The Sirius Project

The Sirius Project
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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Letters from Luxor - Shemu - Gnostic/Hermetic graffiti in the Theban Mountains

Again, we would like to thank Jean Smith and her associates at the Egyptian Society of South Africa for allowing us to share this small article also here on our blog. For the original publication including photos, please follow the link to TESSA's web page ( !

Continuing in the footsteps of Howard Carter, this letter from Luxor takes us to a ridge close to the very top of the Theban Mountains, which with a marvelous view looks over Wadi el Sikkat el Taqa el Zeide with the unfinished tomb of Hatshepsut toward west, and the Malqata plain toward east. To reach the ridge one can choose two main routes: via the plain, following an ancient pathway that with a steadily increasing incline climbs past a series of workman huts toward the top; or descending from the plateau above the Valley of the Queens. While Carter never found his way to this ridge (instead focusing on Hatshepsut’s tomb close by and remains on top of the plateau), Černý and his colleagues documented the textual graffiti, which primarily dates to late antiquity/early Coptic period, although little has been published on the pictorial graffiti.

In our last letter we discussed symbolism and its overall importance for our understanding of ordinary people other than the official records’ praise and glory dedicated in honour of royalties and the upper elite. The ridge in focus today is an excellent example of the importance of pictorial graffiti as it displays a variety of religious beliefs, and shows examples of the continuation of traditional Egyptian mythology, and the assimilation with Graeco-Roman elements, together merging into Gnostic/Hermetic and early Coptic religious expressions.

When leaving the ancient pathway and stepping onto the ridge one faces an L-shaped mountain wall that incorporates a small cave-like formation. The ground is littered with pottery, foremost amphorae and simpler day-to-day ware. Immediately to the left, one can document a scene, consisting of four anthropomorphic (human-like) figures, created stylistically with square abdomens and squared kilts, or with a rectangular form incorporating both. To the far left and almost double the size of the others (traditionally marking the most important figure) stands a figure wearing a crown. His abdomen and kilt are criss-crossed, like the traditional Egyptian feather pattern – and his arms and legs are marked with a multi-linear pattern. He holds a shield and a spear, and while the etching is rather sloppy made, the outlines indicate a beak of a bird, suggestively a figure of Horus. In front of the deity is a horned altar, loosely determining the scene to the Graeco-Roman period. On the opposite side stand two human figures, both with detailed facial elements and pointy hair. Both figures raise one arm, but while the upper one shows a position of adoration, connecting his other hand with the altar, the lower figure raises a spear, while defending himself against a fourth figure, standing behind him. This fourth figure is almost identical to the very left one – with feather-pattern, crown and a distinct beak – although this one spears the lower human figure in front of him.

Continuing forward along the ridge one can document red painted Coptic symbols, etched hieroglyphic, Greek and Coptic inscriptions, animal graffiti, geometric patterns, and a great amount of birds, anthropomorphic figures, altars, trees as well as an early version of St. George and the dragon. Continuing on the topic from the previous letter, this ridge too shows a few examples of offering tables – some with inner decoration, some without – interpreted elsewhere as grave indicators by Carter and his followers. However, the same symbol appear as quarry markings, preserved in situ as well as on extracted blocks relocated within temple structure, and when appearing as such, it is frequently interpreted as an offering table. Judging from contextual graffiti on the cliff faces surrounding this ridge, such as horned altars, we prefer the latter interpretation, an offering table, rather than a grave marker. 

The two most frequently appearing graffiti on this ridge are ‘Horus-depictions’ and scorpions. The scorpion would have a natural habitat in this area, and other than for its religious manifestations and the fear of its powers, the scorpion was highly estimated for its magical connotations, and its poison could be mixed with beer or wine to treat illnesses. The figure of Horus appears in two main forms, 1) anthropomorphic – human body with falcon head, and 2) complete avian form. Both forms are depicted with a crown, at times rather stylistic and unrecognizable, but mostly it can be identified as either the double crown or the white crown. The fact that Horus appears so frequently is an intriguing aspect of Theban religious history that is worthy of further investigation, especially because of the unofficial and more private connotations of these graffiti.

