Wadi Maghara is located in the southwest of the Sinai Peninsula to the east of Abu Rudeis on the coast road and just to the north of Wadi Feiran. Several rock faces in the wadi have relief inscriptions of early rulers of Egypt which document their expeditions to mine the precious minerals, primarily turquoise and copper, found in the area. These minerals were brought down from the gebel on an ancient track which still exists today, to the port of Markha to be transported by boat into Egypt. Turquoise was especially precious because it was used in jewellery and statuary in ancient Egypt. The mines at Wadi Maghara were a profitable source of turquoise and copper until at least the New Kingdom.
Many excavators have looked at his area. Palmer, a British explorer, uncovered some of the more important reliefs in the 1860s while Flinders Petrie, who was responsible for the first systematic exploration of South Sinai, found twelve bas-reliefs in the Wadi.
Although there is evidence for sporadic Egyptian involvement in exploiting the minerals of Sinai since Predynastic times, the earliest king attested at Wadi Maghara is the Dynasty III ruler, Djoser Netjerikhet, owner of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara. A relief found at Wadi Maghara depicts the king standing beside a goddess. His organised mining activity there is considered to be one of most significant developments of the king’s reign. Djoser’s successor Sekhemkhet continued the expeditions to Sinai and a famous rock-cut inscription found on a cliff above the valley shows the king wearing a white crown and smiting a Bedouin captive. This inscription was originally attributed to Semerkhet of Dynasty I, but later found to be that of Sekhemkhet after his pyramid was found at Saqqara in the 1950s. The inscription was first discovered by the British explorer Palmer in 1868. When WM Flinders Petrie visited Sinai in 1904-5 he found no fewer than twelve reliefs in the Wadi Maghara.
Another king to leave evidence at Wadi Maghara was Sanakht, whose position in Dynasty III is still unclear. Relatively little is known about Sanakht, except that he seems to have been buried in a large mud-brick tomb at Beit Khallaf, north of Abydos in Upper Egypt. The most significant monument attributable to Sanakht is the pair of rock-cut inscriptions here – one showing the king wearing the white crown preceded by the standard of Wepwewet and in the other the king wears a red crown and stands in the pose of smiting a captive (now lost). The king’s Horus name is depicted in a serekh and a fragment of vertical inscription accompanying the scene contains the oldest known reference to Turquoise (mefkat).
The name given to the Wadi Maghara in later inscriptions is ‘the turquoise terraces’. The main seam of turquoise-bearing rock lay about half-way up the cliff and the workings consisted of galleries with a small opening on the cliff face. Other Old Kingdom rulers whose names appear in the wadi are: Khufu, described as “smiting the tribesmen” as he
accompanies the deities Wepwawet and Thoth; Snefru; Sahure who is described as “smiting the Mentju and all foreign lands”; two of Nyuserre with mentions of Horus and Thoth; and Menkauhor as well as three texts of Djedkare-Isesi, one which records an expedition’s arrival at the “Terraces of the Turquoise” during the year after the third cattle census. A Dynasty VI tablet contains a text of Pepi I, dating to the year after the eighteenth cattle census, and an inscription of Pepi II which dates to the year of the second cattle census. There are also several Old Kingdom Grafitti by officials and administrators of the mines.
Three inscriptions of the Middle Kingdom ruler Amenemhet III, who contributed to the construction of the temple at Serabit el-Khadim can also be found here which mention expeditions in Year 2 of his reign with the opening of new turquoise galleries. The King is depicted before Hathor and Thoth and numerous expedition members are listed, giving their names and titles. Three more texts date to year 6 of Amenemhat IV, while the remaining Middle Kingdom inscriptions include several hieroglyphic texts and hieratic graffiti. A Dynasty XII stela (no. 500) is situated to the north of Maghara. From the New Kingdom there is evidence of an expedition sent by Tuthmose III.
The main Old Kingdom settlement at Maghara lay on the summit of a small hill in Wadi Iqna, where 125 roughly constructed stone structures were found, together with the presence large amounts of wood ash, Old Kingdom potsherds and a copper-boring tool. In 1987 Chartier-Raymond excavated a six-roomed house and found pottery-sherds dating from the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. The fortified settlement was accessed by a stone staircase on the northern side of the hill and a long stone wall probably formed a defense against the hostile bedouins depicted in the smiting scenes. At the the western foot of the hill numerous Old Kingdom
pottery sherds were found. To the west of this area there are some well-built stone structures with smoothed walls, which were found to contain some turquiose as well as large quantities of copper slag and smelting waste. Crucible fragments, hammerstones, used for crushing ores, a broken ingot mold, as well as numerous Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom pottery fragments were also found.
The history of Wadi Maghara goes right back to prehistoric times, but the place is most important to us today for its documentation of the Pharaonic mining expeditions dispatched by the early rulers to this ‘foreign’ land. Not only the agents of the kings, but the mining chiefs and even the labourers were eager to write stories of their victories and their hardships on the rocks. Some of the reliefs remain on the rocks of the wadi, others are now in various museums but many have been damaged by later attempts at mining.