Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mountain of the Ark

The Great Flood is one of those enduring mysteries handed down to us from ancient times. It continues to fascinate – especially those of us interested in the Bible, ancient history and global catastrophism. After all, if we are to believe the Biblical narrative, the Sumerian epic literature and numerous traditional sources from around the world, it was the event to end all events – the cataclysmic finale of the primeval age. Unfortunately, however, little convincing evidence to show that the Flood actually took place has surfaced in nearly two centuries of archaeological endeavour.

It is easy to dismiss the Flood legend simply as a myth, not worthy of investigation from an archaeological or historical standpoint. But then such a view is immediately confronted by literally hundreds of flood stories from disparate cultures scattered across the globe. Deluge traditions can be found in India, South-East Asia, Australia, Central America, Celtic Europe and Greece, as well as the numerous epic tales handed down to us by the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. Are they all the independent invention of fertile minds? Or did a real catastrophic event take place in the distant past which continues to echo through the millennia down to our own time? I believe the answer has to be yes, something did happen. But the nature of that something – its causes, scale and consequences – requires much further research. The tenacity of the Flood traditions demands that scholarship should address these issues and seek out the historical truth which lies behind them.

So, approaching this controversial subject with an open mind, how should one go about looking for evidence and confirmation of the Deluge traditions? As an Egyptologist and historian working in the Middle East, the obvious starting point for me would be my home turf. So, let me transport you to the wide-open plain of Mesopotamia – the 'land between the two rivers' – where the Judaeo-Christian, Islamic and ancient Sumerian flood stories were set.

First, we will need to tackle the archaeological evidence, then the time frame and finally the thorny question of Noah's Ark and its putative whereabouts.

The new Noah (Iran).

Let's begin with what, if anything, archaeology has revealed in the alluvial basin of the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, where civilisation began and where the first cities on earth were built before the Flood according to Sumerian legend.

The problem here has always been the ephemeral nature of catastrophes caused by water. At best an archaeologist might expect to find a deep silt deposit overlying an ancient occupation level, above which a new human settlement had been constructed. And, in order to prove that the flood was more than just a local event, several silt deposits of the same date would need to be located, scattered throughout the Mesopotamian alluvial plain. Needless to say, no archaeological discovery has ever been made which fits these criteria, although there have been some tantalising indications of water-borne disaster.

Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur.

Between 1928 and 1934 the famous British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating the city of Ur (where Abraham originated). In one of his deep soundings he came across a deposit of clean, water-borne silt measuring eleven feet in depth. Below it were houses and pottery dating to the Ubaid Period (c. 5,000-4,000 BC) whilst the silt layer was overlain by occupation levels dating to the Uruk Period (c. 4,000-3,000 BC). The Ur find hit the headlines – proof that the Deluge had been an historical event after all.

But subsequent discoveries in the region soon cast doubt on Woolley's claim. First, a refinement of the pottery dating techniques, combined with the ongoing decipherment of the cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia, began to suggest that the Ur flood was at least a thousand years too early for the Biblical Flood. Then, discoveries of silt layers at Fara (ancient Shuruppak) and Ingharra (ancient Kish) appeared not to match the stratigraphical date of Woolley's flood horizon (c. 4,000 BC). These new flood deposits were clustered around 2,800 BC and therefore much nearer to the date of circa 2,300 BC suggested by the chronology of Genesis. Scholarly opinion shifted and Woolley's Ur flood became nothing more than an archaeological curiosity.

As is often the case in academia, once a theory is abandoned for something more recent, it is rarely re-examined – even when subsequent findings suggest this might prove to be a fruitful exercise. Several new factors indicate that Woolley could have been right all along. Archaeologists now accept that the later flood deposits are unlikely to be the result of a single catastrophic event; they are spread out over at least a century and must represent a series of localised river floods. Moreover, archaeological excavations have shown that the city wall of Uruk, built after the Flood by the legendary Gilgamesh, dates to an archaeological period which comes before the silt deposits from these other archaeological sites. If Gilgamesh post-dated the Flood by at least a couple of centuries (as is the king-list tradition), then these later silt levels have nothing to do with the Great Flood remembered by both the Sumerians and the author of Genesis. Indeed, the only flood deposit which predates Gilgamesh, so far discovered, appears to be that found deep beneath the city of Ur by Leonard Woolley.

