Wadi Hammamat is one of a great number of dry river beds that wind through the rugged mountains of Egypt’s Eastern Desert and the modern road that runs through it connects Qift (Greek Coptos) to the port of Qusieir on the Red Sea. The route was used for millennia as a trade route from the Coast to the Nile, but the area was also famed for its quarries and gold mines. Scores of ancient ruins line the route; remains of watchtowers, forts, wells and mines from various periods show much evidence of ancient quarrying and mining activity. The wadi is perhaps best known however, for its hundreds of hieroglyphic and hieratic rock inscriptions which record the activities of expeditions sent by many kings to obtain the precious resources of bekhen-stone which were used for small-scale building projects, sarcophagi, statues and vessels during the Pharaonic Period.
There is evidence in the area of prehistoric man, desert dwellers and nomads who left crude petroglyphs bruised into the rocks in the form of curved reed boats, hunters and long-gone animals, including elephants and ostriches, suggesting that the desert was at that time a more hospitable place. This route through the mountains of the Eastern Desert was taken by travellers and expeditions from the Old Kingdom onwards, right through to the Romans who exploited the quarries and gold mines the most, and who built stone watchtowers on the tops of the hills to guard the road and the wells. Wadi Hammamat contains a variety of sandstone, greywacke and schist-type rocks which were all known as Bekhen-stone in ancient times. The colours of the rocks vary from a very dark basalt-like stone, through reds, pinks and greens and although this stone was usually too flawed for building large monuments it was highly prized for palettes, statues, sarcophagi and smaller shrines.
The Turin Papyrus mining map, thought to have been found by Drovetti at Deir el-Medina and now reconstructed in the Museo Egizio in Turin, is the oldest topographical and geological map known from Egypt. It was drawn by a scribe named Amennakhte, son of Ipuy, who was commissioned to make the map during an expedition of Rameses IV, the king who sent one of the largest recorded quarrying expeditions to the Wadi Hammamat. The map shows part of the route through the wadi and depicts identifying features, such as hills, together with distances between quarries and mines. The use of different colours and textures for the different features with a descriptive legend was very innovative.
The bekhen quarry on the northern side of the road still contains remains of workmens huts built from the dark schist stone and nestled in the lee of the cliff. Quarry marks can be seen everywhere and halfway up the cliff there is an abandoned sarcophagus which perhaps split or fractured during quarrying. On the southern side of the road the cliffs are littered with inscriptions left by expedition members, many of which can be dated to the year of the reigning pharaoh, providing invaluable historical records of the activities of a long line of kings.
One of the earliest pieces of evidence of the use or exploitation of the Wadi Hammamat may be a graffito containing a serekh of the Early Dynastic King Narmer, which is inscribed on a rock in the Wadi el-Qash, an offshoot of the Wadi Hammamat. The Wadi Hammamat was known to have been used during Dynasty VI and probably earlier, as a route to the Red Sea and from there to the East African coast and the Land of Punt. Texts that can be dated with accuracy point to possibly several expeditions sent by Pepi I (who is represented in around 80 inscriptions) to extract blocks of bekhen-stone for temple statuary. An undated graffito also shows the presence of an expedition of Merenre, the last Old Kingdom pharaoh to be featured here. Quarrying and military activities account for the majority of inscriptions from the Old Kingdom and the names of other kings briefly mentioned in graffiti include Khufu, Khafre, Djedefre, Menkaure, Sahure and Unas. Also thought to date from the Old Kingdom is a curious text of an official Zaty, named as ‘King’s Son’ and ‘General’ in the reign of an unknown king Imhotep.
The First Intermediate Period was a time of upheaval in the whole of Egypt with a decline in the state’s economy and political structure, though there are a couple of small graffiti mentioning Merykare and Ity, Herakleopolitan rulers of Dynasty X.
