God vs. the Gods – The First Known Instance of Monotheism in History

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In the long line of pharaohs of the dynasties of ancient Egypt, Akhenaten was unique. Yet until recently, almost nothing was known about him. Akhenaten lived during the 14th century BC and his reign lasted for 17 years.. Evidence of his existence was discovered only in the late 19th century.

The future king of Egypt was originally named Amenhotep IV, son of pharaoh Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. He was not first in line to the throne but his older brother died at a young age. Some scholars believe that the young prince was shunned as a child, as he never appeared in family portraits. He later married the well-known Queen Nefertiti.

Once on the throne, Akhenaten made revolutionary changes to Egyptian life. He banished worship of Egypt’s many gods, including Amun-Ra, popular among the priestly class. Instead, only one deity, the sun disk god Aten, was to be recognized as the Supreme Being. Akhenaten considered himself a direct descendant of Aten.

Worship of Aten may have been the first known movement away from polytheism toward monotheism. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud once suggested that Moses may have been a priest to the cult of Aten, who later fled Egypt with his followers to maintain their beliefs after the death of Akhenaten.

After changing his name to Akhenaten, the pharaoh ordered grand monuments built for Aten in the Egyptian capital, Thebes. Temples were reoriented toward the east, where the sun rose each day. Icons for other Egyptian gods were removed.

Akhenaten then had a new city built in honor of his god. Two years later, he moved the royal palace there. The new city was located at modern day Amarna and was filled with up to 10,000 people. The population included priests to the sun god, merchants, builders, and traders. Akhenaten lived here for ten years until his death.

Along with statues, there were a number of sculptures portraying the royal family. This was common for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Almost all previous royal portraits depicted the king and queen as rigid. They are serious. They are wearing the royal insignia and their bodies are shaped perfectly and muscular. They look like gods themselves.

Not Akhenaten though. His face looks stretched. The nose is narrow and the chin is pointy. He has large lips and broad hips. A pot belly oozes over his waist. Why does Akhenaten look so different from other sculptures of the period?

One theory is that the king may have suffered some sort of ailment. One of the possibilities is that he had Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Some of the possible symptoms include a tall and thin body type, long arms, legs, and fingers, as well as curvature of the spine.

Yet, Akhenaten and his family look like real people with physical flaws. It is timeless. The images reach out to us through the many centuries. In one stone relief, the sun god Aten’s light is shining down on Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and some of their children.

The pharaoh is holding one child in his arms, giving her a kiss. Nefertiti is holding two younger kids, one child reaching for the queen’s jewelry. It’s a scene that might look like any contemporary family.

It appears Akhenaten’s rule was not popular, both within the kingdom and beyond. Correspondences from foreign rulers allied to Egypt describe frustration with Akhenaten’s lack of military and financial support. Egyptian power and influence declined during the king’s reign.

Akhenaten’s religious reforms did not outlive him. Almost immediately after his death, the priestly elites of Amun-Ra and the other gods regained their influence. Statues and references to Akhenaten and Aten were removed. Akhenaten’s name was erased from official royal lists.

His temples were destroyed and the material used for new building projects. The city at Amarna was abandoned — even the mummified body of Akhenaten was removed from his tomb, never to be seen again.

Akhenaten’s successor was one of his sons, King Tutankhamun, also known as King Tut. He is more famous today than his father because his tomb was discovered mostly intact by archaeologists in the early 20th century.

As his name suggests, Tutankhamun embraced the old deity of Amun-Ra and the traditional ways of ancient Egypt. During his short reign, King Tut mostly turned away from his father’s legacy, the heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten.

 Mark Shiffer

6 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Ottoman Empire

Turkish artillery of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.  (Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
The Ottoman Empire is one of the largest empires in history. In existence for 600 years, at its peak it included what is now Bulgaria, Egypt, Greece, Hungary, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Macedonia, Romania, Syria, parts of Arabia and the north coast of Africa. In some countries, it is a legacy best forgotten; in others, it is a hotly-debated topic and, in a handful, national pride has been nailed to this vital part of their history.

Putting aside all the nationalist politics, the Ottoman Empire is a fascinating subject covering a dynasty that lasted 600 years. Here, Jem Duducu presents six lesser known facts about this exotic, yet still relevant empire.

