Ancient History & Civilisation


From Topography to Cosmos: Ancient Egypt’s Multiple Maps

I. Introduction

Modern societies are inundated with maps, rendered strictly to scale and often very detailed. They range in subject from local street maps to the entire globe—where already the conflict between representation and topographical accuracy results in a significant visual distortion. Such maps are each “a highly refined spatial diagram depending on histories of development of such techniques as surveying” (Quirke 2003, 171). Among the many functions of maps, two are perhaps especially important. Maps can provide detailed guides enabling individuals and groups to “find their way,” if necessary in a highly detailed mode, over expanses of terrain or water, be they small or very large. Maps are also fundamental records of property and ownership, at many scales, depicting states and empires down to individual residences and plots of land. Ancient societies were always interested in this first function—“finding the way”—and often the second: who owned what; what yield, income or tax could (or should) specific plots, regions, provinces, or states deliver; who was responsible for maintenance, improvement, or sometimes destruction, and on what scale and with what topographical specificity. In the words of one early second-millennium pharaoh referring to his Nubian opponents to the south of Egypt (fig. 2.1): “I have . . . gone to their wells, killed their cattle, cut down their grain, set fire to it,” all with reference to a specific region, even if not defined here. In this same context, the significance of a specific geographic interface, the frontier that divides and defends spatially defined polities and cultural realms, is reiterated. The same king states: “As for any successor of mine who shall maintain this border [with the Nubians] which my majesty has made, he is my son, born to my majesty. The true son [i.e., successor] is he who champions his father, who guards the border of his begetter. . . . Now my majesty has had an image made of my majesty, at this border which my majesty has made, in order that you maintain it, in order that you [my successors] fight for it!” (Lichtheim 2006a, 119–20).

FIGURE 2.1 Map of Egypt and northeast Africa: regions and sites referenced in the text. Original drawing.

Despite such shared interests between past and present, ancient societies are almost embarrassingly notorious for their seeming lack of interest in detailed maps drawn to scale at almost any level. Egypt provides a particularly interesting context for questions relevant to this phenomenon. It is natural to enquire first whether Egyptians did possibly produce equivalents to modern maps, but examples have not yet been discovered. This is no idle question, because excavation in Egypt has typically focused on temples and tombs. Both contexts are rich in art and texts, and—in the case of tombs—artifacts of both specifically mortuary and “daily life” significance. However, the functions and “decorum”¹ of such contexts would militate against the depiction or inclusion of topographically accurate maps or plans in our modern sense.

In this connection it is noteworthy that the examples of Egyptian maps and plans closest to modern concepts have come from settlement sites rather than temples or tombs, and settlement site archaeology is rarely carried out in Egypt. These items are better described as “quasi maps” (or plans), but they nevertheless show an interest in topographical or constructional detail similar to that of early modern maps and plans, and sometimes this is provided with specific dimensions (length and breadth), although seemingly never rendered to scale. However, even in settlement sites the survival of such material is problematic, especially for examples drawn on papyrus, a favorite and durable material for everyday use, but very vulnerable over the millennia to decay, not to mention damage by humans, insects, and water. In any event, relatively accurate maps and plans would be of interest only to specialist groups and would not have been widespread for the most part. All the most detailed quasi maps and quasi plans so far known from ancient Egypt definitely or probably come from a quite unusual place, occupied by an unusual community.

Deir el Medina—today a fully excavated and relatively well preserved site—is one such instance. It was a village built to house the workers of the royal tombs, and their families, throughout the second half of the second millennium. It is located at Western Thebes (opposite the modern town of Luxor), where almost all pharaohs of the New Kingdom (see table 2.1) were buried in usually large, tunnel-like and richly decorated rock-cut tombs.² The artisans housed in this village were responsible for cutting out the tombs, according to prescribed plans and elevations, and covering their walls and ceilings with seemingly endless programs of scenes and texts on painted plaster or in painted relief. Accordingly, the community’s internal structure was quite complex. It included scribes involved in administration, record keeping, and (to some degree) creative tasks, as well as foremen and draftsmen, all no doubt literate, as well as stonemasons, gypsum makers, and sculptors. Moreover, the artisans’ and scribes’ activities were not confined to the royal tombs alone; from time to time, they might work on other state monuments or participate in working parties sent to recover desirable stones for architectural or sculptural use from the granite quarries of Aswan or from the graywacke and other quarries of the eastern desert, especially along the Wadi Hammamat. As we shall see, these interests involved, on the one hand, the production of relatively detailed plans (with some details in elevation) of either the projected or completed tombs of specific pharaohs and, on the other, the creation of at least one map (and implicitly others) which, while not to scale, depicted in considerable topographical detail a stretch of the Wadi Hammamat approximately 12.25 km long. While this surviving map—the so-called Turin papyrus map—manifestly lacks a consistent scale, a recent study notes that its scale “appears to only vary between 50 and 100 m for each 1 cm on the original scroll, and this is perhaps better than might be expected for this earliest example of cartography.”³

Table 2.1. Chronological Table, Including Rulers Mentioned in the Text

II. Maplike Aspects of Temple Art

Artisans and scribes at Deir el Medina and elsewhere would not be the only sector of society likely to be interested in cartographic representations akin in significant ways to our modern concept of a map. There was no doubt the same interest among the upper echelons of Egypt’s administrative and military classes. However, the remains of their offices, libraries, and archives have rarely been located and excavated except, significantly, at Tell el Amarna, which was built and occupied for a brief period as the royal capital of the monotheistic king Akhenaten (ca. 1353–1336). Even though its administrative sector has been located and excavated, unfortunately, it was nearly cleaned out when the town was abandoned, and almost nothing of its presumably once abundant papyrus archive survives. Ironically, what has survived is a dump of clay tablets, letters written in the cuneiform script and in a version of Babylonian—the lingua franca of the day—from foreign courts throughout the Levant, the Near East, and Anatolia. With their content no doubt translated into Egyptian and transferred onto papyrus, these unwieldy originals were then discarded rather than moved—to become a treasure trove for historians today, though also an indication of how much priceless data (some perhaps topographical) was once produced at the upper levels of Egyptian civilization but survives, or at least is discovered, so rarely.

