Wadi Gasus To Wadi el-Hudi (Archaeology of Ancient Egypt)

Wadi Gasus

Wadi Gasus (26°33′ N, 34°02′ E) is a valley opening out from the Eastern Desert to the Red Sea coast, about 80km south of Hurgada and 60km north of Quseir. About 2km south of the wadi on the coast is Mersa Gawasis, a Red Sea harbor. Mersa Gawasis, which lies at the mouth of the Wadi Gawasis, was formerly thought to be the site of the 12th Dynasty port of Saww. "Mersa" indicates a harbor and "Gasus" is a medieval term for a "spy" boat, with "Gawasis" being its plural. In 1976, the true site of the port of Saww was discovered at Mersa Gawasis by an archaeological expedition of the History Department, Faculty of Arts, University of Alexandria, under the direction of Abdel Monem A.H.Sayed.

Pharaonic evidence is scattered throughout the Wadi Gasus. At Bir Abu Gowa, Psamtik I (26th Dynasty) is seen in a rock drawing pouring libations to the gods Amen-Re and Min, god of the Eastern Desert. Behind the king stand his daughter Nitocris and Shepenwepet II, daughter of the Nubian pharaoh Piye (25th Dynasty); these two are the actual and former "Divine Votaresses" of Amen, respectively. The inscription also names two other Divine Votaresses: Shepenwepet I, daughter of the Libyan king Osorkon III (23rd Dynasty), and Amenirdis, sister of Piye. In a small valley which branches off the south of the Wadi Gasus, about 6km from the sea, is an inscription carved at the entrance to a lead mine. Another inscription is found on a nearby granite block recording expeditions sent by the Governor of the South, Monthuemhat, in the time of Psamtik I.


About 7km from the sea on the south side of the Wadi Gasus are the remains of a Graeco-Roman water station (hydreuma). Among these remains, two hieroglyphic stelae were found at the beginning of the nineteenth century by James Burton and Sir John Gardner Wilkinson. One records the erecting of the stela by an official named Khnumhotep in the first year of Senusret II (12th Dynasty). The other stela records the expedition of a ship’s captain called Khentkhtaywer in the twenty-eighth year of Amenemhat II. It mentions how his ships landed at the port of Saww, after a safe return from the land of Punt (on the African coast of the Red Sea). The 1976 University of Alexandria expedition began work in the Wadi Gasus at the Graeco-Roman water station. After excavating this to its foundations, no pharaonic monuments were found. Consequently, the 12th Dynasty stela of Khentkhtaywer must have been transferred to the station in Roman times from the Red Sea port of Saww. Work was then shifted to two sites on the Red Sea shore: (1) Mersa Gasus at the mouth of the Wadi Gasus, where no pharaonic remains were found by the expedition; and (2) Mersa Gawasis, a small dhow harbor at the mouth of the Wadi Gawasis, thought to be the site of the Ptolemaic port of Philoteras. At Mersa Gawasis, however, the expedition discovered some small stelae and fragmentary inscriptions, including the cartouche of Senusret I and the geographical name "Bia-n-Punt." This evidence suggests that Mersa Gawasis is, in fact, the site of the 12th Dynasty port of Saww.

About 250m west of the port, on the northern edge of Wadi Gawasis, a small shrine was discovered. Its fagade is inscribed in hieroglyphs with the name and titles of a man called Ankhow, who was a chamberlain of Senusret I. The shrine and pedestal are made of limestone anchors, after cutting off their upper holes. The name of the port of Saww occurs in the shrine’s inscriptions (but in a somewhat different form, "Sww"), which confirms the port of Saww at Mersa Gawasis.

Some 200m west of the shrine of Ankhow, the expedition unearthed a small limestone stela, inscribed with a hieroglyphic text recording an order of Senusret I to the Vizier Antefoker, to build ships to be sent to the region of "Bia-Punt." The stela stood on a limestone anchor which formed its base. During excavations in 1977, the expedition uncovered some potsherds inscribed in hieratic. They record the contents, source and destination of food contained in the original jars. Among these names are a temple of Senusret II, the geographical term "Punt," and the name of an official who lived at the time of Senusret III.

