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Christians Lost in the Desert? Work at Kharga Oasis

Dr. Eugene Cruz-Uribe, Professor Emeritus from the History Department at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ and now a resident of Monterey, CA. lectured on: Christians Lost in the Desert? Work at Kharga Oasis.

Dr. Cruz-Uribe noted in his opening remarks that he and Dr. Kathleen Keller had been colleagues for almost 35 years, and that she will be greatly missed.

 When last Cruz – as he likes to be called – spoke to ARCE/NC, he talked about the god Seth, and noted that his work in the desert has provided some new information which he will share in the course of this lecture.

 For a number of years, Cruz has been working with graffiti, mostly at Kharga, but elsewhere in Egypt as well.  He reminded the audience of the Gospel of Judas which emerged in 2006 and the lively discussions in the media related to it.  It was one of the many books used by early Christians but not accepted by the early church fathers for inclusion in the Christian Bible.

In and around Kharga Oasis, there are numerous tombs and other structures which contain graffiti which probably were written by those who may have been influenced by these other gospels.

 Before going to the desert, however, Cruz took the audience on a side trip, first to Philae Island and the Temple of Isis.  Throughout the temple complex there are lots and lots of graffiti – particularly written in Demotic, Greek and Nubian.  Philae had a long career as a monument in ancient Egypt. It was the last native Egyptian temple allowed to operate and didn’t close until the 535 AD.  The last hieroglyphs (dating to the 394 AD) produced in Egypt and the last Demotic inscription (dating to 452 AD) are graffiti at Philae.  As soon as Justinian ordered the temple closed, Christians immediately began the construction of a church within the temple’s walls producing yet more graffiti.

 In the Valley of the Kings, at the tomb of Ramses IV, on the right hand wall as one enters the tomb are several Coptic graffiti – figures drawn in red paint of Appa Ammonios.  The tomb became a pilgrimage site for those who revered the martyr Ammonios.

 At Kharga, Cruz has worked for years at the Hibis Temple, as well as such sites as Ain Turba, Ain Gelal, and Ain Zaf. 

  • At Ain Zaf the Romans instituted a massive well digging program which allowed for vast areas of what is now desert to be put under cultivation, which supported a population in the oases of about 50,000 occupants.
  • Ain Galal was stumbled on by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and was revealed to be a small community with a building identifiable as a church. 
  • Beleida was on the main north-south caravan route from the Nile valley.
  • At Deir el Bagawat and the Monastery of Mustafa Kachef there are vast amounts of graffiti.  When the Metropolitan Museum of Art excavated the Cemetery at Bagawat they commented on the large number of tombs and noted what they believed was the first occurrence of both Christian and pagan graves being intermingled in the same cemetery. Cruz commented on this theory later in the lecture.

 The cemetery at Bagawat has 360+ superstructures constructed of mud brick which have survived.  Usually they are square with a domed roof and are rather well preserved.  Normally they are undecorated – just whitewashed.  In one of the tombs Cruz has identified very early Coptic “vault inscriptions” which are very hard to read.  A painted decoration on the outside of another tomb when compared to Late Period decorative fragments on traditional Egyptian (non-Coptic) funerary decoration showed the same sort of grid pattern used to decorate both.  Cruz postulated that it is very likely that the same artisan could have been working in both traditional and early Christian tombs.

 The cemetery now has a nice tourist path that leads to one of the few decorated tombs named the Chapel of Peace because a figure of Eirene – peace personified – appears to the proper left of the central figure, which is Daniel in the Lion’s Den.  Cruz noted that he has identified 160 Coptic graffiti in this one small, 12’ x 12’ tomb. Daniel, from the Old Testament, was a highly revered figure in this period.  Cruz believes that he is personified in this tomb because the tomb is that of a local saint who is noted in Coptic as “Holy Father Daniel”.   Only two tombs at the site were pilgrim destinations, so they are the ones with the most graffiti.

 A traditional site temple is to be found at the site of Beleida which originally had a stone sanctuary.  The remains of the sanctuary are fronted by a two-story, mud brick chamber with benches on each side.  Thus, the conclusion is that communal worship seems to have been going on in the local temple.  These temples, perhaps co-opted as churches, are referred to as temple/churches.

 At Ain Zaf there is also an area which has been identified as a temple/church with a bench in a long narrow room.  Many ostraca have been found at this site with Greek, Coptic and Demotic inscriptions dating to the 2nd Century AD, and some mention the god Seth, even as Christian communal worship is beginning to entrench in the culture.

 At Dakhla Oasis, were found 2nd Century AD decoration remains in which a figure of a man on horseback with a spear appears and is identified as Castor, son of Zeus.  At Ain Turba, three figures on horseback with spears, one with a human head, one with the Seth animal head and one with a falcon head are all manifestations of Seth, slayer of the god Apophis, who wriggled beneath the three horsemen.  Egyptian gods on horseback are extremely rare – though Greek and Palestinian gods on horses occur rather more frequently. Normally the Egyptians utilized other forms for portraying their gods.

 Surviving graffiti has a story to tell about the transition of titles, for example, as the language changed.  Cruz screened a graffiti that reads: “I am Foka, the lamashe, the man of Hibis”. The word “lamashe” is derived from the old Egyptian title, imy-r’-mš’, which translates to a position akin to a modern day justice of the peace.  Clearly these later officials were adapting a traditional title to a newly defined function.

 As Christianity took hold, there was a need to build churches in which to worship the Christian god, just as the ancients had built temples to revere their gods.  At Hibis Temple the church was built right up against the temple wall with sockets cut into the wall blocks to support the ceiling beams.  One can see similar Christian churches built using the temple walls at the Hathor Temple at Deir el-Medina, and at Beleida – a traditional temple with a Christian church right next to it.   The process of Christianization was an extremely slow one.

 At the site of Tarakwa can be found the remains of a traditional stone temple however what is visible is the roof tops.  The entire temple is covered with wind-blown sand.  When surveying in front of the traditional temple, it was possible to move sufficient sand to identify a sacristy with the traditional five niches of a Christian church which had been build right next to the temple.  The Copts seem to have been in ascendance since they had built right over the entrance to the temple.

 At the highest point in the center of the cemetery at Bagawat, a Christian church stood, surrounded by pagan burials.  Cruz thinks that the Christians came in and took over the cemetery and built all the mud brick chapels over the top of the old cemetery, burying their “pagan” predecessors. Thus the cemetery was decommissioned as a traditional cemetery and reconsecrated as a Christian cemetery.  He does not believe that it was an intermingled cemetery as the Metropolitan Museum excavator had postulated.

 The information to be gleaned from graffiti is vast and interesting.  Cruz has recently published his work at the Hibis Temple, entitled, Hibis Temple Project, Volume 3: Ancient and Modern Graffiti from the Temple Precinct, which will be of interest to those who would like to pursue this topic.  He is now working on the publication of the Coptic material with his colleague Jennifer Westerfeld from the University of Chicago as a joint project with Victor Ghica of the French Institute in Cairo.