That such high-level archives might have included significant cartographic components—perhaps similar to the Wadi Hammamat map from Deir el Medina but covering much more extensive territories—is indicated by a few highly unusual representations surviving in the art of ancient Egyptian temples. Although controlled by the somewhat rigid, nonrealistic conventions of Egyptian art (Robins 1997, chap. 1) and by the particular kind of decorum operative within temple contexts, these representations appear likely to relate to more maplike ones on papyrus that were part of official archives. Let us consider two instances.

The first and most striking comprises several versions of the same event from temples of Ramesses II (ca. 1279–1213), a seemingly massive clash between Egyptian forces and a Hittite-led coalition in the vicinity of Kadesh, an ancient fortified town in Syria (in Ramesses’s day actually identified as “Kadesh the Old”). The archaeological site and its surrounding terrain are still observable and provide a basic cartographic structure to the representations, which vary significantly in detail. Each representation combines topography and events distributed over time in a complex and dynamically stimulating way, but their organization is structured around a hieroglyph-like rendering of the fortified city of Kadesh, flanked on three sides by the Orontes River and a tributary stream flowing into it. In the representation in Ramesses’s temple at Abu Simbel, for example (fig. 2.2), the lower registers depict his camp in the vicinity of Kadesh and involve two events. Prior to the battle he interrogates captured Hittites, and subsequently he addresses his officers. The camp is also shown under attack by Hittite forces the next (?) day, the day of the battle itself, while beyond, a support force of Egyptian troops arrives to help in achieving victory for Egypt. In the registers above, Kadesh and its flanking streams are placed close to the center. On the left, Ramesses charges the Hittites and their allies (he was almost cut off, a detail not rendered in the reliefs, although described in the accompanying texts); some are displayed as corpses in the river, although one vignette shows the “Prince of Aleppo” being saved from a watery grave (elsewhere he is shown upended so as to drain the water suffocating his body). To the right, further Egyptian troops arrive after the battle and join in rounding up the prisoners and counting the enemy dead; here Ramesses, standing in his chariot, receives a report on the numbers involved.

FIGURE 2.2 The Battle of Kadesh in Abu Simbel Temple. Reproduced from James Breasted, The Battle of Kadesh: A Study in the Earliest Known Military Strategy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903), pl. VI.

Unlike his superheroic proportions elsewhere, the scale on which Ramesses is represented in this last instance is surprisingly miniaturized, and even the counterpoised image of him charging into battle is smaller scale than that of him enthroned as pharaoh in the lower register. These modulations of kingly scale reinforce the maplike character of the representation, while the proportions of the totality of the relevant upper registers (a height-to-length ratio of 1:7.3) are reminiscent of the long, narrow roll of papyrus on which maps such as the Wadi Hammamat example from Deir el Medina (discussed further below) would be recorded. The latter’s papyrus roll appears to have had an approximate height-to-length ratio of 1:6.9 so far as the surviving portion is concerned; its original length is unknown (Harrell and Brown 1992, 83). To be sure, the two items are on very different scales, with the relevant Abu Simbel registers measuring 2.30 × 17.5 m and the papyrus approximately 0.41 by 2.82 m. Nevertheless, the basic topographical structure of the Abu Simbel representation could be envisaged as “scaled up” from a much smaller original representation on a papyrus roll.

The second representation in the art of Egyptian temples that we should consider is in fact the earlier of the two, a unique example displayed on a section of the walls of the temple built by the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (ca. 1473–1458). Its depiction of the sea route to the land of Punt, and of Punt itself, is less reminiscent of a papyrus format, although it is notable that the individual registers featuring the land of Punt are each—in the normal way—long and narrow like a papyrus; on average their height-to-length ratio is 1:8.5. A twice-repeated strip of water filled with carefully delineated fish and other aquatic creatures (all typical of the Red Sea) represents the route along the sea’s eastern shore followed by a seaborne trading expedition sent to Punt by Hatshepsut; this route originated at ancient Sawaw, near modern Quseir. Moreover, Kenneth Kitchen (1971) has demonstrated how these pictorial representations correspond to a sailing route along the eastern Red Sea shore, with various landfalls (not indicated in the representation) matching modern or recent ones. Indeed, in all likelihood there was an ancient itinerary listing the names of the relevant places, although as yet no specific such list has been identified among the many New Kingdom and later lists relating to African places and peoples contacted by Egypt (O’Connor 1982). In addition, Kitchen’s analysis (2005, 8) indicated that during the New Kingdom Punt lay in part in the general vicinity of modern Port Sudan, although later the name may have shifted to more southerly, but still coastal, regions.

