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Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt


Stone heads imitating sculptures from the Asian region of Gandhara and a statue showing a deity known from the depths of Africa were discovered by archaeologists during their research of the Berenike temple in Egypt by the Red Sea," researchers from the Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw reported.


Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt
The statue of Sebyu Meker during field conservation [Credit: I. Zych/CAS UW]

The town of Berenike was founded in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy II. Initially, the port was used for handling the transport of African elephants. In the first centuries AD the Romans who took possession of Egypt made the city an important point of trans-oceanic trade linking the African interior, the Middle East and India.




A multi-national team of archaeologists from the Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology of the University of Warsaw, and the University of Delaware has been excavating a temple dedicated to Isis (the sister and wife of Osiris who was worshipped as the goddess of the moon, motherhood, marital devotion, healing the sick, and the working of magical spells and charms) and the cult of Serapis (a Graeco-Egyptian deity).


Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt
Statue of Sebyu Meker, deity from Meroe [Credit: K. Braulinska/CAS UW]

"We find traces of half a century of cult relating to the religion of ancient Egypt, but with exotic elements from the depths of Africa and the Far East", said Iwona Zych from CAS UW, who led the Polish part of the expedition.


Many architectural stone elements and fragments of sculptures, including some marble pieces, were found in the ruins of the temple.  Among them are heads imitating sculptures from the Asian Gandhara, a region that occupied part of today's Pakistan and Afghanistan. Scientists stress that these are stylistic references, not imported objects. Inside the ruins of the temple there was also a large, standing statue of the god Sebku Meker, known from the African kingdom of Meroe (Sudan), made in a local workshop. 


Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt
Ceramic material from the excavations [Credit: I. Zych/CAS UW]

There are also many depictions of Serapis. He was a very popular god in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods; combining the characteristics of some Egyptian and Greek gods. One of the representations that was discovered this year was made of teak.




"It was probably made from a broken mast, because this is the wood used on ships sailing to India. The high quality of the sculpture, which was also covered with gilding, is astonishing. This indicates the existence of an efficient sculpting workshop on site, in Berenike. The building is in the process of conservation and, if the situation allows, it should be placed in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo", said Zych.


Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt
Fragments of blocks with hieroglyphic inscriptions from the rubble
 inside the temple [Credit: I. Zych/CAS UW]

The temple was first explored as early as the 19th century. Some of the monuments that were discovered in the temple have been deposited in the British Museum in London. However, the excavations were focused primarily on the search for attractive exhibits, so they were not as accurate as those carried out today.


According to researchers, around the 4th century AD political and economic power in Berenike was held by the Blemias, a little known nomadic Nubian tribe living in the mountainous Eastern Desert. 


Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt
Uncovering the courtyard of the temple of Berenike [Credit: I. Zych/CAS UW]

However, in those days, it controlled territory east of the Nile from what is now Ethiopia to Berenike. Evidence of this was discovered during this year's excavations in the northern part of the city. A foundation inscription by a certain Mochosak, translator of Isemne, King of Blemias, was unearthed there.




"We know nothing more about its history, but judging by the monumental nature of the inscription and the building in which it was placed, he must have been a man of great will, talent and means in order to embellish the city like the great metropolises of the ancient world," says Zych.


Influences from Asia and the African interior found at ancient Red Sea temple in Egypt
The walls of the temple are more than 4 metres tall and beneath the destroyed floor of the sanctuary
 from the Roman period there is another 1.5 metres of 'crypt'in the foundations
of the Ptolemaic temple [Credit: I. Zych/CAS UW]

In 2020, excavations were also carried out in the 'pet cemetery' containing the remains of domestic animals like dogs, cats, but also monkeys. Recently published analyses show that the latter were brought to Egypt from afar, probably from India itself. 


Author: Szymon Zdzieblowski | Source: PAP - Science in Poland [trsl. TANN, October 14, 2020]



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