Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ibn Battuta, World Traveller

Ibn Battuta is one of the greatest travellers of all time. Born in 1304 and a near contemporary of Marco Polo's, he would eventually visit North and West Africa, Mecca, Southern and Eastern Europe, Constantinople, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China. Some scholars have questioned if he really visited all these places (just as some scholars question whether or not Herodotus actually travelled as much as he claimed to have). Ibn Battuta dictated the story of his travels, a manuscript of which has survived to today and is usually referred to as "Rihla" (Voyage).

He visited the Ruins of Nineveh and described its walls and gates. He also saw the Giza Pyramids and the Pharos lighthouse in Alexandria. He described the Pharos lighthouse as:

"...a very high square building, and its door is above the level of the earth. Opposite the door, and of the same height, is a building from which there is a plank bridge to the door; if this is removed there is no means of entrance. Inside the door is a place for the lighthouse-keeper, and within the lighthouse there are many chambers. The breadth of the passage inside is nine spans and that of the wall ten spans; each of the four sides of the lighthouse is 140 spans in breadth. It is situated on a high mound and lies three miles from the city on a long tongue of land which juts out into the sea from close by the city wall, so that the lighthouse cannot be reached by land except from the city. On my return to the West in the year 750 [1349] I visited the lighthouse again, and found that it had fallen into so ruinous a condition that it was not possible to enter it or climb up to the door." (

Ibn Battuta is almost completely forgotten today, even in the Islamic world. This is unfortunate, as his life was a full and fascinating one.

A large portion of his book are available in English translation at:

A full biography of Ibn Battuta is: Dunn, Ross. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta", University of California Press, 1986.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Gertrude Bell, Shaper of Nations and Archaeologist

I thought it might be interesting to do a series of biographical sketches of people who have contributed to Near Eastern Archaeology. Anyone can find their way to a biography of Flinders Petrie or Howard Carter, so I thought that mentioning some lesser known, but still very important archaeologists might be in order.

Gertrude Bell (7/14/1868 - 7/12/1926) was a British writer, traveller, political analyst and archaeologist. She is today best remembered for her role is creating the Hashemite Dynasty in Jordan and for drawing the borders of modern Iraq, but it is her work as an archaeologist that concerns us here.

She was educated at Oxford University and travelled to Persia (modern Iran) to se her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, who was the British Minister in Tehran. She wrote the book "Persian Pictures" about her experiences on this trip.

Miss Bell became fascinated with the Middle East and would visit the Hittite city of Carchemish, Palmyra, Jerusalem, Cairo and Babylon. She advised archaeologists working at Carchemish, one of whom was T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). She also founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (which opened in June of 1926) and was given the title "Honorary Director of Antiquities". Some of her archaeological work was published in the "Reveue Archaologique". Her archaeological work with Sir William Ramsey was published by her in the book "A Thusand and One Churches".

Gertrude Bell was also a mountain climber (in the Rockies and the Alps) and visited Shanghai, Tokyo, India and Seoul among many other places in her full and fascinating life.

Wallach, Janet. "Desert Queen: the Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell", Random House, 1999.
Howell, Georgina. "Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert", Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Visit to Memphis (Part 2)

There are a few other interesting things to see at Memphis. For instance, there is a calcite sphinx of Queen Hatshepsut (Dynasty 18). The photo to the left will give you some idea of the size of the sphinx. The statue was found laying on it's side, and the damage caused by water is clearly visible on the left side of this photo.

Another interesting object is what looks like part of a pillar. The sunk relief carvings are clearly 18th Dynasty. The king's name is badly defaced, but MIGHT be Men-Kheper-Ra (Tuthmose III).

The largest object still to be seen, is a huge statue of (who else?) Ramesses II. The statue has been enclosed in a building to protect it from the elements. The photos clearly show the size of the statue, which is broken off at the knees. The statue shows Ramesses wearing a Nemes headdress surmounted by a double crown (?) that has also been broken off. A large dagger is also represented at the King's waist.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Visit to Memphis

The ruins of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis do not compare to the Giza Pyramids or the Valley of the Kings as a tourist destination, but most tours of Egypt visit Memphis for a half day and there are some interesting things to see.

