The Temple and Mines at Serabit el-Khadim
In the Sinai
by Jimmy Dunn
In the Sinai
by Jimmy Dunn
SERABIT El KHADIM.
While the Egyptians seem to have known, crossed and visited the Sinai even before the dynastic period, we have found little evidence of their building activities in the region. Of course, inhabitable areas are usually small, and scarce, and so have been inhabited and built upon continuously over the ages. It is probable that what was built has been built over many times. Today, wondering through the Sinai and viewing its unusual landscape, it is not difficult to imagine a land rich in minerals. Egyptians discovered its mineral wealth very early on, perhaps at the beginning of the dynastic period. Archaeologists have found that the very earliest known settlers in the Sinai, about 8,000 years ago, were miners. Drawn by the region's abundant copper and turquoise deposits, these groups slowly worked their way southward, hopping from one deposit to the next. By 3500 BC, the great turquoise veins of Serabit el-Khadim (Khadem) had been discovered.
The ancient mining complex of Serabit el-Khadim lies on a small plateau north of modern Al-Tor. It is located about halfway down the western coast, around 40 kilometers due east of Abu Zanima, and about ten miles from Wadi Mughara. It was one of the most important sites for the Egyptians on the peninsula. Today, it is not difficult to reach the Serabit el-Khadim area, though the trip must be made by jeep. There are no paved roads to the base of the mountain. From a parking area, one takes a well marked path that has an elevation gain of over 2600 feet above sea level and is somewhat rigorous Although many of the region's pharaonic reliefs were destroyed by a British attempt to re-open the mines in the mid-nineteenth century, along the path to the temple are a number of engravings that were written by the ancient minors. Some of the most interesting portray the ships that would carry the turquoise to Egypt. There is also an excellent bas relief of King Sekhemkhet on the east face of the plateau, revealing him smiting Egypt's enemies. Other antiquities are found along the path, including ancient tunnels, miner's huts and stele.
Serabit el-Khadim, a large, systematic operation was set up that would flourish for thousands of years. It was important enough to the Egyptians that a number of policing actions and protective measures were taken to protect the mines throughout most of Egypt dynastic period To mine the turquoise, the Egyptians would hollow out large galleries in the mountains, carving at the entrance to each a representation of the reigning pharaoh who was the symbol of the authority of the Egyptian state over the mines. A huge quantity of turquoise over that period was mined, carried down the Wadi Matalla to a garrisoned port located at el-Markha (south of Abu Zenima), and loaded aboard ships bound for Egypt. The turquoise was then used both for jewelry and to make color pigments for painting.
A general view of the temple site at Serabit el-Khadim
Hieroglyphic signs were used to write their West Semitic names and keep correct accounts of their days of labor. This was a great motivation for them to learn the sound signs that phonetically articulated their names. Very soon they had an Alef-Bet with which they could record their Proto-Canaanite language. The script they developed is called Proto-Sinaitric (First-Sinaitic) and the language was a Pan-Canaanite language often called Old Hebrew
The Serabit El Khadim temple looks like a double series of steles leading to an underground chapel dedicated to the Hathor Goodness. Much of the temple's large number of sanctuaries and shrines were dedicated to Hathor, who among her many other attributes, was the patron goddess of copper and turquoise miners. It is the only temple we know of built outside mainland Egypt and mostly dedicated to Hathor. The earliest part of the main rock cut Hathor Temple, which has a front court and portico, dates to the 12th Dynasty The temple was probably founded by Amenemhet III, during a period of time when the mines were particularly active. The 12th Dynasty was a period of considerable mineral wealth for Egyptians and some of the finest jewelry from Egypt's past have been discovered in the tombs of 12th Dynasty women.
This older part of the temple was enlarged upon and extended by none other then Queen Hatshepsut, along with Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III during the New Kingdom. This was a restoration period for the mining operations after an apparent decline in the area during the Second Intermediate Period. These extensions are unusual for a temple in the manner in which they angled to the west off of the earlier structure.
On the north side of the of the temple is a shrine dedicated to the pharaohs who were deified in this region. On one wall of the shrine are numerous stele. A little to the south of the main temple we also find a shrine dedicated to the god of the eastern desert, Sopdu, which is smaller then the northern shrine.
As a Tourist Destination
Serabit el-Khadim is not a particularly easy place to find or to reach. Indeed, one will probably not find it without the aid of a knowledgeable guide and then, some stemma is needed to reach the actual site of the temple. The local tribes are responsible for protecting the site from looting and are open to assisting tourists and hiring out as guides. Furthermore, a significant segment of the route leading to the area off of the western Sinai coastal highway is not paved. One must climb up a long series of steps to the top of a mountain and then trek back along mountain ridges. It takes about two hours for the average person to reach the temple. Bring lots of water, as there is none to be found along the route. As a pharaonic tourist attraction, Serabit el-Khadim is not nearly as spectacular as many of the Nile Valley sites, though the surrounding area is interesting. It should be considered more of a trek adventure than a pure pharaonic sightseeing tour.