Only a brief summary of this ridge demonstrates the importance of pictorial graffiti, providing us an opportunity of understanding Egyptian history beyond pharaoh’s wars, triumphs and official affairs. It shows an aspect of regular people, eager to express their beliefs and emotions for whoever would come after to appreciate it. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Journey through northern Kharga part 2

Following part one of this more personal description of our journey, here is part two!

After a few days we moved camp, taking shelter behind two hills and a large sand dune, located along one of the well trodden ancient pathways/routes (in Egyptian ‘darb’). During the last couple of days we had followed two previously unpublished minor routes, among other things resulting in findings of hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions, as well as a Roman halfway-stop (what Ranem, our driver, usually refers to as a ‘cafeteria’). Hopefully, these interesting findings will be properly published along with other things in a form of travel journal. Another thing we are looking forward discussing is the camel stops, but enough of that for now... The two pathways from previous days came together with the main route that eventually will take its visitor to either Dabadib or Ain Amur, and it was along this route that we set up camp 3. John and I spent a lot of time exploring the area on foot the coming days, and one of the afternoons we followed the footsteps of four camels: their marks were still visible, now colored by soft sand that swept in, clearly distinguished from the surrounding black ground. It is not uncommon for a visitor of today to find these types of camel footprints in these areas, and being a great animal lover I was filled with the deepest joy every time I noticed them in the ground – regardless of them belonging to an ancient caravan traveller, an early European explorer, the 19-20th century Islamic Bedouins, or even the few contemporary adventurers who dare to take on the darbs by camel. 


I came to call them “footsies”, and as soon as John or any of our drivers noticed them they called out for me knowing that it would once more bring out that big smile of mine. Magic on a different level for sure! As it turned out though, the four camels must have lost their orientation, which during the early stage was clearly marked by the stacked stones, and John and I soon surrendered to the fact that their path would take us into no-man’s-land, far away from the ancient, considerably more trodden pathway that we initially had followed. So, following a lunch consisting of semi-warm tuna, cucumber, tomato and feta cheese, we turned back to once again find the stone markers and catch up with the ancient trade route trodden by thousands of camels a couple of thousands of years ago.

During these days it should be added that I created a great confusion in the camp as I left camp early with the sunrise while everyone else was sound asleep, and went for some nice morning jogs. I guess I owe my thanks to my father for being able to enjoy a morning run in a desert environment, when knowing that the tasks ahead of us would demand much strength and energy, something which most people would skip without even considering doing it – but there is something so unique in waking up with nature itself, to feel the first rays of the morning sun, while body and soul get a decent start of the day. Admittedly, after my first morning run, which was followed by one of our longest walks and a morning walk up and down past sand dunes and hill tops (which was not planned), I could not manage to stay awake far past the night had swallowed our illuminating Ra. I was exhausted (but not enough to not do it again...).

tired after a long walk, ready for lunch!!!

nature's wonders

sandstone shaped by strong wind, sand, heat and water

Our next camp, a few days later, was set for a wadi (valley) to the east of our nowadays very familiar (and homelike) ancient village, Ain Umm al Dabadib. Our aim in this eastern position was to continue to photograph a series of ancient graffiti which we first noticed when we visited the area with good friends for our traditional New Year’s Eve in the desert. The difference now from then was that the trees and bushes were in full bloom, and among the wild life we were blessed with sighting a gazelle, a great variation of birds, and then, there was the topic of scorpions, those that had returned to life after a long winter rest. One has to be so careful if lifting a fragmented piece of pottery, or where one sat down for a coffee break, because under loose stones and other irregularities the chances are great to find oneself an unwanted friend. John put his hand in a scorpion nest when carefully picking up a pottery shard out of which four baby scorpions crawled, irritated after having been disturbed.

more of nature's beauty

ready for that walk?!