Gilgamesh (Louvre Museum).

But what about absolute dating? Isn't the Ur deposit simply too early to fit Noah's Flood? Perhaps not. First, the date assigned to the end of the Ubaid Period has been established principally through relative pottery dating – an inexact science at the best of times. Similarly, the duration of the Uruk Period which followed the Ubaid is based on an estimate that it must have lasted a considerable time due to the huge amount of building activity within its archaeological limits. But this is subjective. The Uruk Period was the age of the first great cities, when the kings of Sumer built platform temples and grandiose religious complexes, all made in mudbrick. It was the era when writing was invented and which, in later times, was to be regarded as the golden age of heroes. This was an epoch of terrific cultural dynamism which could indeed have lasted 1,000 years but equally just 300 years, depending on one's view of historical development. The succeeding historical era, known as the Early Dynastic Period, may also have been shorter than is conventionally believed because, again, there are no clear archaeological dating criteria. As a result, it is possible to argue for a terminus date for the Ubaid Period as low as 3,100 BC – a date which I have put forward (in my book, Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation) as being consistent with most of the textual sources and the limited archaeological dating evidence.

Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic concerning the Flood.

In the same way that we can shorten the archaeological ages, bringing them down towards the present, scholars have argued that the Biblical date of the Flood can be set back to an earlier period than suggested by a cursory reading of the Genesis narrative. The Greek and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament (both of which are older than the earliest surviving Hebrew copy of the Bible) suggest that the Flood took place up to eight hundred years prior to the date calculable from the Massoretic (Hebrew) text (c. 2,300 BC) from which the Latin and English translations of the Old Testament derive. A date of around 3,100 BC is therefore quite possible if we take into consideration these earlier sources. It is also reassuring to note that the Mayan tradition places the Great Flood in Mesoamerica at precisely 3,113 BC according to their recently deciphered calendar.

Doré's Flood.

Probable dates are all very well, but what would be the real clincher to prove, beyond doubt, that Noah's Flood was a genuine historical event? Of course, the discovery of Noah's Ark, what else? You may think that this is a bit of a joke, but people have been searching for Noah's Ark for decades and have been coming up with all kinds of extraordinary claims, some of which have made headline news or had TV documentaries lavished upon them. Virtually all these 'discoveries' have been focused on or around Mount Ararat in north-eastern Turkey. The problem here is that Mount Ararat was not the original traditional landing site of the Ark. It was only in the 13th century AD, when Vincent de Beauvais, Friar William of Rubruck, Odoric and Marco Polo came this way, that Mount Ararat superseded a much older and widely recognised location for the Place of Descent.

The first thing to note is that the Biblical text itself does not identify Mount Ararat as Noah's mountain. What Genesis 8:4 actually says is that 'the Ark came to rest on the mountains (plural) of Ararat' – in other words somewhere in the mountainous terrain of the land of Ararat. Biblical Ararat is recognised as being identical with the region that the 1st millennium BC Assyrians called Urartu – a land which covered much of the central section of the Zagros range. According to Genesis, therefore, the Ark must be searched for in modern Kurdistan, not hundreds of miles to the north on the volcanic peak we know today as Ararat in Armenia. Ararat is a late Christian name for the mountain; its local name is Agri Dagh. What is more, Jewish Talmudic writings of the 6th century AD consistently interpret the Biblical Ararat to mean Kurdistan and not Armenia [Targums of Genesis 8:4, Isaiah 37-38 and Jeremiah].

Dorés landing of the Ark.

So, where does everybody else, other than post-13th-century Christianity, locate the Place of Descent?

The Koran (8th century AD) calls Noah's landing site Gebel Judi ('Mountain of the Heights') and the 10th-century Muslim writer, Ibn Haukal, observes that 'Judi is a mountain near Nisibis. It is said that the ark of Noah (peace be upon him) rested on the summit of this mountain'. Nisibis is modern Nesibin or Nusaybin, one hundred miles north-west of Mosul on the southern edge of the Zagros foothills.

