Sinai, North, late prehistoric and Dynastic sites To Siwa Oasis, Late period and Graeco-Roman sites (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Sinai, North, late prehistoric and Dynastic sites

The Mediterranean coast of North Sinai, between the Suez Canal and Gaza, served as a land bridge connecting Egypt and Asia. Its early history is documented in Egyptian and Assyrian sources. Later detailed information is found in Graeco-Roman, Byzantine and Islamic records, maps and itineraries by historians, geographers and church fathers. From 1910 to 1924, French archaeologist Jean Cledat investigated a few sites in northern Sinai, almost all of which date to the Roman and Byzantine periods. During 1972-82, the North Sinai Expedition of Ben Gurion University, under the direction of Eliezer Oren, conducted a systematic archaeological survey and excavations in an area of approximately 2,000 square km. Investigations in North Sinai since 1985, by Egyptian, Franco-Egyptian and other expeditions doing salvage archaeology where the el-Salamm canal is being constructed, have focused on the region between Baluza and Qantara in northwestern Sinai.

The Ben Gurion expedition recorded some 1,300 sites, including large towns and villages, forts and road stations, camp sites and cemeteries, which range in date from the Paleolithic to the Ottoman period. As a result, it is now possible to reconstruct in detail the history of settlement in northern Sinai and its role as the principal corridor between Egypt and Asia.

Prehistoric assemblages along the coastal strip of Sinai between el-Arish and Gaza indicate human activity, mainly seasonal camp sites, from Paleolithic times. About 190 late prehistoric settlement sites (Pottery Neolithic and Chalcolithic, dating to the sixth-fourth millennia BC) were recorded in northeastern Sinai and as far afield as the region of the Suez Canal.

Excavations at Site Y-3 (terminal Pottery Neolithic) unearthed various installations and a child burial in a jar. Faunal evidence, including many pig bones, implies that this was a permanent settlement of an agricultural/pastoral subsistence. Some Chalcolithic sites (R-48, Y-79) yielded stratified occupational remains, including mudbrick structures and violin-shaped figurines, that exhibit close affinities with the contemporaneous material culture of the western Negev. A few examples of Predynastic ceramics (Nagada I) imported from Upper Egypt, and a locally manufactured palette in an Egyptian style, indicate the earliest trade contacts with Predynastic Egypt (early fourth millennium BC).

Between Qantara and Raphia, some 250 settlements were investigated with material remains of the Canaanite Early Bronze Age (EBI) and the later Egyptian Predynastic phases (Nagada II-III). One such site was discovered in 1910 by Cledat at el-Beda. The settlement pattern was characterized by site clusters, organized in a two- or three-tiered settlement hierarchy of seasonal encampments alongside core sites and way-stations. The rich and diverse ceramic assemblages included both Canaanite (EBIa-c) and Predynastic (Nagada II-III/Dynasty 0) wares. The latter comprised nearly 80 percent of the entire ensemble and represent the full spectrum of domestic classes. Finely worked stone vessels, sandstone copper ore and copper artifacts have also been found. These sites represent the eastward extension of the Egyptian state-organized sphere of interest into Canaan that resulted in Egypt’s domination and administration of the entire territory of northern Sinai and southern Canaan in the late fourth and early third millennia BC.

Nearly 300 sites, both base settlements and seasonal encampments, of the late third millennium BC (EBIV period) were recorded between the Suez Canal and Raphia. The bulk of pottery is southern Canaanite (EBIV), but there are also late variants of Egyptian "Meydum Ware." The clusters of EBIV sites belonged to pastoralist groups that maintained limited exchanges with the farming villages in the Egyptian Delta.

