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Ancient administrative center discovered in Egypt’s Kom Ombo

The archaeological discovery included a military fortification used by the British occupation to hold off Sudan’s Mahdist revolution.
Temple of Kom Ombo, Aswan, Egypt.

CAIRO — A joint Egyptian-Austrian archaeological mission working at the Temple of Kom Ombo in Aswan unveiled the discovery on March 2 of an administrative center dating back to the First Transitional Period from 2180 to 2050 B.C., raising questions about when the temple was originally established.

In a press statement, head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mustafa Waziri said, “During its work in the northeastern side of the temple, the mission found more than 20 conical silos, which are likely to have served as an administrative facility that was used to store and distribute grains during the First Transitional Period from 2180 to 2050 B.C.”

He described the discovery as “important and unique in the area, as it indicates the importance of the city of Kom Ombo during the First Transitional Period, which enjoyed distinctive agricultural and commercial activity and was inhabited by a large number of residents.”

Abdel Moneim Saeed, director-general of Aswan and Nuba Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that the architectural features of the silos, including the vaults, stairs and storage rooms, remain in good condition.

He said the silo walls are 2 meters (6 feet) high, with other facilities rising even higher.

“Rat bones and excrements were found inside one of the vaults, which indicates that the storage rooms were infested with insects,” he said.

Saeed added, “This archaeological discovery is unique and of great significance, because it changes the entire history of the Temple of Kom Ombo, which we believed was a Ptolemaic temple dating back to 181 B.C. Two years ago, new evidence emerged suggesting that it is much older than this.”

The Temple of Kom Ombo is one of the most important Egyptian temples given its distinctive architectural and religious significance. It was dedicated to two deities together, Sobek and Horus. The temple appears to be composed of two parts separated by an imaginary line. The northern part was dedicated to the worship of the Holy Trinity of Horus, and the southern part to the worship of the Holy Trinity of Sobek.

The temple is located on a high hill overlooking the eastern bank of the Nile and dates back to the era of Ptolemy VI, but the construction and inscriptions works continued through the year of King Ptolemy XII, with some additions introduced during the Roman era, according to the temple’s description on the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities’ website.

In October 2018, an Egyptian mission found the upper part of a limestone panel suggesting that the temple’s construction dates back to the liberation era in 1550 B.C., when Pharaonic King Ahmose I, founder of the 18th Dynasty, expelled the Hyksos from Egypt.

Later in January 2021, the Egyptian-Austrian mission found seals of kings of the Fifth Dynasty, including that of Userkaf (2494-2487 B.C.) and Neferirkare (2475-2455 B.C.), which revealed the great importance of Kom Ombo as an administrative center of Upper Egypt in the ancient state.

Saeed said, “The mission has recently discovered mud-brick buildings, which gave an idea of the daily and social life of the ancient inhabitants of the area. This is an addition to an integrated administrative building attached to warehouses and silos where gains were stored and distributed to the entire population. The buildings are 2 meters high.”

“This suggests that the temple is even older than what we believed to be, which prompts us to search for archaeological tombs in the area that date back to the Dynastic period,” he added.

In 2017, the Austrian Archaeological Institute launched a project in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to explore the ancient city of Kom Ombo and its surrounding area. 

Hussein Abdel Basir, an Egyptian archaeologist, told Al-Monitor, “The temple’s architectural character dates back to the Ptolemaic era, but the latest discovery shows that it may have been built on the ruins of a temple belonging to the First Transitional Period. The majority of Ptolemaic temples in Egypt were constructed on the ruins of ancient temples, considered as sacred spots."

Irene Foster, head of the mission from the Austrian side, said that during its work in the archaeological hill surrounding the Ptolemaic temple, the mission was also able to uncover the remains of a fort foundation that was likely built during the British occupation of Egypt during the 19th century as an observation and defense point to monitor the course of the Nile River during the Mahdist revolution in Sudan during the year 1881-1885 A.D., according to an Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities statement.

“We found remnants of cigarette butts and helmets that we believe belonged to the soldiers that were stationed in the fort to protect the borders,” Saeed said, stressing that the area has no Pharaonic and Roman antiquities but rather relics dating back to the 19th century.

He said the area is strategic and is located on a high hill behind the temple, where British soldiers were deployed to protect it against any disturbances from the nearby Nubia area and to prevent the Mahdist revolution from being exported from Sudan to Egypt. 

For Hussein Abdel Baseer, an archaeological researcher, the discovery “suggests that the British occupation forces used the same strategic and defense tactics as ancient Egyptians to protect southern Egypt since the area contained the roads leading up to the gold mines, hence its name Kom Ombo, which means Gold Hill.”

Saeed said the discovery will be open to the public, with terraces in the temple square being prepared to showcase the unveiled artifacts after their restoration.

“Despite these discoveries, the area is still virgin, and more than 60% of its antiquities have not been found so far. We are just getting started in discovering the ancient city of Kom Ombo,” he said.