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Archaeologists Discover Lost Egyptian City Said to Rival Pompeii

A new discovery on the west bank of the Nile, near the iconic Valley of the Kings, has archaeologists buzzing about what may be the most important archaeological find since the location of Tutankhamun’s tomb. An entire lost city has been found, with workshops, palaces, a cemetery, and living quarters. The site is said to be in excellent condition.

“There’s no doubt about it; it really is a phenomenal find,” Salima Ikram, an archaeologist who leads the American University in Cairo’s Egyptology unit, told National Geographic. “It’s very much a snapshot in time—an Egyptian version of Pompeii.”

The archaeologists have found multiple artifacts stamped with the seal of Amenhotep III or dated to year 37 of his reign, when Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV are believed to have ruled side-by-side. According to Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, the team that found the lost city was actually searching for the mortuary temple of Tutankhamun after locating the mortuary temples of both Horemheb and Ay in the same area.

“The city’s streets are flanked by houses… some of their walls are up to 3 meters high,” Hawass continued. “We can reveal that the city extends to the west, all the way to the famous Deir el-Medina.”

Deir el-Medina is the name of the town where generations of artisans and laborers worked to carve rock tombs out of the Valley of the Kings. Wikipedia notes that Deir el-Medina is “laid out in a small natural amphitheater, within easy walking distance of the Valley of the Kings to the north, funerary temples to the east and south-east, with the Valley of the Queens to the west. The village may have been built apart from the wider population in order to preserve secrecy in view of sensitive nature of the work carried out in the tombs.” If the new city stretches all the way to Deir el-Medina, it means the village of workers may have been less isolated than previously thought.

Some of the decorative objects found at The Rise of Aten. Image by Zahi Hawass

The find is being described as “The lost golden city of Luxor,” but that appellation risks confusion. Luxor is a modern Egyptian city and its present-day boundaries are already known to include the ruins of Thebes, the ancient Egyptian capital. This new lost city, known in ancient times as Rising of the Aten, is inside the borders of modern-day Luxor, on the west bank of the Nile, not far from the Valley of the Kings. While described as a city, it’s not a large location.

Zoomed out view, showing the location of The Rise of Aten within Luxor.

Hawass identifies the site as “sandwiched between Rameses III’s temple at Medinet Habu and Amenhotep III’s temple at Memnon.” Google Maps (above) shows that this specific area isn’t very large, but here’s a zoomed-in view showing the relationship between the new finds and existing structures.

A zoomed-in view, showing the lost city in relationship to other nearby locations and the Valley of the Kings.

Rising of the Aten was built on the west bank of the Nile and occupied during the reign of Amenhotep III, but it was apparently abandoned suddenly during the reign of his son, Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaten, father of Tutankhaten / Tutankahmun. The changing titles of both pharaohs hints at the cultural upheaval in Egypt during their reigns.

Ancient Egypt was mostly polytheistic, but not entirely. During the reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, the capital of Egypt moved from Thebes to a new city he founded 250 miles to the north, named Akhetaten, which means “Horizon of the Aten.” At the same time, the nature of Egyptian religion changed.

Prior to the reign of Amenhotep IV, the Aten was the disk of the sun and considered one aspect of the Egyptian sun god Ra. Under Amenhotep IV, Aten became the sole deity Egyptians worshipped and the pharaoh renamed himself as Akhenaten. This was controversial, to put it mildly.

Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten, appears to have changed his name to Tutankhamun after his father’s death, possibly to signal allegiance to the old religious orders and to affirm Amun-Ra as leader of the Egyptian pantheon. He took multiple actions to restore the religious orders his father had disfavored, including abandoning Akhetaten and returning the seat of Egyptian power to Thebes. After his death, he was succeeded by Ay, who was possibly his great-uncle.

The Amarna period is known for its artistic experimentation. But Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, and Ay were all associated with what ancient Egyptians viewed as religious heresy. The pharaoh who came after Ay, Horemheb, practiced damnatio memoriae against his predecessors. Damnatio memoriae is Latin for “condemnation of memory” and refers to systemic efforts to exclude mention or depiction of a person from history. The efforts the ancient Egyptians made to keep the later rulers of the 18th Dynasty out of the history books have complicated our efforts to understand their lives today, despite the fact that Tutankhamun’s burial treasure represents the most complete trove of royal ancient Egyptian artifacts ever discovered.

ExtremeTech reached out to professor Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, to better understand the implications of the find.  “This is one of the biggest things to happen to domestic architecture and settlement archaeology in some time,” Cooney said. “The town is beautifully preserved, even past one story, in mudbrick, which shouldn’t survive. What is astounding is all that comes with the town, tools, pottery, texts, as if the town was left suddenly, which is what archaeologists think happened.”

