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Egypt unearths ancient quarters of mining leader

The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced the discovery of the remains of a building that served as the headquarters of the leader of the Egyptian mining expeditions in the Sinai Peninsula during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt
The headquarters of the mining missions in South Sinai.

CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced Jan. 10 the discovery of the remains of a building that is believed to have been used as the headquarters of the leader of the Egyptian mining expeditions in the Sinai Peninsula during the Middle Kingdom era, which dates back to 2055-1650 B.C., and includes the era of the 11th and 12th dynasties.

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa al-Waziri said in a Jan. 10 statement that the Egyptian mission is the first to carry out excavations in the Wadi al-Nasab area in southern Sinai. He explained that the newly unearthed site is located in a distinct area in the center of Wadi al-Nasab and in the middle of the copper and turquoise mining areas.

According to Waziri, the site is a square-shaped building consisting of huge blocks of sandstone, while the floor consists of stone tiles extending over an area of ​​approximately 225 square meters (2,422 square feet).

The head of the Egyptian archaeological mission that made the latest archaeological discovery, Mustafa Nour el-Din, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The discovered building was used as headquarters for the leader of mining expeditions during the Middle Kingdom, and it reveals the history of mining in ancient Egypt.”

He said, “According to the studies conducted by the mission and the inscriptions on the pottery found inside the building, this building was abandoned during the Second Intermediate Period after the end of the Middle Kingdom, and during the presence of the Hyksos in Egypt. It was looted, some of its contents destroyed, and then it was rehabilitated during the New Kingdom period before being subsequently exploited by Cyrus [the Great]. We found traces of copper smelting furnaces dating back to this period.”

Nour el-Din noted, “The building was later used during the Roman era as some internal modifications were introduced to it, including separating walls between the halls.”

He said, “The head of the mining mission in ancient Egypt enjoyed [important] titles and he enjoyed a high standard of living.”

Nour el-Din added, “The building consists of two floors. The mission found on the top floor four copper ingots, each weighing up to 1,300 grams [3 pounds]. Also in one of the rooms of the first floor a workshop for processing turquoise was found. Excavations extended to the vicinity of the building where three copper extraction caves were discovered.”

Hisham Hussein, supervisor of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in southern Sinai, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The southern Sinai governorate is home to turquoise and copper mining areas, and no Egyptian archaeological mission has entered it since the return of Sinai to Egyptian territory after the departure of Israeli forces [in 1982].”

He said, “The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities instructed us to conduct excavations in the Wadi al-Nasab area in November last year, and today we were able to unearth the latest discovery of the building.”

Hussein explained that “in some rooms of the discovered building, turquoise refining workshops were found along with stones used to weigh turquoise. There are Bedouin tribes who continue to use the same stones to weigh turquoise to date.”

He noted, “The mining missions that existed during the Middle Kingdom had more than 1,600 members, which is a very large number, and they included many disciplines, as some of them were working on studying the geology of the place, while others specialized in smelting minerals, and yet others in providing food for the expedition. All of this is inscribed on the walls and antique plaques [found on the site].”

Hussein added, “The importance of mining missions lies in the extraction of minerals, especially copper, which was of great importance in the Egyptian civilization. It was used for the manufacture of weapons, as well as the manufacture of coffins [in which kings are buried] and ornaments [jewelry], as well as the manufacture of many bronze statues. Turquoise was also an important stone used in the manufacture of jewelry and coffins.”

Regarding the importance of the latest archaeological discovery, he said, “This discovery confirmed the Egyptian presence since ancient times [in Sinai], and this serves as a political proof that Sinai is Egyptian with roots steeped in history, refuting claims that Sinai is not Egyptian.”

Hussein Abdel Basir, director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told Al-Monitor “The importance of this discovery lies in the fact that it gives information for the first time about mining in ancient Egypt, as we lack sufficient sources of information about mining during that period of Egyptian history.”

He noted, “The discovery also provides information about the era of the Middle Kingdom, which witnessed an urban renaissance. This urban evolution was made possible thanks to mining extraction, which also helped establish the state following the First Intermediate Period that witnessed political turbulence and a decline in urban development.”

In a Jan. 10 statement, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said that the latest discovery comes within the 2021-22 development project for Sinai governorate.

Asked about the details of this project, Hussein said, “The Sinai development project involves archaeological work in the governorates of northern and southern Sinai. This year, the project covers for the first time five archaeological sites in northern Sinai, and five others in southern Sinai, including Wadi GrendelWadi al-Nasab and Serabit el-Khadem, and this project includes new excavations and the restoration of existing archaeological sites.”

He concluded, “Sinai has yet to reveal more secrets, and it needs years of archaeological work, as more archaeological discoveries are expected to be found during the coming period.”