For instance, there is a Dynasty 26 embalming site that was probably once a part of a major temple. It is thought that the Apis bulls were mummified here before being buried at Sakkara. The attached photos show a general view of the embalming area (Photo 1), a view of a large embalming table (photo 2) that had a drain on one end to let any fluids from the embalming process flow off the table (photo 3).

There is also a row of small embalming tables (?) nearby which are decorated with a carved image of a lion headed "couch" similar to the one found in the Antechamber of the tomb of Tutankhamen (photos 4 and 5).

Dynasty 26 is not the best known dynasty in Egyptian history. It was founded somewhere around 650 B. C., by an official who served under the Assyrian Kings after their invasion of Egypt, an invasion which pushed the Nubian Kings out of Egypt. Psamtik I started out with a powerbase in the Delta, from which he expanded his empire until he had re-united the country. The dynasty ended with the Persian invasion of Egypt by Cambyses.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Using Scarabs to Build Chronologies

As I have mentioned several times in the past, I am not a big fan of using scarab styles and decorations to reconstruct the history of Egypt's Second Intermediate Period. My concerns are based on:

1) Style and decoration are very subjective criteria to use
2) It has been done several times in the past and none of the scholars involved agree with each other (Stock and Ward among others). This is probably caused by #1.

The reason I raise this issue is that another scholar has tried to construct a sequence of Kings for the the Second Intermediate Period based in large part on scarabs. Dr. K. Ryholt has proposed that Mayibre Sheshi be put into the Fourteenth Dynasty (rather than the Fifteenth as most scholars place him) and bases this, in part on the style and decoration of Sheshi's scarabs.

Dr. Ryholt's arguments are plausible and cannot be easily refuted, but as long as they are based on scarab seriation, I am going to be a little sceptical. Hopefully more evidence will be found in the future to decide this one way or the other. In the meantime, interested readers should check the sources listed below to follow the arguments being made.

Ryholt, K. The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, 1997.

Stock, H. Studien zur Geschichte und Archaeologie der 13 bis 17 Dynastie Aegyptens, unter besonderer Beruecksichtigung der Skarabaen dieser Zwischenzeit (AF 12, Gluckstadt 1942).

Tufnell, Olga. Studies on Scarab Seals II, Warminster, 1984.

Ward, W. Studies on Scarab Seals, I, Warmister: Aris & Phillips Ltd., 1978.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another Mummy "Unwrapped"

A mummy is being unwrapped via computer imaging in the lab of the Stanford University Medical School. There will also be a special museum exhibit dedicated to this project

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Political Situation in Egypt (a Review)

"The Political Situation in Egypt During the Second Intermediate Period" is a major study of the Second Intermediate Period and has become one of the most frequently cited works on the period in print.

Dr. K. Ryholt has put together a masterpiece of scholarly research. He has sorted through mounds of unclear and contradictory evidence to produce a comprehensive survey of one of the most obscure periods of Ancient Egyptian history. Many of his conclusions differ from those of previous scholars, but given the material archaeologists have to work with, this should come as no surprise.

Perhaps the most important new view Dr.Ryholt has of the period is his reconstruction of the Turin Canon, which is based in part on re-arranging some of the Papyrus' fragments based on the lining up of fibers within those fragments . He has concluded that the list of Pharaohs that many scholars (myself included) considered to be the Seventeenth Dynasty, are actually the Sixteenth Dynasty and that the Pharaohs of the Seventeenth Dynasty are not on the Turin Canon. This has led Dr. Ryholt to reconstruct the order of Kings in Dynasty 17 in a very different way than I have in this blog (see here for the first of a number of posts on this topic).

