One of the Golden Mummies. Creative Commons photo courtesy Roland Unger.
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently visited Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. The oasis became famous in 1996 with the discovery of a series of tombs of the Greco-Roman Period (332 BC-395 AD). They were found accidentally when an Antiquities Guard was leading his donkey on a sandy stretch near the Temple of Alexander the Great when the animal’s hoof broke through the surface. Once he extricated the donkey, he peeked inside and saw an underground chamber.
Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass excavated the site and found several tombs, removing more than 250 mummies. Many had gilded masks like the one pictured above, and the site soon became known as The Valley of the Golden Mummies. Hawass believes that he has uncovered only a tiny fraction of the tombs. A few are on display in Bahariya, including the one above, but photography is forbidden, so I wasn’t able to take any shots for you. How Roland Unger got this shot I’ll leave as a riddle unsolved.
Bahariya was an important place in Greco-Roman times, having good agricultural land that could be cultivated year-round, instead of the Nile valley that flooded every year. Thus it was a good spot for growing grapes to make wine.
Mask of a boy named Heraklion, Roman Period 2nd century AD. This painted plaster mask covered the head and chest of the mummy. Heraklion offers a bunch of grapes to a small bird.
Visitors to Egypt tend to want to see the great sites of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms. The pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and the splendid temples around Luxor are all well worth a visit, but Egypt’s later periods are of interest as well. I just went on one of my semi-regular trips to Egypt with the specific intent to study the Greco-Roman period. It plays a role in the third book in my Masked Man of Cairo neo-pulp series and there’s no better inspiration than actually seeing the sites and artifacts themselves.
The rather unobtrusive entrance to the tomb. Like most mastabas, its superstructure has disappeared over time.
Put on your pith helmets, Black Gatereaders, because today we’re going into an ancient Egyptian tomb!
This tomb, on the Giza plateau, was built for Idu, an inspector of priests of the pharaohs Khufu and Khafre and overseer of scribes. Idu made sure the rites and rituals in honor of the departed pharaohs were done properly, and that the priests had all the equipment they needed. Idu lived in the VI Dynasty, probably during the reign of Pepi I (2332-2283 BC), a couple of hundred years after the death of these two important pharaohs. The most prominent Egyptian pharaohs had cults that lasted centuries.
Last week in my post on the Coptic Heritage of Cairo I posted a photo of a stained glass window done in the traditional Egyptian style, from the so-called “Hanging Church” in Cairo, officially known as St. Virgin Mary’s. It got its name because it’s built atop an old Roman gatehouse.
I was surprised at this and other stained glass windows I found all over Cairo, both in Christian and Muslim settings. I had never read about these windows in my (admittedly small) collection of Islamic art books, and I didn’t remember them from my previous visit in 1991. I’ve been able to find very little about them online, so if anyone knows more, please comment!
Here’s something you don’t see every day, some preserved bread from the Eleventh Dynasty (2134-1991 BC) from Thebes. I snapped this photo in the Cairo Museum during a recent writing retreat.
… and I’m afraid that’s all I have for you this week from Egypt. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m working as a ghostwriter and I have a heinous deadline for a novel due this Friday. I’m also finishing up a short nonfiction booklet and my own novel, the one I went to Cairo to write in the first place. A minor character knocked the plot sideways and added 10,000 words to it.
So if I don’t want to be eating this bread next week, I have to get back to writing. But here are some more pics because I love you.
Interior of the mastaba of Meresankh III. The row of
statues shows the queen and female members of her family
Not everyone gets a pyramid when they die.
As nice as it would be for everyone to get their own massive stone monument that lasts for all time, it’s really expensive and the one percenters want to have something of their own that makes them feel special.
So for those of us who don’t get to rule over Ancient Egypt with an iron fist, but aren’t so poor that we’re stuck in a shallow pit in the desert, there’s the mastaba, a home away home where we can spend the afterlife.
Mastabas were rectangular buildings made of mud brick or stone containing a few rooms and a burial chamber beneath it reached via a vertical shaft. They were wonderfully decorated on the inside and had a place for making offerings to the dead.
Ivory headrest. This is used as a pillow in many African
cultures if you want to preserve your hairdo. How you’re
supposed to actually get any sleep is beyond me
King Tutankhamun (1336-1327 BC) was a short-lived 18th dynasty pharaoh who was obscure and little studied by egyptologists until Howard Carter discovered his nearly intact tomb in 1922. Since then his most elaborate burial goods have been photographed countless times, and the whole world is familiar with images of his famous death mask, sarcophagi, and other golden treasures.
But these are only a small fraction of all the finds in the tomb. A total of 5,398 artifacts were retrieved, and on a recent visit to the Egyptian Museum during a writing retreat in Cairo, I had the privilege to see some of the ones not often reproduced in books.
London is full of museums. While visitors swarm to the Big Three of the British Museum, the Tate Modern, and the National Gallery, there are dozens more that are worth visiting. One that’s of interest to anyone with a taste for history is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London.
Most international visitors have never heard of this place and head on over to the British Museum to see its stunning collection of mummies and statues. While that experience is hard to beat, I actually prefer the Petrie Museum. The British Museum is a bit of a victim of its own success, and it’s difficult to stand and enjoy the artwork without being trampled by hordes of visitors.
The two museums also have different purposes. The British Museum focuses on Egypt’s Greatest Hits, with lots of gold, fine artwork and, of course, the ever-popular preserved people. The Petrie Museum is a study museum, where Egyptology students come to compare large numbers of objects packed into the cases and see how they changed over time. Cases have drawers underneath that can be pulled out to view more examples. The collection includes some 80,000 items from both Egypt and Nubia, two of Africa’s greatest ancient civilizations.