“Mudbrick isn’t preserved like this elsewhere,” Cooney continued. “They [archaeologists] are worried about preserving this site. Once rainstorm will do untold damage. This is a special and amazing find that must be carefully studied and preserved.”

The Rise of Aten could shed new light on a tumultuous period of time in Ancient Egypt when artistic and religious standards were changing. Reports indicate the city has been found “packed” with artifacts and everyday objects, many of which may help us understand the lives of the people that lived there. It is not clear if the site was used when Tutankhamun returned to Thebes. We may find clues to that decision as work on the site progresses.

One other thing we want to mention. There have been claims that the recent Rising of the Aten discovery reported by Zahi Hawass is an inadvertent duplication of French archaeological finds that date back to the 1930s. This appears to be unlikely. A follow-up investigation comparing the French expedition work to the Rising of the Aten site found that they occurred in two different locations, though both date to the reign of Amenhotep III. The two sites may or may not be related, but the claims of a previously-unknown Egyptian Pompeii are holding up thus far.

Every now and then, the discoveries we make in these long-lost places dramatically reshapes what we know of the past. Some of our knowledge of ancient writers and thinkers comes from just one place — a library in Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Rising of the Aten may hold similar secrets, kept safe and untouched for thousands of years.

Feature image by Zahi Hawass

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Archaeologists Discover Unspoiled Egyptian Tomb, Sealed For 4,400 Years

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When it comes to Egyptian archaeology, unspoiled tombs are vanishingly rare. Even the tomb of King Tutankhamun, KV62, which survived to the present day relatively intact, was actually penetrated and despoiled twice in antiquity prior to being buried and forgotten. The farther back in time you go, the more unusual it is to find a tomb that was truly forgotten, particularly if said tomb belonged to someone of high rank. (The pyramids, of course, functioned as fairly effective advertisements to tomb robbers). But Egyptian archaeologists have announced an incredible find — a 4,400-year-old tomb of an Egyptian high priest, Wahtye, who lived during Egypt’s Fifth Dynasty.

The Fifth Dynasty is the era in which the oldest copies of Egypt’s Pyramid Texts — the religious texts guiding the transformation of the Pharaoh from his old life into his new role — were first carved into the pyramids themselves. Wahtye lived during the rule of Pharaoh Neferirkare Kakai, who built his own burial pyramid at Abusir, between Saqqara and the Giza Plateau. Wahtye’s tomb is in Saqqara and contains extensive depictions of family scenes, including repeated mentions of the high priest’s mother, Merit Meen, and his wife, Weret Ptah. There are five shaft tombs within the tomb complex and two false doors. One of the shafts was open and unsealed, but the other four were sealed. The tweets below contain additional images of the tomb and its decorations:

The tomb is roughly 10 meters long from north to south, three meters wide from east to west, and roughly three meters tall. Such tombs were typically reserved for high-ranking individuals — carving tombs out of rock with hand tools isn’t easy, though the difficulty pales in comparison with building giant pyramids (the Old Kingdom style of pyramid building, which remains famous today, actually began drawing to a close during the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom). According to Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the tomb of Wahtye is one of a kind discovered in recent decades.

“The color is almost intact even though the tomb is almost 4,400 years old,” Waziri said.

The intact paintings and statuary are an incredible find for archaeologists, even if no other grave goods survived the centuries. While water and time have still inflicted damage on the surviving artworks, the opportunity to study relatively pristine examples of ancient Egyptian art from this period is unparalleled. The ride where Wahtye’s tomb was found is only partially uncovered, raising the possibility that more pristine tombs may yet be found. Finding the tomb of a high priest may not rank quite as high as the tomb of a Pharaoh such as Tutankhamun, but this discovery will be remembered as one of the most prominent of the 21st century and beyond.

Top image credit: The Ministry of Antiquities, Egypt, via Twitter

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Egyptian voters go to the polls, but el-Sisi already known winner

Polls opened on Monday in Egypt’s presidential election with the outcome — a second four-year term for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — a foregone conclusion in a vote critics see as a sign the country is sliding back to the authoritarian rule that had prevailed since the 1950s.

A general-turned-president, el-Sisi is challenged by Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who joined the race in the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election after several hopefuls were forced out or arrested.

Moussa has made no effort to challenge el-Sisi, who never mentioned his challenger once in public.

The ballot in Monday’s election bears two names: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose victory is a foregone conclusion, and Moussa Mustafa Moussa, a little-known politician who joined the race in the last minute to spare the government the embarrassment of a one-candidate election. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

Authorities hope enough people — there are nearly 60 million eligible voters — will vote in the three-day balloting to give the election legitimacy. The powerful pro-government media have in past weeks relentlessly portrayed voting as a national duty, required to protect the country against foreign conspiracies.