Upstream face of the northern wall (right bank of the wadi)

Figure 128 Upstream face of the northern wall (right bank of the wadi)

The results of these studies suggest the following conclusions:

1 The 12th Dynasty port of Saww or Sww is decisively identified with Mersa Gawasis rather than with Mersa Gasus.

2 The use of the port began in the reign of Senusret I and continued during the reigns of his successors at least until the reign of Senusret III.

3 The ships which the Egyptians used in the Red Sea were built on the banks of the Nile, then dismantled and carried in sections to the Red Sea where they were reassembled (Stela of Antefoker, lines 3-7).

4 No canal from the Nile to the Red Sea existed during the use of Mersa Gawasis, despite the attribution by classical writers of the first digging of a Nile-Red Sea canal to a pharaoh called "Sesostris" (Senusret). Evidence for this conclusion is found in the anchors used in the shrine of Ankhow and to support the stela of Antefoker. This means that the ships ended their journey at Mersa Gawasis and did not continue on to the Gulf of Suez to the presumed location of the canal of "Sesostris." A dismantling operation was probably again performed and the ships were returned to the Nile Valley to be used again. The heavy stone anchors (circa 250kg each) were made at Mersa Gawasis, as two unfinished anchors found in the second season attest. They were left behind at the site when the expeditions returned to the Nile Valley and used in various construction projects such as the shrine of Ankhow and the pedestal for the Stela of Antefoker.

5 The port at Mersa Gawasis was also used as a transfer point for journeys to the mines in Sinai. Evidence for this conclusion is found in a comparison of the Stela of Khnumhotep found at Wadi Gasus and the scene depicting thirty-seven Asiatics in the tomb of Khunmhotep at Beni Hasan. In addition, leaders of the expeditions to Sinai often held naval titles.

6 The triangular objects represented on ships in Egyptian maritime scenes are stone anchors. An upper hole holds a thick rope for lowering and lifting the anchor. There is also a lower hole for inserting another rope to help disengage the anchor from the sea bottom.

Wadi Hammamat

One of many wadis or dry canyons in the rugged mountains of the Eastern Desert, the Wadi Hammamat constitutes the central section of one of the most important routes between the Nile and the Red Sea. The Wadi Hammamat itself lies halfway between the Nile and the Red Sea, or about 60km either from Quft (ancient Coptos) on the Nile or from Quseir (near ancient Myos Hormos). The Hammamat route is one of the shortest Nile-Red Sea tracks, and for this reason it has been utilized for millennia and is now marked by scores of ancient ruins and resting places and hundreds of rock inscriptions or graffiti. In addition, extensive mining and quarrying have been carried out in or near the Wadi Hammamat.

Although there is some variation in the usage of the geographical label, "Wadi Hammamat" here refers to the stretch from the well and Roman way station at Bir Hammamat, through the Wadi Hammamat proper, up to the natural gate in the mountains at Bir Umm Fawakhir (25°58′-26°35′ N, 33°32′-33°35′ E). Within the Wadi Hammamat itself lie quarries for both breccia verde antica, a variegated green stone and for bekhen-stone, highly prized by the ancient Egyptians. Bekhen-stone, which occurs nowhere else in Egypt, is a Precambrian graywacke that has a fine-grained, tough texture. The stone is dark gray when freshly cut but weathers to a reddish cast. Most of the more than 400 hieroglyphic and hieratic rock inscriptions in the Wadi Hammamat record the activities of the expeditions sent to obtain the precious bekhen-stone for the statues, sarcophagi and building projects of the pharaohs.

The history, or rather the prehistory, of the Wadi Hammamat extends much farther back than pharaonic times. Although there are Paleolithic sites in the Eastern Desert, the oldest readily accessible relics in the Wadi Hammamat are the late Predynastic petroglyphs immediately northeast of the bekhen-stone quarries. Like thousands of other prehistoric rock carvings in the Eastern Desert, these depict hunters, animal traps, ostriches, gazelles and other game in a style datable to the late fourth millennium BC by the similarity to designs painted on Gerzean pottery. The richness of the wildlife represented, which elsewhere includes elephants, is one indication that in late prehistory the Eastern Desert was more abundantly watered and vegetated than it is today.

