Neb-Re and the Heart of Darkness: The Latest Discoveries from Zawiyet Umm El-Rakham (Egypt)

By Snape, Steven | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Neb-Re and the Heart of Darkness: The Latest Discoveries from Zawiyet Umm El-Rakham (Egypt)


Snape, Steven, Antiquity


Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham is located on the narrow coastal fringe between Egypt's Western Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, 300 km west of Alexandria. The site seems to have been founded during the reign of Ramesses II (1290-1224 BC) as perhaps the largest and most westerly of a chain of fortified settlements whose major role was as a bulwark against the increasing eastwards pressure of various `Libyan' groups from the region around ZUR and, more significantly, from further west in Cyrenaica. There is no evidence that ZUR was occupied after the reign of Ramesses II; the mass-migration and subsequent Libyan War in the 5th regnal year of Merenptah, Ramesses' son and successor, provides a convincing terminus ante quem for the Egyptian abandonment of the fort.

Excavations carried out at the site since 1994, by the present author for the University of Liverpool, have revealed much of the infrastructure of the fort, including the tracing of its substantial mudbrick defences (including an enclosure wall 5 m thick, defining a square with an internal area of 20,000 sq. m), the on-going excavation of the fort's residential area (groups of small 3-4-room houses clustered around communal ovens), and the identification of a (Libyan?) squatter settlement in the immediate post-Egyptian occupation phase. The excavation of the temple storage-magazines produced a range of intact imports, especially transport vessels such as Canaanite amphorae and coarse-ware stirrup-jars, which has indicated the importance of ZUR as a coastal trading-post in the great East Mediterranean trading-circuit of the Late Bronze Age.

Of the named individuals we know to have been part of the garrison -- largely through stelae dedicated in the fort's principal temple and its subsidiary chapels -- one predominates, the commandant of the fort, Neb-Re. Neb-Re's name and image are found on limestone doorways from the storage-magazines and a building in the southern part of the fort which has a non-Egyptian cultic character. None of these stone elements has remained in situ; indeed one lintel, depicting a seated Neb-Re with his wife Mery-Ptah in a manner which suggests its original context as part of a mortuary monument for one or both of them, was re-used, face-down, as a threshold.

The impression of a deliberate attempt to erase the image and memory of Neb-Re was confirmed during the excavations of August-October 2000, when a second temple was discovered.

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