The early Nestorian Christians (followers of Nestorius, 4th-century patriarch of Constantinople) knew this to be the true landing place of the Ark. The pilgrim saint, Jacob of Nisibis (also 4th century) – note the link with the town claimed to be near Gebel Judi by Ibn Haukal – was the first Christian to look for the mountain of the Ark. His search concentrated in the 'district of Gartouk' which scholars recognise as a late spelling of classical Carduchi which, in turn, derives from Kardu – the ancient name of Kurdistan.

But we can narrow down our search even further. Hippolytus (AD 155-236) informs us that the landing site of the Ark was located in 'those mountains called Ararat which are situated in the country of the Adiabeni'. The Greek and Latin sources place Adiabene in the mountains to the north of Mosul where the Hadhabeni tribe still live today. One hundred miles due north of Mosul, just across the Iraqi border into Turkey and ninety miles to the east of Nesibin, the 7,000-feet peak of Judi Dagh ('Judi Mountain') rises from the Mesopotamian plain. This surely has to be the landing site of Noah's Ark referred to in all the early, Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources.

Judi Dagh is a place of real mystery and fascination for someone like me. Around this holy mountain there are devil-worshipping cults, giant rock-cut reliefs of Assyrian kings, and, near the summit itself, the ruins of a Nestorian monastery called the 'Cloister of the Ark'. Needless to say, I am keen to mount an expedition to investigate but, unfortunately, that isn't possible at the moment. Not only is Judi Dagh on the northern edge of the Kurdish autonomous zone of Iraq (currently a no-go area for British and American nationals) but it is also smack in the middle of the area being fought over by three different Kurdish military factions. Add to this the ongoing 'cleansing' operations by the Turkish army in eastern Anatolia and you have a recipe for potential disaster for any archaeological mission. For the moment, then, we will have to satisfy ourselves with what we know from the writings of earlier travellers to the region.

In the 1920s the Reverend William A. Wigram and his son Edgar spent some time exploring the region around Mosul. In their book, The Cradle of Mankind, they record ascending the ridge beneath the summit of Judi Dagh on the 14th of September to witness a gathering of Muslims (both Sunnis and Shias), Sabaeans, Jews and the Satan-worshipping Yezidis for a great annual religious festival. The English explorers watch each group of pilgrims deliver a sheep for sacrifice as 'the smoke of a hundred offerings goes up once more on the ancient altar' where the Kurds believe Noah made sacrifice to God for his deliverance from the Flood.

The Babylonian chronographer, Berossus (3rd century BC), tells us that in his day Kurdish mountain-folk 'scraping off pieces of bitumen from the ship (i.e. the Ark), bring them back and wear them as talismans'. The practice of local women wearing bitumen talismans was still observed as recently as the beginning of this century according to European travellers' reports. Bitumen is the oil-based 'pitch' with which the Ark was sealed against the seepage of the flood-waters [Genesis 6:14]. The mystery here is that the nearest source of bitumen lies hundreds of miles south of Judi Dagh in the swamps of the Iraqi lowlands. So by what mechanism did quantities of the black tar reach a mountain ridge on Judi Dagh? - unless, that is, it was a genuine survival from the wreck of Noah's floating refuge.

Finally, we have the ancient Jewish legends surrounding the powerful Assyrian ruler, Sennacherib (705-681 BC), who, during his military campaigns against the Kurds, 'found a plank, which he worshipped as an idol, because it was part of the Ark that had saved Noah from the Deluge'. If this tale has some historical truth to it, then knowing the approximate find spot of Sennacherib's sacred relic would be very useful. It is interesting, therefore, to note that giant figures of King Sennacherib were discovered in 1904, carved into the cliffs at the foot of one particular Kurdish mountain. Yes, you've guessed it – Judi Dagh. Aren't you just itching to get out there?

Appendix A

The Satan Worshippers

During his excavation season at Nineveh in 1846, Sir Austen Henry Layard made the short journey into the Zagros mountains to learn what he could about a strange cult known as the Yezidis. This Kurdish tribe lived in the northern Iraqi plain and the foothills around Judi Dagh. Layard had been invited by the high priest of the tribe to witness their most sacred rituals at the tomb of Sheikh Adi, a 12th-century holyman of the Yezidi sect. His tomb was hidden in a narrow valley on the eastern flank of Mount Judi.

