WADI SHAYKH ‘ALI
A rather narrow and inaccessible ravine running roughly north-south into the Dishna plain in the area of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt; it apparently was named after the nearby village of Shaykh ‘Ali. Opening off the northwestern perimeter of the desert and flanked by the Jabal al-Tarif to the west and the Jabal Abu Mina to the east, this wash leads back some distance into the Eastern Desert. Its rugged character and the northerly direction of access suggest that, unlike major wadis such as Wadi Hammamat and Wadi Qina, Wadi Shaykh ‘Ali most likely was not used as an overland commercial route to the Red Sea.
This wadi yields little evidence of previous use or occupation other than the anticipated fossils from prehistoric times, an unfinished obelisk and cut stone observable part of the way up the wadi, and the most important archaeological feature of the wadi: a site, located approximately 2 miles (3 km) from the mouth, painted and incised with inscriptions. The numerous inscriptions are located in a compact area on the western overhang of the canyon wall, on both the exposed exterior and the underside of the overhang. While some modern Arabic inscriptions show that local villagers occasionally left their marks on the wadi walls, the site is dominated by dozens of Coptic graffiti.
The Wadi Shaykh ‘Ali provides evidence of at least two periods of occupation or usage: Coptic and Old Kingdom. Painted on the face of the overhang in red paint, and occasionally scratched into the soft stone with a sharp instrument, are many Coptic graffiti of a monastic sort. Such pious graffiti are well known from other locations (cf. W. E. Crum and H. G. Evelyn-White, The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes, Vol. 2, pp. 141-47, 326-30 [New York, 1973]).
A multitude of graffiti in Sahidic Coptic contain the names of Phoibammon, Pekin, Fakire, Solomon, David, Philotheus son of David, Chael, and Stauros. Their inscriptions are similar in content. “Pray for me in love” is customary. “Jesus Christ, help me” also occurs.
A stone chip 8 x 2 x 1 inches (20 x 5 x 2.5 cm) found just below the western overhang of Wadi Shaykh ‘Ali is inscribed in red paint; the paint traces on the sides and bottom of the chip show it to have been inscribed after it had broken off. It may have functioned in a manner analogous to papyri and ostraca left in temples and holy centers. The bottom line, in Sahidic Coptic, reads: “I am Archeleos. Remember in love.”
Additional indications of a Coptic presence at this location include an incised representation of a monk named John. Shown as orant, with beard and robe, the monk is identified by means of a Coptic inscription that seems to read “I am faithful John” or “I, John, am faithful.” Furthermore, a number of Byzantine bricks and many Byzantine shards have been found, including some resembling the fourth/fifth century painted red slipware found throughout the region.
Other graffiti from the wadi indicate a much earlier Egyptian presence at this overhang. Drawings scratched into the rock depict hunters and animals such as the ibex, lion, and ram, along with boats (with poles or oars) and hunting enclosures. In one instance a lion, with mane, is portrayed attacking a hunter, with spear; the lion appears to be overcoming the hunter. These hunting graffiti have a simple, direct character, and one might speculate that they could be prehistoric in origin, since they resemble prehistoric and predynastic drawings found at such Upper Egyptian sites as Hierakopolis and decorations on such pottery as late Naqadah ware.
Although such a conclusion is not impossible, further evidence from the Wadi Shaykh ‘Ali suggests a date during the early historical period, for among the hieroglyphs that are identifiable on the western wall of the wadi is a cartouche of Menkaure, the famous pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty and the builder of the third great pyramid at Giza.
A tentative interpretation of these data from the wadi suggests the following scenario. Early stonecutters and quarriers used the wadi (confirmed by the obelisk and worked stone therein). Hunters naturally accompanied them, and scratched typical hunting graffiti onto the western face of the wadi cliff, where the overhang provided shade from the afternoon sun and perhaps shelter for the evening. Many centuries later, Coptic monks must have happened upon the scenes and rededicated the site, in their usual fashion, by means of Christian graffiti while possibly using it for pilgrimage or retreat.
Whether or not a substantial installation, or even a burial of a holy personage, existed at the Coptic site is impossible to say without further exploration.
- Meyer, M. W. “Wadi Sheikh Ali Survey, December 1980.”
- American Research Center in Egypt Newsletter 117 (1982):22-24.
- . “Archaeological Survey of the Wadi Sheikh Ali: December 1980.” Göttinger Miszellen 64 (1983):77-82.
MARVIN W. MEYER