remains of an ancient aqueduct system

manuwal (underground water system) opening
Ain Umm al Dabadib from a distance

Personally, I am up with the sunrise every morning, but one morning all the others joined in as well as they woke up by the sound of a motorcycle: this is a very alien sound in a normally completely silent surrounding. It did not take many breaths for our Egyptian friends to be up on their feet, Mohammed running up on the closest hill to find out what was going on. The man on the bike had almost hit the Egyptians’ tent, realizing that we were there, and quickly turned around, driving away as fast as only possible. Ranem and the others had a good laugh, believing that the driver surely thought the tent belonged to Egyptian police, but John and I felt less confident and knew that anyone who drives up to this part of the desert will not give up their task that easily. There are two main problems in these areas of the desert: firstly, men drive up to hunt the nearly extinct gazelle, which on the market can provide a good deal of money – the gazelle comes down from the mountains in the early morning to eat from the green trees; secondly, it is the more commonly known problem with looting and grave digging. This morning, thankfully, the beautiful gazelle was safe to see another day, and so can be said about the area’s antiquity!

a very symbolic friend

etching of a "vulva", one of the more common symbols in the desert

pottery fragment partially hidden in sand

coffee break with biscuits (being picked up after a long walk) 

Completing our documentation of the graffiti, we moved to the other side of Dabadib, setting up camp 5 in a western wadi. Here we hoped to continue following another ancient trade route, which we started walking on last year. 

ancient graffiti


more graffiti

this image shows the devastation of nature's elements

Little did we know then that this route would take us up to the very peak of the mountain ridge that encircles Kharga Oasis. It was one of those moments in life when you feel so grateful for being alive, having achieved something that is extraordinary. With a steady incline we climbed over sand dunes high as sky scrapers, walking down into ravines crowded by scattered camel skeletons, giving a loud and clear message of nature’s harshness, and then up again, past rocky sections and more sand dunes. At the latter part of our climb, John more or less lost faith in surviving the day, most probably regretting the fact that he allowed me to talk him into continuing all the way up to the top. However, once up there, we could enjoy a view which is by far something of the most beautiful and breath taking (literally and figuratively!) that anyone of us had ever seen. There below us, in a southern direction, the entire Kharga playa spread out with all its glory and pride. With Dabadib’s palm trees still visible in a far distance, we could appreciate the clear overview, being able to follow with our eyes the various pathways and structural impacts our ancient forefathers once created. However, as we came to the very top, I must admit that I felt a bit robbed of an experience that I believed would greet me. John, of course, knew after studying the maps in detail, but what I had not realized previously was that the landscape on the other side of the mountain ridge would flatten out rather than descending, and instead of a gorgeous view over another playa or at least partially valley, the pure desert landscape stretched out flat with the ancients’ route meandering between the sandstone hills that continued as far as the eye could see. The landscape up there changed from the Kharga contrasts of black pebble/stone ground and deep yellow sand, to a light yellow, almost white, blinding anyone who starred at the natural beauty too long. So there we were, up on top after a fantastic climb, now following the marking system of stacked stone with only our eyes, realizing that to continue would require another day’s work. Therefore, it was time for us to head back if we wanted to reach camp before sunset. In a way I must say that I was grateful as I could see it written in John’s eyes how it sometimes can be rather challenging to live and work with a half crazy Swedish fitness freak who still finds the energy to run to the next alama (the stacked stone) just to include a little bit more of history before its time to return. My (our) love for ancient history do tend to take us to the edges and test our capability to keep on moving. However, one must here remember and honor the strength of the ancients who walked this routes, fully packed and with their very lives in risk from time to time. Our walk along this ancient route, taking its travellers from Kharga, Dush, el Deir, Labeka, Dabashiya, Dabadib, or any of the surrounding villages, up past this mountain pass over to the pure desert landscape to finally reach either Farshout/Abydos (if taking off to the east), to Fayyum (if continuing north), or the western oases, is an experience that we will both forever be proud of having done, but it is a walk that is not to be recommended to anyone who is not extremely fascinated by ancient trade routes, sand dunes, heavy winds, or pure survival tests. 