It seems to be Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II of Dynasty XI who re-opened the Wadi Hammamat route and possibly sent quarrying expeditions there at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom and a short hieroglyphic graffito most probably dates to his rule. His son, Sankhkare Mentuhotep III sent a large expedition of 3000 men in Year 8 of his reign, attested by a text of his Chief Steward Henenu. The purpose was to establish a trade contact with Punt, but they may also have done some quarrying. In the final recorded Dynasty XI journey, Nebtawyre Mentuhotep IV sent an even larger expedition in Year 2 of his reign, shown in four large rock-stelae. We are told by Vizier Amenemhat (probably the later Pharaoh Amenemhat I) how their mission was to quarry bekhen-stone for the King’s sarcophagus and how a gazelle gave birth on the block they had chosen, an auspicious omen which greatly encouraged the workforce of 10,000 men. Another of Vizier Amenemhat’s texts records the ‘wonder of rain’, a flash flood that produced a well of clear water.
Most of the Middle Kingdom texts in the Wadi Hammamat are long and include dedications to the local god, Min of Coptos, his consort Isis and their son Horus, who are often depicted receiving offerings. A cartouche of the king is usually inscribed, along with the year of the reign and name of the expedition leader, often giving details of the mission. Dynasty XII begins with the Pharaoh Amenemhat I, who left a single undated rock-stela in the Wadi Hammamat. His son Senusret I sent missions there in reignal years 2, 26 and 38, the third of which was the largest ever to work in the wadi. A team of roughly 18,660 skilled and unskilled workers, including soldiers, hunters, brewers, bakers and of course the scribes, artisans and labourers, had the task of quarrying stone for 60 sphinxes and 150 statues. Two large rock-stelae date to this expedition and give names of personnel and even the rations that were issued. Later Middle Kingdom rulers attested here include Senusret II and III, each sending a single mission and Amenemhat III who sent at least four expeditions in years 2,3,19 and 20 of his reign.
First discovered in 1950 and thought to be an Old Kingdom text, but more likely dating to the Middle Kingdom, a brief, crudely-worked, but important graffito constitutes one of the earliest king-lists, written by a minor official which names Old Kingdom rulers Khufu, Djedefre and Khafre, written in cartouches. The author of this unusual inscription also includes the names of Princes Hordjedef and Bauefre in cartouches.
The chronology at the end of the Middle Kingdom into the Second Intermediate Period is difficult to ascertain, but the period is represented in the Wadi Hammamat by a stele of Sobekhotep IV Khaneferre, while there were possibly two or three graffito naming King Sobekemsaf I Sekhemre-wadjkhau.
There are surprisingly few texts from New Kingdom Pharaohs among the rock-inscriptions in Wadi Hammamat, perhaps because a more northerly route may also have been used to cross the Eastern Desert at this time. Names and titles have recently been found representing Ahmose I and Amenhotep II, but the two brief texts of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) found there are more interesting historically as they both mention a high priest of Amun who was sent to collect bekhen-stone. Presumably this was from the king’s early reign while the Theban priesthood were still in favour. Though the wadi was likely to have continued to be used during Dynasty XVIII, no evidence of other rulers have been found. In Dynasty XIX, Seti I usurped a relief of Amenhotep IV, showing the king kneeling with two vases before Amun-re and two more images of Seti I have been found offering Ma’at and flowers to Amun-re. Seti II is also represented in a relief and a stela by the Vizier Paraemheb in which the king is in the presence of Min, Horus and Isis.
While the long reign of Rameses II is represented by only one set of cartouches in Wadi Hammamat, the most prolific New Kingdom Pharaoh was undoubtedly Rameses IV Hekamaatre Setepenamun of Dynasty XX, whose inscriptions have been firmly dated to four missions during the first three years of his reign, describing expeditions sent to procure stone for his Theban monuments. Stelae inscribed by several priests and officials describe the expeditions of Rameses IV and there are many minor graffiti dating to the reign. A text of Turu, high priest of Montu, dates to Year 1 and depicts the king in the presence of many deities, while a stela dating to Year 2 mentions the extracting of bekhen-stone for the ‘Place of Eternity’. The largest mission was in Year 3, when Ramesesnakht, high priest of Amun, was sent with a large workforce to quarry stone for the ‘Place of Truth’ (the Theban necropolis), which he recorded on two stelae. This was the expedition that produced the Wadi Hammamat mining map.
