Ancient Rock Quarries: The Ravine of Inscriptions
by Amargi Hillier
(Eastern Desert) If you were to ask today to be shown the road to Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, you would probably be greeted with wide-eyed stares and be told that no one had heard of it. However, this natural route which links the Red Sea to the Nile is one of the most unexpected gorges in Egypt, located on the ancient trade route. This is the road used in antiquity by the merchants of Arabia to penetrate into the lands to the Pharaohs to trade with the inhabitants of Coptos, the present day Quft. It was such a beneficial exchange that half of the population at this city traced their origins to Arabia by the time Egypt became a province of Rome under Augustus. In order to reach the Nile Valley, the goods unloaded on the coast coming from Arabia and the Red Sea had to be transported overland for 200 kilometers; at this point being the shortest distance between the Nile and the Red Sea, thanks to the bend of the Nile to the east of this latitude.
This shorter passage between the two bodies of water had been used by the Egyptians in all recorded ages. Pilgrim caravans on their way to Mecca gathered at Coptos on the Nile and traveled to the port at Qusseir on the coast by way of Wadi Hammamat. Also, Wadi Hammamat was a part of the silk route during the ancient silk trade with the Han Dynasty in China. But all this does not constitute the uniqueness of the Wadi Hammamat in Egypt.
Wadi Hammamat is unusual as a narrow flat valley, easily reached, across the massive mountains of the Eastern range. In modern times, a road passes through this area of fragmented sharp rocks, threatening jagged boulders pointing skyward, and a realm of unstable ravines where only a few thorn bushes and cacti manage to grow. A few thousand Bedouins of the Ababded and Bisharieh tribes are scattered through this territory. Social changes today have got the better of the once large herds of dromedaries; hunters have slaughtered vast numbers of gazelles. Even so - herds of gazelles, antelopes, rams, goats, crocodiles, giraffes, and even ostriches come to life again in the scenes carved into the rock walls of the gorge. A man clothed in simple loin cloth could catch them with a lasso; the creature seemed to whirl desperately around the hunter. Such hunting scenes, scenes of war, of combat, of dancing, or of worship are drawn on the walls of cliffs all along Wadi Hammamat.
Also here inscribed are hieratic graffiti, an Aramaic alphabet chart of late era, and more classical inscriptions and drawings of the Middle and New Empires. Really stunning. More than 200 hieroglyphic tablets adorn the quarries of the renowned "bekhen" stone.
This gorge is rich where it carves its way through deposits of three distinct materials, much sought after by the ancient Egyptians, all referred to by the term of "bekhen". One is a kind of sandstone schist which gives off reddish reflections, thus adding an impression of greater warmth and a more lively luster than such stone where the schist element predominates. Another kind of stone is of finer grain but paler. The third sort, found in rocks fallen into the valley, is browner - almost black - and resembles basalt. These stones are inferior in quality and seem not to have been used in large monuments.
For purposes of prospecting for stone to be sculpted in ancient statuary, the Egyptians employed a corps of professionals known as "SEMENTYOU" or pioneers. Their task was to roam the land in search of minerals or precious metals. They brought back specimens in leather satchels hung on the ends of their staffs. By virtue of the special nature of their work, one assumes that an important percentage of these "Sementyous" were descendants of Bedouins or of desert families.
The extraction of bekhen stone in the middle of the desert and its transportation to the banks of the Nile to be used in building sacred edifices was constituted a glorious undertaking. It was considered an honor which was recorded by carving the great deeds of Pharaoh's envoys, all along Wadi Hammamat. Those taking part in these expeditions were free men, belonging to an elite of the engineers, artisans, and workmen of the Pharaoh.