Most of the hieroglyphic inscriptions are carved on the smooth southeast cliffs facing the main bekhen-stone quarries. The other side of the wadi is littered with quarrying debris, including a split, abandoned sarcophagus. The inscriptions typically include a dedication to Min, the god of Coptos and the desert, or to the Coptos divine triad of Isis, Horus and Harpocrates, and the block of hieroglyphic text may be surmounted by an offering scene or image of the god(s). The name of the expedition leader and his titles are generally given, often along with the name of his pharaoh, and sometimes details of the expedition. In New Kingdom times emphasis shifted to Amen-Re, and in Roman times Isis/Hathor, Horus/Harpocrates and Amen/Pan became the most commonly depicted deities. The great importance of the Wadi Hammamat graffiti is that they may be considered historical records of royal activities in a given year, in contrast to other writings such as temple inscriptions which were intended for another function, i.e. recording the king’s unvarying duties to the gods and vice versa.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions recording quarrying expeditions date back to the great pyramid builders of the Old Kingdom, Khafre, Menkaure, Djedefre, Sahure and Unas. Pepi I of the 6th Dynasty is especially well represented with about eighty graffiti. Graffiti from the First Intermediate Period exist, but their chronology is not yet clear. The Middle Kingdom inscriptions, however, are among the fullest and most informative in the Wadi Hammamat. Mentuhotep II, III and IV of the 11th Dynasty are named in about thirty texts, as are Amenemhat and Senusret of the 12th Dynasty. Mentuhotep III’s expedition with 3,000 men actually had as its goal the dispatch of a ship to Punt, located in what is now Eritrea, to procure incense and other exotic goods, but on the return through the Wadi Hammamat the expedition quarried bekhen-stone for statues. The lengthy inscriptions of Mentuhotep IV are the most important records of his brief reign; they tell of his dispatch of 10,000 men and ample provisions for them to bring back a sarcophagus and lid for the king. No fewer than two "miracles" distinguished the expedition. A fleeing gazelle, exhausted, gave birth to her young on the very block chosen for the king. The second "miracle" was a rare flash flood that revealed a well of clean water, all-important in a hyperarid desert. The leader of the expedition, who boasted of accomplishing everything without the loss of a single life, was the vizier Amenemhat, in all likelihood the same man who usurped the throne as Amenemhat I. A less spectacular graffito records a quarrying expedition on his behalf, and another inscription carved during the reign of his son, Senusret I, tells of 17,000 men sent to obtain stone for sixty sphinxes and 150 statues.

The Second Intermediate Period is represented by Sobekhotep IV and Sobekemsaef, but what is more surprising is that the New Kingdom pharaohs are poorly attested before the Ramesside period. The few inscriptions that there are provide little more than the names and titles of Ahmose, Amenhotep II, Amenhotep IV, Seti I, Ramesses II and Seti II. Queen Hatshepsut’s famous expedition to Punt is believed to have taken a more northerly route via the Wadi Gasus. The most striking New Kingdom reference to the Wadi Hammamat is the Turin Papyrus, a papyrus roll recovered from Deir el-Medina and dating to the reign of Ramesses IV of the 20th Dynasty. The papyrus is a map that may reasonably be read as showing the route to the bekhen-stone quarries in the Wadi Hammamat and the gold and silver mines a little farther east.

Only one inscription can be attributed to the Third Intermediate Period and not many to the Late period, but these do include some of the most famous names of the age: Shabako, Amenirdis, Taharka, Psamtik I and II, Neko II, Amasis, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes. The last hieroglyphic inscriptions date to the reign of Nectanebo II of the 30th Dynasty, but at that point the record is continued by a series of demotic texts in the nearby Paneion. The latter is a sheltered bay in the cliffs apparently utilized as a shrine to Pan, patron god of the desert. The walls are now covered by graffiti, the oldest dating to the 23rd Dynasty, but the majority are demotic or Greek texts of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

The Ptolemaic period saw a sudden resurgence of interest in the desert routes to the Red Sea and thence to East Africa. The increased activity was at least partly motivated by the need for elephants, the equivalent of tanks in their day, to be employed in the wars with the Seleucid kings in Syria. Though exploitation of the quarries may have diminished, Ptolemy II at least is named in one graffito, and the desert routes, including the Wadi Hammamat and Berenike tracks, were developed and provided with new wells or cisterns and way-stations.

