Archaeologists have unearthed a shrine in an Egyptian temple that describes a ritual never seen before. Sikait Project researchers, led by UAB Professor Joan Oller Guzmán, recently published new findings from the Berenike site, a Greco-Roman seaport in Egypt’s Eastern desert.
The findings of the study, published in the American Journal of Archaeology, describes the excavation of a Late Roman Period (between the fourth and sixth century) religious complex with unexpected discoveries linked to the presence of the Blemmyes.
The complex provides clear evidence of a connection with these people, thanks to the discover of inscriptions to some of their kings.
The newly found place of worship has been named the “Falcon Shrine” by researchers due to the material found that suggests a ritual function associated with a falcon cult. The city was partially occupied during this time period by the Blemmyes, a nomadic group of people from the Nubian region who had spread to many other areas of Egypt’s Eastern desert.
This discovery sheds new light on the Blemmyes’ religious practices and how they were merged into the Egyptian belief system. The most amazing discovery, which gave the shrine its name, was the discovery of 15 falcons buried within the temple, most of which were decapitated. While the discovery of dead birds within tombs is not unique, the discovery of so many together with eggs is unusual.
“The material findings are particularly remarkable and include offerings such as harpoons, cube-shaped statues, and a stele with indications related to religious activities, which was chosen for the cover of the journal’s current issue,” UAB researcher Joan Oller highlights.
The stele is particularly intriguing among the material findings. The stele is believed to depict a procession of gods and is inscribed, “It is improper to boil a head in here.” A prohibition like this in a religious temple has never been seen in Berenike previously, and it implies that performing that ritual in the temple was a profane activity. It was likely performed elsewhere.
‘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.’ explained Professor Joan Oller.
The team’s working hypothesis is that this shrine is older and had a role other than religious ceremonies before the Blemmyes arrived and repurposed it. As Egyptian religious ceremonies continued to be held in Berenike at the same time, it is possible that these semi-nomadic people included Egyptian traditions in their practices, adding new rituals.
The discoveries expand our understanding of the Blemmyes, a semi-nomadic people that lived in the Eastern desert during the decline of the Roman Empire.”
Journal Reference: Joan Oller Guzmán, David Fernández Abella, Vanesa Trevín Pita, Olaf E. Kaper, Rodney Ast, Marta Osypińska, Steven E. Sidebotham. A Falcon Shrine at the Port of Berenike (Red Sea Coast, Egypt). American Journal of Archaeology, 2022; 126 (4): 567 DOI: 10.1086/720806