Curiosity, determination, and a little luck lead to the discovery of a lost city.
Yale Alumni Magazine (Online)
The Lost City
A discovery in the desert could rewrite the history of ancient Egypt.
by Heather Pringle
Heather Pringle is a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine.
For much of the twentieth century, Egyptologists shied away from explorations in the vast sand sea known as the Western Desert. An expanse of desolation the size of Texas, the desert seemed too harsh, too implacable, too unforgiving a place for an ancient civilization nurtured on the abundance of the Nile. In spring, a hot, stifling wind known as the Khamsin roars across the Western Desert, sweeping up walls of suffocating sand and dust; in summer, daytime heat sometimes pushes the mercury into the 130 degree–Fahrenheit range. The animals, what few there are, tend to be unfriendly. Scorpions lurk under the rocks, cobras bask in the early morning sun. Vipers lie buried under the sand.
When Egyptologists finally began investigating the Western Desert, they gravitated first to the oases. But in 1992, a young American graduate student, John Coleman Darnell, and his wife and fellow graduate student, Deborah, decided to take a very different tack. The couple began trekking ancient desert roads and caravan tracks along what they called "the final frontier of Egyptology." Today, John Darnell, an Egyptologist in Yale's Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department, and his team have succeeded in doing what most Egyptologists merely dream of: discovering a lost pharaonic city of administrative buildings, military housing, small industries, and artisan workshops. Says Darnell, of a find that promises to rewrite a major chapter in ancient Egyptian history, "We were really shocked."
Map ©Mark Zurolo ’01MFA
Umm Mawagir, as the city is now known, flourished in the Western Desert from 1650 to 1550 BCE, nearly a millennium after the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. This was a dark, tumultuous period of Egyptian history. Entire villages lay abandoned in the Nile River Delta, victims, perhaps of an ancient epidemic. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Bedouin groups from Syria and Palestine edged westward under the leadership of wealthy merchants, gaining control of the delta. Meanwhile, far to the south, Sudan's powerful Kerma kingdom expanded into southern Egypt. In the wake of these incursions, Egypt's pharaohs presided over a diminished realm whose capital lay at Thebes, in present-day Luxor.
For decades, Egyptologists thought the foreigners roamed the Western Desert at will, controlling the lucrative caravan trade. But the discovery of Umm Mawagir, in concert with finds from the more westerly Dakhla Oasis, says Darnell, reveals clearly how the Theban dynasty succeeded in extending its power and military might more than 100 miles into the hostile desert, building an entire city, and controlling a vital crossroads of trade routes. Umm Mawagir, says Darnell, is a testament to "the incredible organizational abilities of the Egyptians."
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The growing mountain of data revealed just how much traffic once flowed along the Girga Road, which stretched 110 miles westward from Thebes in the Nile Valley to remote Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert. "This was a major route in antiquity," says John Darnell. And it possessed an impressive infrastructure to keep traffic moving. Along the road, the Darnells discovered a series of official outposts that had served as food and water depots for travelers. These depots dated to Egypt's Middle Kingdom, a period extending between 2125 and 1650 BCE. Yet the earliest Kharga Oasis settlements then known to scholars had been built more than 1,000 years after the end of the Middle Kingdom.
Who had created this elaborate desert infrastructure, and why? While mulling over these questions, Darnell recalled an inscription left by an unidentified Middle Kingdom pharaoh, most likely Monthuhotep II. In the text, the pharaoh proudly described his decision to incorporate the Western Desert oases into his Nile Valley realm. Most Egyptologists had flatly dismissed the statement, believing, says Deborah Darnell, that "pharaonic Egyptians had not the technological ability or knowledge to exploit the water resources in Kharga Oasis." But the string of Middle Kingdom outposts lying along the Girga Road suggested otherwise.
To the Darnells, all the new evidence pointed to the existence of a large Middle Kingdom city at the terminus of the Girga Road, in Kharga Oasis. No such urban center had ever come to light. But in 2000, while visiting the ruins of a temple in Kharga Oasis that dated to a much later period, Deborah spied a small fragment of a pharaonic-era amphora, protruding from a thick scatter of other pottery. "Few people know what pharaonic oasis pottery looks like," she notes—possibly the reason no one had ever before noticed it at the site. Strongly suspecting they were closing in on the lost city, the team began carefully surveying the immediate region.
In 2005, the team found a dense litter of ceramic molds for baking bread—vestiges of a large industrial bakery—about half a mile north of the temple. And this summer, John Darnell and his colleagues located the expansive ruins of a major undisturbed city, including the foundation of a significant mud-brick administrative building. Darnell, who leads the excavations there, named the desert metropolis Umm Mawagir—an Arabic phrase meaning, memorably, "Mother of Bread Molds."
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While long years of patient excavation and research remain at Umm Mawagir, Darnell believes that the desert city will ultimately shed crucial light on a shadowy time in Egyptian history. For years, scholars have wondered how an impoverished and much diminished royal dynasty at Thebes in the late Middle Kingdom eventually managed to repel Egypt's foreign invaders and rise to grandeur once again in the New Kingdom—the age of Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and Ramses the Great. The finds at Umm Mawagir now hint strongly at an answer. "The Theban dynasty," suggests Darnell, "may have used its military and economic control of the Western Desert to win the war against the invaders."
For Darnell, however, the real wonder is the administrative genius that went into creating a city in the desert more than 3,600 years ago. "People always marvel at the great monuments of the Nile Valley and the incredible architectural feats they see there. But I think they should realize how much more work went into developing Kharga Oasis in one of the harshest, driest deserts on Earth."