Beginning about 2,000 BC, the Middle Bronze Age in northern Sinai is represented by about 300 localities, mostly small seasonal encampments, for essentially transhumant pastoralists with limited trading activity. In contrast, in the vicinity of the Suez Canal the expedition recorded the remains of extensive sedentary settlements from the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. Egyptian excavations at one of these sites (Tell Hebua) since 1988 by M.Abdel Maksoud on behalf of the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Egypt have revealed the remains of well-organized fortified settlements, including limestone blocks carved with royal names of the Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom. The ceramics from the campsites exhibit a rich variety of Egyptian Middle Kingdom/Second Intermediate Period (35 percent) and Canaanite Middle Bronze Age (MBI-III, 32 percent) wares. The rural aspect of the ceramics is best manifested in the crude, handmade cooking vessels (33 percent). The archaeological evidence suggests that regular trade of bulk commodities was conducted between the Egyptian Nile Delta and Canaan via the state-run maritime traffic. At the same time, the ceramics clearly reflect close socioeconomic interaction on a lower level between the terminal regions, southern Canaan and the eastern Delta.

Repeated military campaigns into Asia by the Egyptian army in the early New Kingdom (beginning circa 1,550 BC) marked the establishment of the "Ways of Horus" network, Egypt’s principal artery of communication to, and a key for the administration of, its provinces in Canaan and Syria. The first campaign of Tuthmose III from the border fortress of Zeru (known in Graeco-Roman times as Sile) to Gaza, about 250km away, in nine to ten days demonstrates the effectiveness of the Egyptian organization of the "Ways of Horus." The North Sinai Expedition recorded 231 New Kingdom settlements between Qantara and Raphia. Additional base sites of this period were excavated between Raphia and Gaza: Tell Abu-Salima (excavated by Flinders Petrie), Tell Ridan (Vitto) and Deir el-Bala (Dothan).

The distribution pattern is characterized by clusters of base sites (usually forts or way-stations), 15-20km apart, surrounded by campsites and seasonal encampments. The close proximity to several New Kingdom sites in northwestern Sinai of the recently discovered ancient frontier canal may indicate a New Kingdom construction of the canal. Architecture and site organization, as well as the size of mudbricks and method of construction and bonding, are all characteristic of mudbrick architecture in New Kingdom Egypt.

The large (4-5 square km) cluster at Haraba in northeastern Sinai is represented by twenty-odd sites, including two settlements: a fort (A-289) and an administrative center (A-345). Fort A-289 is circa 2,500 sq.m in area, comprising a 4m wide enclosure wall, a massive, 13x20m gate house and a complex of rooms for storage and various domestic activities. A number of child and adult burials were found under the floors and mudbrick debris. One chamber contained two huge Egyptian pithoi jars bearing large cartouches of Seti II. Floor and refuse deposits included Canaanite (LBIII), Egyptian (19th-20th Dynasties) and many Mycenaean and Cypriot wares; seals and scarabs; ceramic uraeus (the sacred cobra) heads; and stone vessels. The archaeological evidence dates the building of the fort (Phase III) to the early 19th Dynasty, most likely as part of the reorganization of the "Ways of Horus" by Seti I. There are also some remains (Phase IV) of earlier, perhaps unfortified, structures of the 18th Dynasty. Building remains of Phase II mark extensive repairs of the original structure, probably after it no longer served as a fortress. Following the destruction by fire of Phase II, some time in the late twelfth century BC, parts of the fort were reoccupied (Phase I) as a campsite in late Iron Age I, circa 1,050-1,000 BC.

North of the fort a section (2,000 sq.m) of an extensive administrative complex (A-345) of the 18th Dynasty was investigated. In the center of the site was a spacious magazine unit with long, mudbrick-floored halls opening onto a central courtyard and enclosed by a wall. Archaeological soundings yielded evidence of earlier walls, storage and refuse installations. The site was abandoned peacefully. To the east of the magazine was a large industrial quarter, including a potters’ workshop that manufactured a specific line of Egyptian-type vessels. Cypriot imports were numerous compared to fewer Mycenaean vessels. Similarly, the number of Canaanite vessels was relatively small and was mostly limited to storage jars.