The term Yezidi means a 'follower of angels' or 'one who belongs to angels'. They believe that they are directly descended from Noah. But what is extraordinary about these mountain folk is that their most important deity is an archangel they call Lasifarus whom scholars identify as Lucifer. Other names for the high-god of the Yezidis include Azazel (the fallen angel of Islamic tradition), Malek Taus ('peacock angel') and Shaitan (Satan). Within the inner sanctum of Sheikh Adi's tomb Layard came face to face with the Yezidis' dark lord in the form of a bronze statue depicting a bird of prey (probably a representation of the indigenous great bustard) whilst upon the door-jamb of the shrine he noted the carving of a large black serpent which Yezidi pilgrims touched and kissed.

In a previous blog I demonstrated that Eden and the earthly paradise lay just to the north of Judi Dagh in the area around the two great salt lakes of Van and Urumiya. Much of the early Genesis story seems to have been set in this mountainous region. I personally came across the Satan-worshippers through the writings of British ethnographer Andrew Collins. He has produced thought-provoking evidence to show that the Yezidis are a living testament to the tenacious tradition that this was indeed the land of the angelic host. Who or what the malekim (angels), cherubim (winged-creatures) and the nephilim (giants) were may eventually turn out to be more than just a theological issue, once the archaeological remains of this area are studied more closely. Already excavations in the 1950s at the mountain cave of Shanidar, again near Judi Dagh, have unearthed a Neolithic shrine not only containing human burials but also the articulated remains of seventeen pairs of feathered wings belonging to birds of prey such as the griffin vulture, the bearded vulture, the white-tailed eagle and the great bustard. These were believed by the American excavators, anthropologists Ralph and Rose Solecki, to have been worn by prehistoric shaman priests, transforming them into spirits of the air. Are these winged humans from primordial times the anthropological reality behind all the angelic legends and the images of fearsome winged demons found in early Mesopotamian art?

Appendix B

Recent Arkaeology

Two well publicised discoveries concerning Noah's Ark and the Flood have been announced in the last few years. First we had the strange boat-shaped formation found by American Ark-searcher, David Fasold. This large feature, located on the slopes of Lesser Ararat, was first photographed by US spy planes in 1949 but kept under wraps by the CIA. An attempt by Fasold to prove that these were the remains of Noah's Ark fell foul of the Turkish authorities when he tried to excavate without the necessary permits. Subsequent (less well publicised) excavations and a geological examination of the site have determined that, in reality, this remarkable boat shape is, in fact, a natural phenomenon.

Much more convincing from both an archaeological and historical point of view is the recent discovery, by marine geologists Bill Ryan and Walter Pitman of Columbia University, that the Black Sea was once a freshwater lake which was flooded by the salt waters of the Mediterranean in around 5,600 BC. This cataclysmic event certainly drowned vast areas bordering on the old lake and may well have forced those living around its shores to flee to higher ground. But could this really have been the basis for the Biblical and Mesopotamian flood tradition? I personally don't think so. First, the date is far too early: it comes before the development of the first cities (towards the end of the Ubaid Period in c. 4,500 BC at the very earliest) – cities which according to both Genesis and the Sumerian King List were in existence when the Flood struck. Second, in the 5,600 BC flood, the area inundated was the flat northern shore of the Black Sea around the outflow of the River Danube: this is nowhere near the Land of Shinar (ancient Sumer) where Noah's descendants settled after they descended from the mountains. Third, all the Near Eastern flood epics describe the Deluge as being caused by a terrible and long-lasting rainstorm: the flooding of the Black Sea, through the narrow straits of the Bosphorus, was a relatively lengthy process lasting several months and giving the inhabitants of the region plenty of time to escape the gradually encroaching waters. Finally, the waters of the Biblical Deluge receded whereas the waters of the Black Sea flood continue to cover the drowned land to this day.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Siwa Oasis and the Oracle of Amun

