Archive for the ‘Heritage management’ Category

Unified law on dealing with desert lands

August 8, 2010

The Egypt State Information Service has released a statement about the management of its deserts.  To be honest, even after reading it several times I am not much the wiser about what it is setting out to achieve, but I assume that it is a project that sets out to balance the needs of industry (mining and hunting for oil, for example), tourism (desert safaris and the problems and benefits associated), development of the deserts as the long planned “new valley” and, one sincerely hopes, heritage management.

Dr. Ahmed Nazif Prime Minister assigned eleven ministries including agriculture and land reclamation, tourism, trade and industry, housing and finance the mission of sorting out laws on dealing with the desert lands owned by the State and to propose a unified law on the use of desert land, in implementation of President Mubarak assignments for making the best use of those lands.

The assignments included the incorporation of similar laws and define the contradicting ones to avoid in the unified law.

The Prime Minister gave the end of this year as a deadline to have the unified law on desert lands according to the proposed funds.

Colloquium Notes: The Signs of Which Times?

June 9, 2010

Colloquium notes: The Signs of Which Times?

The Signs of Which Times? Chronological and Palaeoenvironmental Issues in the Rock Art of Northern Africa
Palais des Academies, Rue Ducale, Brussels
3rd, 4th and 5th June 2010
Colloquium introduction by Dirk Huyge and Francis Van Noten
Colloquium programme
Colloquium abstracts

Apologies that these notes haven’t been posted sooner but I wanted to add some links for those who weren’t familiar with the speakers or subjects. Unfortunately I haven’t added as many links as I would have liked but I wanted to post these notes in a timely manner.


The Signs of Which Times was organized by Dirk Huyge and Francis Van Noten under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences. Its scope, the rock art of the entire Saharan region, attracted a mixture of some of the most illustrious names in rock art research together with those who have just completed or are just completing their research at post-graduate level.

As its name implies, the colloquium was intended to address the issues of chronology and environment in rock art studies. It is perhaps worth stating my own reasons for attending the colloquium. Although rock art is not one of my primary interests I would very much like to use it as a dataset integrated with other archaeological datasets because rock art is present in several of my research regions, an ambition which is fairly impossible at the moment (due to lack of absolute dates with which it can be tied into other archaeological data). I am also seriously interested in how research into localized manifestations of climate change, in the form of geographically discrete environmental conditions, would open up an understanding of when and how people would have been able to move through and use the Saharan landscape.

Around one third of the papers were in French, as were the following discussions. As speakers were allocated 15 minutes rather than the usual 20 minutes many decided to ensure delivery of all the information by speaking very quickly – I was fine when this was done in English but struggled hopelessly with machine-gun French, because my French is terribly rusty. Fortunately most of the other delegates were either bi-lingual or impressively multi-lingual so I was in a small and somewhat irrelevant minority. Moral of the story: if you want to engage in North African rock art studies either as a serious research topic or as a serious hobby you really need to speak French, which is probably the lingua franca of rock art in North Africa. This is absolutely not a complaint. It is, however, very important to take note of the obvious caveat that my following review is a somewhat lopsided one. I am making generalizations about a colloquium in which there were some lectures where I only had a superficial understanding of the main points of the presentation.

If anyone who attended wants to make any corrections please feel free!

Much of the research presented was preliminary, and as a formal Proceedings of the colloquium is planned I have not given any detailed summaries of the papers presented. The following is an overview of some of the themes and trends revealed by the colloquium. I will give details of the Proceedings and when its publication is planned when I know more myself.

Conference Overview

Each paper was allocated 15 minutes, and at the end of each session there was a half hour discussion period which was well used.

The colloquium was opened by Paul Bahn who discussed the history of rock art studies in north Africa, and raised the problem of modern vandalism to rock art sites. Although there are some big names in north African rock art they tend to be known mainly amongst other north African archaeologists. Paul Bahn is something of a poster boy for rock art so his opening address was a good way of reinforcing the profile of Saharan rock art research.

If I could go back in time and add a wish list item to the introductory lectures, I think that I would have found it of considerable use to have had a summary of the current state of rock art research in North Africa, as a logical follow-on to Paul Bahn’s lecture. There have been many suggested and detailed chronologies for rock art sequences in the Sahara and it would have been good to have had these in the back of the mind for contextual purposes. It has to be said, of course, that everyone else at the colloquium was probably already fully aware of these!