The central site (BE A-10) in the cluster of Bir el-Abd is represented by the badly eroded remains of a fort with a 4m wide enclosure wall and a variety of rooms and domestic installations. South of it was a magazine with long parallel rooms fronted by an enclosed courtyard. Nearby a well preserved granary was excavated with four cylindrical silos, each circa 4m in diameter. The granary could have held up to 44,600 liters (about 40 tons) of grain or legumes. Following the collapse of the silo domes, the granary became the fort’s refuse installation and much pottery, alabaster, faience, and animal and fish bones were excavated here. About 200m northwest of the fort, the remains of an artificial, rectangular depression measuring circa 10x15m and bordered by a kind of clay plastered embankment were surveyed. The thick layer of silt that lined the depression suggests that it served as the fortress’s water reservoir.

The rich assemblages of artifacts from these sites, including scarabs and seal impressions, reflect in detail the history of occupation in North Sinai, beginning in the early 18th Dynasty up to the withdrawal of Egyptians from their Asiatic provinces toward the end of the 20th Dynasty, circa 1,130 BC.

By the early first millennium BC (Iron Age II), North Sinai resumed its role as a vital link between Egypt and Canaan. The survey map is represented by 233 settlement sites from the late eleventh to the late sixth centuries BC (Iron Age II-III). A cluster of some thirty Iron Age sites between Wadi el-’Arish and Wadi Gaza provided evidence of Assyrian control in this region during the eighth-seventh centuries BC. The largest site, Tell Ruqeish, near Deir el-Balah, yielded domestic and public architecture of a well-organized town enclosed by a massive defensive wall. Earlier excavations outside the walled area revealed a cemetery with Phoenician-type cremation burials. Tell Ruqeish, probably the "sealed Karu(m) of Egypt" (mentioned on the Calah prism of the Assyrian king Sargon II) served as the major Assyrian commercial headquarters. It also figured prominently in the maritime traffic and coordinated trade with Egypt. Additional Assyrian-style architecture was recovered at Sheikh Zuweid by Flinders Petrie in 1935-6, providing evidence for Assyrian-administered territory as far as the "Brook of Egypt" (Wadi el-’Arish) in the eighth-seventh centuries BC.

Of the numerous sites from the Saite period (26th Dynasty) in the sixth century BC, the larger cluster was investigated in the Canal zone, a region which, according to textual sources, was occupied by border garrisons and inhabited by foreign merchants and mercenaries. Near Tell el-Herr, on the ancient frontier canal, a sizable (circa 10ha) garrison (Tell Qedua) was investigated, probably to be identified with ancient Migdol. The center of this site was occupied by a massive fortified compound with a 15-20m wide enclosure wall. The large ceramic corpus is represented by Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek and Cypriot wares, and there are also many metal artifacts, copper ore and slag. The fortress was subsequently destroyed by fire in the late sixth century BC, apparently as a direct result of the invasion of Egypt by the Persian king Cambyses in 525 BC.

North Sinai, granary at New Kingdom site BEA-10

Figure 104 North Sinai, granary at New Kingdom site BEA-10

The annexation of Egypt into the Persian empire brought about the establishment of a well-organized road system along the coast of northern Sinai, including the building of forts, way stations, fishing villages and landing facilities. Subsequently, these became the nuclei for the network of towns and stations that characterized the coast of northern Sinai in Graeco-Roman and Byzantine times. The North Sinai Expedition recorded 235 settlement sites of the Persian period, circa fifth-fourth centuries BC. Their distribution indicates large concentrations in northwestern Sinai, on the shores of the Bardawil lagoon and along the coast between el-’Arish and Gaza. At almost every site much Greek pottery was recorded, testifying to the major role that Greek trade played in the economy of North Sinai.

