Balat, ‘Ain Asil & Qila el-Dab’a
The modern village of Balat, around 9km west of Tineida, has spread beyond the older fortified town. Built during the Mamaluke and Turkish eras, the Islamic town is perched on a mound and is little changed since Medieval times. Inside the walls of this once busy town, picturesque winding lanes roofed with palm fronds shelter dark ornately carved doorways of houses typical of the Islamic architecture in the oases during this period. The roofed streets would have acted as additional protection for the inhabitants, as they were too low to admit mounted invaders. The old houses consisted of two or three stories with mudbrick walls plastered and painted in pink or ochre. Bread ovens and storage containers can still be seen on the roofs of some of the crumbling dwellings, though few people live in the old town today. The Egyptian government is hoping to clear the area so that it can be restored and turned into a museum.
Now Balat is beginning to reveal its secrets of an even earlier history, for nearby at Qila el-Dab’a is an Old Kingdom necropolis and an associated settlement from the same period at Ain Asil. These areas are currently being excavated.
The settlement of Ain Asil (Spring of the Source) is 3km east of Balat and 8km north-west of Tineida, at the junction where the ancient Darb el-Tawil joins other routes through the oasis. This has proved to be one of the best-preserved examples in Egypt of an Old Kingdom town, with important remains of a governor’s palace, houses and workshops. Since 1977 the site has been investigated by a team from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) which is currently directed by Georges Soukiassian.
The site at Ain Asil, originally a small fortified enclosure, later encompassed a rectangular area of 33 hectares, split into two separate parts. The earliest is the fortress area to the north, with a mudbrick settlement extending to the south and east of this. An administrative centre for Dakhla during the reigns of Pepi I and Pepi II, most of the town appears to have been destroyed by fire at the end of the Old Kingdom and abandoned for a time. A rare discovery of inscribed clay tablets dating to Dynasty VI provides the earliest evidence that Dakhla Oasis was linked to the Nile Valley during this time. The tablets contain names of governors of the oasis and their households in hieratic script as well as lists of distribution of goods and food supplies to the palace, valuable information which in other areas of Egypt were usually written on papyrus.
From the fortress, which was later adapted to other uses, the town sprawls to the south along a main street and to the east is the principal administrative building, or palace which seems to have contained a courtyard which may have been a public audience area. The surrounding apartments rose to a height estimated at around 4m, with walls painted in yellow ochre and wooden columns on limestone bases. Off to the sides, two superimposed levels of vaulted magazines have been uncovered, probably used for the storage of produce, suggested by the evidence of remains of oil jars, but emptied before the construction of a third level. These were built under a governor called Medunefer, who also constructed a cult chapel here and his name and titles can be seen on the restored doorway to the naos. Also found within the palace area is the name of another governor, Khentika and seals bearing the name of Pepi II. So far the names of at least five generations of governors have been found and each one erected a small sanctuary for themselves.
Other excavations of the settlement have revealed many surprisingly large dwellings (much larger than those rare examples found in the Nile Valley) and some of these have remains of staircases leading up to a roof terrace. Bakeries with ovens, grinding stones and pottery jars for baking the bread have also been found along with ceramic workshops and many pottery fragments.
Although a fire destroyed much of the early town and part of the fortress-like structure, it was rebuilt during the First Intermediate Period to include the enclosure wall and a canal and a great deal of restoration seems to have been undertaken. The destruction by fire has allowed archaeologists to gain much information about the Old Kingdom structures. It seems to have been abandoned before the Ptolemaic Period and so far no Roman remains have been found at the site.
Qila el-Dab’a, the necropolis associated with the Old Kingdom settlement at Ain Asil, is located about 1.5km to the west of the ancient town. The site was investigated in 1970s by Egyptian archaeologist Ahmad Fakhry who uncovered four large mudbrick mastabas probably belonging to governors of the oasis. Since 1986 the IFAO have been excavating at Qila el-Dab’a and they have found at least six or seven mastabas, including one containing the mummy of a Dynasty VI ruler.
The mastaba field at Qila el-Dab’a is surrounded by many smaller graves from the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period. These graves are simple oval pits with a descending staircase. Other tombs have been found dug into the rock and covered by mudbrick vaulted roofs.
The mastabas were constructed in steps from mudbricks and dressed with slabs of limestone. When found, the tombs were in various stages of ruin, but basically followed the plan of a large brick enclosure surrounding a courtyard in which the mastaba stood. The tombs had niched façades like others of the Old Kingdom and a funerary stela at the entrance identified the occupant. Stela and jambs from the tomb of governor Ima-Pepi can be seen in the Kharga Heritage Museum.
Mastaba I: [a] mastaba of Desheru (before the reign of Pepi I) [b] mastaba of Ima-Pepi/Ima-Meryre (reign of Pepi I)
Mastaba II: mastaba of Ima-Pepi II (reign of Pepi II)
Mastaba III: mastaba of Khentika (reign of Pepi II)
Mastaba IV: mastaba of Khentikaupepi (6th Dynasty)
Mastaba V: mastaba of Medunefer (reign of Pepi I)
The mastaba tombs show important differences in their construction. The first type had a substructure containing several burial chambers for family members and superstructures built over vast excavations in the open air. Examples of this type are the mastabas of Ima-Pepi I (reign of Pepi I) and Khentika (reign of Pepi II). The second construction type contained only one burial chamber, an antechamber and store rooms built from stone and mudbrick. This was the type favoured Ima-Pepi II (reign of Pepi II) and Medunefer (reign of Pepi II) and they are generally smaller structures.
Inside the tombs there are sometimes a number of rooms, antechambers and burial chambers with barrel-vaulted roofs. The first to be identified was the tomb of the governor Medunefer who served during the reign of Pepi II and which contained funerary goods including gold jewellery. In the mastaba of Khentikau-Pepi, over 100 pottery vessels were found in fragments beneath the fallen masonry in the underground chambers.
Other governors who built mastabas at Qila el-Dab’a include Khentika, also from the reign of Pepi II whose painted subterranean chambers have been restored, and Ima-Pepi, whose later tomb shows an improvement in construction techniques.
The most recent reconstruction is the burial chamber of an individual called Bitsu, which contains vivid painted scenes depicting the official and his family, as well as part of a star-painted ceiling which is suspended above.
The mastabas of the wealthy governors were found to contain rich burial equipment with wooden or ceramic coffins, but further cemeteries containing more modest burials have been found to the south and east of the mastabas. These poorer members of the community were often buried in simple pits and wrapped only in layers of matting. Many skeletons have been found in the necropolis and have been studied by the IFAO, while some of the pottery and other artefacts from the site are on display in the Kharga Heritage Museum and in Cairo.