remains of the pottery had washed down the runoff at some time, thus leading us on dry trail that led to nothing but this one piece. A disappointment but it is this type of investigation and the satisfaction of deducing what took place all those years ago that puts a smile on my face now and again.

We decided to continue along the main wadi again, following the pottery trail as previous. This led us again off into one of the veins this time to the right hand side. The pottery was this time strewn all over the place. The causeway that we were now walking into was becoming narrow and the pottery was intensifying in its abundance on the floor. Then it opened up in front of us: a sheer wall all around totally impassable, a vertical sheer mass with no means of climbing out at all, but there was a cave like structure half way up and what looked like at first glance as a kind of passage built into the hillside that led to the cave.
The boulders that lay in the ravine are of smooth limestone, many of which have been inscribed with Gnostic/Coptic inscriptions in traditional Greek and Coptic. It was intriguing as the some of the Greek inscriptions were in the traditional Greek style, using the “s” instead of “c”, which started to be used during the Hellenistic period here in Egypt. The inscriptions using the “c” were mostly mentioning personal names of visitors to this area. Now, I must point out to you at this point that we believed that we had indeed located the Coptic Kaneesa that had been discovered by the Hungarian mission back in the late nineties, but so unknown to the general public.

Obviously the inscriptions were those of pilgrims to this area and that of the church that now dwelled in the hillside cut deep into it. The Hungarian mission has also been cited in various published works as finding what has been described as the tomb of Mentuhotep III, and that the church in fact had overtaken the tomb itself. Regardless of which, any visitor today will not be able to tell for themselves, as there is no access to the church/tomb, which has now iron doors sealing its entry. I must say, that I was little disappointed by what we saw in this part of the wadi, obviously a tremendous discovery had been made and the safe guard of the church and its possible association to Mentuhotep III must be kept under lock and key, but the amount of modern bricks, rubbish, cement, and other materials that are and will remain alien to this environment lay scattered around the ground surface in twinned with the remains of this once vibrant religious area. So, we were resigned to fact we had found the location of the church and the possible location of Mentuhotep III’s tomb, but we couldn’t gain access, so we continued to catalogue and photograph the abundance of inscriptions that were scattered around the surfaces of the rock faces.

After lunch we were able to explore the area in detail having been refuelled and re-energised. There area is home to numerous caves that have been heavily plundered and in some instances destroyed by people looking for antiquity. The spoil heaps in the basin were most impressive though, the various different strata levels provided us with much evidence to support our theory that this area had been habituated for a time period that went far beyond that of the church and the pilgrims that visited the area. The pathways that led away clinging to the edge of the rock face were passable and it was on these pathways that we discovered the largest amount of inscriptions. As far as we can tell, these inscriptions have not been officially classified before, and there were no signs of cataloguing of numbering of the inscriptions, leading us to make every effort to be diligent in our recording of these. The pathway led around and we climbed even further higher and higher to the summit of the hill. Instead of following the pottery sherds as previously, we were now following inscriptions. It was little like following directions: as we turned a corner we could see yet more inscriptions left on the surface of the hillside that had been left by either the inhabitants or visiting pilgrims and they wanted to record their presence for all time by placing their mark of respect to the this newly found religion.

It does raise certain questions though, why did the Copts choose such a defensive location? Why place a church in such an area? What was its relationship to what had taken place here before, was there a relationship? Was there a link to Gnosticism and was the Temple of Mentuhotep Sankhkare involved in this relationship? We were now so close to the actual temple itself that there had to be some kind of relationship. It was not a case of trade routes as the wadi in which the church lies does not support any kind of caravan traffic. The sheer pathways that we had to climb to get to the summit were not passable by donkey let alone a caravan of them, plus there was no evidence apparent to suggest this. There were no mud brick stations in this wadi either; none look-out posts meant no security. So again, this leads us to ask why.