There were, as at all conferences, strong papers, weaker papers and four no-shows including Savino di Lernia, Selima Ikram, Ahmed Skounti and John Darnell (Darnell’s and Skounti ‘s PowerPoint’s were presented by others who were also presenting their own research). I was particularly sad that Di Lernia was absent because his paper had the potential of uniting some of the more disparate data, and I have read so many of his papers that it would have been good to hear him in person.

The main approaches in the papers presented focused on the creation of relative chronological sequences of rock art, of which there were six methods discussed: superimposition, animal types, (e.g. savanna or domesticated), human activities (e.g. hunting or herding), patination/varnish, stylistic composition and weathering. Nearby archaeological remains were also referenced. The value of micro-erosion techniques was discussed but was largely rejected as a valid method. In other words, many of the presentations were concerned with identifying reliable ways of putting different rock art scenes in relative sequences using one or more techniques. The resulting sequences are relative, meaning that they suggest which styles are older than others but cannot fit them into a calendrical (absolute) sequence. It is the inability of rock art research to date rock art which isolates it so thoroughly from other datasets and keeps it at a stage which is almost equivalent to the culture-history approach of the 1950s and 1960s where, in the absence of scientific dating methods, archaeology was dedicated to the building and, where possible, the cross-referencing of relative sequences. When radiocarbon dating was invented, and calibrated using tree ring data, it became clear many sequences were too short or too long, and were often placed in the wrong periods as a result for the belief that ideas diffused from more advanced cultures. It may well be found that rock art chronologies will experience similar revisions in the future. Unfortunately, most of the rock art regions being discussed at the colloquium were too far apart from each other for conversations about cross-referencing of sequences to be possible.

Susan Searight’s short presentation highlighted many of the problems with relative dating techniques, but there were many promising approaches presented over the three days. Examples of presentations looking at local relative sequences include Maria Guagnin’s use of patination and palaeolake data in Libya, Andras Zboray‘s use of superimposition and weathering in the southwest Western Desert of Egypt, Joachim Soler i Subils’s presentation about new work in the western Sahara (click here for an earlier paper), Per Storemyr‘s use of varnish to assess geometric rock art in the region of the First Nile Cataract, Lauren Lippiello and Maria Gatto’s use of style, patination, palaeoclimate and superimposition at Khor Abu Subeira South (Aswan) and Francis Lankester’s use of stylistic comparisons with Nile iconography to develop a chronolgy of boat engravings in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. As a result of many of these presentations it seems clear that the value of varnish/patina as a way of dating rock art is highly variable and completely dependent upon localized conditions. Where used it is clear that a very sound research design is required. Dirk Huyge, Heiko Riemer and Karin Kindermann all made use of surrounding archaeological data (pottery and lithics) to attempt to refine dates for nearby rock art. The strongest proposals were those where a number of different types of method were available to the researcher.

As well as relative sequences the potential value of scientific applications to the dating problem were discussed. Dirk Huyge presented the results of luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating on rock art at Qurta. Qurta has lovely naturalistic rock art sometimes picked out in bas relief – you can read about it and see some of the images here and here. The main technique used, luminescence dating, measures the time when light last reached a deposit. The technique was used on the sediments sealing engraved rock art which had been concealed by hill-slope deposits. The dates from the layers beneath the upper deposits span a period which gives a terminus ante quem (time before which) for the rock art. Although the dates span a wide period for each of the sealed layers tested they area all squarely located in the Pleistocene (late Palaeolithic) and possibly at least 15,000 years old. The results seem to be confirmed by radiocarbon dates taken on microfaunal remains from another engraving at the same levels from which the OSL (Optically Stimulated Luminescence) dates were taken. They confirm again the Pleistocene age of the rock art. The circumstantial arguments that the team advanced in their Antiquity article are therefore now supplemented with real proof. These dates are also consistent with the surrounding archaeology which has produced no artefacts more recent than the Palaeolithic, and the art itself which shows animals which were more consistent with Pleistocene rather than Holocene conditions. There were no challenges to either the techniques employed or the dates themselves, in spite of the presence of the team’s OSL specialist who was on hand to answer any questions. Susan Searight says that scientific dating is soon to be tested on a rock art panel in Morocco. Sadly, Joachim Soler i Subils reported that radiocarbon tests in the western Sahara were unsuccessful.