The Siwa Oasis is of course most famous for its association with Alexander the Great, whose exploits have been handed down to us through the writings of his biographers Arrian and Calisthenes. In 331 BC, after defeating two Persian armies at the battles of Granicus and Issus and marching on southward into Palestine, Alexander was able to 'liberate' Egypt from Achaemenid rule. Then, for a reason not fully explained by the Hellenistic historians, the young king of Macedon suddenly had a ‘strong desire’ (Greek pothos) to undertake the hazardous journey into the Western Desert to seek an audience with the Oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwa. This was no easy undertaking, as, on a number of occasions, the desert had already claimed the lives of other travellers who had attempted to reach this remote island of green hidden in a vast arid sea of sand covering over 680,000 square kilometres. Only two centuries earlier, a great army of 50,000 men was sent by Cambyses to "attack the Ammonians [the priests of Amun], reduce them to slavery, and burn the Oracle of Zeus" [Herodotus Book III.26]. The Persian army had tried to reach Siwa from the south, via the oasis of Kharga, but was never seen again; all 50,000, to the last man, perished on that expedition and the equipment of those unfortunate soldiers still awaits discovery, somewhere out beyond the southern oases, lying petrified beneath the drifting sand.


The Oasis of Siwa is located in the northern sector of the Western Sahara, immediately to the West of the Qattara Depresion and some 600 kilometres from the Nile Valley. The principal modern (and indeed ancient) communication route with this remote outpost is from Alexandria via Matruh (ancient Paraetorium) on the Mediterranean coast, then south across the desert. At this point the modern tarmac road gives way to an unmade track for 100 kilometres which finally reaches Siwa from the north. There are also three camel tracks leading out from Siwa: west to Girbah Oasis, north-east to Qarah Oasis and south-east to Bahriyya and from there to the other southern oases.

Siwa Oasis

The Oasis of Siwa itself is a very extensive shallow basin, being approximately 82 kilometres from east to west and 28 kilometres from north to south. Within this depression are seven large salt lakes, the greatest of which are Birket Siwa and Birket Zaytun. As well as these large areas of standing saline water, which are obviously useless for irrigation, there are a number of man-made artesian wells which provide more than sufficient fresh water to irrigate vast plantations of date-palms and fruit-trees.

Rising out of the greenery are a number of rocky outcrops on which, since time immemorial, the local population groups have built their fortified settlements, affording them protection against the more dangerous desert fauna and, in particular, nomad/Beduin raiders.

Siwa Oasis with Siwa Hill in the background

The modern inhabitants of Siwa are mainly of Medieval Berber descent, having arrived in the region in the early 13th century in a group one hundred or so strong. It is only in relatively recent times that they have relinquished their unusual Berber dialect for modern Arabic. The forty men and their families settled around a rocky cone, building a fortified stronghold which they called 'Shali' (Berber for 'town'). This was later to become 'Siwa', after the name of the particular Berber tribe who had founded the settlement, and now forms the heart of the modern village of that name. The pharaonic name for the oasis is not certain but what limited evidence there is suggests that it may have been called 'Thay' or 'Tha'.

The medieval village on Siwa Hill

The more ancient inhabitants of the oasis were settled on and around the rocky crag of Aghurmi, some four kilometres east of Siwa town, and they continued to reside within the walls of this mudbrick fortress until 1926 when a heavy thunderstorm (lasting three days) destroyed a large number of houses, killing their inhabitants. The population then departed from the site, which had been occupied since pharaonic times, and built a new settlement nearby. It was that exodus from the crag which enabled the archaeologists to begin the work of clearing the medieval occupation in order to gain access to the more ancient remains which had been identified by James Hamilton in 1853 but which were otherwise only known through the stories of Alexander's visit to the Oracle.

The Ancient Pharaonic Sites

There are a number of ancient sites within the Siwa depression and around its periphery, including Aghurmi, Umm Ubayda, Ayn el-Gubba, and Gebel el-Mawta. Of these the settlement atop the Aghurmi crag is certainly the most interesting because it was here that the Temple of the Oracle of Amun was rediscovered in the last century and where most of the subsequent excavation and survey work has been concentrated in recent years. Before turning to this site, which will form the basis of this discussion, we should perhaps first take a brief look at the other locations containing pharaonic remains.