As for the representation of Punt itself, it occupies an entire wall and is arranged as a series of horizontal registers (fig. 2.3). The two lowest depict productive interaction between the Egyptian expedition and the “ruler of Punt,” his family, and his people. In each case, a further water strip emblematic of the Red Sea is included in order to indicate that Punt encompassed regions actually on, or adjacent to, the seacoast. Above, four registers depict an Egypto-Puntite expedition traversing wooded regions, gathering ’ntyw incense (the most desired Puntite product) and the dark-hued “ebony” wood of the region, as well as exotic animals and other items. To find an extensive wooded landscape represented is quite unusual (in apparently hilly terrain, since sources sometimes refer to the “terraces” of Punt); more generally the depiction is full of unusual details and a seeming freshness of observation, such as the beehive-shaped huts—mounted on stilts and accessed by ladders—of the Puntites and others. As Stevenson Smith remarked (1965, 137), this “is not one of the usual generalized representations, but portrays a specific and remarkable event observed in a foreign land upon which the artist has lavished considerable detail, to emphasize its exotic character.” In fact, the maplike representation may be even more complex than is usually recognized, because the uppermost two registers include details about human types and specific fauna (giraffe and rhinoceros) indicating that they may cover savannah lands east of the hilly land of Punt, extending as far as the Nile (not depicted) and including Nubian regions such as Irem rather than just Puntite ones (O’Connor 1982, 934–40). If so, the map underlying the depiction would cover a relatively vast expanse, across varied terrain, peoples, flora, and fauna, from the Red Sea shore almost as far as the Nubian Nile. Conceivably, the representation was based upon more specifically maplike records produced by the expedition in question; it may have penetrated more deeply than the earlier ones extending back to the later third millennium.

FIGURE 2.3 The Land of Punt (and Nubian Regions?) in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahari. Reproduced from W. S. Smith, “The Land of Punt,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 1 (1962): 61. Reproduced by permission of the American Research Center in Egypt, Inc. (ARCE).

III. A “World Map” of Seti I

At times temple art was capable of producing a version of a “world map,” at least insofar as the extent of Egyptian knowledge stretched. In particular, during the New Kingdom and later (but with earlier origins), temple art often featured lists—which could be very long—of the names of peoples, regions, places, and towns or other settlements located in Nubia; Punt and contiguous regions; “Libya” (primarily Cyrenaica, although itineraries also extended along desert routes); the Levant, Near East, and Anatolia; and sometimes the Aegean, including places on the Greek mainland and Crete. In art—in both temple and in some instances mortuary contexts like depictions of an enthroned ruler on a dais embellished with such a list—the list’s individual icons take on a dynamic character. The name of each place or people is written in hieroglyphs and set within an oval frame provided with external protrusions indicating bastions. These thus represent a fortified city wall irrespective of whether an urbanized or nonurbanized people, a state or a village, is actually being indicated; rather, the walled enclosure is emblematic of any entity occupied or utilized by humans. The oval itself is typically topped by the head and torso of a foreign male, usually with his arms bound behind his back, at the elbows, to signify submission to Egypt; details of the facial features, hair treatment, and other attributes are always alien and sometimes differentiated with reference to the specific ethnocultural group named.

Such toponymic lists have been much discussed. Often, especially in the case of peoples and places in Africa including “Libya,” most names cannot be matched with specific areas or sites known today. By contrast, many places named in the Near Eastern and even Aegean segments can be identified. Indeed, the patterns they form support Donald Redford’s theory that to a significant extent (although not exclusively) such lists represent “itineraries,” that is, places distributed along land and sea routes traversed by Egyptian couriers, trading expeditions, and military contingents.Normally such lists would be maintained on papyrus in the appropriate offices of the civil and military establishments, although perhaps without the emblematic embellishments seen on temple walls. Even though the point is expressed in ironic and satirical terms, one literary genre actually makes it clear that the scribes with this responsibility were expected to have a detailed knowledge of such places and the conditions relevant to them (Wente 1990, 106–10). It could be surmised that, in addition to simple lists, annotated versions (incorporating distances, facilities, and other applicable circumstances) were kept too; perhaps even maplike representations of places distributed through specific landscapes were produced (comparable to the partial map of the Wadi Hammamat discussed below). The fact that any such representation has yet to be found is no surprise: as we have already noted, so little such archival material in general has surfaced outside exceptionally well preserved and carefully excavated sites like Deir el Medina.

In principle, archivally maintained lists of toponyms, as well as quasi maps, could be organized in the form of a world map as envisioned by the Egyptians. The possibility is reinforced by versions of just such maps on temple walls, where lists of this type were integrated into larger compositions—structured according to the specific conventions and decorum of temple art—amplifying the concept of a world map for ideological rather than propagandistic reasons. Even on external wall faces, there was limited access to these scenes, because temples were set in walled enclosures to which entry was closely controlled. The display of such world maps relates to one dimension of the multiple meanings expressed by New Kingdom and later temples. These temples were structured and decorated not only to accommodate or depict ritual, but also to establish parallelism with the order of the world, and ultimately with that of the entire cosmos of which the world was a part.

In the New Kingdom, the custom was to display scenes of cult and royal ceremonial on the wall faces of roofed and enclosed areas, whereas royal domination of foreign lands and peoples, and victories over them, were depicted on the walls of courtyards and the external faces of temples and their “pylons” (two-towered entryways). These choices had multiple significance. The pattern described represented the “world order,” with Egypt central to the world in general and dominating it, much as the entire cosmos was maintained by deities exercising their coercive power over the forces of chaos and disorder operative within the “other world.” Related to this pattern was the concept that both world and cosmic order, brought into being at the time of creation, were in effect repeatedly and endlessly re-created or re-born at certain specific moments, such as the return of the sun to the sky every twelve hours (manifesting the sun god as ruler of the universe). The king’s ritual, his government, and his military operations against foreign foes—all depicted in temple art—were an essential part of these processes. Last but not least, temples, as well as the divine beings who vouchsafed to enter into the cult statues there, were ritually protected against penetration by destructive and chaotic supernatural forces; thus, scenes of the king defeating or dominating foreigners were material manifestations of the apotropaic dimension of a temple. World maps, incorporated into temple programs of art and text, were especially evocative of these varied but interrelated ideas. Hence, they tended to be displayed around major entryways into the temple in order to indicate their particularly powerful manifestation both of apotropaic protection—doorways and gateways being most susceptible to harmful penetration—and of the world and cosmic order that the temple as a whole signified.