1

The founder of the empire was a man called Osman

Osman, a Seljuk Turk, is the man who is seen as the founder of the empire (his name is sometimes spelt Ottman or Othman, hence the term ‘Ottoman’). The Seljuks had arrived from the Asiatic steppes in the 11th century AD and had been in Anatolia for generations, while  Osman had ruled a tiny Anatolian territory at the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century. He was very much a warrior in the mould of other great cavalry officers of the Middle Ages (like Genghis Khan before he won an empire).

It was on the coronation day of Osman’s successor that the tradition of wearing Osman’s sword, girded by his belt, began. This was the Ottoman equivalent of being anointed and crowned in the west and was a reminder to all of the 36 sultans who followed that their power and status came from this legendary warrior and that they were martial rulers. This certainly rang true in the first half of the history of the empire, and for the next 300 years, sultans would regularly be seen in battle. But as the empire matured and then waned, so the sultans began to shirk their duties on the battlefield.

Osman’s lavishly-decorated sword and belt are the Ottoman equivalent of the coronation crown jewels, but it’s doubtful that what is seen today on display in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul is what Osman held in his hand. Putting it simply, Osman was unlikely ever to have had such an impractical sword, though it could be that the original blade was later plated and embellished.

Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west: a founder of an idea and a near-mythical figure. During his lifetime, he was regarded as unimportant enough that we have absolutely no contemporary sources about him. We don’t know what he looked like; we have no proclamations extant from his reign, as Osman’s reign began in what was then the Ottoman Dark Ages.

Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Turkish state. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Turkish chieftain Osman (1258-1324), who is regarded as the founder of the Ottoman Empire. “Osman was definitely real, but in some ways, he’s like King Arthur in the west,” says Duducu.(Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
2

The Ottomans could be unlucky

Only once did a sultan die in battle and only one sultan was ever captured by an enemy. Unfortunately for the early empire, these sultans were father and son. In 1389, at the famous Battle of Kosovo, Murad I was in his tent as his forces fought a brutal and bloody engagement with Serb forces. A contemporary account states that: “having penetrated the enemy lines and the circle of chained camels, [serb forces] heroically reached the tent of Murat (sic) … (and killed him) by stabbing him with a sword in the throat and belly.”

While this account claims to describe how Murad died, it doesn’t ring true. The idea that a dozen Serbs were able to break through the entire central force of the Ottoman army, which we know held for the whole battle, doesn’t make sense. Instead, there is a later report that as the Serb lines crumbled, a Serbian aristocrat (often named as Miloš Obilić) pretended to defect and was brought before the sultan. Murad, believing that any change to the battle would finally break the deadlock, met Miloš in his private tent, where the Serb lunged forward and stabbed Murad before the guards reacted. This would make more sense against the overall events of the day. Either way, after 27 years of rule, Murad lay dead in a pool of his own blood.

Murad’s son and heir, Bayezid I, was present at the battle and had already proven himself to be a fearsome warrior. He was known as Bayezid Yildirm (thunderbolt) because he moved as quickly and struck as lethally as a thunderbolt. Amongst many other military successes, he was to annihilate the last serious crusade sent from Europe to counter the rising tide of Islamic power. However, in 1402, he had to face a new threat: that of the legendary warlord Tamerlane (actual title Emir Timur), a brutal 14th-century warlord born in what is now Uzbekistan, who amassed an empire that stretched from present day India to Turkey, and Russia to Saudi Arabia. The two met at the Battle of Ankara, where more than 150,000 men, horses and even war elephants clashed.

Accounts of the battle are fairly sketchy and often contradictory. What is clear is that a pivotal point in the battle took place when some of Bayezid’s Anatolian vassals switched sides or melted away, leaving him with an even greater numerical disadvantage against Tamerlane. However, the core of the Ottoman force fought bravely. The battle was vicious and the resulting carnage was enormous. By the end of the day it was said that around 50,000 Ottoman troops lay dead; the same was said of Tamerlane’s force. If these numbers are true (and there’s no way of knowing), it was one of the bloodiest battles in world history prior to the 20th century.

Bayezid might have been up against a man who was his equal in leadership, but Tamerlane simply had more of everything – and some elephants. Bayezid had thrown all of his empire’s resources into the battle, but he couldn’t overcome the fact that Tamerlane’s empire was bigger. By the end of that violent and sweltering July day, Bayezid’s army was in tatters, and he and his wife had been captured, showing that Bayezid had personally fought to the bitter end.