If it was originally the tomb of Mentuhotep III, why had it been transformed into a church? We can see and understand the use of the temples as places of worship and reverence, but tombs? They just do not fit the picture of worship unless they are continuing the pagan ritual of remembrance of the deceased. What I mean to say is that the ancient tombs of Egypt were in fact a place of worship, to the one who was interned in the tomb at least by his or her family. So, would it be reasonable to assume that the early Copts or Gnostic followers just assimilated the tradition and transformed some of the tombs into churches and shrines as they had already served that purpose to a certain extent in the past. It brings to mind the situation of the early Christian shrines in and around Beni Hassan, for sure. Another example of a tomb being transformed or at least visited by Coptic pilgrims is the tomb of Ramesses IV: there we have perfect examples of Coptic inscriptions dedicated in the name of the Christian religion in an otherwise pagan sanctuary. Pilgrims would have endured a great hardship making their way to these far out places and on entering such a place would have been awe struck by its immense size and architecture: thus, enhancing its esoteric value on a psychological level. The pilgrim would be presented with an unnatural structure in such a place of natural beauty that it would also seem quite supernatural in its own right.

There are signs that a mud brick structure once stood adjoining the vertical cliff face and that it would have provided the means of access to the church. The only problem that we have is that there are no visible signs of how large this structure was. There is evidence of mud attached to the cliff face in various locations, but this does not provide us with enough information to ascertain the actual size or height of the mud brick building that once stood there. Another problem to add to this scenario is that there is a distinct lack of mud brick remains in the vicinity, and this leads me to conclude that the bricks have been taken away for one reason or another. There is, however, some good examples of both mud brick and fired red clay brick which places us in the Roman /Coptic period of time. The spoil heaps that lay around the surface of the cliff face are also a clear indication of the importance of this site and that it was extremely frequented by a many good pilgrim.

I’m still intrigued by the graffiti that we discovered. They point to other periods of time other than Gnostic/Coptic as the inscriptions include many details that were abandoned by the early Christian groups. For instance, we have numerous phallic style drawings and characters depicted with dresses specific for the pharaonic period, with crowns adorned with the uraeus/serpent. Other characters have a distinct Greek (Ptolemaic) style about them. This leads us to believe that there was indeed a transition between it being a tomb of Mentuhotep and that of being used as a church. The questions that now present themselves to us are if it was a sanctuary for an oracle, with possible links to either the late period or Ptolemaic period, and if it was such an association that led it to being utilised by the Copts. [As we have recorded during later visits, this place should be linked with the trade route on Gebel Antef, although not physically attached or directly associated.] Whatever the reason is, this area warrant further investigation as the inscriptions provide us with a yet unclassified account of life in these hills, and may lead us to a reason for their being there. One of our concerns as far as daily habitation of the area is the distinct lack of water in the wadi; so far we have not come across any evidence to suggest that there was or is a well in the area. This may account the huge amount of broken cairns which are strewn around the area that must have carried the water to the church, and may well be one of the reasons why it fell into disrepair. The amount of water and food for that matter that would have been needed to be transported to the site on a daily basis must have been a time consuming exercise and again this supports the theory of its ultimate closure.

We shot just under 1000 photographs, which evidently will take us a while to go through, but we will bring you our results as and when we find them. [These photographs are now catalogued and included in the main photographic library of the Sirius Project.]

We will be returning to the site soon to continue our exploration of the wadi and its foot hills, with special regard to the pathways that we have now located that lead to the Temple of Sankhkare from the northern ridge. This is particularly exciting as this may provide us with again another reason for its location so high up in the mountains: we may just find the common denominator that links all this periods of time and places of worship together. [As you will see in later blogs, as well as in some that have already been posted, these areas have now been documented personally by the team members of the Sirius Project.]

Just a quick note on the scenery: the view that was presented to us form the top of the foothill was amazing! We could see as far as the bend in the River Nile and beyond into the Eastern Desert. We could also see a possible pathway leading to the runoff in the distance below us: we decided that we would take this route and continued on our descent. Unfortunately for us, this particular pathway led us directly to the other side of the wadi, so we had in fact to double back on ourselves near enough to get back to where Mahmoud was picking us up. I had already telephoned him on our way down and kindly asked for cold drinks ready for our arrival. Mahmoud was already waiting for us at the pickup point and those cold glass bottles were looking like living gods. Unfortunately for us he had neglected to bring a bottle opener so we were not only being tortured by the drink itself, but also by the fact we could not drink them... We eventually managed to open them using Marias knife and arrived home safely to nurse our blistered feet and aching bones.

Until Next Time...
Dr. John Ward & Dr. Maria Nilsson
The Sirius Project

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