One of the key strengths of the colloquium, which was the sheer vastness of its geographical scope, was also a minor difficulty common to most gatherings of this type. The work being carried out across the Sahara has very different histories. Some areas have been studied for many decades, whilst others are in the very earliest stages of exploration. Some areas have, as Susan Searight put it, good archaeological data with no rock art whilst others have good rock art data with very little archaeological excavation in the vicinity. Some sites were in the western Sahara, some in Libya, others in Egypt, all of which have very different climatic, geological and geomorphological influences at play. An excellent summary of eastern Saharan climatic and environmental conditions by Stefan Kroepelin was unmatched by anything equivalent for central and western regions. There were only two lectures which attempted to define similarities and differences over broad areas of the Sahara to address the idea of possible linkages amongst groups who could have moved over 100s of kilometres. Most of the research presented was, as you would expect, very localized. This was inevitable but it also highlighted how fragmented the state of knowledge about the use of the Sahara by the rock art painters actually is.

Much of the colloquium was devoted to presenting new field work findings, and these papers were truly fascinating. I was particularly struck by the uphill struggle facing the Universitat de Girona team in the western Sahara. Not only is their rock art quite unlike that of any other project’s, but the lithic assemblages retrieved in the vicinity don’t fit into any existing scheme. This really is life on the starting blocks. At the other end of the scale the work in the Gilf Kebir has been going on for decades but new discoveries have now been made by the ACACIA group in the vicinity of the Wadi Sura, and by Andras Zboray throughout that area and are being slotted into the bigger existing framework of knowledge about the region.

The colloquium was less useful on the subject of delivering new information about the past environment. Most of the speakers were using palaeoenvironment as a way to assist with dating. There were few examples where the environment was the main subject against which the rock art was set. As mentioned above, Stefan Kroepelin’s excellent presentation on eastern Saharan climate and environment was an exception, providing a good overview of the environmental conditions based partly on a palaeolake sequence from Wadi Bakht in the Gilf Kebir (south west Egypt), and promising new and very detailed results from lake cores from Ounianga (Chad) in the future. I was hoping that the colloquium would attract other climate specialists working with archaeologists so that the latest palaeoenvironmental research from other areas of the Sahara could be discussed, but these were lacking which was a real shame. Di Lernia has done a considerable amount of work trying to tie in archaeology with environmental change so it was a particular regret that he failed to attend. Andrea Zerboni’s presentation of research taking place in the Tadrat Acacus and Messak Settafet (Libyan central Sahara) explained how geological and environmental data are being used together to improve an understanding of Holocene climate change and how these are being used for dating. I would have been interested to hear much more about the lake data. Hopefully more information about this piece of work will be revealed in the Proceedings.

Apart from Tilman Lenssen-Erz‘s paper looking at art production as epistemic regulation in a sociological system in Ennedi using costly signalling theory, Stan Hendrickx’s discussion of Early Dynastic iconography and John Darnell’s suggested sequence of development from art through iconography to hieroglyphs there was little attempt to interpret any of the rock art discussed. This is completely in keeping with the scope of the colloquium which did not have interpretation in its brief.

One of the horror stories revealed by a number of presentations at the colloquium, highlighted by Paul Bahn in the opening lecture and later reinforced dramatically by other members of the colloquium, was the amount of deliberate damage to rock art sites that has been inflicted. This raised the important issue of the conflicting interests of conservation and risk management whilst allowing the public to have access to the sites. The examples presented by Paul Bahn of rock art which has been painted out by someone as revenge for being fired by a tour company, and by Stan Hendrickx of the deliberate destruction of the Naq el Hamdulab royal scene made people gasp out loud. Fortunately photographs taken by Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habachi (whose biography I am currently reading) and stored in Chicago House in Luxor have recorded the Naq el Hamdula scenes. This highlights how important it is to record rock art before either accidental or deliberate damage occurs.

In the light of this it was particularly good that several presentations looked at ways in which rock art is being recorded for posterity using a number of different techniques. For example, Frank Forster’s presentation of the work being carried out at the Mestekawi-Foggini cave (which the ACACIA team refer to as Wadi Sura II) uses 3D laser scanning, digital photogrammetry, and non-destructive investigation of pigments as part of a series of techniques used to record the cave. At Hierakonpolis the threat of quarrying, graffiti and vandalism has made recording existing rock art important, and Fred Hardtke presented his work in this field, using a portable set up involving a camera on an extendable pole linked to a laptop to enable out -of-reach rock art to be photographed.

