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 (http://egyptiansociety.co.za/) !

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. 

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