FIGURE 2.4 The world map of Seti I at Karnak: diagrammatic representation. Drawing by David O’Connor and Judith Shirley.

One example of the integration of toponymic lists into larger compositions that in their totality represent both maplike and more dynamic elements of a world map proves particularly revealing. Immense and once vividly colorful, this composition (fig. 2.4) covers the external face of the northern wall of the huge hypostyle hall of the Karnak temple in Thebes, modern Luxor (Heinz 2001, 242–51). Featuring Seti I (ca. 1290–1279), it incorporates various elements (fig. 2.5): traditional “smiting” scenes of the king with upraised weapon dominating, or perhaps preparing to execute, a cluster of foreign foes reduced to paralysis by terror; toponymic lists of the type described above; and actual scenes of conflict between the king, scaled up into a superhero, against various foreign peoples, lands, and even specific cities. The whole composition frames a major entryway into the temple (once sealed off by massive wooden doors encased in metal) with reference to its apotropaic signification. Similarly apotropaic are the smiting scenes adjacent to the entryway, but the incorporation of toponymic lists into these scenes sets up a complex set of relationships that turns the entire north wall face (occupying over 1,000 sq m) into an elaborate version of an Egyptian world map.

The smiting scenes include the imperial god Amun-Re both presenting the king with a sword (emblematic of his divinely ordained power over foreigners) and simultaneously leading to the king a topographical list—tethered by a rope—that comprises a traditional roster of the foreign lands and peoples constituting the world as seen by Egypt. Below, however, representations of a personified Thebes (east) and of Dedwen, a southern god (west), similarly lead topographical lists (each covering the entire world) which are to some extent more up to date and contemporary in content. Moreover, between them these figures combine the concepts of north and east (Thebes) and south and west (Dedwen), in other words, the four cardinal points expressive of the totality of the king’s domain over the entire known world.

FIGURE 2.5 Seti I smites his foes: relief at Karnak. Note lists of personified country, place, and tribal names. Temple of Amun, Karnak, Thebes. Egypt. Photo credit: Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY.

In addition, the lists associated with the smiting scenes relate to a world map expressed in more dynamic visual terms, namely, the several registers that depict Seti’s victories and fill the rest of the wall space (fig. 2.6). These are in part historical events, and in part fictitious in order to complete the map and its meaning. Thus, registers 1 and 2 relate to peoples and regions immediately east of Egypt, register 3 perhaps to a southern region, and register 5 to the Libyans located to the west; finally registers 4 and 6 refer to more remote areas, far to the north. Consequently, the depictions not only cover in pictorial form a range of foreign regions similar to that found in the topographical lists, but also, like the lists, are structured to express totality by emphasizing the cardinal points—east, south, west, and north. Moreover, the depicted regions and peoples consistently represent an ever-increasing actual distance from Egypt, as if to articulate the ever-expanding spread of Egyptian power and authority, embodied by Seti, over a vast region. Hence, the topographical lists and the scenes of royal victory compose an interrelated frame, or even an unfolding circular process, central to which are the two figures of the smiting king: he thus is both central to the entire world and completely overshadows it.

FIGURE 2.6 Geographic aspects of the world map of Seti I at Karnak. Drawing by David O’Connor and Judith Shirley.

IV. “The Oldest Known Geographic Map in the World” and Related Material

A map partially preserved in the form of fifteen fragments of papyrus in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy, is one for which the maplike representations described above form a potentially significant context; it is logical to consider it next, therefore, along with some related material. This Turin papyrus map¹⁰ is of course at a much smaller scale than the representations in temples, and preserved on a far more fragile surface. Even so, it may be prototypical for other “maps” drawn on papyrus and based, directly or indirectly, on firsthand observation of the relevant topography; such “maps” could have provided visual information for the designers and artisans who created the large-scale depictions.

It is important to be aware of some related material before turning to the map itself in detail. A plausible case has been made that the map was drawn by Amennakhte, who was once a senior “draftsman” (artist) at Deir el Medina (fig. 2.7) and was eventually promoted to be one of the two chief “scribes,” or administrators with oversight of the artisans there and their official functions and support.¹¹ Amennakhte was probably responsible for another initiative related to cartography, namely, a careful rendering of the tomb of king Ramesses IV (ca. 1156–1150),¹² one of the several kings (from Seti II to Ramesses VI) whom he served. Naturally, as a draftsman and later scribe, he was intimately familiar with this tomb (fig. 2.8 and plate 2). Other plans of royal tombs exist and are comparable to maps in their attempts to define built features in plan form. Indeed, one such plan (Turin Papyrus 1923) concerned another royal tomb—intended for Ramesses V, taken over for Ramesses VI—which would have been constructed under Amennakhte’s partial direction, although he was not responsible for this particular plan.

FIGURE 2.7 The village of Deir el Medina, western Thebes, Egypt. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

The features of these royal tomb plans no doubt reflect Egyptian mapping practices more broadly. The plans seem to be of two types (Rossi 2004, 139–47). In some cases, a plan of the projected, but as yet uncut, tomb was prepared, as on the limestone Ostracon Cairo 25184. In others, the plan was the subsequent record of a completed tomb, as in the case of Amennakhte’s plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV. In both cases, the plans were carefully divided up into the chambers and passages typical of such tombs, while doorways were indicated in elevation. In the case of the plan of Ramesses IV’s tomb (a record rather than a working plan), the king’s sarcophagus, set within wooden shrines, was actually depicted in the burial chamber. The mountain in which the tomb lay was also depicted, in elevation. In both the plans just mentioned, linear dimensions were provided, but comparison with the actual royal tombs shows that these are only approximations. Undoubtedly, so far as working plans were concerned, adjustments were made during the progress of the construction, for a variety of reasons (and the projected dimensions may have been only approximate anyway). However, even the plan that records the completed tomb of Ramesses IV does not match up exactly with its actual dimensions. No plan is drawn to scale, although the different components—chambers and passages—are shown in roughly correct comparative proportions.