Generally, the sovereign dispatched only one expedition during his reign. An exception was Amenemhat who organized three such expeditions. Sanousrit and Ramses IV organized two. The record is held, however, by Darius, the Persian King who did not hesitate, after conquering Egypt on six occasions to send thousands of men and hundreds of animals to the quarries of Wadi Hammamat. These expeditions, requiring a work force, at times counted up to 17,000 men, as recorded in a Middle Empire inscription known as the "Stela of Sanousrit I". Again 17,000 men defied the mountainous desert to fashion monuments to the glory of Pharaoh Sesostris. All professional categories were represented: the chief of the treasury, guardian of the scroll, constables, scribes of the college of judges, treasury scribes, hewers of stone, hieroglyphic scribes, cooks, hunters, armoires, cobblers and sailors. These last mentioned were skilled in tying intricate knots; they were indispensable in maneuvering blocks of some tens of tons through the defiles of Wadi Hammamat.
Before leaving, the majority of the leaders of the expedition engraved a kind of report bearing witness to the importance of the mission accomplished and of the activities of their expeditionary corps. Most of the inscriptions are content just to report on the technical aspects of extracting the stone and emphasize their devotion to the pharaoh and the skill of the men in successfully completing their tasks. One inscription composed in the year 38 of Sesostris I (around 1930 BC) is a typical model of these brief inscriptions:
"I came to the desert to obtain stone for His Majesty the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Kherperkare' in the year 38, the fourth month of the flood, on the fourth day. I departed in peace during the fourth month of the flood, on the sixth day, with 80 blocks of stone drawn by 1500 and by 1000 men. I reached the Nile pier in the fourth month of the flood on the 20th day."
There exists, however, accounts which go beyond the repetitive monotony of the routine report, such as the one by a certain Hennou. He had been assigned on a mission to Punt at the head of 3,000 men to acquire supplies of sweet smelling resinous gums. On the way,he constructed twelve cisterns and three wells.
Then the enterprising Hennou headed for Punt in a ship which he had reassembled on the shore of the Red Sea, having no doubt carried it dismantled piece by piece from the Nile. On the return trek through Wadi Hammamat, his corps of workmen quarried three blocks of quality stone.
Usually the inscriptions are dedicated to the divinities of the East, with Min-Amon at their head. Wearing on his head a flat head piece supporting the sun disc and two feathers, his chin adorned with a false beard, Min is represented with his phallus in erection. Because he is ithyphallic, Min protects workers and travelers to the quarry areas. This stance, considered inappropriate for human beings, was thought to the gods as the most effective weapon against evil spirits.
During the periods when "bekhen" was quarried, the laborers simply let the blocks of stone roll down the mountain sides and kept only those which reached the foot of the mountain intact. During the Middle Empire (around 1900 BC), the commander of a quarrying expedition named Meri, tired of seeing so many blocks thus broken or damaged, had an inclined plane built so as to slide the blocks down. The monuments fashioned at Wadi Hammamat remained of only moderate size, because of the commonly found series of flaws in "bekhen" stone. One of the main tasks of the quarrymen was to discover a block of stone corresponding to the dimensions of the statue or sarcophagus ordered.
For reasons of efficiency in production, the expedition had to take place in winter, so that the stones quarried could reach Coptos during the spring. Thereupon, the transport by river would occur at the time of the floods which assisted delivery of the monuments at their destinations most expeditiously.
In the Eastern Desert, all life depends on the winter rainfalls, less than 300 millimeters per year, which often fall in merely a few hours. This precipitation then forms a stratum of ground-water sufficient to supply numerous wells scattered along the wadis. In order to facilitate the journey through this region, the Romans constructed fortified way stations at regular intervals along the routes of the Eastern Desert where caravans stopped.
Flaubert, on his journey through Egypt with Maxime Du Camp, made an expedition by camel to the Red Sea. He spent the night of March 25,1850 in one of these ruined strongholds, Bir (well) Hammamat. "I thrust my head into a large wooden bowl and drank down in long draughts the murky water of the well, which was preferable to the water we were carrying in our waterskins. At half past ten, we lay down to sleep by the stairs of the great well of Bir el-Hammamat. At eight o'clock, we stopped and spent the night at Kusuru el-Banat, despite the remarks of our camel drivers who say the spot is frequented by the devil and it was not good to stop there. During the night, a jackal ran off with part of our victuals which we had set out to keep cool. From Qenah to Qussayr, 45.5 hours. Return journey was 40.5 hours."