Reconstructing the Villa of Serenus
Dorothea Schulz & Martin Hense
In 1979, while surveying the late antique city of Amheida (ancient Trimithis), a team of the Dakhleh Oasis Project discovered the upper part of lavishly decorated walls. The main building, including the decorated rooms, was subsequently excavated in 2004 and 2007 by a team from Columbia University, directed by Roger S. Bagnall (it is now a project of New York University). It turned out to be a fourth century ‘villa’, once occupied by a family of high social status (the owner was a city councilman).
The well-preserved decoration in four of the rooms depicts geometrical patterns as well as figurative scenes. Both the paintings in situ and the collected fragments pose considerable conservation problems; the layer of plaster is very thin and extremely fragile. The best way of conserving this precious building for future generations is refilling it with sand – after extensive documentation.
Because this unique Villa would be destroyed by being exposed to the public, the plan was made to build a full size reconstruction of the main house. In order to recreate the full splendor of this building the decision was taken to reconstruct the painted decoration as well. The project is financed by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Cairo and administered by the Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo.
Soon after Nicholas Warner had finished the actual building the decoration team moved in and started reconstructing and re-creating the beautiful decoration.
The decoration of the two smaller rooms consists mainly of an intricate geometrical pattern. The biggest room, the Domed Room, was completely decorated from floor to the highest point in the dome. Similar to the ‘Red’ and the ‘Green’ Room there are geometrical ‘wallpapers’ all around, composed not from one but many different and stunning patterns. While the wallpapers are still in situ and could be copied without problems the dome collapsed in antiquity and it took a lot of work and patience to reconstruct the dome decoration from the thousands of fragments.
The only element missing in the Domed Room are the figurative scenes and we hope that they will be up on the walls in all their beauty rather sooner than later.