FIGURE 2.8 Detail, papyrus with the plan of the tomb of Ramesses IV, Twentieth Dynasty. Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy. Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.

All these circumstances suggest that attempts at large-scale mapping (where the problems regarding placement and accurate measurement were much greater) were also likely to be quite schematic, with no exact measurements or any serious attempt at representations to scale. Nevertheless, like the royal tomb plans, such maps could have value for practical purposes, such as planning a journey or an expedition outside Egypt (for trade, mining or quarrying, or military purposes). In addition, maplike records of the Nile Valley in Upper or Lower Egypt, as well as of regions beyond it, may have held some intrinsic interest, and they could certainly be utilized in the representations of foreign regions on temple walls, for example.

FIGURE 2.9 Map of the gold mines: papyrus fragment (A in fig. 2.10 below), Twentieth Dynasty. Museo Egizio, Turin, Italy. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

We should now turn to “the oldest known geographical map in the world,” as James Harrell and Max Brown have described it (1992, 8). This Turin papyrus map (fig. 2.9 and plate 3) has been much discussed since its discovery in the nineteenth century.¹³ The treatment here follows the most recent detailed study by Harrell and Brown, although it has been pointed out that their reconstruction of this very fragmentary item—while plausible—cannot be confirmed on available evidence (Janssen 1994, 91). The area depicted is generally recognized to cover part of the Wadi Hammamat, a major geographic feature extending between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. It served as an important route followed by expeditions going to the Red Sea to launch expeditions to Punt and elsewhere, but it was also exploited by the ancient Egyptians for its minerals, especially gold and various types of stone. Harrell and Brown (1992, 100) raise the possibility that the map actually depicts the western (Nile Valley side) mouth of the Wadi Hammamat proper, and like most commentators they believe that it ends in a part of the Wadi today called Bir Umm Fawakhir.¹⁴

However, these identifications can apply only to the surviving parts of the map (Janssen 1994, 91n2). All conclusions or suggestions about what is depicted on the fifteen surviving fragments must be qualified by the possibility that the map may have continued on beyond the surviving left-hand edge; at least it can be ventured that the relevant topography does cease to be depicted near the surviving right-hand edge. In its current state, the surviving portion of the map has been reconstructed as 41 cm high and 2.82 m long (fig. 2.10). However, we might note that another famous papyrus from Deir el Medina, which seems largely (although not fully) complete, measures 25.5 cm high and evidently extended only a little further than its surviving length of 2.59 m.¹⁵ It is possible, then, that the present dimensions of the map might not be so very much smaller than its original ones.

FIGURE 2.10 Reconstruction of the topographical map of Turin. Reproduced from J. A. Harrell and V. M. Brown, “The Oldest Surviving Topographical Map from Ancient Egypt (Turin Papyri 1879, 1899, and 1969),” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 29 (1962): 84, fig. 3. Reproduced by permission of the American Research Center in Egypt, Inc. (ARCE).

With these reservations in mind, the map can be described as oriented with south at the top, that is, with its left-hand and right-hand surviving edges representing east and west, respectively. Beginning about 54 cm from the surviving right-hand edge, according to the reconstruction of the papyri, the Wadi Hammamat is shown as a single road-like feature or tract, pinkish in color and covered with colored dots to represent a pebbly, desert surface. On either side, high (proportionate to the wadi bed) rugged hills are colored black (brownish to olive) and persist for about 1.62 m. This section of the map is annotated at various points, and the black hills are referred to as the “mountain of bekheny”; bekhen-stone¹⁶ was much desired by the Egyptians and had been quarried in the Wadi Hammamat since early times,¹⁷ as well as specifically during Amennakhte’s own day. In fact, the annotations on the map include a reference (at a point about 64.8 cm east of the wadi, “entrance”) to the quarrying of bekhen-stone in year 6 of (probably) king Ramesses IV. Further on—about 1.26 m east of the wadi, “entrance”—a note identifies “the place in which they work in the great business of bekhen-stone which was established as a quarry”; nearby, an apparent quarry is actually indicated, immediately next to the wadi floor (Harrell and Brown 1992, 97). The blackish hills characteristic of this segment of the map correspond to geological reality (fig. 2.11): sedimentary Hammamat siliciclastics here would make the hills appear a “dark brownish-gray from a distance” (Harrell and Brown 1992, 96). On the ground, the black hills depicted on the map would represent about 9.3 km of the winding route of the wadi.

The single line of the wadi floor runs on east of the black hills, to be joined by another wadi floor running south to a third wadi floor running east-west for a distance. These other wadi floors are also depicted as pinkish in tone, but without the “pebbles.” High, seemingly rugged hills flank all these wadi floors, including the “main,” or pebbled, one; but these hills are consistently depicted as “moderate pink” and correspond on the ground to three different geological deposits which in actuality all appear “pinkish brown” or “pink to pale red” from a distance. Moreover, one hill is shown with radiating brown bands and is specifically identifiable as Fawakhir granite (Harrell and Brown 1992, 95–96). Annotations several times identify the pink hills as “mountains of gold,” and they are gold-bearing in reality. In fact, at the foot of the brown-streaked hill four huts are depicted and labeled “the houses of the gold working settlement.” To their north is a stela (monument), apparently set up in the open, erected by king Seti I, who is known to have been involved in providing additional water supplies in the eastern desert (Breasted 1906, 81–87); near the stela is a feature labeled “cistern.” Immediately west of the settlement, drawn on the face of an adjacent hill, is the schematic plan of a structure called the “shrine of [the god] Amun of the pure mountain,” while the hill itself is identified as “where Amun rests.”