Bayezid’s death in captivity led to a period of civil war and infighting amongst his sons, each of whom wanted to become the next sultan. These events almost undid the empire just 100 years into its history.

3

Ottomans are not the same as ‘Turks’

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Ottoman Empire is that many of the ‘Turks’ mentioned in the European chronicles were no such thing. It is thanks to European ignorance (that has lasted centuries) and to nation building in Turkey that the Ottoman sultans have become ‘Turkish’ sultans. Quite often in European Renaissance literature, the sultan was referred to as the ‘Great Turk’, a title that would have meant nothing to the Ottoman court. So let’s clear this up: the Ottoman Empire, for most of its existence, predated nationalism. The attacking forces at the famous ‘Fall of Constantinople’ against the Byzantine Empire in 1453 weren’t all ‘Turks’; in fact, not all of the besieging forces were even Muslim.

More than 30 of the sultans were the sons of women from the harem. Why is that salient? Because none of these women were Turkish; it’s unlikely any of them were even born Muslim. Most of their backgrounds have been lost to the mists of time, but it seems most were European women, so Serbs, Greeks, Ukrainians. It is likely that later ‘Turkish’ sultans were genetically far more Greek than Turkish.

Similarly, any of the legendary Janissaries [an elite fighting corps within the army], including the famous architect Mimar Sinan who started his career as a Janissary, were all Christian children who had been brought into this elite fighting force and then converted to Islam. The best modern analogy to describing anything Ottoman as ‘Turkish’ is like saying that the anything from the British Empire was exclusively ‘English’.

Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, 1601. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
4

Suleiman was even more magnificent than you think

In the west, he has become known as Suleiman the Magnificent. In the east, he is remembered as Suleiman the Lawgiver. However, here is a full list of his titles and they are fascinating:

“Sultan of the Ottomans, Allah’s deputy on earth, Lord of the Lords of this world, Possessor of men’s necks, King of believers and unbelievers, King of Kings, Emperor of the East and the West, Majestic Caesar, Emperor of the Chakans of great authority, Prince and Lord of the most happy constellation, Seal of victory, Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world, the shadow of the almighty dispensing quiet on the Earth.”

Let’s break things down: the first title is obvious and “Allah’s deputy” implies his supreme Islamic authority without overstepping the mark (the word ‘Islam’ means ‘one who submits to God). The “possessor of necks’ harks back to his father Selim’s practice of beheading even senior officials; anyone who displeased the sultan could expect to be beheaded for certain crimes.

The next few titles are unexpectedly Roman. The Ottomans were aware that when they conquered Constantinople (in essence, the Eastern Roman Empire) the titles of “emperor” and “Caesar” still had importance. Claiming to be ‘”Emperor of the East and West” was not only an exaggeration, but also a direct challenge to the authority of Rome which, at this point, was hopelessly outclassed by the Ottomans.

“King of Kings” may sound a little biblical, but that’s only because the Gospels took the title from the Persian emperors’ shahenshah, literally, ‘king of kings’. So, again, the Ottomans are challenging a major rival, but this time it’s in the east, the Safavid Persians.

The next few titles are little more than showing off, but then we come to “Refuge of all the people in the whole entire world”, which shows that the sultans were well aware that their empire was multi-cultural and multi-religious, with Christians, Jews, Muslims and others all living together, not necessarily in harmony, but much better than anywhere else at the time. The ejection of the Jews and Muslims from Spain was still fresh in the minds of those living in the first half of the 16th century.

Only two of Suleiman’s military campaigns failed; he swept through everything else before him. When he wasn’t in the saddle, he was sitting in his opulent palace in the largest city in Europe. His empire stretched for hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in all directions. If anyone should be called ‘magnificent’, Suleiman fitted the bill perfectly.

