“One man, I remember, told me, ‘I know exactly what you came here for, you came to search for the gold. Unless you have the map, you won't be able to find it. But honestly, the map is not with us, the map is with the Romans, I shall tell you if you insist, where the Romans pass.’”
That was the opening of the multi-award-winning documentary Shahira, Nomads of Sahara (1988), by Canadian director Shelley Saywell.
The documentary followed the journey of Shahira Fawzy, an Egyptian anthropologist, human rights activist and designer who spent all her life helping the Busharia and Ababda tribes of the Eastern Desert.
It highlighted the fact that such tribes were the true ancestors of Ancient Egyptians, still practicing many rituals and using the same tools found in museums. It showed that they were right about the gold map of the Romans. The so-called Goldmine Papyrus that include a map of the Wadi Hammamat and is now exhibited at the Museo Egizio, Torino Italy.
In the first and second parts of the series, Ahram Online visited the Wadi El-Gemal National Park and explored the inspiring story of Shahira Fawzy (1954- 2022). Ahram Online ends the series by visiting Wadi Skeit, one of the oldest gateways of Ancient Egyptian civilization.
Wadi Skeit is a some 20-minute-drive from Wadi El-Gemal in the Marsa Alam governorate on the Red Sea coast. It has witnessed the rise and fall of pre-historic civilization through to the Roman era.
Wadi Skeit was indeed a sight. It was an incredible experience to travel past the mighty, steep mountains, which have stood the test of time and lived to tell the stories of all those who passed through this part of the world.
We were greeted by green bushes amidst an abundance of rocks. There were gum, acacia, and neim trees and a couple of white camels wandering about. “This is A Meswak tree,” explained our Abadi guide, Hassan Abdel-Saleh, who gave each of us some green branches. When dried, these branches can be used as an effective, natural toothbrush and plaque remover.
The Eastern Desert witnessed the prime of the late stone age and pre-dynastic period in Egypt. The topography of the Eastern Desert shows that it “was not always an arid place like it is now,” reads The Red Land: The Illustrated Archaeology of Egypt’s Eastern Desert (2022).
The book was translated by professors Atef Moatamed, Riham Abu Dunia, Mohamed Rizk, and Ezzat Zayan.
“Before the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago, the rain that fell on this area enabled the creation of plant and animal life. Traces of stone tools indicate that it was inhabited at the end of the stone age,” the book adds.
Emerald mines and Roman temples
Wadi Skeit contains emerald mines, the ruins of ancient Roman temples, and mine workers' settlements carved from mountain stone. After a two-hour drive off-road in Wadi Skeit, Ahram Online visited one of the Roman temples and miners’ quarters. Here, mine workers lived, planted, and raised their cattle.
“During the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1816, it [the emerald mine] was discovered by the French mining explorer and jeweller Fredrick Kayo. There are two Roman temples and an emerald mine there, he drew many pictures, describing the administrative offices and miner worker quarters as well as the Skeit temple," reads the book.
“We found evidence of intensive activities of the Roman lives there, seeds, plants, cattle raising in open yards, some children toys made out of stones and over 2,500 emerald beads that were pierced and ready to be used as jewellery," it adds.
Who lives there?
The book explains that the area was covered by sea millions of years ago. The topography changed and when the sea receded, rains turned the area green with pastures. This allowed prehistoric civilizations to leave their mark. Ancient Egyptians, Ptolemies, and Romans founded trade routes, built water wells, quarries, and settlements. It was not until about 5,000 years ago that the Eastern Desert turned arid.
Today, the southeastern desert of Egypt is mainly inhabited by two tribes, the Ababdas and the Busharies, explained Shahira Fawzy in her thesis at the American University in Cairo titled "No Margins: Lake Nasser and the Ecological and Socio-Economic Dislocations among Nomads of the Southeastern Desert."
"Those tribes are part of the Beja Tribe of Eastern Sudan and their territory extends from Edfu, some 100 km north of Aswan, to Is on the Sudanese borders, and from the Nile to the Red Sea. This region lies between latitude 25 and 22 east, and longitude 32 and 36 north. The Busharies and the Ababda inhabited a very arid zone, it is one of the hottest if not the hottest regions in the world," reads the thesis.
Ababda and Bushari: Guardians of the gold mines
The Ababda and Bashari tribes’ ancestors have long mined the area. They are locally known as the guardians of the gold mines of Wadi Al Allaqi, which is in the same geographical area of Wadi Skeit.
The Ababdas mainly lived in domelike houses which are known as bersh, revealed the thesis. They are built of large carpets made from braided doum palm tree leaves that they either collect on their way to winter camp or trade for with charcoal in the south. The bersh is usually around eight square metres with an opening from the eastern side. They are built and owned by woman.
Ababda's crafts and rituals of life and death
When a child is born, the midwife will carry the dirty pieces of material and the remains of the birth and distribute it among women who helped her in the labour. Each woman walks to the nearest tree or bush, buries the objects and takes back a green leaf or plant. All the plants are put together in a piece of leather which is hung around the neck of the child until they are able to graze a small goat, around the age of six.
If it is a boy, the Ababda celebrate for a week. They slaughter a sheep on his birthday and for three days the father offers sacrifices. This ritual is called "Yessawi El-Karama." On the seventh day, a big ceremony takes place they dance and sing and the father gets to see his son for the first time.
If it is a girl, the celebration is smaller in scale, karama is offered on her birth and they would offer milk and sugar to relatives who pass by. On the seventh day, a large banquet is served but in silence. The mother is not allowed to leave her bersh for 40 days.
As a mourning ritual, the Abadi women jump on their heels until they collapse and offer karama in honour of the diseased. Their graveyards are always centred around a dome of a sheik. This dome is visited for good luck and is mainly used as an "amana," or safe for valuables. If any man is travelling for a long time or for any other reason he cannot keep his jewellery, sword, or money, He hangs it inside the dome as it is believed that the sheik would never allow anyone to steal from the dome and live to tell about it.
The Ababda do not have many crafts. Women braid the leaves of doum palm trees to make their bersh, and they also set the leather with shells and coloured beads. Men make gerba bags to save water and buckets called dalus to pull water from deep wells.
Men are also clever at healing, using thin, hot pieces of metal placed on certain parts of the body. The use of animal organs is the basis of the Abadi medicine. They also sell charcoal, leather and medicinal herbs such as hargal, hanzal and sacaram, according to the thesis.
Bushari's colourful braids and perfume
The Bushari women braid very thin threads of leather to form camel saddles with beautiful designs, using herbs from Elba mountain to soften the leather.
The men are very skilled at leatherwork, making gerbas and dalus as well. They also use herbs and woody herbs in many crafts like extracing oil from herbs to make perfume called khomra. Using Asaa wood, they make khelal, thin wooden hair ornaments for men. The transformation of wood into charcoal is a craft known to and carried out by every male in Bushari.