I was immensely impressed with the way in which different teams are willing to work together. This was particularly highlighted when discussions on the south-western area of the Western Desert of Egypt came up (four of the papers). Heiko Riemer and Andras Zboray referred to each other’s work, and Andras Zboray and Stefan Kroepelin operated an accomplished double-act when answering questions about the environmental context of Zboray’s proposed chronology. The enthusiasm, mutual respect and humour which came over during these discussions made the bad old days of academic one-upmanship seem offensively sterile by comparison. It was also good to get a sense of team members working together. In Algerian rock art research three members of the CNRPAH team delivered a paper together and two Dirk Huyge’s Qurta team were on hand to ask questions about luminescence dating and fauna. Although the cost of traveling to foreign venues is naturally prohibitive these two cases illustrated the value of having multiple team members on hand to contribute to papers and discussions. The half hour coffee breaks and the hour and a half lunch breaks gave everyone the opportunity to mingle and to discuss both their own research interests and those of others. British politicians could learn so much from this 🙂


Every researcher, in contributing localized sequences right across the Sahara, provided more pieces of a vast puzzle.

Only when the chronological and environmental sequences are aligned will researchers begin to see trends across the Sahara in chronological terms. And only when more detailed palaeoenvironmental studies are carried out will the prehistoric occupation of the Sahara be understood in terms of its natural context. It probably remains for innovations in scientific dating techniques to develop reliable methods for tying in rock art with the much greater corpus of archaeological data which can be tied into a calendrical rather than relative sequence.

The colloquium was a great opportunity for multiple research teams and individual researchers to come together and discuss both specific problems and general ideas and issues. The formal discussion periods and the informal breaks offered great opportunities for these discussions to flourish, and my impression was that this was of immense value to those attending.

I learned an enormous amount and look forward to the publication of the Proceedings. Speedy publication will depend on the ability of contributors to submit their papers in a timely manner, but hopefully there will be an update about a planned publication date before too long.

My thanks

My thanks to Dirk Huyge, Francis Van Noten and the Royal Academy of Overseas Sciences for the colloquium as a whole.

The moderators of each session should be congratulated for keeping everyone to their allotted 15 minute slots (a nightmare job done with subtlety, skill and humour).

Particular thanks to all of the contributors for keeping the audience so thoroughly engaged with each topic, and for having worked so hard to present their research so concisely.

Gilf Kebir

This is slightly off topic, but it was mentioned at the colloquium that Karin Kinderman (she of Djara cave for those of you who follow prehistoric archaeology in Egypt) is now heading up a Gilf Kebir National Park project. It was the first official news I had heard that the Gilf was going to become a national park and I have absolutely no other information on the subject. I will try to find out more, so watch this space.

For those of you have visited the Mestekawi-Foggini cave and wondered how far the paintings go beneath the level of the sand (as I have done many times!) the answer, following excavations, is 1.2m below the surface. Unfortunately a small trial excavation and a core sunk into the sand down to 3.5m revealed no archaeological remains.


The venue was ideal in many ways. The Palais des Academies itself was being renovated but signs directed delegates to the building next door where a room had been filled with chairs and where a large projector screen and a podium had been set up. The weather in Brussels was seethingly hot, and although the room became rather sticky towards the end of the final sessions, it never became unbearable and it easily fitted the number of delegates available – around 100 of us, I would guess. A vast and airy hall was used to serve hot and cold drinks and wonderful lunches. The entire event went without either technical or organizational hitches. As the weather was stunningly good and the building was next to the pretty Parc de Bruxelles complete with wooded areas, open grass and fountains, it was great to be able to stretch the legs and soak up the sun on breaks.

Travel Notes

It was a distinct bonus that the colloquium was on the route of the Eurostar. The Eurostar lacks frills and, during school Half Term in the UK, was full of families changing at Lille to go to Disneyland and Paris. But it knocked the socks off chewing one’s fingernails over volcanoes and strikes and messing around with getting to an airport, hanging around prior to and following check in, and removing half one’s clothing at the security checks – all for a ridiculously short flight. The train from St Pancras (easily accessible by tube and bus from anywhere in London) took 2 hours and whilst seriously lacking anything remotely resembling finesse it was completely fuss-free. NB – if you travel by Eurostar from St Pancras get your money before you go through passport control because there is no Bureau de Change in the departure lounge. We took a taxi when we arrived in Bruxelles Midi but with hindsight we could have taken the tube because it was only four stops from our hotel, the inexpensive but excellent Hotel Chambord at Porte De Namur, which was a five minute walk from the colloquium venue.

Two examples of ostrich with head, neck, legs and tail but no body,
something which was discussed at the colloquium. One of the
suggestions was that the body had been defined with
material other than paint – for example with feathers
fixed into the space. There’s no way of testing this at
the moment but it is a fascinating thought. Click to see
the bigger image (Mestekawi-Foggini / Wadi Sura II cave).