Finally, to the east, the wadi of the gold workers’ settlement and another wadi halfway (on the map) between this wadi and the “main” wadi are both labeled “roads that lead to the sea” (the Red Sea), an important indication that the map is oriented with south at the top. On the ground, the gold workers’ settlement has been plausibly identified with Bir Umm Fawakhir,¹⁸ where there are remains of (later) gold workers’ huts as well as a Ptolemaic temple to Min that may have replaced the earlier one to Amun. Thus, the pink-hilled segment of the map—occupying a length of about 86.4 cm and overlapping slightly with the area defined by the black hills—would represent about 2.6 km on the ground along the winding route of the actual wadi.

FIGURE 2.11 Topographical and geological maps of the Wadi Hammamat. Reproduced from J. A. Harrell and V. M. Brown, “The Oldest Surviving Topographical Map from Ancient Egypt (Turin Papyri 1879, 1899, and 1969),” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 29 (1962): 84, fig. 4. Reproduced by permission of the American Research Center in Egypt, Inc. (ARCE).

Altogether, the map is an impressive cartographic record of geological reality. The configurations of the wadis as depicted correlate approximately with the actual disposition of the wadis involved, and the map’s close fit with the geological data has been elucidated by Harrell and Brown (1992, 95). Moreover, they even suggest that, by ancient standards, the map is roughly to scale. It is noteworthy that the distance, in linear measurements, “from the gold-working settlement to the mountain of bekheny,” is cited, although actual figures are not given (or perhaps have not survived). This inevitably approximate distance recalls the figures (also approximate) occurring on the plans of royal tombs—not precise, but more or less correct and hence still useful. Another fragmentary annotation apparently refers to the time-distance (“one day”) between locations; this, too, may have been a datum found on (hypothetical) large-scale maps.¹⁹ Inevitably, the purpose for which the map was created must remain a matter of speculation. Noting that Amennakhte himself may not have visited Wadi Hammamat and that the map is based on information other than his personal observation, Harrell and Brown (1992, 101–4) suggest he may have produced it either as an “aid” for expeditions actually working in Wadi Hammamat, or as a record related to one such expedition or a series of them.²⁰

Another feature which does not purport to be cartographic in nature merits attention in this connection. To the right (“west” of the assumed entrance to Wadi Hammamat), near the right-hand surviving edge of the papyrus, there is depicted a series of rectilinear black-colored objects (only partially preserved) which apparently represent individual pieces of bekhen-stone. They are disproportionately out of scale with the actual map, because the dimensions (breadth and thickness) of surviving pieces average 1.2 m; in other words, each item was substantial but relatively small. It is reasonable to assume that they are the products of a specific quarrying operation, each a neatly dressed block which has not yet been fully worked. One of the blocks (at least three were depicted) evidently had a curving top or edge, as if it was intended for a stela or perhaps a royal sarcophagus or its lid (the actual dimensions of this particular block have not survived). As Harrell and Brown observe (1992, 100), these items may form a kind of instruction or order, identifying the size and depicting the approximate form of several blocks of bekhen-stone which were to be cut from the quarry; alternatively, they may form a record—visual and measured—of the product of such quarrying. The distinction is perhaps oversubtle, since the size and purpose of the blocks would have been specified before quarrying began, and they would eventually emerge more or less in accordance with the specifications. In any event, the depiction of these items, together with the fact that the two surviving references to any actual work relate only to the extraction of bekhen-stone, suggests that the map was focused on such operations.

Why, then, the inclusion of the gold-working settlement? Conceivably, the working party—which in the reign of Ramesses IV could range between 408 and 8,362 men!—made use of the settlement and its water supply as a base, because Bir Umm Fawakhir was only about 4 km away from the actual quarry apparently used. Hence, it was helpful (as an aid) or informative (as a record) to include the settlement in the map. Even so, this hypothesis does not explain why so much additional detail was provided, in annotations, about the gold-bearing properties of the relevant hills, or why the identification of routes “to the sea” was given. So while the map may relate to a specific project, it also seems to display a wider, more “academic” interest in the geography and geology of the entire region covered.

Harrell and Brown (1992, 100; cf. 82–83) suggest that the map “may have initially resided in an administrative document pool in Deir el Medina” (along with other “maps”?) and then eventually passed into the assemblage of tombs belonging to Amennakhte’s family, tombs representing the actual location where the document was found in the nineteenth century. However, the map might equally have been a personal possession of Amennakhte from the outset, reflecting wide interests and unusual artistic capabilities on both his part and that of his close relatives. He had been a draftsman of Deir el Medina before becoming a scribe. The decorated tomb of his father Ipuy, while often conventional in subject matter, betrays a strong interest in unusual details, such as a depiction of gardeners manipulating shadufs (weighted water buckets) and an unusual and lively rendering of artisans working upon elaborate shrines. One of Amennakhte’s sons, Paneferemdjed(i), was a scribe not only of the royal tomb, but also of the “house of life” of some unidentified temple. Such a house of life was the “sacred scriptorium,” often attached to a temple and involved in “the composition and preservation of magical incantations (as well as hymns, rituals and even medical potions)” (Ritner 1993, 204–5), but it is possible that aspects of history and geography and the recovery of valuable materials utilized to build and decorate temples were of significance to it as well. In short, Amennakhte belonged to a milieu where there might have been an almost arcane interest in the kinds of data represented by the Turin papyrus map.

