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A shrine in an Egyptian temple preserves evidence of unknown rituals

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Archaeologists have discovered a temple in a late Roman port on the Red Sea. It turned out that rituals were performed there that neither the Romans nor the Egyptians knew. Archaeologists from the Autonomous University of Barcelona have conducted research on the site where Berenice once stood – a Greco-Roman port at the edge of the Arabian Desert (Eastern Egypt).

The work of archaeologists from the Sikait Project has been published in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Berenice was founded in the first half of the 3rd century BC. by the Egyptian king Ptolemy II Philadelphus, he named the city in honor of his mother Berenice I. The port of Berenice was one of the most important transit points for trade on the way from India, Sri Lanka, Arabia to Upper Egypt. Under the Ptolemies, war elephants were actively traded through it. Berenice was an important port on the coast of the Red Sea.

At the end of the 3rd century BC residents suddenly leave the seemingly prosperous port – scientists suggest that a severe drought was the cause. They go back as far as the 1st century BC. This port continued to function, as previously believed, until the middle of the 4th century AD. – that is, until the Roman Empire gradually lost its power and no longer controlled much of the colonies. But it turns out that it wasn’t just the Romans who looked to Berenice. Archaeologists from the Sikait Project of the Autonomous University of Barcelona have discovered a religious complex dating back to the 4th – 6th centuries AD. The Western Roman Empire, we recall, fell in the 5th century. This piece of desert overlooking the Red Sea was not particularly interesting for Byzantium either – not everything went smoothly in its other places. But who performed the rituals in the temple? The researchers came to the conclusion that during this period (from the 4th to the 6th century AD) Berenice was occupied and controlled by the Blemii, a nomadic people from the Nubian region. This ethnic group was first mentioned in Greek sources in the 3rd century BC: in one of the poems of Theocritus and Eratosthenes. And by the IV century AD the nomads began to expand their possessions, mastering the Arabian desert. In the open religious complex, the scientists excavated a temple, which they named the Sanctuary of the Falcon. The researchers were able to read the inscriptions on its walls and match them with some of the names of our famous Blemian rulers. It is most likely that the Sanctuary of the Falcon was originally a small traditional Egyptian temple, which after the 4th century the Blemiyas adapted to their own belief system. This is proven by the finds of traditional gifts, for example, arrows and harpoons, as well as special cubic figurines that have no analogues in Egyptian history.

 In addition, the bones of 15 falcons were also found in the sanctuary. Most of the birds were buried headless but with eggs. The very mention of the falcon suggests that the origin of the beliefs of the nomads of the Nubian desert has a completely understandable origin – ancient Egyptian. Horus, the second most important god of the Egyptian pantheon, the lord of the Sun and the sky, is depicted on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples and pyramids as a man with the head of a falcon. The Temple of Horus at Edfu is the second largest temple in ancient Egypt after Karnak. Associated with the cult of Horus was the veneration of falcons and the burial of these birds for religious purposes: such finds have been made repeatedly in the Nile valley. But for the first time, birds were found buried in a temple, and even with eggs. Elsewhere, researchers have found mummified headless falcons, but always only individually, never in a group. The authors of the work suggest that the burial of falcons in the temple may be connected both with the worship of Horus and, on the contrary, with the cult of the moon god Khonsu. Perhaps the symbols of Khonsu’s opponent were sacrificed. But earlier archeologists have not found traces of such rituals in any of the Egyptian temples.

Another feature of the Sanctuary of the Falcon is a stele located at the entrance. On it is carved an image of a god resembling the Egyptian Horus, and an inscription that informs that heads cannot be boiled in the temple. It is not very clear who would have thought of doing this in the temple, but researchers believe that such an act was considered desecrating and accordingly warned against its inadmissibility. Meanwhile, scientists have once again suggested that the still-undiscovered tomb of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti may be located in a secret chamber next to the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Photo: The cubic figures in the sanctuary are not very similar to the traditional Egyptian ones. Joan Oller Guzmán et al.

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