More useful links

ACACIA Arid Climate Adaptation and Cultural Innovation in Africa
Bradshaw Foundation
Carlo Bergmann’s Discoveries
Climate Research Unit
Fezzan Rock Art Project
IFRAO Rock Art Glossary
International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO)
International Newsletter on Rock Art
Libyan Desert Rock Art
Nekhen News (Hierakonpolis)
Rock inscriptions at El Hosh, Egypt
Sahara Journal
Stonewatch World-Wide Rock Art
Tassili n’Ajjer
Theban Desert Road Project
UNE -Dating Rock Art

[The photographs used in this post are mine,
apart from the satellite photograph.
All rock art photos are from western Gilf Kebir]

Travel restrictions in the Western Desert

March 30, 2010

I stumbled onto a thread on the Sahara Safaris discussion forum this morning which makes for interesting reading.  My Google Alerts picked it up under “Gilf Kebir” but it is more concerned with the desert areas around Bahariya and Farafra, most importantly the White Desert.

I have posted both in the past and more recently about the state of tourism in the Bahariya area, and its impacts on both the desert itself and on the local community. This thread is written by those who are making a living out of running desert safaris from Bahariya and Farafra.  Here’s a summary of what they have been saying.

Apparently next season new rules are to be introduced that will confine foreign tourists to traveling through the desert with licensed tour companies.   The license to operate in the desert will be expensive and must be signed off by the Minister for Tourism.   The thread says that a fine of LE400 will be imposed on any drivers carrying foreign travelers into the deserts.  That’s a hefty 72 US dollars or 48 UKP.  That would be a massive fine for a local driver.

The guys at Sahara Safaris are worried that, if implemented, this will put independent tour operators out of business, killing local enterprise and competition and giving all revenue to the already cash-rich national scale tour operator.  This would leave many oasis dwellers who have invested heavily in four-wheel drive vehicles without income and without any obvious way of paying off their loans.

If this is actually the case, and it remains to be confirmed, this seems to me to be a really dreadful shame.  Egypt has for a long time been encouraging people to seek work outside Cairo.  The development of the New Valley (the crescent of oases from Cairo down to Luxor) was to be the foundation of a new semi rural economic model.  And now that the oasis inhabitants have found a way to make tourism work for them and have used their creativity and enterprise to pull it off, they are having the rug pulled from under them.  And it’s crazy. The people who live in the oases and invest in the local economy will put their wealth back into the local economy by spending and developing their businesses and employing local people.

Obviously nothing is clear cut or straight forward.  Some of the inhabitants of Bahariya miss the peaceful pre-tourism rural days when the streets weren’t buzzing with four-by-fours.  But it’s one thing to fear change and quite another to cut it off with an axe.

The conversation on Sahara Safaris asks the obvious question – why?  Why are these licenses being imposed?  Is it for “security” reasons.  I don’t know the answer but I suspect that it has much to do with criticism about how the White Desert is being managed, the amount of litter that is being left there by tourists and the amount of damage that is being done.   I have often thought that the way to manage tourists in these out of the way places is to impose responsibility on the tour companies.  But I never had a vision of the little guys being put out of business.  I never imagined excluding local people from their own landscape or indeed, their own economy.

And it I’m right about the reasons for imposing the new licenses and excluding local people from taking tours, its both an irony and unfair.  Many of the single-person or family run enterprises are the ones who care for the desert and by running very small tours keep the scale of the tourist problem to a level of managing bites of the elephant.  Bigger tours from Cairo are much less easy to control.

Managing the vandalism, theft, careless damage and littering in the Western Desert is a serious problem and so far no-one has come up with a viable solution. Or if they have, nothing has been implemented.  If this is the implementation of a solution to protect the desert by limiting access only to licensed operators who can offer certain guarantees about managing their tour members then I can see the benefits. And if the cost of the licenses are there to fund desert clean-ups that too I understand (but doubt).  But there is no reason why private oases tour organizers should not be able to offer the same guarantees and be offered a more reasonable fee for the licenses as some recompense for the invasion of their villages and recognition of  their local expertise, creativity and the investment they have already made.

I think that if I was a small tour business working in the oases I would look to my fellow operators and  form something of a collective – a trade association of sorts – with a charter of responsible behaviour and a set of agreements for managing both tourists and the use of the desert. That might be something with which to negotiate.   There is no reason why training on heritage and environmental management and care shouldn’t be arranged by the SCA or the Ministry of Tourism for such a group.

There needs to be a more subtle solution that the one being debated, and it needs to include those who live and work in the oases, not exclude them.  I sincerely hope that matters are not really unfolding as they have been described.