5

The greatest humiliation in Ottoman military history was inflicted by Napoleon

On 20 May 1799, Napoleon laid siege to the port of Acre, where he fired the few cannons he had at the mighty defences, while the defenders sought refuge behind the city’s walls. As Napoleon was now committed to the siege, Ottoman forces were able to gather a relief force and march to the aid of the city. Napoleon had always picked competent generals and, even though his force was small, one Jean-Baptiste Kléber was a battle-hardened and highly capable general. His force of around 2,000 men (later joined by over 2,000 of Napoleon’s men) met the Ottoman relief force at Mount Tabor in Palestine. By comparison, Abdullah Pasha al-Azm, the governor of Damascus, had gathered an army of over 30,000. The French were outnumbered about 9-1; but, as we have seen, numbers don’t count for everything, and the Battle of Mount Tabor was possibly the greatest (often forgotten) humiliation of Ottoman martial power.

The Ottoman forces were made up of Sipahis, Mamelukes and other brave but outdated warrior classes. From dawn to late afternoon, Kléber sat in the hollow anti-cavalry squares, resisting every attack by Pasha al-Azm’s men. The Ottoman governor’s losses were mounting, but his army so dwarfed the French force that he could afford them. Meanwhile, after ten hours of fighting under the sweltering sun of Palestine, Kléber’s men were tired, thirsty and dangerously low on gunpowder and ammunition. It was then that Napoleon arrived with about 2,000 men, not enough to match the numbers in the Ottoman army but enough to distract them by sending a few hundred men to attack and loot the Ottoman camp. Abdullah Pasha al-Azm thought Napoleon’s tiny force was the vanguard of a larger army and panicked, thinking he was about to be attacked from the rear and flanks. He ordered a general retreat, at which point the two French forces charged the disengaging Ottomans, and the orderly Ottoman retreat turned into a messy rout.

Total losses of Ottoman soldiers were around 6,000 killed and another 500 captured, versus two dead French soldiers. An army of around 4,500 had fought an army of over 30,000 and not only won, but sustained just two fatalities. It was a devastating humiliation for the sultan Selim III, and a spectacular triumph that allowed Napoleon to continue his siege of Acre (although he would not take the port and this would mark the furthest extent of his conquests in the Middle East).

Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Engraving depicting the Siege of Acre, an unsuccessful French siege of the Ottoman-defended, walled city of Acre during Napoleons invasion of Egypt, 1799. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)
6

The Ottomans outlasted all their main opponents… just

From the middle to the end of the empire, when it was on its long slow decline to collapse, the empire faced three main rival powers that crop up again and again in Ottoman history: to the east, the Persian Safavids; to the north, the tsars of Russia; and to the west, the Habsburgs.

The Safavids fell first to Afghan invaders in 1736 and, while Persia/Iran would remain an opponent to the late Ottoman sultans, it was never the same expansionist threat it had been earlier under the Safavid dynasty.

Similarly, as the tsars of Russia began to spread their power south towards the Crimean Peninsula and the Black Sea, the Ottomans began to lose ground and were forced to fight multiple wars with the tsars. The most famous of these in the west is the Crimean War, when France and Britain joined sides with the Ottomans to prop up the failing state against the rising star of Russian power. However, the sultans were still seated in power when the last tsar, Nicholas II, was first deposed and later shot.

The Habsburgs and Ottomans fought so regularly that Vienna was twice besieged by Ottoman forces. There were so many clashes between the two empires that some of the war names sound half-hearted, such as the Long Turkish War (1593-1606). However, during the last war the Ottoman Empire was involved in (the First World War) the Ottomans were on the same side as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by a Habsburg. That dynasty didn’t quite make it to the end of the war, whereas the Ottoman Empire survived for a few years after it. The Ottoman sultans didn’t have time to gloat, however. The empire was dismantled by the victorious Allied powers of First World War, and a way of life that had lasted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century was gone by 1922, when the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was forced into exile.

 Jem Duducu

Jem Duducu is the author of The Sultans: The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Rulers and Their World: A 600-Year History (Amberley Publishing, 2017).

In fifth-century Europe, socks were usually worn by “holy” people to symbolize purity

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The earliest known surviving pair of socks Author: David Jackson  CC BY-SA 2.0

Although nowadays socks seem to be nothing more than just a simple detail of one’s outfit, the fact is that they have come a long way and dramatically evolved over the centuries. Socks are considered by many as being the oldest type of clothing to have ever existed, dating back to the Stone Age when our ancestors first started using animal skin for the purpose of covering their feet and ankles in order to provide much-needed warmth and comfort.