Some of the presidential hopefuls who had stepped forward might have attracted a sizable protest vote but they were all either arrested or intimidated out of the race, making this the least competitive election since the 2011 uprising ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of democratic change.

El-Sisi cast his ballot as soon as the polls opened at 9 a.m. at a girls’ school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. He made no comments, only shook hands with election workers before he left.

There were no long lines of voters waiting in several Cairo districts, but past elections have shown many prefer to wait for the afternoon or evening to vote. Footage aired by local television networks showed women dominating the early voters. They also showed festive scenes outside polling centres, with women and schoolchildren singing.

‘I’m skipping this one’

Tens of thousands of police officers and soldiers have been deployed to protect polling centres as well as key state installations during the election.

“I’m not lazy or apathetic, I’m intentionally skipping this one,” said Ahmed, a young man smoking a water pipe at a cafe near the Khidiwayah high school for boys in central Cairo. He would not give his family name, fearing reprisals.

Egyptian women and children wave national flags as they wait in line to vote in Cairo on Monday. It’s already known that el-Sisi will win, as a number of other presidential hopefuls stepped forward but were either arrested or intimidated out of the race. (Nariman El-Mofty/Associated Press)

According to an Interior Ministry statement late Sunday, police killed six militants believed to be involved in a weekend bombing in the coastal city of Alexandria that killed two policemen. The statement said they belonged to a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group and that they were killed in a raid on their hideout north of Cairo.

Mohammed Ibrahim Ali, a retired engineer, patiently waited for the polls to open at Cairo’s bustling Sayda Zeinab middle-class neighbourhood that is home to a much revered Islamic shrine.

“Even if there are 1,000 candidates, we will vote for el-Sisi,” he said, struggling to be heard over the patriotic songs blaring from nearby giant speakers. “He is the one who makes life great here.”

Ahmed Abdel-Atti, a 58-year-old doorman in the same neighbourhood, voiced skepticism. “Do you see any other candidates?” he asked.

During the official campaign period, instead of addressing any of the scores of rallies held by his supporters or appearing in TV ads, el-Sisi has opted for carefully scripted and televised functions. The former general donned military fatigues on recent occasions, highlighting the war on Islamic extremists and perhaps reminding voters that he led the military overthrow of a divisive Islamist president in the summer of 2013.

Many Egyptians welcomed the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood group. For a time, el-Sisi enjoyed a wave of popular support bordering on hysteria, with downtown shops selling chocolates with his portrait on them.

Egyptian protesters are shown outside the presidential palace in Cairo in 2012, demonstrating against then-president Mohammed Morsi. Current President el-Sisi enjoyed a wave of support after overthowing Morsi and cracking down on his Muslim Brotherhood group but critics see the country sliding back into authoritarian rule. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

But that aura faded over the last four years, which could explain a clampdown on the media and critics ahead of the election.

In the Sinai Peninsula, an insurgency that gained strength after Morsi’s overthrow and is now led by the Islamic State group has only grown more ferocious, with regular attacks on security forces and deadly church bombings. An assault on a mosque in November killed more than 300 people — the worst terror attack in Egypt’s modern history.

The government has meanwhile enacted a series of long-overdue economic reforms — including painful subsidy cuts and the floatation of the currency. That improved the investment climate and earned Egypt a $ 12-billion US bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund. But the austerity measures sent prices soaring, exacting a heavy toll on ordinary Egyptians, especially the more than 25 per cent living below the poverty line.

If there have been few public signs of discontent, it is likely because of a massive crackdown on dissent.

‘He takes from us’

But on Monday, some risked voicing criticism about the fallout from el-Sisi’s ambitious economic reforms.

“I was a wholehearted supporter, but not anymore,” said Abu Ali, who recently lost his job in a telecommunications company and now works at a Cairo gas station. “Yes, there are big projects, but he [el-Sisi] takes from us, the poor, not from them, the rich. We are the people who are living day to day.”

Thousands of Islamists and several leading secular activists have been jailed, and unauthorized protests have been outlawed. The media is dominated by virulently pro-government commentators, and hundreds of websites have been blocked. Independent journalists have been arrested or deported.

In late February, authorities expelled the Times of London correspondent Bel Trew, arresting her after she conducted an interview in Cairo’s central Shoubra district, saying she did not have valid accreditation and was filming without a permit.

El-Sisi, meanwhile, has worked to cultivate the image of a folksy populist, going on at length about his devotion to God, reverence for his late mother and love for Egypt. In a one-hour puff piece TV interview, he said he wished he had one or two trillion dollars of his own money that he could spend on modernizing the country.

In the interview, el-Sisi insisted that the lack of candidates was “completely not my fault.”

“Really, I swear, I wish there were one or two or even 10 of the best people and you would get to choose whoever you want,” he said. “We are just not ready.”

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