Desert ecotourism – Bahairya and the White Desert

March 20, 2010

Jon Jensen reports on the need to balance tourism with the needs of both environment and community  in an article on the Global Post. about tourism in Egypt’s Bahariya oasis, popular launch pad for visits to the hills around Bahariya and for tours into the remarkable White Desert.   The White Desert is part of Farafra oasis to the south of Bahariya oasis, but Bahariya is much closer to Cairo and has become a center for desert “safaris”.    Jensen says that one third of the 40,000 inhabitants of Bahariya are now employed in tourism.   He adds that 10% of all of Egypt’s tourists head for the deserts.  Desert tourism is becoming increasingly popoular.

An annual clean-up organized in the White Desert by a local tour guide is a terrible reflection on the habits of tourists who leave litter that amounts to tons of waste.

The article says that last year a ticket office was set up and that fixed routes for vehicles were laid down for the protection of the White Desert, but that estimates suggest that only a third of visitors pass through the ticket office and instead use back routes into the area.

This is a perennial problem for the deserts of Egypt.  There are too few measures taken to protect them and some of the tour operators who should know better are adding to the problem.  Local people need the income provided by tourists, but the cost is high to both local communities who are changed forever by the influx, and to the environment which is victimized by the abandonment of rubbish and by the removal of souvenirs – both natural and archaeological.

There are some very attractive photographs accompanying the article.   the one at the top of the page is one of mine from 2002.

Armchair guide to Coptic religion

March 3, 2010

Egypt has begun to restore historic Coptic buildings in urban, rural and desert.  The completion of restoration work at the 1,600-year-old St Anthony’s Monastery, the world’s oldest Christian monastery (located in the Eastern Desert) was unveiled in early February this year by Zahi Hawass.  The 9-year project cost $14.5 million.  During the restoration the oldest known Coptic monk’s cell was discovered under St. Anthony’s Church,  dating to 400 AD.  The announcement of the restoration followed Egypt’s worst incident of sectarian violence in over 10 years when a shooting on a church on Orthodox Christmas Eve killed seven people.  Egypt has been criticized about its handling of the tensions between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.  The restoration of the Coptic heritage is seen as one of the ways in which Egypt can perhaps address some of the grievances of the Egyptian Copts.

In the light of the recent articles about Coptic heritage management, I thought that it might be useful to provide a swift summary of Coptic history.  This is a ridiculous simplification of the history of the Coptic religion, but as I add articles about the occupation of desert areas by monastic Copts from the Graeco-Roman period onwards I thought it might be useful for some readers who aren’t familiar with the Coptic religion to have a bit of background, even one as sweeping with this!

The word Copt is an English word taken from the Arabic Qibt or Qypt, which simply means Egyptian.  The Egyptian Church was a part of mainstream Christianity until theological differences divided it from the Byzantine authorities.  The visit of the Holy Family is seen as a key event in the development of belief, because the 3 years  and 11 months that they spent in Egypt conferred on the country the status of Holy Land, and a number of points along the Nile are now places of pilgrimage. However, St Mark the Evangelist is usually given formal credit for establishing the Coptic Church during the 1st Century AD.  It is thought that St Mark was probably martyred during one of the phases of Roman persecution – one tradition says that he was killed by worshippers of Serapis.

The Coptic religion appears to have originated in Alexandria but it is unclear when it spread beyond Alexandria.  There is evidence that it reached the Faiyum depression by the 2nd Century, in the form of the Rylands Papyrus 457 (New Testament fragment) and it seems clear that it took off in the Nile at least by the beginning of the 4th Century.

After St Mark the first well known name in Coptic history is St Demetrius, Bishop of Alexandria 189-232.  Coptic religion spread under his influence with 3 bishoprics in the Nile Valley, and 20 under his successor Heracles.  A number of key figures formalized the Coptic religion within Christianity, and Alexandria became second only to Rome in terms of theological thinking and influence.  In 180 the School of Alexandria was established –  a community of teacher sand scholars that attracted a number of thinkers who later became famous.  Dionysious of Alexandria was one of these and was partially responsible for calculating the date of Easter.

During the 3rd century the rise of Christianity was seen as a threat by the Roman Empire and a series of persecutions began, with the worse early persecutions taking place under Septimus Severus in 202 and Decius and Valerian following him.  One response to threats in the third century by persecuted Christian individuals was to retreat into the desert lands to adopt one of two lifestyles – Hermitic or anchronitic.  Both established communal worship in settlements.  Fluctuations in their fate followed, with edicts for and against them.  The Edict of Milan issued by Constantine I in 313 ushered in a new era, permitting Christians to worship.

