Egypt: The Temple and Mines at Serabit el-Khadim In the Sinai

The Temple and Mines at Serabit el-Khadim
In the Sinai

by Jimmy Dunn

The road to Serabit el-Khadem. Things have not changed too much. These roads mostly exist due to local mining operations today.

While the Egyptians seem to have known, crossed and visited the Sinai even before the dynastic period, we have found little evidence of their building activities in the region. Of course, inhabitable areas are usually small, and scarce, and so have been inhabited and built upon continuously over the ages. It is probable that what was built has been built over many times. Today, wondering through the Sinai and viewing its unusual landscape, it is not difficult to imagine a land rich in minerals. Egyptians discovered its mineral wealth very early on, perhaps at the beginning of the dynastic period. Archaeologists have found that the very earliest known settlers in the Sinai, about 8,000 years ago, were miners. Drawn by the region's abundant copper and turquoise deposits, these groups slowly worked their way southward, hopping from one deposit to the next. By 3500 BC, the great turquoise veins of Serabit el-Khadim (Khadem) had been discovered.

The path leading up to Serabit el-Khadem from the valley below, where there is a small lodge

The Mines

Stela found along the route  to the temple

The ancient mining complex of Serabit el-Khadim lies on a small plateau north of modern Al-Tor. It is located about halfway down the western coast, around 40 kilometers due east of Abu Zanima, and about ten miles from Wadi Mughara. It was one of the most important sites for the Egyptians on the peninsula. Today, it is not difficult to reach the Serabit el-Khadim area, though the trip must be made by jeep. There are no paved roads to the base of the mountain. From a parking area, one takes a well marked path that has an elevation gain of over 2600 feet above sea level and is somewhat rigorous Although many of the region's pharaonic reliefs were destroyed by a British attempt to re-open the mines in the mid-nineteenth century, along the path to the temple are a number of engravings that were written by the ancient minors. Some of the most interesting portray the ships that would carry the turquoise to Egypt. There is also an excellent bas relief of King Sekhemkhet on the east face of the plateau, revealing him smiting Egypt's enemies. Other antiquities are found along the path, including ancient tunnels, miner's huts and stele.

The actual temple site at  Serabit el-Khadem is mainly rubble, with a few standing stela and  obelisks

Serabit el-Khadim, a large, systematic operation was set up that would flourish for thousands of years. It was important enough to the Egyptians that a number of policing actions and protective measures were taken to protect the mines throughout most of Egypt dynastic period To mine the turquoise, the Egyptians would hollow out large galleries in the mountains, carving at the entrance to each a representation of the reigning pharaoh who was the symbol of the authority of the Egyptian state over the mines. A huge quantity of turquoise over that period was mined, carried down the Wadi Matalla to a garrisoned port located at el-Markha (south of Abu Zenima), and loaded aboard ships bound for Egypt. The turquoise was then used both for jewelry and to make color pigments for painting.

A depiction of a ship used to carry turquoise

The Temple

A general view of the temple site at Serabit el-Khadem

A general view of the temple site at Serabit el-Khadim

The temple at Serabit el-Khadim, though really only scattered ruins, is one of the few phraonic monuments we know of in the Sinai. In 1905, Flinders Petrie investigated the site, and found the famous proto-Sinaitic script", which is believed to be an early precursor of the alphabet. This was a great motivation for them to learn the sound signs that phonetically articulated their names. These scripts were hieroglyphic signs used to write the names of the West Semitic names of the people who worked the mines, and keep account of their labors. They developed an Alef-Bet with which they could record their Proto-Canaanite language. The script they developed is called Proto-Sinaitric (First-Sinaitic) and the language was a Pan-Canaanite language often called Old Hebrew.

Hieroglyphic signs were used to write their West Semitic names and keep correct accounts of their days of labor. Very soon they had an Alef-Bet with which they could record their Proto-Canaanite language. The script they developed is called Proto-Sinaitric (First-Sinaitic) and the language was a Pan-Canaanite language often called Old Hebrew

The Serabit El Khadim temple looks like a double series of steles leading to an underground chapel dedicated to the Hathor Goodness. Much of the temple's large number of sanctuaries and shrines were dedicated to Hathor, who among her many other attributes, was the patron goddess of copper and turquoise miners. It is the only temple we know of built outside mainland Egypt and mostly dedicated to Hathor. The earliest part of the main rock cut Hathor Temple, which has a front court and portico, dates to the 12th Dynasty The temple was probably founded by Amenemhet III, during a period of time when the mines were particularly active. The 12th Dynasty was a period of considerable mineral wealth for Egyptians and some of the finest jewelry from Egypt's past have been discovered in the tombs of 12th Dynasty women.

A number of scenes portray the role of Hathor in the transformation of the new king, upon ascending the throne, into the deified ruler of Egypt. One scene, for example, depicts Hathor suckling the pharaoh. Another scene from a stone tabled depicts Hathor offering the pharaoh the Ankh.

This older part of the temple was enlarged upon and extended by none other than Queen Hatshepsut, along with Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III during the New Kingdom.This was a restoration period for the mining operations after an apparent decline in the area during the Second Intermediate Period. These extensions are unusual for a temple in the manner in which they angled to the west off of the earlier structure.

On the north side of the of the temple is a shrine dedicated to the pharaohs who were deified in this region. On one wall of the shrine are numerous stele. A little to the south of the main temple >we also find a shrine dedicated to the god of the eastern desert, Sopdu, which is smaller than the northern shrine.

As a Tourist Destination

Serabit el-Khadim is not a particularly easy place to find or to reach. Indeed, one will probably not find it without the aid of a knowledgeable guide and then, some stemma is needed to reach the actual site of the temple. The local tribes are responsible for protecting the site from looting and are open to assisting tourists and hiring out as guides. Furthermore, a significant segment of the route leading to the area off of the western Sinai coastal highway is not paved. One must climb up a long series of steps to the top of a mountain and then trek back along mountain ridges. It takes about two hours for the average person to reach the temple. Bring lots of water, as there is none to be found along the route. As a pharaonic tourist attraction, Serabit el-Khadim is not nearly as spectacular as many of the Nile Valley sites, though the surrounding area is interesting. It should be considered more of a trek adventure than a pure pharaonic sightseeing tour.






Reference Number

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05100-3

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

History of Ancient Egypt, A

Grimal, Nicolas



None Stated

Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-815034-2


Last Updated: June 21st, 2011