Sunday, 14 July 2013

Akhmim – Ancient Egypt’s Oldest City?

‘The Aten Sequence Books’ are science fantasy fiction novels, but I have used some real historical characters and locations in Ancient Egypt to create my stories.  One place that gets mentioned is an ancient city called Akhmim, as it was where Princess Merytamen’s wicked stepmother Queen Tiye came from. So where is the town of Akhmim and what was its importance in antiquity?

In the 16th century the author and diplomat Leo Africanus claimed that Akhmim was the oldest city in Egypt.  So is it true?  How old is Akhmim and what was its importance to the mighty ancient Egyptian civilisation?  It is situated on the east bank of the River Nile in Upper Egypt, a few miles from the more bustling town of Sohag.  Its earliest beginnings are more than probably lost in the shifting sands of the desert, but clues of human habitation start to appear with artefacts from the Badarian culture in the 5th century BC.  It is from the remains of these very early settlements and cemeteries that we see the first evidence of the development of agriculture in the Nile valley. They also made very distinctive pottery, which included polished red vessels with black rims.  Early artwork has also been discovered in the form of carved ivory figurines.

Statue of Merytamun at Akhmim
Statue of Merytamun at Akhmim

In pharaonic times the city was known as Ipu or Khent-Menu and was a centre of worship for the fertility god Min. In the late period the Greeks knew the city as Panopolis.  The cult of Min stretched back into predynastic times and he was usually shown as a man with black skin, holding his erect phallus in his left hand and holding a flail in his outstretched right hand.  Min was depicted with  black skin to show that he is a fertility deity and great festivals would be held every year to celebrate his ‘coming forth’, where worshippers would carry his statue in procession and present him with votive offerings. He was the god Egyptians would pray to for a successful annual inundation of the Nile followed by a bountiful harvest.  Oddly enough, lettuce was one of the key features of his festivals, possibly because when the leaves are ripped apart they secrete a milky substance that resembles semen, which is also an opiate and aphrodisiac.  The Greeks associated him with their god Pan, another fertility god who was often shown with the head and torso of a man and the lower limbs of a goat.

Tiye was the wife of the Pharaoh Amenophis III and Queen of Egypt towards the end of the 18th dynasty in the period known as the New Kingdom.  Unusually, we know who her parents were as Amenophis III produced a series of commemorative ‘marriage scarabs’ stating that the name of her father is Yuya, the name of her mother is Thuya; she is married to the great king whose southern border is at Karoy and whose northern is Naharin’.   These scarabs make it very clear that Queen Tiye was not of royal birth and it is believed that her parents came from the town of Akhmim.  The intact tomb of Yuya and Thuya was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1905 by James Quibell. The mummy of her father Yuya shows that he was unusually tall for an Egyptian of that period, had a beard and facial features that differed from those of a typical Egyptian. A theory has been put forward that he was a foreigner or at least of foreign descent, with some scholars pointing to the unusual spelling of his name as further evidence.

Mummy Mask of Yuya, Cairo Museum
Mummy Mask of Yuya, Cairo Museum

Yuya was a courtier of Pharaoh Thutmosis IV and was a commander of the chariotry and then went on to serve his successor and son-in-law Amenophis III.  His titles included ‘Master of the Horse’, ‘King’s Lieutenant’ and ‘Father of the God.’  In his home town he held the titles ‘Priest of Min’, ‘Overseer of the Cattle of Min’ and ‘Lord of Akhmim.’  His wife Thuya also held a string of impressive, high status titles that included ‘Priestess of Amen’, ‘Chief of the Harem of Min’, ‘Chief of the Harem of Amen’ and ‘Chantress of Hathor’.  Their burial was robbed during antiquity, but much of the impressive, elegant furniture remained and both the mummies were discovered intact in their coffins.  They were known to have a son called Anen, who became known as the ‘Divine Father’ and also held the titles of ‘Chancellor of Lower Egypt’, ‘Second Prophet of Amun’, and ‘Priest of Heliopolis.’  Many scholars also believe that Ay, a prominent courtier in the reigns of Amenophis III, Akhenaten and Tutankhamun who then took the throne and ruled as Pharaoh for around four years, was also a son of Yuya and Thuya.  So although we have no evidence that Queen Tiye had royal blood, her family were obviously powerful and influential at the Egyptian court.

