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LONDON: During excavations at the ancient site of Abydos in Egypt in 2009, 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 Apa Moses. .

That was fascinating enough, but there were even bigger surprises to come.

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

Pressed into service as a modest threshold inside the monastery was a piece of red granite, 1.7 meters long and half the size.

Sarcophagus of Merenptah. (Photo courtesy of Frederic Pairaudeau)

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

The discovery seemed to solve one mystery – where Menkheperre was buried. It was previously thought that he must have been buried near his power base in Thebes, in a tomb that has yet to be discovered. He now appeared to have been laid to rest in Abydos.

The existence of a fragment of his sarcophagus, placed in the floor of the monastery, as assumed by the authors of the work published in 2016, owes something to Apa Moses’ “persecution of local pagan temples”, and “perhaps the result is the zeal with which his followers dismantled pagan buildings and tombs throughout Abydos.” “

And that’s where the story could end, if it weren’t for Frédéric Pyro, an Egyptologist from the Sorbonne University in Paris.

Frederic Pairaudeau, Egyptologist from Sorbonne University in Paris. (delivered)

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

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

The fragment, made of hard red granite, represented “a far greater investment of time and resources involved in its construction,” they wrote, than would have been spent on the sarcophagus of even a high-ranking official.

This suggested that the original owner “had access to workshops and materials at a royal level” and may, they concluded, have been a prince named Meryamunre or Meryamun.

“When I read this article, I was very interested because I’m a specialist in this period,” Pyrro said, “and reading the caption didn’t really convince me.”

He added: “I already suspected that this fragment was 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.”

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

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

“But this is an exception and it would be very strange if a prince used this text – and especially a prince we haven’t heard of.”

The photos published with the paper were of 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 the king.”

A royal cartouche, or inscription, including the name of Ramesses. (Photo courtesy of Frederic Pairaudeau)

A cartouche is an oval frame, indented at one end, containing a name written in hieroglyphics, which was used to denote the royal family. This one read “User-Maat-Ra Setep-en-Ra.

Roughly translated as “Ra’s justice is mighty, the chosen of Ra,” it was the throne name of one of ancient Egypt’s most famous rulers—Ramses II.

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

Royal cartouche, or inscription, including Ramses’ name (Photo courtesy: Frederic Pairaudeau)

His reign was the longest in Egyptian history, and he is depicted in more than 300 often colossal statues found throughout the ancient kingdom.

After his death, after a reign that lasted 67 years, he was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. As many of the tombs were later looted, one of his successors, Ramesses IX, who ruled from 1129 to 1111 BC, had many of the remains moved for safekeeping to a secret tomb at Deir El-Bahara, a necropolis on the Nile across the street the city of Luxor.

There they lay undisturbed for nearly 3,000 years until they were accidentally discovered by a goatherd around 1860.

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

It was in a beautifully carved cedar chest. Originally, this would normally have been placed inside a golden casket – lost in antiquity – which would in turn have been placed in an alabaster sarcophagus, which itself was then placed in a stone sarcophagus.

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

Tomb robbing and the reuse of sarcophagi were the result of social and economic upheavals in ancient Egypt. “The sarcophagus was meant to be used by its owner for eternity,” Pyro said.

But with the death of Ramesses KSI in 1077 BC, at the end of a long period of prosperity, there was civil war and then a long period of unrest, he said.

“This was the third transitional period, in which there was a lot of looting of necropolises 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, the authorities also participated in the robbery, recycling sarcophagi for their own needs. So Menkheperre was buried in a sarcophagus previously used by Ramesses II.

Pairo is not convinced that the use of a sarcophagus fragment in a fifth-century Coptic monastery building was necessarily an act of disrespect.

“When they built this monastery, they did not know that they were reusing the sarcophagus of Ramses, because until then no one could read the hieroglyphs for about 500 years.”

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

The only remaining mystery now, Pairaudeau said, is where in Abydos Menkheperre was originally buried.

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

“It may be completely destroyed.” But I can’t discount the idea that they might have reused 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, might still be intact somewhere. in Abydos.”

In 1817, some 3,000 years after the death of Ramses II, 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 the inscription on the plinth of the shattered, fallen statue, part of the poem reads: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look at my works, mighty one, and despair! Nothing but that remains, around the decay of that colossal wreck. Boundless and bare, lonely and flat, the sand stretches far away.”

In fact, not only has the fame of Ramesses II increased in the 3,236 years since he was buried in the Valley of the Kings, he has also become the most visited of the ancient pharaohs.

In 1976, after it was noticed that his mummified remains were beginning to decompose, Ramesses was sent to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris for restoration, along with a whimsical “passport” giving him the occupation of “King (Deceased)”.

Since then, it has been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors to numerous exhibitions around the world, including a return visit to Paris last year.

If the lid of his sarcophagus were discovered, he could be reunited with the mummy and her coffin, and the Ozymandias show would undoubtedly grow in popularity, continuing to confound Shelley’s poetic prediction that the Great Ancestor would be forgotten, swallowed up by the sands of time.

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