After a long period of restoration, the Al-Muzawaka necropolis in Dakhla Oasis was officially inaugurated this week. Nevine El-Aref attended the opening ceremony
Within a rocky, table-top mound in the Al-Qasr village in Dakhla Oasis are 300 Roman-period tombs, all of them unpainted except for those belonging to the priests Petosiris and Sadosiris. These tombs are vividly painted with scenes combining the ancient Egyptian and Roman deities of the time.
The tombs and the larger necropolis of which they are a part were originally discovered in 1972 by the Egyptian archaeologist Ahmed Fakhri, who called them Al-Muzawaka due to the vivid paintings they contain.
The walls of Petosiris’s tomb are painted with fair-haired, Roman-nosed figures in Pharaonic poses and curly-haired angels. On the ceiling is a zodiac with a bearded Janus figure. The owner of the tomb is also featured in the rear right-hand corner standing on a turtle and holding aloft a snake and a fish in a curious amalgam of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman symbols.
The wall paintings in Sadorisis’s tomb show the deceased with various deities: before the ancient Egyptian god Anubis while his heart is being weighed after death; before Osiris while he is being judged; and with Janus looking back on his life and forward into the hereafter.
Harvesting scenes are depicted in both tombs, as well as the agricultural products of the Oasis such as grapes and olives. While the other tombs in the necropolis are unpainted, they have been found to contain the remains of poorly embalmed corpses.
Time had taken its toll on both tombs, however, and the paintings they contain had badly deteriorated due to the high rates of humidity caused by visitors inside the tombs. Cracks had spread over the tombs’ walls, and some of the paintings had become detached from the base rock. As a result, both of the painted tombs were closed in1992 for restoration, though this only in fact began in 2008.
Mohamed Al-Shekha, head of the projects section at the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA), explained that the restoration work had not been easy due to the soft layers of the rock around the tombs. The restoration project had included a comprehensive survey of the paintings’ condition and the plaster behind them. The walls had been painstakingly consolidated and the paintings re-attached to the original rock, he said.
A two-room visitor centre has also been constructed in order to facilitate visits to the tombs, and there is a 15-minute documentary that should help to reduce the amount of time visitors spend inside the tombs.
“I am very happy that these very distinguished tombs have finally been re-opened after 11 years of closure,” Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim said at the opening ceremony. While he had not personally been involved in the work, since it had been commissioned during the tenure of previous ministers, it was a great honour to be invited for the opening, he said.
Ibrahim added that the Dakhla Oasis was one of the most beautiful oases in Egypt, not only because of its natural environment but also because of its important monuments.
During a press conference held on the site, General Mahmoud Khalifa, the governor of the Dakhla governorate, told reporters that the opening of the two tombs and the official opening of the Hibis Temple in Kharga Oasis last year was a concrete step towards promoting tourism in the Al-Wadi Al-Gadid governorate.
After many years of restoration, the 27th Dynasty Hibis Temple in the Kharga Oasis opened its doors to visitors last year, allowing them to see the best-preserved temple in Egypt’s Western Desert. The temple was built by the Persian king Darius I. It was used as a garrison until 330 BCE, and it contains evidence of use in later periods, including the early Christian period. There are also signs that it was later used by Muslim pilgrims en route to Mecca.
The temple was closed for restoration in the late 1980s and declared off limits to visitors. The deterioration of the temple started as early as 1958, when the level of ground water in the Kharga Oasis was shown to have risen, endangering the temple. Efforts were then made to control the subterranean water that had risen because of irrigation projects in the surrounding area. A drainage channel was excavated to direct the excess water, and the former sacred lake of the temple was re-dug to contain the water.
However, in his comments on the restoration work at the temple, Ibrahim said that these solutions had only been temporary as it had continued to be damaged by ground water. Cracks had spread over the temple’s walls, columns had tilted, and reliefs had been damaged. In the 1980s, the then Supreme Council of Antiquities (now the MSA) had even suggested physically moving the temple and rebuilding it on higher ground to stop any further damage.
A committee of archaeologists, engineers and restorers had rejected the relocation plan, fearing the collapse of the temple during the dismantling and reconstruction process. The committee had pointed out that half of the blocks and columns of the temple were in a critical condition and had suggested restoring the temple in situ. Restoration work had begun in the early 2000s.
Columns and walls had been consolidated, cracks repaired, and reliefs restored. To protect the temple from underground water, insulation materials were used as a protective layer between the ground and the foundations of the temple. New lighting systems were installed to allow access to the temple at night.
During last week’s press conference, Khalifa suggested building a bridge linking Al-Wadi Al-Gadid to the Red Sea governorate in order to provide tourists not only with access to the historic sites but also to other places for entertainment. This could also extend the periods tourists stayed in the oasis, he said.
He said that it would be a good idea to develop the archaeological sites in the Dakhla and Kharga Oases further by providing more facilities at the sites and information labels, as well as by providing Al-Wadi Al-Gadid inhabitants with courses to raise their cultural and archaeological awareness.
The Kharga Oasis has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and there was once a huge lake there. There are Neolithic rock paintings in the oasis that indicate that this lake was once frequented by elephants, buffaloes and ostriches. As the lake dried up, the inhabitants migrated to the Nile Valley and were probably some of its first settlers.
The first ancient Egyptian settlement known in the oasis was begun in around 2,550 BCE, but the fortified Islamic period town of Al-Qasr was constructed in the 12th century by the Ayoubid Dynasty, probably on the remains of Roman settlements.
Al-Qasr is built of mud-brick and includes 54 lintels from the Ottoman and Mamluk eras, along with the three-storey Ayoubid mosque of Nasreddin with its mud-brick 21-metre-tall minaret and wooden lintels engraved with Quranic verses at its entrances. A pottery factory and an old corn mill are also on the site.
Ibrahim said that the MSA would now be turning its attention to Al-Qasr, and the town’s inhabitants would be trained in the way the ancient Egyptians made mud-bricks such that these could then be used in the restoration.
This would improve the skills of the Al-Qasr inhabitants and provide them with employment. It would also guarantee that they would have a part to play in the restoration work by providing the bricks required to restore the monumental buildings of the town, he said.
The restoration work would be carried out in collaboration with NGOs, and once it was completed the MSA would make every effort to put the Al-Qasr village on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, Ibrahim said.
During the Islamic period, the fortified town is thought to have been the capital of the oasis, and it was constructed in a defensive position against marauding invaders from the south and west. Like in the nearby mediaeval town of Mut, its streets were divided into quarters which could be closed off at night by gates.
The minaret is the only part of the original mosque from the 11th or 12th centuries to survive, the rest of the building having been destroyed and rebuilt in the 19th century. The present mosque contains the mausoleum of Sheikh Nasreddin.
Other important monuments include the Abu Nafir house, which is typical of the Islamic period because of its heavy carved wooden doors. It is said to have been built over the remains of a Ptolemaic temple, and its door jambs are decorated with hieroglyphs, presumably from re-used blocks.
The nearby Bashandi village also features mud-brick houses painted in many different colours and narrow lanes set in a verdant oasis. The most important sanctuary there is of a Muslim holy man called Pasha Hindi, and it is after him that the village was named. Next to the sanctuary is a Roman necropolis, which includes a temple-tomb called the Tomb of Kitnes.