The oldest known surviving pair of socks was discovered in the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. They date back to 300-500 A.D. and were created by needle-binding. Today, these strange looking ancient socks are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The museum explains that:

“The Romano-Egyptian socks were excavated in the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They were given to the Museum in 1900 by Robert Taylor Esq., ‘Kytes,’ Watford. He was the executor of the estate of the late Major Myers and these items were selected among others from a list of textiles as ‘a large number of advantageous examples.”

It appears that humans have embraced the benefits of wearing socks since the earliest cultures and civilizations, including people of Ancient Greece. The famed Greek poet, Hesiod, gives us one of the first written accounts of the importance of keeping our feet warm by using “piloi,” ancient type of socks made from matted animal hair.

 In his didactic poem entitled Works and Days, Hesiod advises his brother Perses to protect himself by using this particular type of ancient socks: “Around your feet, tie your sandals made from brutally hunted oxen skin and, under these, dress them in piloi.” 

They came, they saw, they wore socks with sandals. As you might have already guessed, we are talking about the Ancient Romans. Several years ago, an archaeological dig in North Yorkshire brought archaeologists to a conclusion that Roman legionnaires wore socks with sandals. Although one can rarely see an Ancient Roman sculpture that features socks, the fact is that Ancient Romans, similarly to the Ancient Greeks, also wore socks for protection against cold weather.

While Ancient Greeks and Romans used socks for functional purposes, among Europeans of the 5th century A.D., socks become known as puttees and were usually worn only by “holy” people to symbolize purity.

Status symbols, both financial and cultural, have existed for quite a long time throughout our history with every era being defined by a different one. We all know the status symbols of our own era, but one might be surprised to find out that around 1,000 years ago a rather strange object was considered a mark of social standing, and that was, believe it or not, a pair of colored socks.

It was not until 1000 A.D. that socks became a prominent object in everyday life and a symbol of wealth among the nobility. However, this changed with the invention of the knitting machine in 1589, which made it possible for socks to be knitted far faster than knitting them by hand as people did before. A strange new substance known as nylon was introduced in 1938 which caused a revolution in the entire textile industry and changed sock production forever.

 

Today in the 21st century, socks can be found for any kind of need, purpose, or style; the only thing that remains a struggle is to keep one pair of socks complete.

 Alex .A

The tomb of the high priestess Hetpet, built 4,400 years ago, unearthed in Egypt near the Great Pyramids of Giza

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Credit: NurPhoto / Getty Images

Despite all the discoveries that have been made about Ancient Egypt, archaeologists are confident that there’s more to be found, new riches sleeping under the vast dunes of the desert. They seem to be right, as a tomb was recently unearthed that belonged to an important ancient priestess, a precious discovery that provides insights into the life of an ancient Egyptian woman of high rank more than four millennia ago. The recent find happened close to the country’s renowned Pyramids of Giza and roughly 12 miles to the south of the capital of Cairo.

The newly uncovered tomb, as old as 4,400 years, includes rare decoration such as intriguing wall paintings. Some of them feature portrayals of what is believed to be the high priestess named Hetpet, Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry officials stated while announcing the discovery on February 3, 2018. One of the spokespersons, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri, remarked that the site was found in “very good condition.”

“There are colored depictions of traditional scenes: animal grazing, fishing, bird-catching, offerings, sacrifice, soldiers, and fruit-gathering,” Waziri said of the paintings that adorn the tomb of the priestess.

Hetpet was a priestess to Hathor, the Ancient Egyptian deity of fertility, motherhood, dance, and music. In general, female priestesses were not common in that era, but worshiping Hathor was well known. Typically represented with a head of a cow, Hathor had a number of priestesses. Hetpet, as one of them, is considered to have been closely affiliated with the royal family of the Fifth Dynasty. Though a notable figure of antiquity, her mummy was never found.

 The work on the site included removing roughly 10,000 cubic feet of earth to unearth the tomb, making it the first major discovery in the country for 2018. In a press conference that was held in Giza following the finding of the tomb, officials remarked that they expect more discoveries in the forthcoming period.

Archaeologists conclude that the tomb belongs to the period of the Fifth Dynasty due to the featured decoration as well as the style in which the tomb is built. The priestess herself is depicted standing in various scenes. In some, she is presented offerings by children. In others, she appears to look on hunting and fishing activities. Inscriptions of her name and titles have also been found at the site.