Umm Ubayda

The site of Umm Ubayda includes what was once an impressive temple built by the 'the Great Chief of the Desert', Wenamun, for the pharaoh Nectanebo II (360-343 BC) of the 30th Dynasty and dedicated to Amun. The temple lies within the palm groves just half a kilometre to the south of Aghurmi.

Unfortunately, and not untypically, this fine monument was blown up by a local official, one Mahmud Azmi, in 1897 so that the blocks could be used to construct a new staircase for the local police station and, needless to say, one also for his own house. What remains today is the stump of a wall from the sanctuary which never the less is richly decorated with scenes of Wenamun, Libyan feather in hair, kneeling before Amun and with a procession of deities behind him. The two temples of Aghurmi and Umm Ubayda are connected by a ceremonial way and probably functioned under a single administration, given the isolation of their setting.

Alexander's biographers mention a second temple of Amun, other than the Temple of the Oracle, and describe its setting amidst the palm groves of the oasis; this is no doubt the temple at Umm Ubayda.

Ayn el-Gubba

Ayn el-Gubba is the famous 'Spring' or 'Fountain of the Sun' to which Herodotus accords miraculous powers: he tells us that whilst during the hot hours of daylight its waters remain cool and refreshing, at night, however, the spring "boils furiously" [Herodotus Book IV.182]. In fact, the bubbling effect is caused by natural gasses rising from rocks beneath the surface – the temperature, of course, remains much the same throughout the 24-hour day.

Gebel el-Mawta

The limestone cliffs of Gebel el-Mawta, a promontory rising out of the palm groves in the northern sector of the fertile basin some five kilometres north of Aghurmi, formed the principal burial ground of the ancient Siwan settlement. Indeed, Gebel el-Mawta means 'The Hill of the Dead' in Arabic and is also called Qaret el-Missabbarin – 'The Ridge of the Mummified'. There are a great number of tombs in the area, many of which are now completely buried in sand. A number of others will have remained undiscovered, since a systematic excavation of the site remains to be undertaken. The important published tombs are those of Niperpathoth, Mesuisis, Siamun and the so-called 'tomb of the crocodile'.

The most interesting is that of Siamun which has fine colourful scenes of the deceased and his family painted on plastered walls. There is little doubt that, in spite of his Egyptian name, Siamun was not of Egyptian stock as he is shown with pale complexion, beard and thick black curly hair. His wife is darker skinned and bears the good Egyptian name Neferheret – 'beautiful of face'; she most probably, therefore, was a native Egyptian. Siamun's father, with the name Periytu, is, however, undoubtedly of foreign extraction. As if to add further confusion, the son of the tomb owner is depicted in Greek dress whilst Siamun himself wears the clothes of an Egyptian nobleman. Thus the tomb of Siamun is strong evidence for the international character of Siwa during the Hellenistic Period and appears to demonstrate that intermarriage was practiced between the Greek world and Egypt.


We now turn to the most important of the Siwan sites, that of the Temple of the Oracle itself. The pharaonic remains are located on the relatively flat-topped rock of Aghurmi which forms a natural acropolis rising to some thirty metres above the palm groves. It appears that, not long after the temple and ancillary buildings fell into disuse, the rock was occupied by the local inhabitants who moved from the vulnerable low-lying areas into the fortified citadel of the Siwan chieftains – the local governors of the pharaohs. As a result, when the temple was discovered in modern times it was sheathed in mudbrick houses with very little of the ancient structure visible.

The major task of clearing the temple of its Medieval overcoat was undertaken by Ahmed Fakhry in 1970 but before that three brief surveys had been completed, first in 1932, by Ricke, Steindorff and Aubin, and then in 1938 and 1941 by Fakhry himself. More recently, during three seasons of activity at Siwa, a much fuller investigation of the temple and its surroundings was conducted by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo under the direction of Klaus Kuhlmann. This work has revealed some very interesting details about the workings of the Oracle and its temple which had not been hitherto noted and these findings will be dealt with at the end of this section on the temple at Aghurmi.