The impressive remains of the Persian period at the coastal site of Tell Ruqeish support its identification as one of Herodotus’ coastal emporia south of Gaza. Nearby at Tell Qatif, a massive mudbrick fort was investigated which was enclosed by a 5m wide wall with a tower overlooking the sea. The fort belonged to a network of Persian military installations along the coastal highway, between Gaza and Pelusium. Remains of such forts were encountered near Sheikh Zuweid, Ras Qasrun, Rumani and Tell el-Herr. Stratified remains of a large settlement were uncovered at Sheikh Zuweid by Petrie in 1935-6, while nearby excavations in 1976 uncovered a large fortified structure of the courtyard type. Settlement strata of the Persian period were found in a limited salvage investigation at Tell Raphia, and some 1,200m west of the site the expedition uncovered the badly damaged remains of a small cult site with a two-room structure and courtyards. The larger of the courtyards had a plastered basin and pits full of ash, animal bones and many fragments of ceramic and faience figurines, in Greek, Phoenician, Cypriot and Egyptian styles. In the center of the Bardawil sandbar at Katib el-Gals, identified as the site of Kasion, 22 of the 43 surveyed sites included material remains of the Persian period. Limited soundings at Ras Qasrun (M36), traditionally equated with Mons Kasius and the location of the Phoenician cult site of Baal Zephon, yielded scanty domestic remains of the Persian period. The settlement of Kasion and the cult site of Zeus Kasion/Baal Zephon are probably buried somewhere under the el-Gals sand dune ridge.

In the vicinity of Tell el-Herr, the North Sinai Expedition explored extensive cemeteries from the Persian and Graeco-Roman periods. Many badly preserved burials, complete with plaster funerary masks, were recorded. The masks were fashioned in a mixed Greek and Cypriot style, with Egyptian mythological motifs. Finally, the coastal strip between Pelusium and Tell Mahmadiya is represented by a dense cluster of more than 30 sites dating to the fifth-fourth centuries BC. These sites have yielded unusually large deposits of imported Greek amphorae and black-glazed fine wares, as well as Phoenician-type transport jars, and they may represent trading depots for consignments of wine and oil for redistribution and consumption by the foreign population in the eastern Nile Delta.

The North Sinai Expedition also investigated hundreds of settlement sites of the Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, early Islamic and medieval periods, including large-scale excavations at town sites such as Rhinocolura, Qasrawet and Ostrakine. Explorations since 1985, specifically in the northwestern Sinai at the large town sites of Tell el-Farama (Pelusium) and Tell el-Herr, have also produced rich material remains of public, domestic and industrial quarters of the Graeco-Roman and Byzantine periods.

Siwa Oasis, Late period and Graeco-Roman sites

Siwa Oasis (29°12′ N, 25°31′ E) is located some 300km south of the Mediterranean port of Marsa Matruh, close to the modern border between Egypt and Libya. The Oasis is the economic and cultural center of a large depression in the far corner of the Egyptian Western Desert, lying an average of 13m below sea level. Siwa Oasis enjoys, and at the same time is threatened by, an overabundance of water. Date palms and olive trees set among large lakes have traditionally formed the basis of the Oasis’s economic life. The salt of the Oasis (sal ammoniacum) was coveted abroad in classical times (Arrian, Anabasis III.4; Athenaeus, Deipnosoph. II.67b). Archaeological evidence suggests that oil production was a major industry in Roman times; papyrological evidence indicates that oil from the Siwa Oasis cost more than oil from other oases.

Nothing is known yet of Siwa Oasis during the pharaonic periods of Egyptian history until the 26th Dynasty. At this time, Siwa was an independent state ruled by a tribal Libyan chieftain.

These chieftains were referred to as "king and (great) chief of foreign lands" (nsw-bity wr [’3J V^t) in hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Oasis and as "king" (basileus) in Greek sources. The Oasis was called 7-* (j) in the Libyan-Egyptian language (Herodotus 11.24), Ammon by the Graeco-Roman world and Santariya according to medieval Arab sources. During these periods, Siwa Oasis was a melting pot of the indigenous Libyan civilization and the adopted Egyptian and Hellenistic cultures.

Two events mainly have kept the memory of Siwa alive. One is the tragic fate of an army of allegedly 50,000 Persian soldiers. Supposedly sent by King Cambyses (524 BC) to sack the oasis, the army is said to have perished in a sandstorm while on its way there (Herodotus III.25-6). The other is the journey made to Siwa by Alexander the Great (332/331 BC). In 1899 the Egyptologist Georg Steindorff definitely identified the site of the famous Temple of the Oracle with the rocky acropolis of Aghurmi. Some thirty-five years later Steindorff, accompanied by the architects Ricke and Aubin, conducted the first detailed archaeological exploration of the temple, publishing accurate plans and epigraphic material. Subsequently, it was the distinguished Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhry who contributed immensely to our knowledge of Siwan archaeological sites in general and who studied the Ammoneion in particular detail.