It is possible, however, that this map, which follows the conventions of Egyptian art and also depicts partially worked items (the bekhen-stone blocks), was in some measure seen as a basis for another kind of representation—tomb decoration perhaps for an official who wanted specific commemoration of the associated event as one of his meritorious acts, or even a document desired by the king who initiated the project. Such a document could have been on papyrus,²¹ but perhaps something even more ambitious was planned. Occasionally, in royal monumental art, royal statues and obelisks are shown being prepared and installed at the relevant temple, and once even a capstone is shown being dragged to the relevant pyramid site.²² For the actual recovery of raw materials in exotic places to be depicted is much rarer, but the images from Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el Bahari where incense and ebony are gathered in Punt (noted above) offer an example of such a theme. Was it envisaged that one or all of Ramesses IV’s quarrying projects, which were obviously considered of great importance, would be a topic included in the decoration of his vast mortuary temple (perhaps the largest ever attempted) in Western Thebes? If topography were to be included (as in the Kadesh battle scenes of Ramesses II), a map such as Amennakhte’s would be an important source of information.

V. Mythologized Cartography

Another maplike product from ancient Egypt that merits attention is the “Book of the Fayum.” Rather than being a unique, self-contained item like the Turin map, this so-called book in fact comprises the remains of several individual papyri, some of which survive only as small fragments (Beinlich 1991; Tait 2003). It combines pictorial and textual material in complex, sophisticated, and technically very accomplished ways. It is a document at first glance religious in nature, with no obvious connection to incipient forms of cartography. Anyone who used it, exposing one conveniently “readable” section after another, would find multiple representations of many deities, almost all with some form of textual labeling attached, unfolding in a seemingly endless sequence before their eyes. The best preserved version (called the “Boulaq/Hood/Amherst” papyrus after the varied collections in which the different pieces resided) is almost 10 m long. Its elaborate iconography and many small-scale texts could never have been taken in at a glance, even if it were on occasion displayed fully extended on the ground or affixed to a wall, both of which are in any case doubtful ideas.²³

Despite appearances, however, as John Tait explains (2003, 185), “the text as a whole is concerned with places, and is not a catalog of deities. Therefore, in the various horizontal depictions of deities, their names lead directly to their cult places.” These depictions include notional geographic or structural features, albeit highly schematized, such as elevated land forms, bodies of water, and buildings dedicated to the cult of a specific god or goddess. In addition, very significantly, careful analysis by several scholars (above all Horst Beinlich) has revealed that both scene and text are organized so as to correspond to and represent, in cartographically correct sequence, the chief geographic features of the Fayum basin, including its once enormous and still extensive lake, as well as many of the towns found in the Fayum at the time when the book was composed. In other words, this document can be described as a mythologized map or, even better, as a maplike representation, in religious mode, of the Fayum as a sacred landscape. Generally speaking, the comparative study of such landscapes—as well as others—in ancient times has become well developed.²⁴By contrast, the analysis of ancient Egyptian landscapes from this perspective is only in its initial stages.²⁵ In this connection, the “Book of the Fayum” is thus an important work, although one underexploited to date for the wider study of Egyptian sacred landscapes.

The Fayum is a substantial depression not far to the southwest of Cairo, separate from the Nile Valley but connected to it by an arm of the river today called the Bahr Yusuf (fig. 2.12).²⁶ It fed water into a lake now occupying the northwest sector of the Fayum, but originally possibly “little less than that of the entire Fayum” (Baines and Malek 2000, 18). Today the Fayum lake²⁷ occupies about 233 sq km; as the lake shrank, the area of available arable land increased and was cultivated, especially from 2000 BCE onward. The lake and its environs were also famous as hunting grounds, and in particular supported enormous numbers of crocodiles (also found in the Nile proper), a factor contributing to the nature of the Fayum’s chief deity, Sobek, who manifested himself in the form of a massive crocodile. Sobek, however, was linked to even more august deities, such as Re, the sun god (who was imagined to take on a crocodile form during the night when he swam toward the point at which he would arise the next day), and Osiris, lord of the dead, who embodied the potential for renewed life that Re, by his daily rebirth, actualized. In the “Book of the Fayum” Osiris is mainly regarded as manifested in the fertilizing Nile inundation: this collected in the Fayum lake every year, and its waters were identified with Osiris (Beinlich 1991, 319–24).

FIGURE 2.12 Map of the Fayum. Redrawn by the Ancient World Mapping Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, from Hermann Kees, Ancient Egypt: A Cultural Topography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 213.

The “Book of the Fayum” is essentially a panegyric dedicated to Sobek, the divine lord of both the lake and region of the Fayum. There were multiple versions of this document on papyrus. In some, the texts are in hieroglyphic and accompanied by illustrations; in others, only the text is found, and then in hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphic. In one case, selections from the hieroglyphic text (with no illustrations) were inscribed on the walls of a temple dedicated to Sobek at Kom Ombo in southern Egypt, but all the papyrus versions are believed to have originated in the Fayum itself.²⁸ Even though they all date to Egypt’s Greco-Roman period (332 BCE–395 CE),²⁹ their content manifests traditional Egyptian religious ideas and attitudes, with little influence evident from Greek or Roman culture. Notably in this connection, a decorated coffin is known with three vignettes on its inner face similar to ones in the “Book of the Fayum” and may date to Dynasty XXX (380–343), which ended some eleven years before Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, marking the start of the Greco-Roman period (Beinlich 1991, 65–66).