During the two days that Ricke and his colleagues spent at Aghurmi they attempted to establish the building date of the Temple of the Oracle and indeed Steindorff, whose assignment was the investigation of the 'Holy of Holies' or 'cella', did locate a much damaged cartouche which he read as that of Achoris (393-381 BC), third king of the 29th Dynasty. Thus the earliest known building activity at the site – the sanctuary itself – could be taken back only as far as the post-Persian era. This was obviously very disappointing, as it cast doubt on the veracity of Herodotus' story about Cambyses' attempted assault on the Oracle. Then, in 1938 Fakhry cleaned down the inner walls of the cella and was able to show that the builder of the temple was in fact Amasis (570-526 BC) the last ruler of the 26th Dynasty, just prior to Cambyses' invasion. Thus Herodotus was vindicated by modern archaeology for now there was proof of the existence of the Oracle in late-Saite times.

The Temple of the Oracle

Let us now take a more detailed look at the Temple of the Oracle to learn something of the way it was built and how it may have functioned, at the same time recalling the Alexander-narrative so as to determine the accuracy of the Hellenistic descriptions.

At first glance it appears that the temple is of the basic Late Period/Pre-Ptolemaic Egyptian design, consisting of a courtyard and gateway with an interrupted lintel leading to an open portico/hall, a second inner hall and finally the central sanctuary with chambers on either side. However, when one looks further, there are a number of very untypical aspects in terms of both the temple's location and its design.

The Temple of the Oracle of Amun on Aghurmi Hill

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the temple is located on top of a rocky crag. Throughout the whole corpus of temple or shrine building activity in ancient Egypt this is almost, but not quite, an exceptional occurrence. Only four other examples come to mind, the last two of which are even then somewhat doubtful. The obvious and most clear cut example is the shrine of Thoth built by Saankhkare Mentuhotep (2010-1998) of the 11th Dynasty which is located atop the highest peak in the hills of Western Thebes. Secondly, there is the Ptolemaic temple of Petesuchos at Karanis in the Faiyum – not only later than the Siwan temples but perhaps also the closest in character to the Temple of the Oracle. Then we may tentatively add the 'high place' at el-Hiba, which, although probably a sacred altar of some kind, now has insufficient remains to indicate if there was ever a mudbrick building at the site. Finally there is the Predynastic temple/shrine of Horus at Hierakonpolis which appears to have been erected on top of a large platform. All the other temples of dynastic Egypt (apart from the rock-cut speoses), as far as I am aware, were built on low-lying ground. In this respect therefore the Aghurmi temple is most unusual.

Furthermore the temple was reached by a grand stairway leading up from the base of the rock where the sacred well was located (mentioned by the Greek historians). This is only paralleled at Karanis but, even then, on a much smaller scale.

At the head of the stairway there was a narrow terrace in front of the entrance to the court. This court may have been that described in Alexander's story where the barque of the Oracle was paraded around the king and his escort before Alexander went alone into the shrine for his private audience. Above the low wall, on either side of the main entrance gateway, a second facade had been erected in Greek times, perhaps at the behest of Alexander himself. Attached to this second wall, and standing on the cavetto-cornice of the earlier 26th-Dynasty facade, were two fluted half-columns. The facade was otherwise completely plain and without inscription.

Now we come to perhaps the most intriguing features of the temple, the ones which give it its special character as the seat of one of the most famous oracles of the ancient world.

The cella, or shrine of the Oracle, possessed a number of special features which enabled the priests to put on dramatic performances for those wishing to seek the wisdom of the Oracle. Firstly, the cella had a second storey, which had no visible entrance, from where a priest could secrete himself and deliver the words of the ram-headed statue of Amun. Thus the source of the voice of the Oracle remained heard but unseen by those who had been granted a private audience – as in Alexander's case. The Oracle's theatrical performance could be further enhanced by other priests shaking sistra, making noises, or playing the roles of the other gods. This was done by means of another secret corridor located behind and to the right of the statue. Thus the voices of the priests could be made to resonate through the walls of the shrine echoing in the darkness all around the statue of Amun, bedecked in jewels – the ancient equivalent of a Son-et-Lumiere performance at Karnak perhaps? This corridor was only accessible via an ingenious tunnel, the entrance to which was only recently found at the base of a cliff immediately to the rear of the temple on the northern edge of the acropolis. By this elaborate system of hidden rooms and corridors the priests were able to impress even the least impressionable of visitors, and it is not really surprising that the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon was so renowned during the Greco-Roman era when exotic cults and mystic religions became so popular.