Location of Siwa Oasis and the Qattara Depression in the Western Desert

Figure 105 Location of Siwa Oasis and the Qattara Depression in the Western Desert

We have the following detailed description of the oracular complex in central Siwa by the first century BC historian Diodorus (XVII 50-1):

All the people of Ammon live together as in a village. In the midst of their country there is an acropolis secured by triple walls. The first wall encloses the palace of the ancient rulers; the second one encompasses the women’s court, the dwellings of the children, women and relatives, and the guard rooms of the scouts, as well as the sanctuary of the god and the sacred spring, from the waters of which offerings addressed to the god take on holiness; the third wall surrounds the barrack of the king’s guards and the guard rooms of those who protect the person of the ruler. Outside the fortress at no great distance there is another temple of Ammon shaded by many large trees, and near this is the spring which is called the Spring of the Sun because of its behaviour.

The acropolis of Diodorus’s account has been correctly recognized by Steindorff as the hill of modern Aghurmi (Berber: "village"), approximately 1.7km east of Shali (Berber: "town") and the surrounding urban center of Siwa.

The temple is unmistakably Egyptian in style, but rather small (circa 14x22m) and unassuming in appearance. On the basis of controversial epigraphic evidence, it would seem to date from the reign of Pharaoh Amasis (26th Dynasty). Its pseudo-isodomic masonry of local limestone is an exceedingly rare feature of Egyptian architecture; free standing walls with the larger courses made up of casing blocks enclosing a fill of stone and mortar, as at Aghurmi, have no Egyptian parallel. Technical details, such as the use of the claw chisel, the use of pulleys to hoist up blocks and a high degree of finish along the edge of blocks (anathyrosis), indicate that a non-Egyptian workforce built the oracle temple. The evidence points to Greeks (from Cyrenaica?) constructing the monumental architecture of the Siwa acropolis.

The "other temple of Ammon" referred to by Diodorus can be identified with the large site (circa 50x120m) of Umm ‘Ubaydah some 400m south of Aghurmi, where scant remains on a small hillock tell of the existence of a once splendidly adorned sanctuary. It was richly decorated with reliefs and hieroglyphic texts in raised relief; the masonry was partially of locally quarried alabaster. Excavations have uncovered the remains of palmiform columns and architraves, suggesting the existence of a colonnaded forecourt to the temple. On the eastern slope were found the remains of a large platform-like structure of limestone masonry and a cistern, both probably dating to the Hellenistic or Roman era. Hieroglyphic inscriptions associate the temple with a Siwan kinglet called Wenamen and Pharaoh Nectanebo II, the last indigenous Egyptian ruler before the Macedonian conquest. Still surrounded by dense groves of palm trees like "in the shade of many large trees," Diodorus’s mention of Umm ‘Ubaydah indicates that the oracle once comprised two major sanctuaries. This is supported by the fact that the Umm ‘Ubaydah temple faced the entrance to Aghurmi and was aligned along a common axis with the latter temple. Analogies from the Nile Valley would lead one to expect that, originally, both temples should have been linked by a processional causeway (dromos).

The "Spring of the Sun" was most probably a well forming part of the Ammoneion precinct of Amen-Re; the popular identification of this "spring" with a large well formerly called ‘Ain al-Hammam (now ‘Ain al-Gubba or "Cleopatra’s bath") some 750m farther south remains speculative. Water welling up from within the limestone and shale layers of the hill made Aghurmi an ideal choice for the location of the temple and residence of the kings of Siwa. Curbed in a hollow at the foot of the temple, the ancient well is still visible and still contains water. Undoubtedly, it is Diodorus’s sacred spring "from the waters of which offerings addressed to the god take on holiness."

