CAIRO — A joint research team from the Spanish University of Barcelona, the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology and the American University of Delaware have recently discovered a "Falcon Shrine" in the ancient Egyptian seaport of Berenike on the western shore of the Red Sea.
According to the results of a study published in the American Journal of Archaeology on Oct. 6, the research team found during excavations in the port a tomb dating back to the late Roman period — the fourth to sixth centuries AD — a period when the city seemed to be partially occupied and controlled by the Blemmyes.
The Blemmyes were a group of nomads from the Nubian area who were during that period expanding their ranges throughout the greater part of the eastern desert of Egypt.
The archaeological team described the tomb as a small traditional Egyptian crypt, adapted by the Blemmyes to their own belief system.
The team said in the study that the findings were quite remarkable and include items such as spears, cube-shaped statues and a stela, or slab, bearing inscriptions related to falcon worship.
Fifteen falcons were found inside the cemetery, most of them beheaded.
Although burials of falcons for religious purposes had already been observed in the Nile Valley, this is the first time that researchers discover falcons buried inside a temple and accompanied by eggs — a finding that is completely unprecedented, according to the study.
At other sites, researchers had previously found mummified headless falcons, but only individual specimens were found — not in a group, as in the case with the new discovery in Berenike.
Joan Oller Guzman, the study's lead researcher, said in a report published on the official website of the University of Barcelona on Oct. 6, “All of these elements point to intense ritual activities combining Egyptian traditions with contributions from the Blemmyes, sustained by a theological base possibly related to the worshipping of the god Khonsu,” who was embodied in ancient Egypt in the form of a man with the head of a falcon.
He added, “The discoveries expand our knowledge of these semi-nomad people, the Blemmyes, living in the Eastern desert during the decline of the Roman Empire.”
Al-Monitor tried to reach Guzman, but he seemed reluctant to provide any additional information about the discovery for the time being.
Hussein Abdel Basir, director of the Antiquities Museum at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told Al-Monitor, “The falcon was of great importance to ancient Egyptians as it represented the god Horus, the famous symbol of the Egyptian religion that complements the Egyptian holy trinity alongside Isis and Osiris.”
He explained that the Egyptians revered the falcon for its strength and ability to fly far, pointing out that the discovery confirms that Egyptian beliefs continued to exist for long periods extending to the Greco-Roman era.
“The strange thing, however, is that these falcons were found beheaded and buried inside a temple,” Abdel-Basir said.
He explained, “Usually, the animal or bird was buried completely (not beheaded) inside dedicated cemeteries, as is found in the Saqqara region,” one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt near Giza Governorate, south of Cairo.
In turn, Bassam el-Shamaa, a tour guide and an Egyptologist, believes it is strange for Blemmyes to settle in Greco-Roman places and adopt ancient Egyptian rituals because they were nomadic raiders.
He told Al-Monitor that there are one of two explanations for the existence of this cemetery during the period of the Blemmyes’ rule: Either Blemmyes were not aware of the existence of this cemetery in the first place, or they were influenced by the ancient Egyptian religious rituals, which made them maintain the same practices.
Abdel-Basir, however, said the second option is less likely because the Blemmyes were a nomadic people and did not dwell for long periods of time in the same place.
“Ancient Egyptians used to mummify animals and bury them as part of their vows to their gods, which was a common procedure run by priests,” Abdel-Basir explained, adding that “these animals or birds were often buried inside cemeteries, not temples, and in large numbers.”
Shamaa explained that the number of found falcons was not really large. In his opinion, this is because the Berenike seaport was far, and there were few residents in the area surrounding the port.
The Berenike port was founded during the third century BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus and continued to operate during the Roman and Byzantine periods. During that time, it was converted into the main entry point for trade coming from Cape Horn, the Arabian Peninsula and India.
“This discovery confirms that falcons continued to be worshiped in ancient Egyptian times throughout the Ptolemaic, then Roman, and then in the times of the Blemmyes, if they were aware of its existence,” Shamaa explained.
“The discovery also draws attention to the accuracy of the mummification process in this period, which preserved the falcons all this time, despite the soil moisture and salts in this area near the sea,” he added.