Theban Desert: Road Survey

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Theban Desert: Road Survey


A Discovered Road . The recent discovery of a very old alphabetic script in the desert near Thebes is only one of the fascinating results of a survey of desert transportation routes in the Theban area that has been undertaken by Egyptologists John and Deborah Darnell since 1992. The principal focus of the Darnells’ work has been on the road that runs from Luxor to the village of Farshut—in other words, a route through the desert that shortcuts the great eastward bend of the Nile, called the Qena Bend.

A Very Old Route . The Luxor-Farshut road is only the central artery in a complex network of desert tracks on the west side of the Nile in the Qena Bend area. Stone huts and piles called cairns are abundant in the area and give evidence of travelers and dwellers all the way back to the Paleolithic period and extending up to modern times. Many fragments of more-permanent constructions, including small chapels with hieroglyphic inscriptions, have been found. An unusual feature of the area is the presence of chapels built high on mountains overlooking Thebes. Unlike ancient Syria-Palestine, for example, where “high places” were common, mountaintop shrines were not the norm in Egypt. But in the area around ancient Thebes, the small temples perched high on cliffs provided orientation points for travelers out in the desert—they are visible for miles and would help people navigate toward their destination.

The Travelers . Who were the travelers that frequented these desert trails and what brought them out into the desert? Scholars can answer that question in considerable detail because ancient Egyptian travelers were often in the habit of leaving behind graffiti to mark their passage. Some of the graffiti on the cliffs along the Luxor-Farshut road are fairly elaborate, well-executed hieroglyphic inscriptions; others are the barely legible scrawls of semiliterate wayfarers. But in both cases, they provide tantalizing clues to moments in the lives of real people. One graffito is by a soldier named Wenkhu, who probably passed through in the late Old Kingdom (circa 2675-2130 b.c.e.); he drew a picture of himself and wrote his name on his shield. Other graffiti suggest that the route was used by “interpreters of Yam,” Nubian speakers who used the track for overland travel southward to trade in Nubia for exotic products.

Soldiers and Policemen . The travelers left behind other clues as well: broken pottery attests to water jars and cooking pots used thousands of years ago. Huts and small walls of stone or mud brick point to more-permanent installations where soldiers or police would watch the desert to try to protect travelers from bandits or the settlements in the valley from incursions by unwelcome and possibly hostile nomads. One crude graffito actually shows a policeman grasping a prisoner, whose hands are raised in a gesture of surrender! The roads were also used by Egyptian troops during times of civil disorder or political turmoil. Several of the inscriptions appear to refer to military campaigns during the First Intermediate Period, the time after the end of the Old Kingdom when central authority had broken down. One inscription refers to the “strike force” of a local ruler named Antef, who happened to be an ancestor of the eventual founder of a reunified Egyptian state and inaugurator of the period called the “Middle Kingdom.” Another refers to improving the road, possibly in connection with military activity.


John C. Darnell and Deborah Darnell, “New Inscriptions of the Late First Intermediate Period from the Theban Western Desert and the Beginnings of the Northern Expansion of the Eleventh Dynasty,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 56 (October 1997): 241-258.

Darnell and Darnell, Oriental Institute 1992-1993 Annual Report (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 48–55.

Darnell and Darnell, Oriental Institute 1993-1994 Annual Report (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 40–48.

Darnell and Darnell, Oriental Institute 1994-1995 Annual Report (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 44–53.

Darnell and Darnell, Oriental Institute 1995-1996 Annual Report (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 62–69.

Darnell and Darnell, Oriental Institute 1996-1997 Annual Report (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 66–76.

Darnell and Darnell, Oriental Institute 1997-1998 Annual Report (Chicago: University of Chicago), pp. 77–92.