Archaeological plan of the area from Aghurmi to Ubayada

Figure 106 Archaeological plan of the area from Aghurmi to Ubayada

Relief in the Umm 'Ubaydah temple, Siwa Oasis: processions of gods and King Wenamen wearing the Libyan chief's ostrich feather headdress and kneeling in front of the shrine of Amen (top right)

Figure 107 Relief in the Umm ‘Ubaydah temple, Siwa Oasis: processions of gods and King Wenamen wearing the Libyan chief’s ostrich feather headdress and kneeling in front of the shrine of Amen (top right)

The Aghurmi temple faces south and is aligned north-northwest. It consists of an open forecourt, a first and second hall lit by light-shafts high up in the western walls, followed by the holy of holies or sanctuary proper which to the west is flanked by another big hall and a small niche-like vestry to the east. Only the holy of holies carries some conventional scenes and hieroglyphic inscriptions in sunk relief. They show Pharaoh Amasis on the east (Nile) side and the Ammonian ruler Sutekh-irdes on the west (Libyan) side offering to a row of gods headed by Amen. Architecturally striking features are a thinner wall which surrounds the sanctuary to the north and west (forming a blind passage 52-67cm wide) as well as two curved ledges protruding from the lateral walls of the sanctuary circa 3.00m above floor level. Evidently, these ledges carried a ceiling which took the appearance of the hieroglyphic sign for "sky" (pt); this ceiling created another room above the sanctuary. Originally, this chamber was accessible from the roof of the building only. There is no evidence either for doors or a staircase leading toward it. Access could have been gained by means of a ladder, indicating that for all intents and purposes this room was a secret feature. The outer walls surrounding the sanctuary would have shielded from view whoever climbed into the hidden chamber above the holy of holies. A window in the sanctuary’s western wall aligns with another window in the opposite wall in the big hall allowing a shaft of light to penetrate toward the god’s barge naos in the center of the sanctuary. The fact that Onuris and Tefnut are represented right next to this window and the mythology connected with these two gods suggest the occurrence of this event to have coincided with the winter solstice.

Recent investigations have revealed the presence of two undecorated tombs extending under the northern part of the temple. They are accessible by means of vertical shafts partly covered by the temple’s masonry, are undecorated and were robbed. They are either contemporary with the temple or of earlier date. Another tomb extends under the forecourt; it has a mummy-shaped pit sunk in the floor of the burial chamber. In the light of this new evidence, similar features which were partly destroyed and exposed when erosion caused the loss of considerable masses of rock immediately to the northwest and behind the temple are likely to have been tombs as well. Such temple burials recall similar practices in Third Intermediate Period and Late Period Egypt at such sites as Tanis (royalty) and Medinet Habu (high priests).

Much speculation surrounds the mystery of the Siwan oracle and the omphalos worshipped there. In the Late Period, Amen may be iconographically represented as a human head (with feathered crown) resting on a globular shape that shows an omphaloslike protrusion emerging from it. It represents the god in his common ithyphallic form (Min-Amen) shrouded by an amulet-studded cloak, the raised arm with the flagellum creating the umbilical shape commented upon by classical authors (Curtius Rufus IV.7,23; Diodorus XVII.50,6).

Accounts relating Alexander’s journey to Siwa show that the oracular procedure was clearly the same as that practiced in the Nile Valley, where the underlying principle of bark oracles was based on presenting questions in such a way that they could be answered either yes or no. Divine advice would never be heard (priests imitating the voice of gods), but only be seen. Oracles performed in public would usually take the form of a procession, the god being carried out of the temple on his sacred bark in order to visit neighboring shrines. As most Egyptian people were barred from entering the temples, this was the only occasion on which deities could be approached by the masses. Delivering a positive statement, the bow of the bark (taking the ram-headed shape of Amen’s sacred animal) would nod approval as the bearers in front would "involuntarily" bend and straighten up again several times. A verdict of no was indicated by the bark retreating or not moving at all. As there is practically no room for such a procession to deploy on Aghurmi hill it seems a reasonable assumption that the bark oracles would have taken place along the processional way (dromos) linking the Aghurmi and Umm ‘Ubaydah temples. Some archaeological evidence for this processional way together with the remains of a third, new temple, has been uncovered some 50m south of the foot of Aghurmi Hill.

