The ancient town of Kellis, situated 2km to the east of the modern village of Ismant (or Smint), is now known as Ismant el-Kharab, meaning ‘Ismant the ruined’. The mudbrick tombs, temples and settlement remains of Kellis, can be seen from the road at a point about 20km east of Mut. Herbert Winlock visited Ismant el-Kharab at the beginning of the 20th century, describing and photographing blocks that have since vanished. More recently the large site has been investigated constantly since the 1980s by a team from the Dakhla Oasis Project directed by Colin Hope and is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the oasis.
Inhabited for seven centuries, Kellis was once a thriving and well-populated market town and the past two decades of excavation has uncovered a wealth of Roman and Coptic remains, including houses, churches, wells, a bath-house, storage buildings, aqueducts and a cemetery of free-standing tombs. This is another site where a deep covering of sand has served to preserve many of the structures up to a height of 2 to 4m and its importance is seen in terms of what it has revealed of the emergence of Christianity in Roman Egypt. The settlement is still being studied by several teams and has been found to contain many interesting structures, mostly from the Roman and Christian eras as well as important cultural objects such as bedsprings, pottery and basketry. Thousands of literary texts and religious writings in Greek and Coptic on papyrus fragments have been discovered in the domestic site which indicate a great diversity of beliefs. Gnostic papyri relate to the presence of a Manichaean community there by AD 300, offering a unique version of Christianity as taught by the followers of the prophet Mani, alongside the more orthodox Catholic faith which had begun to spread throughout Egypt. Three mudbrick churches have been found at Kellis, one of them has been securely dated to the 4th century AD by a hoard of coins found there and is said to be the oldest Christian church in Egypt.
Although wooden notebooks were a rare commodity in Egypt, three such objects (known as the Kellis codices) have been found at the site. Two of them, complete with their original binding chords, are the best-preserved examples of wooden books known from this period and help us to understand the gradual transition from papyrus scrolls to books. One of the documents consists of nine wooden boards containing speeches and political instructions, while a second, on eight leaves documents farming records and accounts – payments in kind by tenant farmers to absentee landlords. A third single board, written in Greek is a contract of sale for a house – this is how we know that the settlement was called Kellis and that Dakhla existed as a separate administrative centre from Kharga. These codices can now be seen in Kharga Heritage Museum.
A large mudbrick walled area to the south-west of the settlement encloses two small stone temples, a number of mudbrick shrines and various storage buildings, dating from the 1st century AD and probably the Emperor Hadrian. The complex has been under investigation since 1991 and the most recent excavations have revealed Ptolemaic ceramics, perhaps giving the site an even earlier date. The largest temple to the east contains three parallel sanctuaries, the side chambers and the offering hall in front had vaulted ceilings and the central sanctuary was encased in stone. Outer walls were decorated with engaged columns but reliefs survive only in small fragments, as this and the smaller temple were quarried for their stone. By contrast the larger of the mudbrick shrines (Shrine I), which may have functioned as a mammisi, has much of its original painted decoration intact. In this structure, located to the south of the main temple, there are two chambers, the inner one having a beautiful painted vaulted ceiling which collapsed in antiquity and was buried by sand until the current excavations. Archaeologists are currently piecing together the fragmentary jig-saw of painted plaster, reconstructing the ceiling on paper and working towards a restoration. Decorations in the plastered inner chamber of Shrine I were painted in a mixture of Pharaonic and Classical style, interesting for their information on artistic development during this period.
The two temples and the shrines were dedicated to the supreme god Tutu and the goddesses Tapshay (Tapsais), his consort and Neith, his mother . Tutu (Greek Tithoes), an ancient and obscure god venerated mostly in Graeco-Roman times, held the title ‘Master of Demons’. He was also called ‘he who keeps enemies at a distance’ and was believed to provide protection from hostile forces and evil demons, specifically the genii or destructive forces of Sekhmet. Tutu was depicted in the form of a walking lion or a sphinx, sometimes with a human head, the wings of a bird and the tail of a snake. His monuments at Kellis are the only known remains of a cult centre for this god, though he also appears in the Coptos region in the Nile Valley. Other deities depicted in Shrine I at Kellis include Amun-Re, Mut, Khons, Thoth and Nehmetaway, who are also venerated at the Dakhla Temple of Deir el-Hagar and possibly at Amheida. In other areas of decoration in Shrine I, groups of deities include Osiris ‘Lord of the Oasis’, Harsiese, Isis and Nephthys as well as Amun-Nakht (also seen at Ain Birbiya), Khnum, Isis and Hathor – it is in fact an inventory of all the main deities represented in Dakhla Oasis.
Hundreds of burials have been collectively excavated from major cemeteries around Ismant el-Kharab, especially in two main areas to the north of the town, ranging in date from around 300 BC to AD 300. There have been many mummies recovered from Ptolemaic Period burials, complete with cartonnage coffins, while other stone-blocked tombs contained linen-wrapped bodies placed in tomb-chambers without coffins. Many more bodies were found to have been buried in a cemetery to the west of the site – some in very unusual circumstances. A team from the Dakhla Oasis Project engaged in studying the burials from Ismant el-Kharab found many composite mummies, prepared by taking parts from different bodies and wrapping them on a wooden rack to resemble a single traditional mummified burial.
Kellis seems to have been occupied from the Ptolemaic Period and abandoned sometime around the end the 4th century AD during the Roman-Byzantine Period. Evidence has been found to suggest that until then it was an area of heavy trading with many people coming and going, and perhaps like other settlements in the oases, a place of banishment. Before leaving the town, the inhabitants took with them much of the timber and fittings from the dwellings, causing the rapid collapse of the buildings, which were then covered by drifing sand.
Gillian E. Bowen, Thomas Chandler and Derrick Martin of Australia’s Monash University have been working on digital 3D reconstructions of some of the houses and the East Church. More information on the excavations at Ismant is available from the Dakhla Oasis Project website.
~ by Su on March 13, 2009.