The mountain of treasures from Ancient Egypt


Mount Assiut al-gharbi rises two hundred meters above the Nile valley, and the desert begins directly behind the limestone mountain. When Jochem Kahl and Ursula Verhoeven-van Elsbergen and their team climb the side of the mountain at 40 degrees with a hoe, helmet, climbing equipment, and broom in their luggage, the Egyptologists are accompanied by plainclothes police officers; the mountain is a restricted military area. Your destination is the ancient tombs inside the mountain, once carved deep into the rock with hammer stones. Many of them are 4,000 years old.

The mountain not only served as a central burial place during the Pharaohs period, but later also for Christians and Muslims, it was a retreat for hermits, home for Coptic monasteries, and burial place for Islamic sheikhs. „The unusual thing about Gebel Assiut al-gharbi is the depth of time,“ says Kahl. „We are dealing with testimonials from 4000 BC to the present day. This is something that is seldom found continuously. They make the mountain a kind of research laboratory.“ The Egyptologist from Berlin had rediscovered the mountain for science almost 17 years ago, and since then he has been researching the mysterious graves year after year as part of a DFG project that has now expired, together with Verhoeven-van Elsbergen from the University of Mainz and Egyptian colleagues from the University of Sohag and shaft systems.

Today there is nothing left of the ancient city of Assiut in the Nile Valley with its mighty temples, palaces, and libraries, unlike in nearby Thebes or in Luxor in the Valley of the Kings. The Nile mud has long covered the old traces, the ancient city is overbuilt by the modern city. A few thousand people lived here in the Middle Kingdom, Assiut was the provincial capital and an important cultural center in Central Egypt, with important trade relations with the oases, towards Sudan and in the Egyptian Nile Valley. Today only the Gebel Assiut al-gharbi burial mound bears witness to this time. „Assiut is just as important for the cultural memory of Egypt as Thebes or Memphis,“ says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen.

There had been no digging in Assiut for 80 years, only ten graves were reasonably well documented. Now the scientists explored tombs and shaft systems and documented their diverse ceiling patterns and magnificent wall decorations. A total of 377 graves and smaller structures have now been mapped. The large prince graves of the „western desert mountain of Assiut“ are particularly spectacular, they were built around 2200 to 1900 BC. The largest of them is a monumental tomb, 110 meters long and up to 11 meters high. The excavation team uncovered a 28-meter long shaft and the associated burial chamber after years of work. „It went into the depths via inclines and shafts,“ says Mainz archaeologist Andrea Kilian. „It actually reminded me a little of Indiana Jones adventure stories.“

The archaeological site was already visited by French archaeologists during Napoleon’s great expedition to Egypt in 1798. „All the inner walls of the grottoes are covered with hieroglyphics; it would take months to read them if you knew the language,“ wrote archaeologist Dominique Denon. „Everything that the Greeks used for ornaments in their architecture, all meanders, spirals and what is generally referred to as ‘les grecques’, is done here with taste and an exquisite delicacy.“ Unfortunately, many graves were looted after that, and especially at the beginning of the 20th century, and valuable grave goods ended up in museums all over the world without a proper assignment. Therefore, many archaeologists thought that there was little to discover. A mistake.

As early as 2005, a local guard gave an indication of an unknown, almost completely buried grave that a regional prince had 4000 years ago, says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. They came across a real treasure, grave N13.1, as the researchers call it. The Egyptologist enthusiastically tells of his unusual, well-preserved wall decorations, which show Iti-ibi-iqer with his family. He was a general and at the same time head of the priests in the temples of the local gods Upuaut and Anubis. In the paintings, the prince is in the boat, catching fish and birds or watching bullfights leaning on a stick. Elsewhere, people dance, make music, go hunting, or feed cranes. There is also a goddess and a desert demon or rows of soldiers; at that time it was a time of civil war and internal Egyptian struggles. They are great scenes that show a time of political upheaval. „It is a fantastic room with a wonderful atmosphere and a magnificent view of the whole city and the Nile valley,“ says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. „I’ve spent several months there now.“

The researcher is not only enthusiastic about the colored scenes but also about unusual texts that can be found on the walls of the 90 square meter grave. Apparently, visitors left ink and graffiti there 500 to 900 years later. Sometimes it is short texts that praise local temples, sometimes just simple writing or drawing exercises. Some visitor graffiti also contain poetic texts and hymns, a particularly imaginative song describes the beauty of the face of a local goddess of the mountain. In between, there are many animal studies that mimic the depictions of the original decoration: lions, monkeys, donkeys, gazelles, hippos, and crocodiles, but also dogs and rams that were considered gods.

Several extensive text copies of famous life lessons are unique. They were supposedly written by kings, princes, or wise men who explained promising behavior to their sons in professional and social life. The longest text is eleven meters long and runs over several walls. great scenes that show a time of political upheaval. „It is a fantastic room with a wonderful atmosphere and a magnificent view of the whole city and the Nile valley,“ says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. „I’ve spent several months there now.“

For example, the writer Cheti praises his son Pepi the advantages of his career choice while he takes him on a ship to school for children of high officials: „If you study the scriptures, you will see yourself saved from (physical) work. A writer in any office in the residence will never be bad. (…) I’ll make sure that you love the scriptures more than your mother. (…) It (the writing profession) is more important than any other profession I saw the coppersmith working on the stove opening: his fingers are crocodile-like and stink more than fish eggs. Every woodworker is more tired than a farm worker: his field is made of wood, his hoe is made of copper, and he works even at night. „

The mountain still offers work for years to come, says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen. Thousands of mummified animal bodies of dogs, foxes, jackals and wolves, which the researchers found stacked in meters in a corridor and a subsequent hall, have already been examined, but the DNA analyzes have not yet been completed. The animals were dedicated to the gods of Assiut, who were mostly depicted with dog-like heads. Many animals were apparently malnourished and suffered from vitamin D deficiency. They were probably kept in the dark in the temples to be killed and embalmed later. Visitors to the temples could then buy animal mummies and have them buried in ritual acts for the purpose of their own regeneration. „The trade in animal mummies was good business for priests in many places in Egypt in the 1st millennium BC,“ says Verhoeven-van Elsbergen.

The Mount of Tombs of Assiut still holds many such secrets. Therefore, the researchers hope to be able to continue researching the Gebel Assiut al-gharbi, even if they have to climb the flank of the mountain up to the entrance of the graves every day in the blazing Egyptian heat.