The Roman Fortress at Dush
The very southernmost outpost of Kharga Oasis is marked by a Roman fortress known simply as el-Qasr (literally ‘the Fortress’), a mudbrick structure measuring about 30m by 20m. In Roman times a small garrison of troops would have guarded the fortress, but it is not known whether it was purely a military guard-post or if intended to control the trade route at the southern end of the Darb el-Arba’in. The structure is situated in a palm-grove on the eastern side of the paved road, but little is visible today. When it was excavated by the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities in the 1980s over 150 Ottoman tombs were discovered as well as a great deal of Roman pottery sherds, attesting to the age and continued use of the site.
Dush is situated about 15km north-east of el-Qasr, at a point where five ancient desert tracks met. One of the tracks, the Darb el-Dush, led over the treacherous desert escarpment to the Nile valley towns of Esna and Edfu, an important and heavily used route during Roman times. Surrounding the hill of Dush is the site of the ancient town of Kysis, one of the oldest Roman ruins in Kharga Oasis. Once a border town commanded by a large garrison of Roman troops, it contains a mudbrick fortress (Qasr Dush) and two temples. To the north and north-east of the fortress was an extensive necropolis zone where families of funeral workers plied their trade, attested by an archive of around fifty documents dating from AD 237 to AD 314.
The area around Dush has been investigated since 1976 by French archaeologists of the IFAO who have found evidence of temporary occupation possibly dating back as early as the Old Kingdom (possibly Dynasty IV). On the slopes of the hill, Persian and Ptolemaic Period settlements have been identified and the earliest fortress which enclosed a rectangular area at the top of the hill was of Ptolemaic or possibly even Persian origin. The massive crumbling mudbrick walls of the Roman fortress still stand 6m to 12m tall in places. The Romans enlarged the Ptolemaic structure on this strategic point overlooking the wide desert plain and the town of Kysis with its large community and cultivated agricultural land would have grown around it. Inside the fortress walls the interior is densely covered with barrack structures, while the underground chambers go down four or five levels.
Abutting the Roman fortress on the eastern side are the remains of a sandstone temple, probably erected by Domitian, enlarged by Trajan and then partly decorated by the Emperor Hadrian during the 1st to 2nd centuries AD. The temple was originally dedicated to Osiris, who the Greeks transformed into Serapis and also to the goddess Isis.
A monumental stone gateway fronts the temple and contains a dedicatory inscription by Trajan dated AD 116 as well as graffiti by Cailliaud and other nineteenth-century travellers. To the north is a large forecourt containing five columns with a pylon at its northern end.
The main part of the temple measures approximately 7.5m by 15.5m and contains a pillared hall with four slender columns, a staircase to the roof, an offering table in an outer chamber and inner sanctuary with vaulted roof. Two long side-chambers also had barrel-vaulted roofs. A taller pronaos was later added to the front of the main building. All three Roman Emperors are depicted in scenes carved on the temple walls, which were reputed to be partly sheathed in gold.
In March 1989, during the excavation of a magazine complex on the west side of the temple, French archaeologists discovered a magnificent collection of artefacts, now known as the ‘Dush Treasure’ (Cairo Egyptian Museum). They first uncovered a linen-wrapped gilded statuette of Isis, a small bronze figure of Horus dressed as a Roman legionary, and a bronze figure of Osiris. Nearby, a large loose-lidded pottery jar which had been concealed by masonry, was found to contain a hoard of magnificent gold religious jewellery and ex-votos objects. These precious items had obviously been gathered together for safety and hidden in the jar during the 4th to 5th centuries AD. The religious treasure was of the highest quality craftsmanship and included a golden crown depicting the Roman god Serapis as well as bracelets and pendants of gold and semi-precious stones. These objects have provided scholars with valuable information about Roman worship in Egypt.
From the temple courtyards, many other artefacts have been unearthed, including pottery, coins, and ostraca. A large collection of demotic ostraca date from the Persian Period. Many were also written in Greek, appearing to be dated from the early 4th to 5th centuries AD and consist largely of receipts and payments for supplies for the Roman army but also include names of individual soldiers and civilians. The names are a blend of Egyptian, Greek and Roman but also include numerous instances of biblical Hebrew names, evidence that Christianity was practised at Dush at this time. Some of the most historically interesting finds from Dush include a few brief private letters in the form of ostraca, allowing scholars to piece together the human elements of life in a Roman outpost.
While the main temple was within the mudbrick fortress walls, a second smaller temple stands on the western side of the hill about 200m away across densely pottery-strew terrain. Little is known of the second temple, built entirely from mudbrick, which has small rooms with vaulted ceilings and is probably also Roman.
The remains of the once-thriving town of Kysis are scattered over the hillside around the fortress, together with its associated cemeteries on the northern and western sides. The Roman cemetery, consisting of undecorated tombs dating from the late Ptolemaic Period onwards, is the largest and runs from the base of the hill almost to the escarpment edge to the south-east. The discovery of an elaborate system of clay pipes, irrigation channels and a Christian church suggests that the town was abandoned when its wells dried up, some time after the fourth century AD.
The IFAO team have recently been investigating another site at ‘Ayn Manawir, discovered during 1992-3, about 5km north-west of Qasr Dush. An entire ancient village buried in the sand, with houses, fields, orchards, irrigation channels and even the hoofprints of bovines in the dried mud of a pond where the animals were watered. The establishment and survival of the community was secured by a novel means of access to the subsurface water, trapped in a complex system of irrigation consisting of lines of channels or aqueducts (known as qanats) which radiated from the well. The discovery of these has been instrumental in dating the different occupation and construction periods of the site. The site was a Persian and Roman settlement with a small mudbrick temple, although archaeologists have now confirmed occupation from the end of the Palaeolithic Period. The excavations have so far uncovered a house to which a small temple of Osiris was attached. Hundreds of archival texts have been found, written in demotic on large ostraca, including one from the reign of Xerxes (Dynasty XXVII) – the first instance of this king’s name written in demotic – as well as Artaxerxes I and Darius II. The documents provide evidence of relations between the temple at ‘Ayn Manawir and Hibis Temple further to the south in Kharga Oasis. Archaeologists have been able to work in ideal conditions using a combination of archaeological evidence and precisely dated written sources. Unfortunately ‘Ayn Manawir is directly in line with an advancing field of sand dunes which are marching towards the site and will soon bury it before moving on to the south and will stop any immediate future excavations.
For further details of Dush see the Alpha Necropolis website (French language).