The best known of the early Coptic anchorites was St Anthony withdrew from society not to escape persecution but to lead a religious life consistent with his beliefs who became the first of the Desert Fathers.  He was impelled to return to a state of purity and to become closer to nature, denying possessions and acquisitive behaviour.  His period of withdrawal from solitude c.305 to teach and guide his disciples formed the foundations of anchoritic monasticism.  Young monks lived in a secluded but self contained monastery with an older role model to guide them.  Unlike St Antony, St Paul did withdraw to the Eastern Desert in response to the Decian persecutions but took up the life of solitary contemplation when he did so.

There were two forms of monasticism – Anchortic and Cenobitic.  Anchoritic monasteries all worked to a formula.  Each had an senior person to guide others, each had a church (later more than one), and as they were self-sufficient they required workshops, refectories, a well and walls and fortifications.  Fortifications were required to prevent, or at lest deter, the desert-living bedouin who regarded all other desert occupants and travellers as fair game.  In the 320s and 330s other monasteries were established in the Wadi Natrun and Nitria, which became famous.  Some were established near urban areas to enable monks to sell produce. Some were located in former Pharaonic settlements.  They were successful enough to survive the Arab conquest.

Cenobitic monasticism was established by Pachonius who was a pagan from Esna who converted to Christianity whilst in the army, which he joined in 312. He began as an anchorite but then established a community at Tabennisi which focused on routine, rules, communal activities, and sought to balance hard work with prayer and solitude with communal work. There was great emphasis on helping the needy. 9 monasteries were established for men and 2 for women (one of which was run by his sister).  It was very successful, with 1000s of monks by the year 400, but it was not to survive the Arab conquest.

Theological issues began to ruffle feathers in all camps in the early 4th century.  In the fourth century the Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander and the theologian Arius disagreed over the nature of Jesus Christ.  Alexander though that Christ was both human and divine (Christ as Logos) with the two co-existant whereas Arius thought that Christ was created by God but not equal with him, and that the view held by Alexander meant that there was more than one god.  The argument didn’t go away even after a council ruling against Arius.

After his death, Alexander’s deputy Athanasius became bishop and took up the cause, preaching that God was fully one with Christ (cosubstantial).  This was opposed by Asian bishops who saw the two natures of Christ as separated.  The Nicene Orthodoxy which he supported was rubber stamped by a council in 381, which further stated that the Holy Trinity was formed of a single entity, but three persons.  Patriarch Cyril and the Patriarch of Constantinople Nastarius disputed the nature of Mary.  Nestarius refused to refer to Mary as the Mother of God on the grounds that this caused confusion about the divine nature of Christ.  Cyril supported the term because he felt that Christ’s human nature could not be separated from his divinity. Eventually the Council of Chalcedon ruled that there were two sides to Christ, a fact that was denied by some of the Egyptian Copts who were termed Monophysites. No absolute resolution was ever reached, and Copts were again persecuted but this time by other Christian factions.

Christianity became the Eastern Roman Empire state religion in 391. The tables were turned for the pagans in 391 when Theodosius I outlawed paganism.  Unfortunately, the Christians behaved much as the pagans had before them.  The temple of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed, pagans were persecuted and lynched and the Jews were expelled in 412.  Patriarch Cyril became very powerful.  The Church was organized into episcopates which were in turn divided into dioceses and parishes, with the bishops in charge recruited from wealthy families.  Recruitment from monasteries more or less established celibacy for bishops by stealth.

The Arab invasion was not resisted by Copts because the Islamic invaders gave Copts the freedom to practise their religion.  There were mixed fortunes under Islam for the Copts, with periods of stability and persecution. One of the more subtle persecutions involved a tax called the djazaa which was obligatory only for non-muslims, and on which the state budget depended. During times of drought, many Copts were forced to convert to Islam

The language of the Copts was demotic. It is written using mostly the Greek alphabet and is still used in their Church liturgy.  It is probably best known amongst those interested in Ancient Egypt as being present on the Rosetta stone.  By the 15th century, due to persecution and restrictions, it had ceased to be used as a spoken language.

St Anthony's

El-Muzawaka tombs (Dakhleh oasis) restored

March 21, 2008

Nevine El-Aref reports, on the Al Ahram Weekly website, that the El-Muzawaka necropolis in Dakhleh oasis has been restored and will soon be re-opened to the public.   Of the 300 rock-cut tombs only two were painted, those of Petosiris and Sadosiris, and these are distinctive, mixing Egyptian and Roman themes.  These have been the most visited of the tombs and have suffered from humidy leading to damage to the highly coloured paintings.  Closed since 1922 the recent restoration work has been accompanied by a site management plan which includes the building of a small visitor centre.

