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Week 2: 13-19 January 2019

In week two our second excursion outside of Cairo was on the program, after our visit to the Giza plateau last week. Our destination was Ayn Sukhna, a site located on the northern Red Sea coast. It was the location of a pharaonic harbour, used intermittently from about 2600 till 1300 BC to organise expeditions to the Sinai peninsula. This area, only 30 km across the sea, was an important source for copper ore and semi-precious stones for the ancient Egyptians.

A French team has been excavating there since 2001 and we were welcomed by their excavation director, Claire Somaglino. She toured us around the site, showing us its most important features. We started at the rock inscriptions which document the expeditions that operated from the harbour. Then we visited the rock-cut galleries that were used to store boats and equipment between expeditions. In two of these galleries the boats had caught fire after which the fires caused the roofs of the galleries to collapse, extinguishing the fire and preserving the charred remains of the boats.

The visit to the galleries was followed by a tour of the main excavation area. Here the team excavates the remains of the building in which the sailors, craftsmen and labourers lived during expeditions. What is so special about this site is the large number of furnaces which were used to process the copper ore into metal ingots. They are being examined by Georges Verly, a metallurgical specialist who gave us a very detailed and interesting explanation about them. After lunch we drove on to Suez, where we visited the local museum that houses many objects relating to ancient Egyptian activity on the Red Sea coast.

In a boat gallery at Ayn Sukhna

On Tuesday we started the day with a visit to the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO). It was founded in 1880, making it the oldest foreign research institute in Egypt. It also holds many other distinctions such as having the largest library of all the institutes (95,000 documents) and being the first in the world to be able to print hieroglyphic characters. The tour started with the library, after which we were shown the archaeometry labs, and we finished with the printing house. The printing house was very impressive. They have a small museum showcasing the old printing machines, with some dating to 1898. We were also shown the modern printing house, where they print many archaeological and Egyptological publications but also engage in restoration work such as rebinding old books.

After we finished our tour of the French institute, we visited ARCE: the American Research Centre in Egypt, where we received an explanation about their library and their activities in Egypt. They focus heavily on restoration and conservation, but also on other topics such as Egyptian history outside of the pharaonic period. In the evening we attended a lecture by Peter Der Manuelian at the Ministry of Antiquities, which was a fascinating and also highly entertaining talk about the life of George Andrew Reisner, the famous archaeologist who devoted 40 years of his life to excavating the Giza plateau and 22 other sites in Egypt and the Sudan.

On Wednesday we paid a visit to the GEM, the new Grand Egyptian Museum that is being built near the pyramids. In the morning we visited its conservation centre, where we saw many objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb, including his chariots, beds, and even one of his underpants, being restored and conserved. It is a huge facility that looks kind of like a secret underground base of a James Bond villain.

A raging sandstorm had taken over Cairo by the time we got out of the conservation centre and the sky was orange. We had to be equipped with industrial dust masks before venturing out to the GEM building site. We were shown around by the project manager, Mr Laurens Schokking from the Belgian construction company Besix, who are partners in this massive project. The museum still needs a lot of work but it looks very impressive and will be enormous! The total exhibition area of 62 000 m2 will be around six times bigger than the current museum at Tahrir. At the moment the grand opening is planned for late 2020.

GEM in the middle of an epic sandstorm

On Thursday we paid a visit to the Austrian Archaeological Institute where we heard about their exciting excavations at Kom Ombo and Hisn al-Bab. In the evening Cynthia May Sheikholeslami gave a talk at NVIC on the papyrus Turin 55001. This papyrus is well-known for its satirical illustrations of animals doing human activities and also for its pornographic imagery. The presentation suggested a convincing new reading of the papyrus as a description of the Hathoric festival of drunkenness, celebrated in tombs and temples.

Then finally the time had come for the long-awaited weekend trip to the Delta. After arriving safely at sunny Alexandria, we drove straight to the catacombs of Kom el-Shuqafa. This three-storey catacomb is the largest known Roman burial site in Egypt and was in use from the 1st to the 4th century AD. The catacombs and an adjacent brightly painted private tomb have wall decorations which show an interesting hybrid style of Egyptian and Roman influence. A personal favourite has to be the Anubis in a Roman soldier’s outfit!

We drove on to the ruins of the Serapeum, the large temple of Serapis, and then to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where we received a guided tour. The library opened in 2002 and houses two million books in 80 languages with an open reading hall and several museums. We enjoyed the archaeological museum with the famous dog mosaic floor and the many artefacts discovered in Alexandria during building works. A surprise hit was the exhibition of Egyptian film director Shadi Abdel Salam’s set decoration sketches – several of us agreed that his proposed movie of Akhenaten would have looked stunning, had it ever come to production.

On Saturday we visited Kom el-Dikka, the city centre from the Ptolemaic through to the early Byzantine period. We tested the acoustics of the ancient theatre by citing some Roman poetry (in Latin!) and admired the mosaics at the well-preserved private house Villa of the Birds. The day continued at the Alexandria National Museum which had a lovely collection of antiquities from Pharaonic times to the 19th century, again illustrating the mix of cultural influences in Alexandria, one of the main cities of the ancient world. In the afternoon we also visited the fortress of Qaitbey, built on the site of the Pharos lighthouse, before driving on to Damietta where we spent the night.

In the morning we drove to Tanis, the capital of the Libyan kings of the 21st and 22nd dynasties. To our disappointment Indiana Jones and the lost ark were nowhere to be seen, but instead we saw fascinating re-use of New Kingdom blocks and statuary which had been brought to the city. We could also enter some of the royal tombs. Tanis is very isolated and off the beaten track so it was great to visit this important site. On the way back we got yet another taste of the Cairo traffic jams – back to reality after the peace and quiet of the Delta!

Sid Skrabanja & Hanna Sola

Tanis and some of its re-erected obelisks and columns
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