Building on the Ptolemaic infrastructure, the Romans expanded the desert trade even farther. Their camel caravans, large study ships, and recently acquired knowledge of the monsoons permitted them to sail to Africa perhaps as far as Dar es-Salaam, to Aden and the Spice Coast, and on to the tip of India on a regular basis. The remains of a fortified watering station at Bir Hammamat, the well-preserved (and partly rebuilt) circular well, and the intervisible signal towers on mountain peaks along the Hammamat route are all part of the Roman road system. Although the bekhen-stone may not have been so intensively quarried, the breccia verde antica outcrop probably was, as indicated by large, rough-hewn, abandoned blocks. In the nearby bekhen-stone quarries themselves, however, a carefully constructed temple with a series of side rooms can be dated to the time of Tiberius by an inscribed naos. In addition to Tiberius’s inscription, graffiti record activity under Augustus, Nero, Titus, Domitian, Antoninus, Maximinus and perhaps Hadrian. At the end of the second century AD the Roman empire faced so many internal difficulties that the costly, far-flung Red Sea trade and its desert routes became too difficult to maintain and records became correspondingly sparse thereafter.

Later activity in the Eastern Desert is certainly attested, including Byzantine towns and forts at Abu Sha’ar, Berenike and Bir Umm Fawakhir, the medieval trade and pilgrimage routes through the Wadi Qena to the north or the Wadi Qash just south of the Wadi Hammamat, and the thirteenth-fourteenth-century Mamluk port at Quseir el-Qadim. Still, the ancient quarries in the Wadi Hammamat were finally abandoned about the end of the second century AD, and with them the associated houses, temples and shrines. Three millennia of quarrying, traffic and cutting rock inscriptions—some of the latter already ancient to the Romans—all but ceased.


Wadi el-Hudi

The Wadi el-Hudi is a mining and quarrying region covering an area of some 300 square kilometers in the Eastern Desert, approximately 35km southeast of Aswan (23°50′ N, 33°10′ E). It was the primary location for amethyst procurement in Egypt from the 11th Dynasty until the end of the Middle Kingdom, during which time the use of amethysts in jewelry reached a peak of popularity. Like many other parts of the Eastern Desert, the Wadi el-Hudi region includes deposits of auriferous quartz; it has been exploited for its minerals (including mica, barytes, gold and amethyst) since at least the early second millennium BC, and modern miners and quarriers are still extracting hematite and building stone from the immediate area.

The ancient remains at Wadi el-Hudi were first discovered by the geologist Labib Nassim in 1923, and the earliest archaeological examination of the site took place in 1939, when it was visited by G.W.Murray and Ibrahim Abdel ‘Al of the Egyptian Topographical Survey. At this time three stelae (WH143-5) were transferred from the Middle Kingdom area of Wadi el-Hudi to the Cairo Museum, and numerous other inscriptions were transported to the Aswan Museum, but as many as twenty inscribed objects appear to have been stolen from the unguarded site over the next five years. Ahmed Fakhry undertook three brief seasons of archaeological and epigraphic survey in the region in 1944-9, recording most of the inscriptions and graffiti and providing the first general description of the pharaonic and Graeco-Roman remains, numbering the individual ancient "sites" from 1 to 14. In 1975 the inscriptions and graffiti were examined by Ashraf Sadek, who published a more exhaustive epigraphic study of the site. A survey undertaken by Ian Shaw and Robert Jameson in November 1992 concentrated on the examination of the archaeological aspects of the site.

The region is dominated by the Gebel el-Hudi, a large hill located about halfway along the floor of the Wadi el-Hudi, which extends for about 12km from northwest to southeast, surrounded by a network of ridges and smaller wadis to the west and the east. The traces of ancient mining and quarrying expeditions are scattered throughout this adjacent region of smaller valleys rather than in the main wadi itself.

