As the sun warmed the air of the Minya governorate last weekend, hundreds of media representatives and officials gathered to witness the announcement of the first discovery of 2020 at the Al-Ghoreifa site and visit the Gabal Al-Teir Monastery and the Al-Bahnasa Mausoleums, both of which are under restoration.
At the Al-Ghoreifa archaeological site, located in the Tuna Al-Gabal area, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced that an Egyptian archaeological mission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) had stumbled upon a collection of Late Period familial and communal burial shafts filled with wooden and stone sarcophagi of different shapes and sizes.
The burial shafts were dedicated to high priests of the god Djehuty and senior officials in the 15th nome of Upper Egypt and its capital Ashmunin.
El-Enany said that since 2018 several discoveries had been made in the Minya governorate, including a cachette of mummies and several tombs full of sarcophagi and funerary collections including jewellery, ushabti figurines, and funerary masks, a matter that had grabbed the world’s attention.
“Minya is set to be put on Egypt’s tourist map because of its distinguished archaeological sites and discoveries,” El-Enany said.
Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the SCA, explained that the ongoing work by the archaeological mission had uncovered 16 burial shafts with about 20 sarcophagi and coffins of various shapes and sizes, including five anthropoid limestone sarcophagi engraved with hieroglyphic texts and five well-preserved wooden coffins.
Some of the coffins are decorated with the names and titles of their owners and were discovered alongside more than 10,000 ushabti figurines (statuettes) made of blue and green faience, most of which are engraved with the titles of the deceased.
The mission also stumbled on more than 700 amulets of various shapes, sizes and materials, including heart scarabs, amulets of the gods, amulets made of pure gold, and an amulet in the shape of a winged cobra.
Many clay vessels of different shapes and sizes used for funerary and religious purposes were also unearthed, along with tools for cutting stones and moving coffins, such as wooden hammers and baskets made of palm fronds.
The discoveries also included eight groups of painted canopic jars made of limestone with inscriptions showing the titles of their owner who bore the title of “singer of the god Thoth”. Two collections of four canopic jars made of alabaster for a woman and a man were also unearthed, as well as a stone without any inscriptions representing the four sons of Horus.
Waziri said that one of the stone sarcophagi belonged to the son of Psamtik who had the title of head of the royal treasury. He bore many titles, the most important of which were the priest of the gods Osiris and Nut.
The second sarcophagus belongs to Horus and has a scene depicting the goddess Nut spreading her wings above the chest. Below it are inscriptions revealing the deceased’s titles, including that of royal treasurer. Also discovered was a sarcophagus of Epy with three vertical lines of hieroglyphic inscriptions showing the names and titles of the deceased.
The sarcophagus of Djehuty Iufankh, made of well-polished limestone, is considered to be one of the most important coffins discovered during this season due to the titles inscribed on the sarcophagus lid — that of royal treasurer and bearer of the seals of Lower Egypt and sole companion of the king.
The fifth sarcophagus has hieroglyphic inscriptions showing the names of the deceased, the most important of which is the title of “assistant”.
In previous excavation seasons, the mission discovered 19 tombs containing 70 stone coffins of various sizes and shapes.
Virgin Mary Church
GABAL AL-TEIR: On top of the Gabal Al-Teir cliff stands the rock-hewn Monastery and Church of the Virgin Mary, with its distinguished architecture and wonderful view of the Nile Valley giving onto carefully cultivated fields and lush palm groves.
According to tradition, the area has the name of “Gabal Al-Teir”, which means “birds mountain”, because thousands of birds live and nest in the cliffs. It is one of the locations where the Holy Family visited and stayed for three days during their journey in Egypt.
According to historian of Christian monasteries and churches in Egypt Abu Al-Makarim, while passing by the place in a small boat the Virgin Mary noticed an enormous rock coming loose from the mountain and about to fall on the boat.
The infant Jesus extended his hand and stopped the rock from falling, and the shape of his palm was imprinted on the rock. In 1168 CE, the then ruler of Jerusalem removed the part of the rock bearing the imprint and took it with him to Syria.
Gamal Mustafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, said that the Church of the Virgin Mary at Gabal Al-Teir was built in 328 CE by the Byzantine empress Helena (mother of the emperor Constantine) in memory of the passage of the Holy Family in Egypt.
In 1938, Severus, the bishop of Minya, restored the church and removed the original stone roof in order to enlarge it.
The church itself consists of a nave with three sanctuaries and two side aisles and a western return aisle separated from each other with ten rock-cut columns. On the south side of the church, the baptismal font is carved in a column. The area in front of the middle sanctuary serves as a choir.
Waadallah Abul-Ela, head of the Projects Sector at the SCA, said that work on the restoration project at the monastery and the church began in 2018 after the approval of the Permanent Committee of Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities. The work was carried out in two phases, the first phase covering the western corridor and being completely finished. The second phase includes the southern corridor and is still ongoing.
The work of the first phase included the restoration of the walls and ceiling of the church. In the second phase, the work will include the restoration of the other walls and the rest of the work to be completed. This includes the replacement of the modern mosaic set up in 1987 on the eastern wall of the church’s southern entrance with another mosaic of the journey of the Holy Family.
AL-BAHNASA MAUSOLEUMS: The village of Al-Bahnasa is located near the town of Beni Mazar in Minya and houses several ancient Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic sites.
The site that has been under restoration is the mausoleums of the Mohamed family and others. The site houses 17 mausoleums with domes in need of restoration.
The restoration project is to begin next month in order to consolidate and restore the mausoleums as well as develop facilities management for visitors and upgrade the area and the roads leading to it.
A visitor centre equipped with screens displaying documentaries on the different archaeological sites in Minya will be provided as well as brochures and a small library. Signage relating the history of the mausoleums will be provided in front of each one as well as others showing directions.
Each mausoleum has simple architecture with a vaulted dome, a shrine for the burial of the deceased, and a small wooden door. No engravings or decoration exist except for the name of the deceased engraved on the wall beside the entrance.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.