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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. .

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

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

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

Sarcophagus of Merenptah. (Photo courtesy of Frédéric Payraudeau)

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

The discovery seemed to solve a mystery – the place where Menkheperre had been buried. It was previously thought that he must have been buried near his power base at Thebes, in a yet-to-be-discovered tomb. Now, it seemed, he had been buried in Abydos.

The existence of a fragment of his sarcophagus, placed in the floor of the monastery, as the authors of a paper published in 2016 assumed, owed something to “the persecution of the local pagan temples” by Apa Moses and was “perhaps the result of the fervor with which his followers dismantled the structures and the pagan tombs of Abydos.”

And this is where the story could have ended, if not for Frederic Payraudeau, an Egyptologist at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

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

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 overwritten and suggested that the original owner may have been an unknown royal prince.

The fragment, made of hard red granite, represented “a far greater allocation 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 of this period,” Payraudeau said, “and I wasn’t really convinced by reading the inscriptions.”

He added: “We already suspected that this fragment came from a king’s sarcophagus, 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.

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

“But this is an exception, and it would have been very strange for a prince to have used this text—and especially a prince we had not heard of.”

The photos published with the work 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 a king.”

The royal cartouche or inscription, including the name of Ramses. (Photo courtesy of Frédéric Payraudeau)

A cartouche is an oval frame, pointed at one end, containing a name written in hieroglyphs, which was used to indicate royalty. It read “User-Maat-Ra Setep-en-Ra”.

Roughly translated as “The justice of Ra is strong, the chosen one of Ra”, it was the throne name of one of the most famous rulers of ancient Egypt – 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 is known to subsequent generations of rulers and theirs. subjects as the “great ancestor”.

The royal cartouche or inscription, including the name of Ramses (Photo courtesy: Frédéric Payraudeau)

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

Upon 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, moved many of the remains to be kept in a secret tomb in Deir El- Bahari, a necropolis on the Nile opposite the Nile. the city of Luxor.

There they sat undisturbed for nearly 3,000 years until their chance discovery by a goatherd around 1860.

It wasn’t until 1881 that Egyptologists learned of the extraordinary discovery, and there, among more than 50 mummies of pharaohs, each labeled with details of who they were and where they had originally been buried, was Ramses II.

It was in a beautifully carved cedar coffin. Originally, it would have usually been placed in a gold coffin – lost in antiquity – which in turn would have been housed in an alabaster sarcophagus, which was then placed in a stone sarcophagus.

Small fragments of the alabaster sarcophagus, which had probably been smashed by looters, were found in its original tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Of the granite sarcophagus, however, there was no sign – until now.

Tomb robbing and repurposing of sarcophagi was a result of social and economic upheaval in ancient Egypt. “The sarcophagus was intended to be used by the owner for eternity,” Payraudeau said.

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

“This was the Third Intermediate Period, which saw much looting of the necropolises, as the Egyptians knew that gold, silver and other valuable materials such as wood were found in the tombs.”

In addition to the usual grave robbers, even the authorities took part in the robberies, recycling sarcophagi for their own use. This is how Menkheperre came to be buried in a sarcophagus previously used by Ramses II.

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

“When they built this monastery, they didn’t know they were reusing the sarcophagus of Ramses, because by then nobody could read hieroglyphics for about 500 years.”

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

The only mystery that now remained, Payraudeau said, was where Menkheperre of Abydos was originally buried.

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

“Maybe it was completely destroyed. But I can’t shake the idea that maybe they reused the parts of the sarcophagus that were suitable for use as paving and so on, and that the lid, which would have been much harder 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 seemingly eternal power of the great king that the Greeks the ancients knew him as Ozymandias turned to dust. .

Reflecting on an inscription on the pedestal of a collapsed, fallen statue, part of the poem reads: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Behold my deeds, ye mighty and desperate! Nothing remains outside, around the decay, of that colossal wreck. Boundless and empty, the lonely, flat sands stretch far away.”

In fact, Ramses II’s fame has not only grown in the 3,236 years since he was buried in the Valley of the Kings, but he has also become the most traveled of the ancient pharaohs.

In 1976, after it was noticed that his mummified remains were beginning to decay, Ramses was sent to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris for restoration, along with a whimsical “passport” that gave him the occupation of “king (deceased)”.

It has since been seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors at numerous exhibitions around the world, including a return visit to Paris last year.

If the lid of his sarcophagus were discovered, it could be reunited with his mummy and coffin, and the Ozymandias spectacle would no doubt become increasingly popular, further confounding Shelley’s poetic prediction that the Great Ancestor would be forgotten, swallowed by sand. of time.

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