There is very little left of the pharaonic town of Ipu to be seen as many of the carved and dressed blocks of stone from the temples were taken away and used in later building projects.  In 1981 a temple dedicated to Min and his local consort Triphis, also known as Repyt, thought to have been built during the Graeco-Roman period was excavated to reveal remains of a monumental gate.  Fragments of statues of Ramesses II were discovered as well as a colossal statue of his daughter, and later great royal wife, Queen Merytamun.  This beautiful statue has been restored and now stands as the centrepiece of a small open-air museum.  Interestingly there are also some carved blocks from Akhetaten (Amarna) that had probably been scavenged to build the later structure.  More recently another temple dating to the time of Ramesses the Great has been found and the fragments of a broken colossal statue of this pharaoh lies partially buried by what used to be the gate.

There is a necropolis at Akhmim dating from pharaonic times, which has never been systematically excavated although some more recent discoveries include five tombs dating to the Old Kingdom.  There is also a necropolis at nearby el-Hawawish that is notable for its rock-cut tombs of the governors of the Nome who were buried there from the 4th to the 11th dynasties.  Also at nearby el-Salamuni there are more rock-cut tombs dating from the Graeco-Roman period and a chapel that was dedicated to Min. This rock chapel was thought to have been carved during the reign of Thutmosis III and decorated during the reign of Ay by Nakhtmin, who was the ‘First Prophet of Min’, with reliefs of Ay and his wife Tey worshipping local deities.  The chapel was known to the Greeks as the ‘Grotto of Pan’ and more reliefs were added depicting Ptolemy II Philadelphus during this period.

Bust of Queen Tiye
Bust of Queen Tiye

Magic is a very important part of the story in ‘The Aten Sequence Books’ and Akhmim is also known as a place where alchemy and Egyptian magic were very important.  Indeed the town was known by the name Khemmis or Chemmis, which may have been the basis for our modern word chemistry.  In ancient times the land of Egypt was called ‘Khem’ meaning ‘black earth’.  Some of the oldest known books on alchemy were written at the end of the 3rd century AD by a famous alchemist called Zosimos of Panopolis, whose writings were among those of around forty alchemists that were placed in a compendium put together in Byzantium in the 7th or 8th centuries AD.  Alchemists concerned themselves with the transformation of base metals such as copper or lead into precious metals such as gold or silver.  They also acknowledged that a process of transformation and purification within themselves was as important as the outward changes in the metal and they worked more for the gaining of spiritual knowledge and development than they did for the material gains.  The greatest magician and alchemist of legend, Hermes Trismegistus, who was a composite of the Egyptian god of writing Thoth and the Greek Hermes, was also supposed to have lived for some time in the town.  So Aten’s attempts to turn gold into the fuel he needs for ship were perhaps an echo of the experiments these alchemists undertook.

These links between Akhmim and alchemy were to last for many centuries as in the 9th century AD the celebrated Sufi Dhu’l al-Misri was born in Akhmim.  He thought to have been an alchemist and been able to perform miracles. He was a great scholar and travelled large distances across the Arabian Peninsula and through Syria in order to learn from the great teachers of the day and also to teach himself.  He died in 859 AD and is buried in Cairo’s City of the Dead.

So although Akhmim might now be a relatively unknown regional town in Middle Egypt, in antiquity it was a prosperous, bustling regional centre.  Queen Tiye is said to have owned vast estates in the area, which would have produced a vast array of agricultural produce. It still has a thriving weaving industry that produces fine silk and Egyptian cotton that is said to date back to the time of the pharaohs.  It became a centre for magic and alchemy during the Greek period, melding the ancient Egyptian traditions and knowledge with the philosophies the Greeks had brought with them.

Statue of Merytamun image Kurohito Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Mummy Mask of Yuya Wikimedia Commons Any Purpose

Bust of Queen Tiye image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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