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Nikolaos Lazaridis
Egyptologist, Assistant Professor of Ancient History at the California State University, Sacramento, Chief Epigrapher of the North Kharga Oasis Survey team

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Epigraphic Survey in Kharga Οasis: The history of a well-travelled path in the Egyptian desert

About 200 km west of Luxor and the Nile Valley, in the northern area of the Kharga Oasis, the North Kharga Oasis Survey (NKOS) team, led by Dr. Salima Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, and Dr. Corina Rossi, Egyptologist, began in 2001 a survey of a wide area that includes archaeological sites with temples, cemeteries and settlements, as well as secluded sandstones that over the years have welcomed ancient travellers to their shade. The principle aim of this survey is the production of a detailed topographic map of the area that will identify and locate all archaeological sites and will mark the desert paths that were linked to the renowned historical route of Darb el-Arbain.

The Darb el-Arbain route, whose name in Arabic means “the path of forty (days)”, connects the city of Asyut in the Nile Valley to Sudan, and in particular to its north-western part, the region of Darfur. According to the historical material discovered so far by the NKOS team, in addition to archaeological and philological findings referring to other parts of the Darb el-Arbain, the route was used in as early as the Neolithic Era (around 7000 B.C.) and was still in use during the 20th century by travellers, merchants and caravans as an alternative road connecting Central Africa to Egypt and to the rest of the Mediterranean world.

Western offshoots of the Darb el-Arbain pass through the North Kharga area before the main route reaches Asyut; it is in this area that the NKOS team has discovered since 2001 over two hundred ancient graffiti and inscriptions written in the ancient Egyptian language (in all its scripts, that is, hieroglyphic, hieratic, Coptic and demotic) and in ancient Greek, which was used in Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Macedonian dynasty in 332 B.C. until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 7th century A.D. Based on the meticulous study of this extensive epigraphic material, the NKOS team poses and attempts significant historical and archaeological questions.

For example, given that ancient travellers using this path during the Pharaonic era (namely from around 3000 down to 332 B.C.) left behind them both textual graffiti in hieroglyphs and pictorial ones without any text, the NKOS team is able to explore the uses of written text in various archaeological sites along the desert routes and compare them to the use of simple iconography. The advantage of producing hieroglyphic graffiti, as opposed to pictorial ones, was that textual graffiti could verbally describe the identity of their carver, and in some cases make a religious statement before one or more gods of the Egyptian pantheon. The use of the hieroglyphic script in this case was threefold; it was used (a) as a linguistic expression of a message, (b) as a set of ideograms and pictures with aesthetic and meta-linguistic value (the same message is displayed through the image for the audience that cannot read nor understand the hieroglyphs), and (c) as a set of magical symbols that, thanks to their magical properties, could ensure communication with the gods and survive the passing of Time.

Based on these advantages of using the hieroglyphic script as opposed to iconography, the team has asked the following question: Why in some cases travellers preferred to carve an image to text? Two possible answers to this question could be brought forth: firstly, because they considered pictorial graffiti as an aesthetically better option under the given circumstances or as a more efficient form of communication, both with the gods and with their mortal audience, namely the other travellers along the Darb el-Arbain; secondly, perhaps because the travellers who chose to carve images rather than text did not know how to write in the hieroglyphic script, a hypothesis that agrees with contemporary scholarly theories on ancient Egyptians’ limited education, evident especially during the Pharaonic period – in the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1070 B.C.), for instance, the literacy rates among the Egyptian population were probably only 1-5%. If the lack of written text was indeed a result of the era’s overall state of illiteracy, then one could assume that the knowledge of the hieroglyphic script was a unique social privilege, and is highly likely that the privileged desert travellers paused during their journey, with every chance they found, in order to leave their textual mark or read older hieroglyphic graffiti.

Many of these assumptions regarding the use of written language in these graffiti are inextricably linked to another significant question posed by the NKOS team: Who were the carvers of these texts? Usually, the Egyptian graffiti mentioned the names of the ancient travellers who carved them. Rarely though, they also mentioned their carver’s professional title, the most common of which being “scribe” or “priest”. Based on this evidence, the NKOS team has tried to explain the reasons for which the travellers during the Pharaonic period and the Greco-Roman era were so reluctant to reveal their professional titles in the graffiti (as opposed, for instance, to the rules dictating that the personal names should be accompanied by titles in ancient Egyptian official documents, such as contracts and transaction receipts, or in public texts, such as those found in tombs). One can explain this reluctance by assuming that most of these ancient Egyptian carvers did not have an official title (that is, they were not state employees or members of the clergy), or that despite having such a title did not wish to reveal it, considering that such a piece of information would have been useless in the middle of the desert. Indeed, such information could have been considered redundant in those cases, either because of the economics of writing (that is, due to the limited time or space available for carving the text), or because the text originally intended to communicate only the personal relationship between the carver and his god.

Such intriguing questions raised on the basis of the study of the epigraphic findings from North Kharga demonstrate the historical importance of this material, as it offers historians and archaeologists a unique chance to examine the diachronic relationship established between the travellers who crossed and camped by the routes that were parts of the Darb el-Arbain network and the Egyptian desert. The landscape of the Egyptian desert may at first seem hostile and inhospitable, but if one views it through the lens of historical and ethnoarchaeological research, one will realize how much it has contributed to the evolution of the Egyptian culture, by welcoming travellers in various missions and allowing them to express their private thoughts and feelings, reveal their personal identity, as well as communicate with and connect to other travellers, confiding their messages to the Egyptian desert which remains ageless and eternal.

Nikolaos Lazaridis
Egyptologist, Assistant Professor of Ancient History at the California State University, Sacramento, Chief Epigrapher of the North Kharga Oasis Survey team