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Explore The Rarely Seen Treasures Of Beni Suef

Mazura (Kom el-Ahmar)

About half an hour’s drive to the south of Dishasha, somewhere between the towns of Biba and el-Fashna in the Governorate of Beni Suef, is a site known locally as Kom el-Ahmar or Mazura. I have visited this site but I can find no information about it and it does not seem to be marked on the maps. There is a gafir at the site who will show visitors around, but only speaks Arabic and could only tell us that there were burials here.

Located near a small canal, Kom el-Ahmar is a large archaeological site which is covered in red pottery sherds and contains many graves (presumably) of different types. Some of the graves are pits in the sand and some are brick-lined. There is also a limestone paved platform and low remains of stone and brick walls which must once have contained a structure (temple or shrine?) but I do not know which period this is dated to.

Towards the small modern village of Mazura, about one kilometre from the cemetery site, another area is covered in broken pottery and lying by the track there are large sections of plain round columns scattered haphazardly on the ground.

El-Hiba

Near the modern village of el-Hiba, on the east bank of the Nile about 32km south of Beni Suef, is the site of ancient Tuedjoi. Now thought to have been occupied at least as early as Third Intermediate Period, the town was an important frontier fortress on the northern limits of the Theban region during Dynasty XXI and Dynasty XXII and a temple was built here at that time, probably by Shoshenq I. Although there was continued habitation through the following centuries, the town regained its military importance under the name of Ankyrononpolis during the Graeco-Roman Period. The mudbrick ruins of the town now sprawl up the hillside from where there is a magnificent view over the surrounding plain to the River Nile.

Ahmed Kamel was the first archaeologist to work at the site, publishing his results in 1901. The site was then surveyed under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund by B Grenfell and A Hunt, who published their findings of many important Greek and demotic papyri texts from el-Hiba in 1906. While Junker visited briefly in 1911, Ranke cleared the temple and some of the houses in 1913-14 and an Italian mission excavated some Graeco-Roman burials in the 1930s, it was many more years before the American archaeologist Robert Wenke, with Cynthia Sheikholeslami, conducted a more thorough survey of Ankyrononpolis in 1980 which included test excavations. The most recent work has been carried out by a team form UC Berkley, directed by Carol A Redmount, beginning with a survey and archaeological fieldwork at el-Hiba in 2001.

El-Hiba appears to have been divided into two parts, a large town mound surrounded by thick mudbrick walls and a series of cemeteries spread around the desert and hills beyond. Of the structures found at el-Hiba, there are remains of the large mudbrick enclosure walls where a number of bricks were found to be stamped with the names of Pinudjem I and Menkeperre who were high-priests of Amun-Re at Thebes around the beginning of Dynasty XXI. It is thought that they established a residence here. The site is probably best known for the large amount of papyri it contained and was the reported provenance of the famous ‘Tale of Wenamun’. The ‘Petition of Petiese’ (Papyrus Rylands IX), which appeared on the antiquities market in the early 20th century, actually mentions Sheshonq’s temple there.

The small provincial limestone temple of Amun at the base of the hill was surrounded on three sides by a mudbrick temenos wall that is still in situ on the north and south sides. It is likely, from a cartouche and inscriptions found on blocks inside the temple, that it was constructed by Shoshenq I Hedjkeperre Setepenre of Dynasty XXII, a military leader and Libyan chieftain who is credited with ending the power of the Theban Priest-Kings and is traditionally identified as the ‘Shishak’ of Biblical fame. A fragment of relief from el-Hiba depicts the king making offerings. The decoration was completed by Sheshonq’s son, Osorkon I and a pronaos was added around Dynasty XXX. The temple was dedicated to ‘Amun of the Crag’ or ‘Amun Great of Roarings’.

The temple is now largely ruined and overgrown with vegetation, but standing on the hill above you can still make out the shape of the low stone walls emerging from the sand, scrubby grass and small palm shoots growing around it. Within the enclosure walls, the stone-built temple measured about 36m by 18m and contained an entrance hall with two rows of four papyrus columns – one of the earliest pronaoi – and a four-pillared hall. There was a small offering hall and a barque shrine with four small side-chambers as well as a crypt. The main problem of current excavators and conservators is the very high level of the water-table within the temple structure. This is due in part to the rising level of the Nile as well as the surrounding irrigated agricultural land, especially a nearby banana grove planted recently. With continual wetting and drying, the already unstable surface of the limestone blocks is deteriorating rapidly and unless a reliable method of stabilization can be found, excavators fear that the future survival of the temple does not look good. The completion of the new highway from Cairo on the east side of the Nile also poses a threat to the site.

El-Hiba is also a vast necropolis and it was in the tombs where the majority of papyri were found, as well as many sarcophagi. Carol Redmount’s team from UC Berkley have also uncovered the plan of a large Late Roman or Early Byzantine structure to the south of Sheshnq’s temple.