I was there in 2002 and several of the other rock cut tombs,  of all shapes and sizes, still contained their original occupants – desiccated skeletons denuded of their wrappings, including one of a child.  When I revisted in late 2007 they had been moved.

The Faiyum under threat

February 26, 2008

Geoffrey Tassie has written a paper, posted online at which looks at the modern threat to the archaeology of the Faiyum.  Here’s his introduction:

“As already highlighted in the ECHO news article Faiyumi Sites to be placed on Tourist Map, the Faiyum Depression has been selected for development. These plans were originally formulated in 2005, by the Minister of Tourism, Ahmed el-Maghrabi and the Minister of Environment, Engineer Maged George. These plans were devised to boost environmental tourism, particularly in the Western Desert, the Bahariya Oasis and the Faiyum. These plans for the development of eco-tourism are also intended to encourage the development of communities and aid economic progress in the surrounding areas. This proposed development of the north Faiyum is compounded by the building of the 1,200 km Desert Development Corridor “superhighway” running from El-Aleman in the north to Lake Nasser in the South. A rail-track will run parallel to the superhighway. Twelve East-West connectors are planned to connect the superhighway to the main centres of population, one of which is the Faiyum Branch connector. This project is designed to promote the development of the desert north of the Faiyum depression by establishing sites for tourism, new communities and agricultural areas. It also would allow an extension to the west of the Depression for the establishment of industries such as cement production”.

See the above page for the full paper.

Siwa – under threat from tourism?

February 18, 2008

An article on Bloomberg by Daniel Williams looks at the threat to Siwa oasis by tourism.  Siwa is a remarkable place and due to the difficulties of actually getting there it has only recently become a focus for tourism.  As well as many Dynastic era sites within the towns and villages (including the temple of the Oracle which Alexander the Great came to consult)  there is a vast prehistoric legacy in the desert areas surrounding the oasis, which has been barely investigated by archaeologists.  Williams focuses on the impact of tourism on the quality of life for the Siwan inhabitants.    Over 15,000 visitors a year now visit Siwa, resulting in souvenir shops, donkey-taxis, motorbikes and vast new construction works.  The author says that, at the time of writing, there are 770 hotel rooms in an oasis barely 70km square.  Ouch. The proposed conversion of a nearby military airport into something suitable for tourism is a real concern.  Siwa is changing for good.

Tourist trash (3 tons of it) in the White Desert

November 5, 2007
This article  by Andrew Stelzer in the Seattle Times made me feel very cold. The White Desert is a remarkable place and I was only talking with a group of people the other day about the benefits or otherwise that tourism would have in terms of its total impact on the oases in the vicinity of the White Desert and on the White Desert itself.
Stelzer was part of a week-long operation to clean up the White Desert.  After arriving from Cairo he and his colleagues settled into the task.  One of his paragraphs is worth quoting in full:
“The next day, a six-hour van ride brought us into a vast sea of sand, seemingly empty except for its curious eruptions of white rock, scattered around like so many Martian toys. A twisted pillar over here, a giant mushroom shape over there. Surely, some speculated, people who come to this place must be environmental types. They wouldn’t be chucking a lot of litter everywhere.
Two days later, we compared notes on some of the junk we’d found buried in the sand. The most unusual was definitely the fishing twine, but also on the list were a couple pairs of pants, one Birkenstock, a set of plastic silverware, a broken watch, a few used condoms and a toothbrush.
My finds: lots of cans and bottles, including some that once contained British pear cider, several packs of cheese from Greenland, a bunch of cigarette cartons (“Cleopatra” being the favored brand in Egypt) and an endless stream of toilet paper.”
Stelzer says that 80,000 people visit the White Desert annually. They come to see the marvellous white limestone shapes that sprout out of the desert floor, and they leave their trash behind to deface it.  Three tons of it.  Three tons!
Three tons of rubbish was far more horrific than I had speculated upon. There have often been critical comments about the way in which Egypt manages her heritage, but here we have a case of the boot being firmly on the other foot, and it dismays me utterly that as visitors any of us should treat this very special place with such disrespect.
And it is being cleaned up by the locals.  Work parties composed of well meaning outsiders is a good gesture, but the real burden falls on those who live in the oasis towns and villages.  It’s a disgrace that tourists should behave in this way.  Although the White Desert is, in theory, a protected zone in Egypt, there are insufficient resources to make this matter although Stelzer says that a tour guide training course significantly improved the management of tourists and their unpleasent habits.  As both a tour guide and a tourist I am truly ashamed of the way in which tourists behave.