What we do learn from this, however, again leads us to think how un-Egyptian the temple and its Oracle were by the time Alexander made his visit. It is reasonably clear, from the archaeological remains of the pre-Ptolemaic temples of Egypt, that the Egyptian clergy did not go in for elaborate deceptions – in particular ones which involved the performance of the god's spoken word. We know this because no hidden chambers have been found earlier than that at Siwa. It is only in the Greco-Roman temples such as Dendera, Edfu and Karanis that such devices are introduced to deliver the oracular messages. We further observe that the normal method of oracular delivery in true Egyptian style was the silent nodding of the sacred barque of the oracle as it was brought before the questioner. This ceremony was usually performed not inside the holy shrine but outside in the public gaze. Indeed, as we have noted, this is precisely what happened when Alexander and his men were first introduced to the Oracle in the forecourt of the temple, before the king was given his private audience in the inner sanctum where he learnt of his divine parentage.

It thus appears that the oracular voice was a Greek invention and that the building of the Aghurmi temple, late in the 26th Dynasty, may have been a partially Greek affair, undertaken by an expeditionary force of Greek mercenaries sent by Amasis to garrison the Oasis. The involvement of the local native ruler of the Siwa Oasis, a Libyan named Sutekhirdes 'Chief of the Desert Dwellers', is quite evident as it is his figure which occupies one of the inner walls of the shrine, offering to the gods, whilst the king is portrayed on the opposite wall in a similar fashion.


Although Alexander's experiences at Siwa are the only written records that we can draw upon to learn something of the history and nature of the place, modern excavations and surveys have revealed further information which not only confirms the accounts of Callisthenes and Arrian but also appears to show that Siwa only came under Egyptian control in the Late Period.

The earliest pharaoh recorded at the Oasis is Amasis and none of the other buildings, including the outlying temples of Bilad el-Rum, Qasr el-Ghashsham, Abu Sharuf and el-Zaytun (not discussed in this essay), are earlier than 360 BC. Indeed all are of Greek or Roman date.

The local chiefs or governors whose images appear on the Aghurmi and Umm Ubayda temples, along with Amasis and Nectanebo, do appear to be of Libyan stock and one must presume that contact was made between Egypt and Siwa certainly by the 22nd Dynasty. Siwa may have in fact been one of the primary staging points in the Libyan migrations of the early Third Intermediate Period.

With Old Kingdom mastabas having been found at Dakhla, we know that the Southern Oases were under Egyptian influence for most of the period of dynastic rule, but no such evidence exists for Siwa. Acknowledging that the following assumption is based on negative evidence, nevertheless I have to conclude that the Oasis of Siwa was essentially a foreign land and not a part of Egypt until the area was brought under pharaonic control in the late-26th Dynasty of the Saites. Subsequent archaeological investigation may invalidate this statement, however, for the moment, this conclusion, having been founded on what the site has revealed to date, appears to be justified.


C. D. Belgrave: Siwa: The Oasis of Jupiter Ammon (London, 1923).

A. Fakhry: Siwa Oasis: Its History and Antiquities (Cairo, 1944).

--- 'Recent Excavations at the Temple of the Oracle at Siwa Oasis' in Agyptischen Bauforschung und Altertumskunde, Vol. 12 (Wiesbaden, 1971), pp. 17-33.

--- The Oases of Egypt, Vol. 1 (Siwa Oasis), (Cairo,1973).

K. P. Kuhlmann: Das Ammoneion: Archaologie, Geschichte und Kultrpraxis des Orakels von Siwa (Mainz an Rhein, 1988).

W. J. Murnane: The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt (London, 1983).

G. Steindorff: Durch die Libysche Wuste zur Amonsoase (Leipzig, 1904).