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Chapter 3


"The oldest town of all Egypt"

This is how the 16th.century Moorish historian-geographer Leo Africanus described Akhmim in circa 1526.

The Akhmimis have built on the rubble of their ancestors since pre-Dynastic times where the whole town rests on a mound of remains, so certainly old enough to have functioned in three different societies, Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman and Islamic.
The Greek geographer Strabo (c 63 BC BC) cited stone masonry and linen weaving as ancient industries here, and in fact legend has it that the Pharaonic kings were buried in shrouds of Akhmim silk. In addition, the 18th.Dynasty Ay (who married Tutankhamuns widow and reigned 1323-1319 BC) and the 5th.century Greek poet Nonnus, were both born in Akhmim.

The ancient Egyptians referred to Akhmim as IPW. It was also known as Khent-min from its protective deity the ithyphallic fertility god min, hence the Coptic name Shmin and the Arabic Akhmim.

During the Pharaonic period Akhmim was the capital of the important ninth nome or province, which were administrative divisions of Egypt and rooted in the early Dynastic period. There were 42 nomes in total, 22 in Upper Egypt and 20 in Lower Egypt, being fixed by the 5th.Dynasty, where their lengths (fig.6) along the river Nile are recorded in the kiosk of Senwosret I at Karnark. The 20 nomes of Lower Egypt were not established until the Graeco-Roman period. The actual total of 42 nomes had a symbolic value, the 42 judges of the dead, while the early Christian, Clement of Alexandria writing in the second century AD, stated that the Egyptians had 42 Sacred books.
Each capital possessed an ensign, symbol or standard, often incorporating animals, birds or fetishes sacred to local deities. In Akhmim it was the ithyphallic god Min, a symbol of male potency and serving also as protector of the mining areas in the Eastern desert. These emblems were worn on the heads of rows of nome personifications that decorate the base areas of temples. The characteristic Pharaonic depictions of Min show him as a mummiform human figure, holding his erect phallus in his left hand, while his right hand is raised in a smiting (fig.7) (Min was often called Horus raising the arm. Min was already being worshipped in the late Predynastic period (c 3100 BC), where his emblem was constructed of a strange shape consisting of a horizontal line embellished with a central disc, and flanked by two hemispherical protrusions, thus denoting mnw. This was often interpreted as a door bolt, a barbed arrow, a lightening bolt and a pair of fossil shells, and often depicted on pottery vessels, maceheads and palettes.

The concept of fossil shells may have their origins in geology as Newbery (1912) not only refers to Akhmim as the Thunderbolt city (Wainwright 1931), but also offers an explanation on this shell theory. When Newberry first visited Akhmim in the January of 1912, he noticed in the limestone hills a vast amount of Cephalopoda and therefore conjects from this the possibility that the cult object of Min consisted of a pair of fossil Cephalopoda. Ammonites were another form of the fossil Cephalopoda and was shown in the first century AD as the Hammonis cornu, and thought to be the most sacred stones of Ethiopia (Pliny).
The initial inscription for Min was seen on a cosmetic palette in the second half of the fourth millennium BC, found in a tomb of El-Amrah near Abydos (approximately 50 kilometres south of Akhmim and the cult centre of the god Osiris) and in a formula in the Pyramid texts (Pyr. 424b). Here a god called mnw is mentioned, the only phonetic writing available, shows the Greek name to be correct. Comparing the emblem further, Flinders Petrie also identifies it with the bony appendix of a sawfish and two shells of the Peterocera species, so confirming the gods origins in the Eritrean seas bordering on the Red Sea. (the punt that Egyptian texts associate with the god). While Budge on the other hand preferred to see it as a symbol of sexual relations, where the curved staff, often associated with the emblem, represents the male sexual organ, thereby connecting the ithyphallic nature of Min.
Wainwright advanced a theory that the sign represented a thunderbolt (Wainwright 1931), placing Min amongst the storm gods, common in the Near East, where frequent associations of Min with introduced Asiatic gods in later periods seemed to confirm this idea. In Egypt, Min was associated with Amun, related to Zeus the Greek storm god, and Horus related to Apollo the Greek light god. Following this relation Wainwright concludes that Mins iconography associates him with the gods of the Greek and other worlds who ruled over the sky, light, air, wind and storm. He further maintains that Akhmim was a city founded, on a place full of thunderbolts in actual fact a meteor site. Possibly borne out with the concept that Zeus and Ammon were closely connected with meteorites, and that they represented the weapon of the sky god. Circa 2,400 BC, contrary to the earlier Old Kingdom practice of ruling from Memphis, the ancient capital in Lower Egypt, a more de-centralised system was introduced to improve administration. The people chosen to administer these important provinces often lived, and were buried, in their allocated Nome rather than residing in the capital and being interred near the pyramid of their king. Akhmim was one such centre, and, as work by Kanawati (1988) subsequently showed from the discovery of the tomb of Hem-Min, a governor of Egypt in the 6th.Dynasty, circa 2345 BC. The evidence revealed that Hem-Min was the first man to hold this recently introduced office outside the capital, where his responsibilities were to inspect all of the 22 provinces of Upper Egypt. The information discovered provides important material to understanding the administration system of the Southern provinces in the Old Kingdom.

By the New Kingdom, (1550-1069 BC) Min had become the primeval creator god manifestation of Amun.

Akhmim was one of the earliest centres of Christianity, where the temples were ransacked for building blocks in the fourth century AD to construct the nearby Red and White Monasteries, among the oldest in the world. The White Monastery, or Deir al-Abyad, is so called from the colour of its masonry, and is also known as Deir Anba Shenouda from its fifth century AD founder, while the Red Monastery, or Deir al-Ahmar (built in dark red brick) is attributed to Saint Bishoi.

During the Islamic period (11th.century AD) Akhmim became a provincial capital under Fatimid Calip al-Mustansir, while in the 18th.century AD it was incorporated into the former province of Jirga (Girga), where the town was sacked during the Mamluk wars. Few of the stone buildings have survived from the Dynastic Period due to widespread plundering in the 14th.century AD, while much of the funerary equipment that did survive was severely plundered during the 1870-80s and subsequently dispersed among various collections throughout the world. In general, this situation seems to have come about by the number of scholars who were attracted to Akhmim at this time, and, combined with the haphazard and uncontrolled digging, brought Akhmim to the attention of tomb robbers. Gangs now systematically looted the cemeteries and in the period AD 1885-1895 Akhmim became a flourishing antiquities market.

Breasted even spent part of his honeymoon here (1895-6) while collecting for the Oriental Institute in Chicago.The cemeteries seemed exhausted, but local dealers, loathe to lose their flourishing trade embarked on a new enterprise, as French Egyptologist Georges Daressey reported in 1899 while on a tour of inspection for the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.

Akhmim has become an important centre for the production of antiquities. The specialities this year are imitation Old Kingdom wooden statues and mummy labels.

However, excavations of the cemeteries for the Christian period, AD 395-641, in the late 19th.century yielded many examples of wool, linen and silk fabrics, which have formed an important part of a basis for a chronological framework for the study of textiles between the Hellenistic and Islamic periods c 300 BC AD 700.

Today, the modern town of Akhmim is a market and processing centre for cereals, sugarcane, dates and cotton. In addition textiles, clothing, pottery and bricks are manufactured here, while the ancient weaving tradition has been revived also.
A further interesting facet of the area is the abundance of vintage taxi vehicles, almost in perfect original order, and obviously well cared for.

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