Thursday, September 15, 2011

The ancient turquoise mines of South Sinai


Complete article with pictures

"His majesty of this God has sent the God's treasurer, the assistant and leader of the troupe, Her-Wer-Re, to the mining lands and he said: there is abundant turquoise in the hill."

With these words, Chief Her-Wer-Re began documenting the work of his mining expedition sent by the pharaoh (his majesty of this God) to Serabit al-Khadem in South Sinai during the Middle Kingdom Period (ca. 2055-1985 BC). In the inscriptions on his stele at the mine, he boasts of the success of his expedition despite rumors that turquoise ore might be lacking at that particular time of year: "My expedition returned complete in its entirety … I broke off in the first month of summer, bringing my precious stone … I accomplished my work with great success without a voice being raised against my work, which I have done excellently."

Rock inscriptions left by ancient Egyptian miners in South Sinai are rich with details of working conditions and weather, as well as praise for the pharaoh and the gods. They present a lively narrative of daily life that can be easily compared to modern business reports, or even a diary.

Sinai is often referred to in Arabic as “Ard Al-Fayrouz” (the land of turquoise) after its ancient Egyptian name "Ta Mefkat" or “Khetyou Mefkat”, which means turquoise terraces. Minerals were of great use in ancient times - for making royal jewelry and divine offerings, and more importantly for mummy ornaments and amulets, encouraging pharaohs since the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3050-2890 BC) to send mining expeditions to extract turquoise and copper from South Sinai.

Wadi Maghara, Wadi Kharig, Bir Nasb and Serabit al-Khadem were among the premium mining spots in antiquity, and visiting them today offers a different experience for history and archaeology aficionados than the temples and tombs of the Nile Valley and Delta, which reflect ancient Egyptians’ beliefs in the afterlife. The archaeological sites of Southern Sinai relay aspects of daily life in old mining communities.

Such communities documented their work and adventures in the desert through rock inscriptions, graffiti (spontaneous wall drawings done by traveling expeditions), and occasionally chapels erected for the local God Hathor - also known as the Lady of Turquoise - once miners settled in.

The chief of the expedition would oversee documentation efforts: wall carvings at the mine’s entrance state the date of the expedition, the name of the chief and the group’s achievements. At Serabit al-Khadem, inscription number 56 reads: "Gallery (mine) has been opened by Chief Sanofret and named ‘Admiring the Beauty of Hathor.’” Other inscriptions at mining sites emphasize the power of the pharaoh over regions distant from the ruling capital in the Nile Valley. In Wadi Maghara, the wall carvings executed by miners show a typical Early Dynastic scene of the pharaoh smiting a man with a mace head.

Because ancient Egyptians tended to link all their life activities to religion, the miners were also keen on offering chapels and stelae (stone slabs or columns bearing commemorative inscriptions) to the local gods.

The site of Serabit al-Khadem still preserves the remains of the largest ancient Egyptian temple in the Sinai Peninsula. Located on an elevation, almost 800 meters above sea level, the temple is built of dozens of stelae inscribed by the chiefs of ancient expeditions from both the Middle and New King...

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