The only Third Intermediate Period ruler to be mentioned here is the Theban High Priest Menkheperre of Dynasty XXI. This was another period of economic decline and political disruption in Egypt and expeditions were not documented again until Dynasty XXV and XXVI. A text by a quarryman, Psenuenkhons, is recorded from the time of the Divine Adoratrice Amenirdis I, Year 12 of King Shabaqo. Cartouches and graffiti relating to Taharqa, Psamtek I, Necho II and Psamtek II have also been found.
Graffiti dating to the First Persian Period occupation are particularly numerous and seem to represent a new level of activity in the Wadi Hammamat. With the exception of Darius II, all of the major Persian kings are represented here. One very important graffito from this time was inscribed high on the sloping cliff-face by Khnemibre, ‘Superintendent of Works in Upper and Lower Egypt’, whose name is written in a double-plumed cartouche. Khnemibre was a Royal Architect who held office during the reigns of Amasis and Darius I. This inscription is written as a genealogy dating backwards from Khnemibre’s father, Ahmose-saneit, over 22 generations of Royal Architects to Rahotep, a Vizier of Rameses II. Khnemibre himself is depicted standing before the goddess Hathor and the text is dated Year 26 of Darius. David Rohl and other revisionists have used this inscription to illustrate their arguments for the shortening of the Third Intermediate Period which challenges the bases of the traditional Egyptian chronological framework.
The latest hieroglyphic inscriptions in the Wadi Hammamat date to the reign of Nectanebo II of the Dynasty XXX but there are also many demotic or Greek texts from the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. The Romans brought renewed interest in the wadi, especially as a trading route, building watchtowers and signal posts, forts and a fortified well at Bir Hammamat. In the bekhen-stone quarries, a temple containing several side-chambers has been dated to the time of Tiberius by an inscribed naos. Graffiti in the wadi record activity under Emperors Augustus, Nero, Titus, Domitian, Antoninus and Maximinus.
Bir Hammamat was a Roman fort and major watering station for travellers through the wadi. The stone walls can still be seen, built to protect the well, 34m deep, which had a winding staircase to the bottom. This is a great feat of Roman engineering and impresses on the visitor the vital importance of water in this arid landscape.
The first European descriptions of the Wadi Hammamat were from the Scottish traveller James Bruce in 1769, though he made no mention of the inscriptions. Sir John Gardner Wilkinson and Lepsius visited the wadi during the 19th century and the Russian Egyptologist Vladimir Golenishchev led the first modern study of the inscriptions in 1884-1885 but it was not until the early part of the 20th century that more interest was shown in the site by Arthur Weigall in 1909. In 1912 a thorough survey was undertaken and published by Couyat and Motet. In the 1930s the German pioneer Hans Winkler thoroughly explored the area by camel before world war II interrupted his work of recording the desert boats, which was never completed before his death. Wendorf and Schild explored the Eastern Desert regions, publishing their results in 1980. Susan and Donald Redford, Gerlad Fuchs, David Rohl who conducted the Eastern Desert Survey and Mike and Maggie Morrow who published RATS (Rock Art Topographical Survey) are just some of the latter-day explorers of Wadi Hammamat.
How to get there
The distance between Qift and Quseir is 180km and the ancient road beginning at the Roman watering station at Laghieta is about 50km from the turnoff south of Qift. After 83km, there is a narrow defile just as the road begins to pass between the higher mountains and where the scenery gets more spectacular with every kilometre. A little way past an ancient well known as Bir Hammamat to the northern side of the road, the road narrows into a rocky gorge between high, dark, jagged mountains towards Bir Umm Fawakir and this is where the concentration of a large number of rock inscriptions can be found. There is a small gafir’s hut opposite the inscriptions. At the entrance to Wadi Fawakir (108km) there is a coffee shop where travellers can stop for refreshments. A special permit is now required from the SCA to stop at the site of the graffiti and all photography is banned.