Different rules applied to oracles delivered to royalty. Egyptian pharaohs attended bark processions inside temples, but could also seek detailed advice by talking to the divine images resting in their sanctuaries. The example of Alexander’s visit to Siwa reveals that even foreign kings were accorded the privilege of calling upon Amen in the privacy of his sacred quarters. There was no possibility of manipulating the statue into giving answers by significant movements or gestures and answers would sometimes necessitate research and detailed instructions; for example, Queen Hatshepsut’s inquiry about the routes leading to the land of Punt. Thus, the modus operandi devised by the Egyptian priests was communication via letter. Composed in "the writing of Thoth" (hieroglyphs), the letter allegedly arrived from heaven and would be announced by the high priest. In the same vein, books were believed to have fallen miraculously from heaven. For the priests to be able to contrive an answer, it meant that, somehow, they had to gain knowledge of the questions. This could explain the function of the hidden chamber above the sanctuary at Aghurmi where one or more of them would hide and secretly overhear the private "conversations" taking place right below them.

Of the numerous cemeteries, only the rock-cut tombs of the "Mountain of the Dead" (Jabal al-Mawta) north of Shali have attracted scholarly attention. Stylistic (e.g. loculi) and archaeological evidence (surface pottery) indicate a Hellenistic to Roman period date. The beautifully painted tomb of a wealthy Ammonian called Si-Amen is well-known; exclusively Egyptian in appearance and subject matter, much of the decoration was destroyed by intrusive loculi-style burials. A painted wooden beam divides the ceiling of the tomb into a mythological half (showing the sky goddess Nut, stars and the journey of the solar bark) and a ceiling covered by a gobelin with an intricate pattern of flying hawks and vultures as well as stars.

Stunning portraits depict Si-Amen at two different stages of his life: on the east wall he is shown standing in profile as a youthful man with full, curly hair and beard; on the west wall, Si-Amen is depicted sitting, visibly aged, with his hairline receding and the beard sparse. The latter scene conveys a notion of unusual intimacy in Egyptian art: the deceased is touched by a little boy (son or slave) as though to bid him farewell. Although Egyptian in style, the composition looks uninspired by iconographical patterns found in the Nile Valley and is more reminiscent of Greek funerary art. Experiments with rendering the human body in profile (rather than the normal Egyptian way), the artistic verve behind the drawings and details like the shape of Si-Amen’s beard or the chlamys-like garment of the little boy suggest that the Si-Amen painter entertained close contacts with Greek art or artists, maybe in Alexandria.

Quite possibly, Si-Amen himself could have been in touch with Greeks, notably merchants, but there is nothing tangible to suggest that he was of Greek origin. Nothing specific points to where else, besides on Aghurmi, the Ammonian nobility might have buried their dead. However, the scene showing the youthful Si-Amen protected by the vulture goddess Nekhbet, protectress of the Egyptian king, might imply royal Ammonian ancestry. Attributing to the tomb any other than a vague late Hellenistic/ early Roman date remains a problem. However, the types of storage jars (amphorae) depicted in the murals would seem to compare to wares which are known from the second to first centuries BC, with the latest possible date early in the second century AD.

During the first century Ad the Ammonian kingdom came under Roman rule (Pliny, Natural History 49). At the beginning of the fourth century AD, Siwa formed part of the diocese of Alexandria and served as a place of banishment for Theban heretics. Christianity seems to have made little inroad into Siwan society; in the seventh century AD, when Samuel of Kalamun was abducted to the oasis by marauding tribesmen, the population were still worshipping the sun. Possibly the old tradition of the pagan cults of Ammon (sun) and Parammon (moon/Thoth) had continued to this period. During the Middle Ages, a Berber tribe from Cyrenaica (the Swa or Suwa) settled in the oasis, giving it its present name. According to al-Idrisi, a small Muslim community had come into existence there by the mid-twelfth century.

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