One of the most dazzling scenes of all includes one with a monkey, animals which were back then domesticated and helped their owners in activities such as collecting fruit. Among the paintings in Hetpet’s tomb, a monkey can be seen dancing in front of an orchestra, what some commentaries have described as a rare portrayal. In previously discovered scenes, the animal has been found dancing in front of a guitarist alone.

The latest archaeological mission, which is being carried out in the wider area of the western necropolis of Giza, commenced in the last quarter of 2017. However, the same area that contained Hetpet’s tomb has been already noted among archaeologists for hiding other treasures, included tombs dating to the Old Kingdom as well as more pieces of artifacts related to the figure of Hetpet. Unearthing some of them took place as early as the mid-19th century and early 20th century.

Near the excavated area, construction of a new facility that will serve as a museum has been commissioned too. While the new edifice is expected to feature Egypt’s numerous authentic artifacts, including belongings of the world-famous King Tutankhamun, the entire facility should be completed by 2022, the Telegraph reports.

The recent period has been marked by numerous significant discoveries for Egypt, spanning different periods and dynasties. In September 2017, Egyptian officials announced the discovery of a 3,500-year-old-tomb close to Luxor, one that belonged to a goldsmith and his spouse.

As tourism in Egypt has stagnated in the last couple of years due to safety concerns, Egyptian authorities are hopeful that with all the latest discoveries, including the tomb of the priestess, people will once more wish to visit the country.

 Stefan Andrews

The catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa: one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages

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Photo: Rüdiger Stehn /FLickr CC By 2.0

According to legend, a donkey dragging a cart filled with stones in Alexandria, Egypt, accidentally fell into a pit in the ground. If true, the donkey may have earned the honor of discovering one of the most fantastic sites in history. Namely, we are talking about the Kom El Shoqafa here, ancient catacombs unlike any other in the world of antiquity.

Whether the part with the donkey is correct or not doesn’t really matter. The important part of the story is what was lurking inside the hole. As the historic records go, it was a man known as Monsieur Es-Sayed Aly Gibarah who informed the local museum about the site in 1900. He told the museum authorities that he had come upon an underground tomb while digging and collecting stones in the area. At first, the curator of the museum was dubious about the report, but his doubts soon turned out to be unfounded. The shaft was indeed a discovery of a lifetime.

According to archaeologists, the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa resemble the largest burial site dating from the Greco-Roman period. Discovered in Alexandria, a particularly interesting city of antiquity, it was no surprise that what was hidden in the underground burial tunnels for centuries was a blend of different ancient arts and cultures.

As a city, Alexandria had picked its name after probably the most famous warrior history has ever witnessed, Alexander the Great. Founded in 331 BC, Alexandria became a prominent center of power, culture, and knowledge. It was here that for the very first time, a line of Greek rulers brought together the ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures. At least until 31 BC when the Romans took power, making Egypt one of its numerous provinces, and further influencing Alexandria with their own culture.

The Kom El Shoqafa catacombs served their purpose around the 2nd century AD. There are not many surviving sites that can depict the mixture of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman ancient cultures, but these catacombs illustrate exactly that and for this reason, are deemed to be the most striking remnant of ancient Alexandria.

The name Kom el Shoqafa itself is derived from the ancient Greek, translating to “Mound of Shards” as the area used to contain piles of shattered pottery, normally used for drinking wine or eating food, brought here and left by those who paid visits to the tombs.

As further archeological evidence suggests, it is likely that the site initially served as the tomb for one family only, but was later extended into a bigger burial site, the reasons unknown. Of course, the Kom El Shoqafa are not the only catacombs that were built in Alexandria. Plenty more burial sites were part of the Necropolis, the so-called City of the Dead, that was probably located in the western part of the city as traditions in Ancient Egypt suggest. While the Necropolis diminished over time, Kom El Shoqafa endured.

There was probably a huge funerary chapel occupying the surface above Kom El Shoqafa. There is only an 18-foot-wide and round shaft descending underground that is left of this upper funerary structure. The shaft may have also enabled the process of lowering the bodies of the departed, perhaps by making use of a rope and pulley system. Windows placed in the shaft enable light to fall onto a spiral staircase that moves down the site.

