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LONDON: During a 2009 excavation at the ancient site of Abydos in Egypt, archaeologists made an unexpected discovery: the remains of a lost Coptic monastery believed to have been founded in the fifth century by Coptic church leader Father Moses. .

That was impressive enough, but there were even bigger surprises.

Deep within the excavated ruins of the monastery, archaeologists from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities made a discovery that shed light on the tensions between the early Coptic Church and the remnants of Egypt’s “pagan” past.

As a modest threshold inside the monastery, a piece of red granite 1.7 meters long and half as wide was pressed into place.

Sarcophagus of Merenptah. (Photo courtesy of Frédéric Payraudeau)

A partial inscription revealed that it was part of the sarcophagus of Menkheperre, high priest of Amun-Ra, the ancient Egyptian god of the sun and air, who ruled southern Egypt from 1045 to 992.

The find seemed to solve a mystery – where Menkheperre was buried. He was previously believed to have been buried near the base of power in Thebes, in an as-yet-undiscovered tomb. Now it seemed he had been laid to rest in Abydos.

The existence of a fragment of his sarcophagus on the floor of the monastery, as the authors of a 2016 study speculated, owes something to Father Moses’ “persecution of local pagan temples” and “perhaps the zeal with which his followers destroyed pagan structures and tombs throughout Abydos .”

And the story could have ended there, but for Frederic Payraudeau, an Egyptologist at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

Frederic Payraudeau, Egyptologist at the Sorbonne University in Paris. (attached)

Ayman Damrani and Kevin Cahail, the Egyptian and American archaeologists who discovered the fragment, recognized from the beginning that the sarcophagus had another occupant before Menkheperre.

They saw that earlier inscriptions had been overwritten and suggested that the original owner may have been an unknown royal prince.

The fragment, made of hard red granite, “took much more time and resources to build,” they wrote, than would have been spent on even the sarcophagus of a high-ranking official.

This suggested that the original owner had “access to royal-level workshops and materials”, and it was concluded that it might have been a prince named Meryamunre or Meryamun.

“When I read this article, I was very interested because I am a specialist of this period,” said Payraudeau, “and I was not really convinced by reading the inscriptions.

He added: “I already suspected that this fragment came from the sarcophagus of a king, partly because of the quality of the object, which is very well carved, but also because of the decoration.”

It consisted of scenes from the Book of Gates, an ancient Egyptian funerary text reserved almost exclusively for kings.

“In the Valley of the Kings it is known on the walls of tombs and on the sarcophagi of kings, and was used only by one person who was not a king, at a later period.

“But that’s an exception, and it would have been very strange for a prince to use that text—and especially a prince we’ve never heard of.”

The photos provided to the paper were too poor quality to confirm his suspicions, so he asked the author to send him high-resolution copies. “And when I saw the enlarged photographs of the objects, I could clearly see the cartouche of a king.”

The royal carton, or inscription, with the name of Ramesses. (Photo courtesy of Frédéric Payraudeau)

A cartouche is an oval frame, underlined at one end, and contains a name written in hieroglyphs to indicate royalty. It was ‘User-Maat-Ra Setep-en-Ra’.

Roughly translated as “Ra’s justice is great, Ra’s chosen”, this was the motto of one of the most famous rulers of ancient Egypt, II. The throne name of Ramses.

II. Ramses, who reigned from 1279 to 1213 BC, is considered one of the most powerful warrior-pharaohs of ancient Egypt, famous for having fought many battles and established many temples, monuments and cities, known to generations of subsequent rulers. the subjects as “great ancestors”.

The royal carton or inscription with the name of Ramesses (Photo courtesy of Frédéric Payraudeau)

His was the longest reign in Egyptian history and is depicted in more than 300, often colossal, statues throughout the Old Kingdom.

Upon his death, after a reign of 67 years, he was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Since many of the tombs were later looted, one of his successors, IX. Ramesses, who ruled from 1129 to 1111 BC, moved most of the remains for safekeeping to a secret tomb at Deir El-Bahari, a necropolis on the Nile, facing the Nile. The city of Luxor.

They lay there undisturbed for almost 3,000 years, until around 1860 a goatherd accidentally discovered them.

It was not until 1881 that Egyptologists learned about the extraordinary find, and among the more than 50 pharaonic mummies, each of which was marked with who and where they were originally buried, was II. Ramses.

He was in a coffin made of beautifully carved cedar wood. Originally, this would normally have been placed in a gold coffin – lost in antiquity – which would have been placed in an alabaster sarcophagus, which was then itself placed in a stone sarcophagus.

In his original tomb, in the Valley of the Kings, small fragments of the alabaster sarcophagus were found, presumably broken by looters. However, there was no sign of the granite sarcophagus – until now.

The looting of tombs and the reuse of sarcophagi were the result of social and economic upheaval in ancient Egypt. “The owner wanted to use the sarcophagus forever,” Payraudeau said.

But XI. With the death of Ramses in 1077 BC, at the end of a long period of prosperity, a civil war and then a long period of unrest broke out, he said.

“This was the Third Intermediate Period when the necropolises were heavily looted because the Egyptians knew that there were gold, silver and other valuable materials such as wood in the tombs.”

In addition to ordinary grave robbers, even the authorities took part in the looting, they used sarcophagi for their own use. This is how Menkheperre was buried in a sarcophagus that was previously used by II. Used by Ramses.

Payraudeau is not convinced that the use of a fragment of the sarcophagus in the building of a fifth-century Coptic monastery was necessarily disrespectful.

“When they built this monastery, they didn’t know that the sarcophagus of Ramses would be reused, because no one could read hieroglyphics for about 500 years by then.”

It was 1799 before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing with a royal decree written in three languages, including ancient Greek.

According to Payraudeau, the only mystery that remains is where Menkheperre was originally buried at Abydos.

“There must be the unexcavated remains of the high priest’s tomb somewhere,” he said.

“Maybe it’s completely destroyed. But I can’t let go of the idea that perhaps they reused the parts of the sarcophagus that were suitable for use as pavements and so on, and that the lid, which would have been much more difficult to reuse, is still lying intact somewhere. In Abydos.”

In 1817, approximately 3000 years II. After the death of Ramses, archaeological discoveries in Egypt inspired the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write a sonnet reflecting on how the once seemingly eternal power of the great king known to the ancient Greeks as Ozymandias turned to dust. .

Reflecting on an inscription on the pedestal of a broken, fallen statue, part of the poem reads: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look at my works, you mighty ones, and despair! Nothing remained of that huge wreck around the destruction. Boundless and bare, the lonely and flat sand stretches far.

Actually II. Not only has Ramses’ fame grown in the 3,236 years since his burial in the Valley of the Kings, but he also became the most widely traveled of the ancient pharaohs.

In 1976, after noticing that his mummified remains were beginning to decay, Ramses was sent to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris for restoration, with a whimsical “passport” giving the title “King (Deceased”).

Since then, hundreds of thousands of visitors have been able to see it at numerous exhibitions around the world, including last year again in Paris.

If the lid of his sarcophagus was discovered, he could be reunited with his mummy and coffin, and the Ozymandias show would no doubt become increasingly popular, continuing to upset Shelley’s poetic prediction that the Great Ancient would be forgotten, swallowed up by the sand. time.

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