Another interesting conclusion made in this book is that Mayibre Sheshi, who is usually considered to be one of the six Hyksos Pharaohs of the Fifteenth Dynasty is actually a Pharaoh of the Fourteenth Dynasty. This claim is based on scarab sequencing. I have argued that using scarabs to reconstruct history is difficult, bordering on impossible and have not changed my viewpoint any. Hopefully more evidence will be found to prove or disprove this idea.

Dr. Ryholt has also included a full catalog of attestations of the kings of this period on various monuments. The bibliography is also quite good.

This work is a great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the Second Intermediate Period.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Snefru Built How Many Pyramids?

In the latest post Dr. Zahi Hawass made on his blog he says "King Sneferu of the Fourth Dynasty built three monumental pyramids during his lifetime, and a fourth smaller step pyramid at Seila in the Faiyum."

I have never heard anyone else attribute the pyramid Seila to Snefru. I have seen it attributed to Huni, but not Snefru. Something feels wrong here. How could one Pharaoh build four pyramids?

I have found a few links that seem worth looking at. Ths are not "scholarly" sites, but they are definately worth a look:

1) Tour Egypt
2) A short biopgraphy of Huni
3) Some photos of Seila

Monday, August 10, 2009

Herod's Tomb Found?

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer believes that he has found the tomb of Herod at Herodium (7 miles south of Jerusalem). Herod was a notorius King of the Judea who was born around 73 B. C., who was believed to be responsible for the murder of many people, including members of his own family.

This month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine has a cover article on the discovery of the tomb. There is also an article on the internet here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Location of Avaris (Part 6)

To this point the majority of the evidence we have looked at is of Ramesside, rather than Second Intermediate Period, date. Thus the identification of Avaris as either Tanis or Kantir / Tell ed-Dab’a rests on the tenuous theory that the two sites were one and the same in ancient times. Proof of a Second Intermediate Period occupation of Kantir would thus be required to help solidify Kantir’s claim to be the site of Avaris.

A second Intermediate Period occupation of the area has recently been found at Tell ed-Dab’a by a team of archaeologists led by Manfred Bietak. These excavations have revealed a Canaanite city within the borders of Egypt; Bietak has divided the site into twelve occupation levels, the earliest of which dates to the end of the Middle Kingdom. The culture of that level (Level H) is a mixture of Egyptian and Canaanite, as is evidenced by the houses being Egyptian in style but with the burials being a mixture of Egyptian and Levantine styles[1]. It should be pointed out that the burials were found within the living area of the city, something which is completely non-Egyptian[2]. Level F is purely Canaanite, with tombs often including donkey burials, and has been dated to the Second Intermediate Period by Bietak[3]. In level E there are temples built along Levantine lines which include altars with remnants of burnt offerings, while the burials show no Egyptian influence and are often located under the door of a house[4]. In the latter part of Level D there are signs of the return of Egyptian influence; this is probably to be dated to the very end of the Second Intermediate Period[5]. The burials of this period are often quite lavish, with those of Level D3 (the earliest part of this level) showing Levantine influence. These burials often include beautiful gold diadems like the so-called “stag-crown” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art[6].

If Tell ed-Dab’a is indeed Avaris / Pi-Ramesse, then one would expect a hiatus in its occupation from the end of Dynasty Seventeen until the beginning of the Ramesside Period, and that is precisely what Bietak has found[7]. Stratum B seems to date from the reign of Horemheb and contains a temple of Seth[8], an important point in view of the fact that both Avaris and Pi-Ramesse should contain such a temple. If this is the actual site of Pi-Ramesse, one would not be surprised to see the occupation of this site end with the beginning of Dynasty 21, when Tanis was built and this is precisely what happened[9].

[1] Manfred Bietak, Avaris and Pi-Ramesse, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 238.

[2] Bietak, p. 238.

[3] Bietak, p. 238.

[4] Bietak, pp. 247 – 61.

[5] Bietak, p. 237.

[6] Bietak, p. 263.

[7] Bietak, p. 273.

[8] Bietak, p. 270.

[9] Bietak, p. 237.