There is nothing much at the uppermost part of the burial site, but it is still the passage to the heart of the structure, the middle section of the catacombs. The middle level very much resembles a Greek temple structure and here can be seen some of the most prominent features of the site. Where the steps that lead to this part of the catacomb end, and in between two columns, open the “pronaos” of the temple.

In the chamber located behind the “pronaos,” there is the first fascinating work of art: intricate statues of a male and female, maybe the depictions of the original tenants of the tomb. While their bodily depictions are carved in a typical Egyptian manner, the head of the man bears a Greek style. In a similar way, the head of the woman is done in a Roman-like style.

Another intricate relief in the middle section is the one with the two serpents. Supposedly, they illustrate the Greek “Agathodaimon,” or “the good spirit.” However, it is even more interesting how the serpents are also adorned with elements that belong to the Roman and Egyptian cultures. Just above the head of the serpents, there is one more astounding depiction, that of Medusa. A notorious creature of the Greek mythology, she guards the burial site against intruders who might be trespassing.

In the beginning, the middle section was solely a u-shaped corridor, but as more deceased were buried here, the section eventually transformed into a labyrinth composed of more rooms and more halls. The level beneath the middle section adds to this time capsule of the lost ancient world, but unfortunately, this area is flooded and visitors cannot really see what’s hiding there.

Nevertheless, Kom el Shoqafa is one of the best-preserved ruins of the whole of Egypt and its rich mix of ancient cultures is what makes it so special. The site, though built much earlier, has further been featured as one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Other sites typically featured on this same list are also the Colosseum, Hagia Sophia, the Great Wall of China, the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and believe it or not, Stonehenge too.

 Stefan Andrews

‘Oldest tattoo’ found on 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies

 

Male MummyImage copyright THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Image caption This young man was one of the first people in the world to have a figurative tattoo. It appears as a dark smudge at the top of his arm.

Researchers have discovered the oldest figurative tattoos in the world on two 5,000-year-old mummies from Egypt.

The illustrations are of a wild bull and a Barbary sheep on the upper-arm of a male mummy, and S-shaped motifs on the upper-arm and shoulder of a female.

The discovery pushes back evidence for the practice in Africa by 1,000 years.

Details of the tattoos have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Image copyrightTRUSTES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Image captionThe first tattoo: A wild bull with long tail and elaborate horns; and above it, a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder

Daniel Antoine, one of the lead authors of the research paper and the British Museum’s Curator of Physical Anthropology, said that the discovery had “transformed” our understanding of how people lived in this era.

“Only now are we gaining new insights into the lives of these remarkably preserved individuals. Incredibly, at over 5,000 years of age, they push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium,” he told BBC News.

TatttooTatttooImage copyright TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM  Image caption The first tattoo: A wild bull with long tail and elaborate horns; and above it, a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder

The male mummy was found about 100 years ago.

Previous CT scans showed that he was between 18 and 21 years old when he died from a stab wound to the back.

Dark smudges on his arm were thought to be unimportant until infrared scans revealed that they were tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. One is interpreted to be a wild bull with a long tail and elaborate horns; the other appears to be a Barbary sheep with curving horns and a humped shoulder.

Female mImage copyright TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Image caption The female mummy has tattoos which may denote status, bravery and magical knowledge

The female mummy has four small S-shaped motifs running down her right shoulder.

She also has a motif that is thought to represent batons used in ritual dance.

The designs are under the skin and the pigment is probably soot.

Previously, archaeologists had thought only women wore tattoos in the ancient past, but the discovery of tattoos on the male mummy now shows body modification concerned both sexes.

The researchers believe that the tattoos would have denoted status, bravery and magical knowledge.

The mummies were found in Gebelein in the southern part of Upper Egypt, around 40km south of modern-day Luxor.

The individuals were buried in shallow graves without any special preparation, but their bodies were naturally preserved by the heat, salinity and aridity of the desert.

Radiocarbon results indicate that they lived between 3351 and 3017 BC, shortly before the region was unified by the first pharaoh at around 3100 BC.

The oldest example of tattooing is found on the Alpine mummy known as Ötzi who is thought to have lived between 3370 and 3100 BC. But his tattoos are vertical or horizontal lines, rather than figurative.

four 'S'sImage copyrightTRUSTEES OF THE BRITSH MUSEUM
Image caption Four S-shaped motifs run down the woman’s right shoulder