on top of the "world",
the highest point marked with an "alama" (stacked stone marker)

"crow rock" (named by John)

the splendid landscape on top of the mountains

The archaeological site of Ain Umm al Dabadib is located c. 40 km north of Kharga and is one of the most well preserved ancient sites out there. Except for the large fort and two temples/churches, the site presents a scenery with administrative mud brick structures, houses with vaulted rooms, agricultural land, aqueducts and the underground water system. The site is located at the foot of the mountains, at the bottom of the escarpment, and as you drive in from the flat playa the first sight that hits you is the green and strong growing palm trees surrounding the once three floored fortress, easily comparable with a traditional description of a desert illusion, a mirage, providing any traveller access to water, food and rest. Dabadib has become a favorite destination for us; we return on a yearly basis to this place which we personally refer to as our paradise, a site of ancient ruins which through its ancient water system still provides enough water to sustain trees and wild life still to this day. Usually when returning we focus on new, previously to us unknown areas around Dabadib, but this time we wanted to drive in to the main site itself and simply give ourselves a little reminder of its beauty. However, this time it was far from a pleasant experience as we could document various examples of looting (which, of course, is something which has been going on for quite some time), but now we came across a completely destroyed smaller sanctuary, which on our previous visit was hidden to its visitors by sand and dirt, completely buried by years of sandstorms etc.. Now, mud bricks and the sandstone slabs and lintels lay scattered, providing little evidence of what once was its original structure. Unfortunately, this is a problem that is very difficult to find a solution to, these desert sites are far away from any modern city, and while it works to have little Ahmed Sayed guarding Labeka, no one has so far managed to protect its sisters Dabadib and Ain Amur.

the result of tomb robbers at Dabadib -
the remains of an entire family lay scattered around what once was their final resting place

beauty of Dabadib

Another experience which will never be forgotten took place during another walk of ours. We were at the very bottom of a valley, following one of the underground water systems (manuwal) as far up as possible, without any visible signs of life, but there it suddenly was, a small beautifully yellow and green-colored bird which did its very best in trying to get my attention. John had already started walking, but I remained standing as if troll bound by this tiny little creature.  As I stopped it flew closer, seeking shade behind a small rock just next to me, and as I slowly squatted down it came ‘hopping’ on steady legs towards me. No fear, no hesitation. It looked me straight in my eyes and would not allow me to break contact. I realized that the little one surely needed some water, and as I unscrewed the mug of our brought thermos, filled it up with water, the little bird came up to me, waiting patiently. I tipped the mug a little bit allowing the bird to gratefully having a sip of life-providing water. Of course it was thirsty! There it was, sipping on life’s nectar, just a few inches away from where I sat, and once it had finished it temporarily sat on my hand to later walk around me and jump up to sit in my lap! At this point, John had returned to me, wondering what was going on, and even though John has seen many examples of how connected I am with nature and animals, he found it difficult to find words to describe what he saw. This was a wild bird in a completely deserted landscape, it was thirsty and so completely thankful for the gift that out there equals life. To be blessed with such a contact with a bird, or with any given animal, is so amazing and magical, and I felt so honored to experience this. We sat like that for almost twenty minutes, then we had to go, but even though we left some more water and food, the bird choose to accompany us, flying in front of us as we headed back to camp, and every following morning (as long as we stayed at this camp) it greeted us with its song, and on our last morning it encircled us in the air to finally turn back to the valley were we first met. For me, personally, this was one of the most fantastic experiences I have ever had in the desert!

With this beautiful and very personal experience we leave you for now, returning yet again in a couple of days with some more descriptions of the trade routes and the area surrounding Ain Amur. 

one explorer next to another

ancient aqueduct 

Scarabs: original and a sand drawn image

photographing pictorial graffiti

on top of the "world"