27.07.2020 change 27.07.2020
Szymon Zdziebłowski
Szymon Zdziebłowski

Egyptian civilization could have been completely different without resources from the desert, says leading archaeologist

Copper for making tools used to process blocks for building temples and pyramids, dyes for decorating tombs - these are selected raw materials brought from the desert by the ancient Egyptians. Without them, the image of this civilization could be completely different from the one we know, expert believes.

While Egypt is associated with the Nile, the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the colourful Arab markets, its territory mostly consists of deserts - the huge Libyan Desert in the west and the much smaller Arabian Desert in the east (between the Nile and the Red Sea). For the ancient Egyptians, unlike for the inhabitants of this country today, Egypt was only an area a little wider than the fertile Nile Valley; the lands beyond it were not Egyptian.

“Egyptians from the Nile Valley ventured into both deserts more than 5,000 years ago, before the establishment of the Egyptian state, but most caravans reached these areas in the Pharaonic times,” says Dr. Paweł Polkowski from the Archaeological Museum in Poznań. The scientist has been studying rock art in and around the Dakhla Oasis for many years. These are various types of inscriptions, depictions and symbols carved mainly on rock outliers over many millennia.

The Pharaohs very quickly subjugated the inhabitants of the larger oases of the Western Desert - the Dakhla and Kharga. It happened already during the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC), at the time when the famous pyramids were erected. Over time, this region became a source of rare minerals (including the rare Libyan Desert glass, which was used, for example, in the pectoral of the famous pharaoh Tutanchaomon) or agricultural produce and especially wine, which was especially valued.

“Copper used to manufacture tools necessary to process stone blocks for the construction of temples and pyramids was obtained from the Sinai Peninsula or the distant Nubia, south of Egypt. Were it not for these and other resources used in large construction investments, this civilization would probably look different, and the equipment of tombs would not be so rich,” Polkowski points out.

This means that Egyptians, despite the great dangers, embarked on several hundred mile long expeditions deep into the desert. “Meanwhile, even today, moving around these areas by car is quite a challenge,” Dr. Polkowski says.

Archaeologists sometimes have a serious problem with interpreting traces left by the Egyptians, be it in oases or on rocks in the desert. They are carvings of various kinds: sometimes symbols, sometimes hieroglyphic inscriptions. But not all of them are easy to understand or determine who left them and for what purpose.

Polkowski gives the example of a hill located several dozen miles south-west of the Dakhla Oasis. Archaeologists determined that it was partially transformed by the people who camped around it. There are many hieroglyphic inscriptions, which indicate that a caravan from Egypt arrived there, sent, among others, by Khufu (the pharaoh who commissioned the famous Great Pyramid of Giza) in order to obtain the raw material known as 'mephat'. “We suspect that it was one of the shales common in the area, rich in iron oxides, probably used to obtain a powder for red dyes, which in turn could be used to decorate tombs,” the archaeologist says.

But scientists do not always have that much information. Sometimes researchers encounter individual inscriptions. This is the case of the Jebel Uweinat region, very distant from the oases and the Nile Valley, on the border of Egypt, Libya and Chad, where there is a text with the name and image of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II (who ruled Egypt about 4,000 years ago).

“There are several theories as to how this inscription can be understood. Perhaps in this region, several hundred miles away, the peoples subordinated to Egypt offered tribute to him. Or perhaps it was a place where commercial transactions were finalized. From the depths of Africa, Egyptians could obtain, for example, ivory, ebony and other valuables of +green+ Africa,” said Dr. Polkowski.

How can we imagine an Egyptian caravan going into the desert or to distant oases? The draft power of camels was certainly not used, as they appeared on the Nile at the very end of the Pharaoh era. Donkeys were used on a massive scale, Polkowski says. Certainly these caravans were guarded by soldiers. “Such expeditions were very hierarchical. There were also literate officials, as well as workers,” he says.

In recent decades, archaeologists have discovered a number of places in the Libyan Desert that they refer to as stopping stations. It was a system of smaller (approx. every 30 km) and larger (approx. every 90 km) stops with stations supplying travellers with water and animal feed. These stations were used several thousand years ago. They allowed communication between Dakhla and Jebel Uweinat.

For several years, Polkowski has not been able to return to field research. Egyptian authorities closed the desert to researchers as a consequence of civil unrest following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. He therefore focuses on the analysis of previously obtained data. His attention was drawn to the numerous representations of the god Set (in the form of an animal with a dog's body and features of several other species) carved by the ancient Egyptians around the Dakhla Oasis. In his opinion, these carvings were made to communicate with this god and worship him. “Set was the god of deserts, storms and chaos. According to beliefs, he controlled atmospheric phenomena. Perhaps such images were created by people before embarking on a journey through the desert,” said Polkowski.

The deserts surrounding Egypt were not always deserts. The archaeologist says that 10–8,000 years ago this place was full of life - it was a savannah inhabited by numerous animals. For several decades, an international team of archaeologists, which includes Polish researchers, has been finding numerous remains of 10-6,000-year-old settlements and cemeteries in the Libyan Desert in the southern part of Egypt.

In mid-6th millennium BC, as a result of climate changes draining the Savannah, prehistoric shepherds were forced to migrate, also towards the Nile Valley. According to researchers, this impulse could have contributed to the rise of the pharaonic civilization, which flourished in the following millennia. This is supported by similarities in the funeral rituals and the elements of art among the Savannah people and the inhabitants of the Nile Valley.

“You could say that, in a way, the Egyptians who ventured into the deserts in the times of the Pharaohs were returning to their cradle. But they themselves did not treat it that way, they probably were not aware of that. The findings concerning the +desert+ roots of Egyptian civilization come especially from the latest research of archaeologists. In pharaonic and later times, political prisoners and criminals were also sent to oases, so it was not a synonym of a lost paradise,” Polkowski says. 

PAP - Science in Poland, Szymon Zdziebłowski

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