The ‘Falcon Shrine’ Reveals Its Wonders

Fallen architectural elements lying in front of one of the entrances to the shrine. Photo credits: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project

Excavations at a Greco-Roman seaport in the Egyptian Eastern desert have revealed a religious complex from the Late Roman Period (4th to 6th centuries CE) named the “Falcon Shrine” by researchers, and located within the Northern Complex, one of the most important buildings of the city of Berenike at that time.

The Sikait Project research team, directed by Professor Joan Oller Guzmán from the Department of Antiquity and Middle Age Studies at the UAB (Universitat Autonoma De Barecelona) with financial support from the Fundación PALARQ and the necessary permits from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, recently published in American Journal of Archeology the results obtained from the January 2019 excavation season at the ancient seaport of Berenike, located in Egypt’s Eastern desert.

General view of the Falcon Shrine. Photo credits: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project

The site, which was excavated by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology and the University of Delaware, was a Red Sea harbour founded by Ptolomy II Philadelphus (3rd century BCE) and continued to operate into the Roman and Byzantine periods, when it was turned into the main point of entrance for commerce coming from Cape Horn, Arabia and India.

During the Late Roman Period, from the fourth to sixth centuries CE, the city seemed to be partially occupied and controlled by the Blemmyes. They were a nomadic group of people from the Nubian region who were expanding their domains throughout the greater part of Egypt’s Eastern desert. The Northern Complex is fundamental in providing clear evidence of a link with the Blemmyes people, thanks to the discover of inscriptions to some of their kings or the aforementioned Falcon Shrine.

Researchers were able to identify a small traditional Egyptian temple, which after the 4th century was adapted by the Blemmyes to their own belief system. Professor Joan Oller Guzmán said:

“The material findings are particularly remarkable and include offerings such as harpoons, cube-shaped statues, and a stele with indications related to religious activities, which was chosen for the cover of the journal’s current  issue.”

Pedestal with cube statue and other votive elements. Photo credits: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project

The most remarkable consecrated element found was the arrangement of up to 15 falcons within the shrine, most of them headless.

Although burials of falcons for religious purposes had already been observed in the Nile Valley, as had the worshipping of individual birds of this species, this is the first time researchers discovered falcons buried within a temple, and accompanied by eggs, something completely unprecedented. In other sites, researchers had found mummified headless falcons, but always only individual specimens, never in group as in the case of Berenike.

The stele contains a curious inscription, reading:

“It is improper to boil a head in here”

which far from being a dedication or sign of gratitude as normally corresponds to an inscription, is a message forbidding all those who enter from boiling the heads of the animals inside the temple, considered to be a profane activity. 

Stele with the scene of the falcon god and an inscription in Greek reading: “It is improper to boil a head in here”. Photo credits: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project

Professor Joan Oller Guzmán explained:

“All of these elements point to intense ritual activities combining Egyptian traditions with contributions from the Blemmyes, sustained by a theological base possibly related to the worshipping of the god Khonsu”.

“The discoveries expand our knowledge of these semi-nomad people, the Blemmyes, living in the Eastern desert during the decline of the Roman Empire”.

The study results, published in the American Journal of Archaeology, describes the excavation of a religious complex from the Late Roman Period (between the fourth and sixth centuries) with unprecedented discoveries linked to the presence of the Blemmyes, a nomadic people. Click on this link: A Falcon Shrine at the Port of Berenike (Red Sea Coast, Egypt)

Research team. From left to right: Delia Eguiluz Maestro, Joan Oller Guzmán, David Fernández Abella and Vanesa Trevín Pita. Photo credits: The Berenike Project/Sikait Project

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