There are five ancient sites in the eastern part of the region, and probably all of these date to the Roman period or later. From north to south they comprise a barytes mine (site 1), a small hill fort dating to the Roman period (site 2) and, at the southeastern end of the main wadi, a gold mine and associated encampment (sites 13-14). The latter consists of an unusual combination of stone huts and shelters partly formed by caves in the rock face, surrounded by numerous remains of basalt grinding stones similar to those found in the vicinity of the gold mines in the Wadi Hammamat.

On the western side of the Wadi el-Hudi there are a number of areas of archaeological interest, clustering together amid a succession of high rocky ridges and valleys. These include five mining sites, two of which (sites 5 and 9) are amethyst mining settlements dated both by inscriptions and pottery to the Middle Kingdom, while the other four sites (3, 4, 11 and 12) appear to be amethyst and gold mining areas dating primarily to the Roman period. The other two areas of interest to the west of the main wadi are sites 8 and 10. Site 8 consists of an ancient well and associated stone structures, probably dating to the Roman period. Site 10 is a deep tunnel penetrating horizontally into the hillside for a distance of at least 20m. This was identified as a mica mine by Fakhry, who argued that both the mine and a small stone hut at the foot of the hillside must have been contemporary with sites 11 and 12. The 1992 survey, however, suggested that the "mica mine" and the associated stone hut may be much more recent in date.

Sites 5, 6 and 9—a hilltop settlement, a peak carved with inscriptions and drawings, and a fortress, respectively—constitute an area of intense Middle Kingdom amethyst mining activity. Site 5 consists of a hilltop settlement and adjacent amethyst mine. Incorporated into the walls of the settlement are numerous rock drawings and inscriptions. The three earliest inscriptions (WH2-4) date to the first two years of the reign of the last ruler of the 11th Dynasty, Mentuhotep IV, while three others (WH14 and 144-5) date to the reign of Senusret I. It therefore seems likely that the amethyst mine at site 5 was in use for at least the period between year 1 of Mentuhotep IV and year 29 of Senusret I. The large quantities of pottery also date mainly to the early Middle Kingdom.

Site 9 is a large rectangular stone fort, the architectural style of which (together with the presence of Middle Kingdom sherds) suggests that it was constructed in the 12th Dynasty and that it may be contemporary with the string of mudbrick fortresses built between the reigns of Senusret I and Senusret III in Lower Nubia, between the First and Third Cataracts. To the northeast of the fort are two amethyst mines, while to the northwest there is a short, well preserved section of ancient road.

The fortress appears to be a unique structure, in which the familiar features of the mudbrick fortresses of Lower Nubia have been transformed into a purely dry stone complex, scaled down and adapted to the needs of a 12th Dynasty mining expedition. Apart from the interest of the fortress as an unusual method of accommodating mining expeditions, it is perhaps the only surviving example of a type of basic fortification which may once have been more common in the Egyptian Nile Valley (and would perhaps usually have been built in mudbrick). The preservation of the Wadi el-Hudi fortress is particularly fortunate, in that most of the Second Cataract fortresses have vanished under the waters of Lake Nasser.

Roughly midway between sites 5 and 9 is a conical hill, the summit of which is decorated with numerous inscriptions and rock drawings, mainly dating to the Middle Kingdom (site 6). There were once considerably more inscriptions and rock drawings on the peak, but large numbers have been stolen or removed to the museums at Cairo and Aswan. It was here that Murray found a large, finely carved limestone stela inscribed by a man named Hor, a high official in the reign of Senusret I (WH143, Cairo JE 71901). Since the stone used for the Hor stela is not local, it has been suggested that it may have been specially brought to the site to mark the resumption of mining in year 17 of Senusret I’s reign (or perhaps earlier), although Hor’s text includes no year date. The only other dated inscription definitely assigned to site 6 is WH1, which was carved in the first year of the reign of Mentuhotep IV.

While there is some evidence for amethyst mining at Wadi el-Hudi after the Middle Kingdom (sites 11-12), the principal mines of the Roman period appear to have been located in the Safaga region.

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