Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Egyptian temple with 15 mummified falcons, many without heads and buried around a pedestal. The find suggests a previously unknown ritual performed by the Blemmyes, a nomadic people who once inhabited what is now southern Egypt and Sudan.
The team of Spanish and Polish archaeologists have just published an in-depth analysis of their finds during the 2019 excavation season at Berenice, a long-abandoned ancient Red Sea port city that borders Egypt’s Eastern Desert. These intriguing results, which appear in the American Journal of Archeology provide detailed information about the religious sanctuary or temple discovered at Berenike which dates back to the 4th to 6th centuries AD.
As Christianity had become the officially recognized religion in all parts of the Roman Empire by this time, including Egypt, the sanctuary found at Berenike was built by the nomadic Blemmyes people, who would form their own kingdom in Lower Nubia (southern Egypt and Sudan) at the end of the 4th century.
Demonstrating their independent spirit, the Blemmyes remained true to ancient religious traditions, preserving a metaphysical belief system that was at odds with post-4th century Roman beliefs. The discovery of their temple at Berenike shows that they had a strong enough presence in a Roman enclave to practice any type of religion they chose, despite any edicts that might have been issued from the distant Roman capital.
Unearth the Blemmyes’ Sacred Falcons
The American Journal of Archeology article describes the efforts of archaeologists under the direction of Professor Joan Oller Guzmán of the Autonomous University of Barcelona to learn more about the so-called “Sanctuary of the Falcon”, a small religious temple which was discovered in a larger group of buildings known as the Complex.
Originally built as a traditional Egyptian temple, the sanctuary was adapted by the Blemmyes to their own belief system during the fourth century. This happened after the Roman Emperor Constantine launched his efforts to Christianize all the lands under his rule. But the beliefs of the Blemmyes were entirely their own and did not reflect any Christian inclination or influence, as artifacts found in the shrine have revealed.
“The material finds are particularly noteworthy and include offerings such as harpoons, cube-shaped statues and a stele with indications related to religious activities,” Professor Oller said in a statement. Press release from the Autonomous University of Barcelona announcing the results of the recent study.
While such discoveries were notable, the most notable find was a curated exhibit featuring 15 mummified falcons, most of which were headless. Earlier finds in Egypt’s Nile Valley had shown that falcons were worshiped in ancient times, and a few individual mummified falcons had been found before. But this is the first time that archaeologists have discovered a group of preserved falcons buried together inside a temple.
And that was not the end of the surprises. Alongside the mummified birds, archaeologists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archeology unearthed a collection of unhatched falcon eggs. This discovery was truly unprecedented and highlights the efforts that went into building this particular religious exhibit.
Adding further intrigue to this astonishing find, the stele found among the sanctuary artifacts included an unusual inscription, offering the following announcement:
“It’s inappropriate to boil a head here.”
This warning refers to the boiling of the heads of animals found inside the temple, which would have been considered an act of sacrilege.
Taken as a whole, the contents of the temple suggest syncretic or mixed religious practice.
“All these elements indicate intense ritual activities combining Egyptian traditions with the contributions of the Blemmyes, supported by a theological basis possibly linked to the cult of the god Khonsu. [the Egyptian god of the Moon]concluded Professor Oller. “The findings expand our knowledge of this semi-nomadic people, the Blemmyes, living in the Eastern Desert during the decline of the Roman Empire.”
Example of a falcon mummy ( Welcome collection /CC by SA 4.0)
The history of the Blemmyes in the shadow of the Roman Empire
The 2019 excavations that led to the discovery of the Falcon Sanctuary were conducted under the auspices of Project Sikait. Its mission is to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the people who lived in a sector of the ancient Egyptian Eastern Desert region known as Mons Smaragdus, which is currently included within the boundaries of Wadi Gemal National Park.
Mons Smaragdus was the Roman Empire’s only source for the coveted green emeralds, which were mined at the site of Sikait and other nearby locations. Berenice was located just a day or two from this emerald mining hotspot, and as the closest and busiest port city to the Red Sea, Berenice benefited from the vigorous trade that linked Egypt at the time Roman Empire to various states and kingdoms in the Mediterranean, Arabia, Africa, and Western Asia.
Through the trade in emeralds and other valuable goods, many people who lived in the area amassed great wealth, which helped Berenice prosper in the centuries following the annexation of Egypt by Rome. in 30 BC.
Berenice was founded in the third century BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the Ptolemaic Egyptian pharaoh who after his death was nicknamed Ptolemy the Great. This pharaoh’s father, Ptolemy I, was a Macedonian general who served under Alexander the Great, and after the latter’s death, he founded the Ptolemaic dynasty which transformed ancient Egypt into a Hellenistic (Greek) kingdom. As a bustling port city on the Red Sea, even in early times the Hellenistic colony of Berenike had an obvious attraction for the Romans, and they maintained a strong presence in the city from the time they conquered Egypt. in the first century BC until at least the 4th century BC.
But by the time the Blemmyes arrived, the power of the Roman Empire was in decline. From the fourth to the sixth century, it seems that the Blemmyes became a dominant influence in Berenice, breaking away from their nomadic traditions to settle in a prosperous trading town.
Excavations at the Falcon Sanctuary have revealed fascinating new information about the beliefs and spiritual practices of the Blemmyes culture. Future excavations may very well reveal more ruins and artifacts related to this mysterious lost people, who disappeared from written historical records over 1,000 years ago.
Top image: A mummified falcon found in Egypt ( steal Koopman /CC by SA 2.0)
By Nathan Falde