Turning to the Boulaq/Hood/Amherst version as our primary source for the “Book of the Fayum,” Beinlich’s analysis (1991, 132–36) has shown that the initial components³⁰ cover, in mythologized form, the Bahr Yusuf to at least as far as the vicinity of Shedyet (Greek Crocodilopolis), the capital of the Fayum,³¹ and the Fayum basin proper, along with its lake (Beinlich’s first two sections). The book thereafter becomes more specific, focusing upon particular parts of the Fayum (fig. 2.13). First there comes an elongated section (sec. 3) identified by Beinlich (1991, 308) as the lake itself, along with its banks.³² Beinlich’s section 4 focuses on Shedyet, the capital of Fayum and the location for the chief temple of Sobek in the region. It lies in the southeast quadrant of the depression and was once perhaps much closer to the lake (in, say, about 2000 BCE). Section 5 moves on to Ro-sehwy, an Egyptian place-name plausibly identified as near to (or identical with) the Greek-named Bacchias in the northeast corner of the Fayum. Section 6 is concerned with “the Acacia of the goddess Neith,” a cult center and presumably town which Beinlich suggests lay between Karanis/Kom Aushim and Sanhur, in the northeast quadrant of the Fayum. The importance of Shedyet in a Fayum-based document exalting Sobek seems self-evident, but it is less clear why these other two centers are singled out. However, Ro-sehwy had Sobek as its principal deity, while in the Fayum Neith, primarily the goddess of Sais in the delta, played in mythological terms—like some other goddesses—the role of Sobek’s divine mother (Beinlich 1991, 308, 325–26).

Finally, after a depiction (sec. 7) of the primeval gods and Nun, the book concludes with section 8. This includes a representation which some scholars interpret as including a (schematic) depiction of the actual temple of Sobek in Shedyet. However, Beinlich argues instead that the focus is actually on the Fayum lake: it is represented by a rectilinear body of water, above which is set an image hieroglyphic in character and signifying that the lake itself is to be seen as embodying the temple of Sobek at Shedyet.³³ Next to it, a “name ring” refers to an aspect of the lake too, by recording the names of the more important deities to which the lake was believed to give birth.

At first glance, the “Book of the Fayum” creates the impression of a logical sequence in geographic terms—beginning with the Bahr Yusuf and next proceeding to the entire Fayum. But thereafter it seems to move more erratically—to the Fayum lake, then southeast to Shedyet, then directly north to Bacchias, and then off roughly to the southwest, the supposed (and very approximate) location of the Acacia House of Neith. Perhaps, having first defined the overall region of the Fayum and its lake (an area definitely envisaged as extending to Shedyet at least), the designer of the book then wanted to focus down on particular entities within the region, much as we today might add specific places after having outlined a general regional map. As to the seemingly zigzag sequence that the designer comes to adopt, it may reflect a hierarchy of importance, dictating that the specific places be referred to along a scale of decreasing significance: the lake, Shedyet, Ro-Sehwy/Bacchias, and the Acacia House of Neith. Equally, however, within the particular sequencing imposed upon the composition by the format of an elongated, narrow papyrus roll, we may be seeing an expression in an Egyptian context of a phenomenon observed in some “sacred” and other conceptualized landscapes elsewhere. This involves the concept of what have been termed “nested landscapes,” “where family, kin, community, gender and age/experience would have linked land, dwellings and ceremonial spaces.”³⁴ At least insofar as public and mythical landscapes are concerned, the “Book of the Fayum” could be seen in these terms, especially since for the Egyptians the cosmos was mimicked or miniaturized at many different levels, including perhaps house and palace, certainly temples, provinces, regions, Egypt itself, and the world at large.

FIGURE 2.13 Schematic diagram: the sections of the “Book of the Fayum” correlated with Fayum topography. Drawing by David O’Connor and Laurel Bestock.


Within the set of vignettes and texts making up each of its sections, the “Book of the Fayum” interweaves complex references to notional features defining or comprising the Fayum, its religious centers (implicitly with surrounding towns expressive of social and political systems), and the mythological beings and events crucial to the functioning of the cosmos from the perspective of the Fayum and its primary deity, Sobek.

Section 1 is structured around a single long waterway rendered, as are all the other sections, with south at the top (like the Turin papyrus map). The north-south division, referred to explicitly several times in the book, is based on a notional east-west axis (in actuality, southeast to northwest) corresponding to the geographic structure of the Fayum itself, particularly the positioning of the Bahr Yusuf, its dispersal channels, and the lake (Beinlich 1991, 302–6). The waterway is named as such, along with its mythological associations—it nourishes the body of Sobek; Re, the sun god, is within it, and Osiris relates to it, as does Horus. In the subsequent vignettes it is the goddess Mehetweret who will be shown giving birth to Re, as he literally emerges from the lake filled by the waters that she embodies here. The Bahr Yusuf is depicted as a single channel, filled with water (though the requisite conventional marking for it is absent on the Boulaq/Hood/Amherst version) as well as flanked on either side by its denizens (fish below, waterbirds above) and then the vegetation growing along its banks. At top and bottom are depictions of individual deities, each linked to a specific town or place along (in the map) the south and north sides of the Bahr Yusuf to somewhat farther west than Hawara. Thus, the representation is in effect a schematic map, corresponding in form and sequence to reality but articulating the divinity which finds expression through the natural and built forms involved. At the far left, two representations of “sand slopes” perhaps signify the actual entry place of the Bahr Yusuf into the long narrow depression leading into the Fayum. Moreover, at the cosmological level, the two sand slopes protect the Fayum and its sacred beings from the aggressive god Seth, who was regarded in negative terms by the Greco-Roman period.

There follows in Beinlich’s section 2 a splendidly drawn vignette of the goddess Mehetweret (fig. 2.14). Here she is shown in human form, although she is the primeval cow goddess who gave birth to the sun god; she is also associated both with the celestial waters traversed by the sun god as his solar cycle daily unfolds around the cosmos, and probably with the Milky Way straddling the nocturnal sky. Beinlich persuasively argues that Mehetweret is identified with the arable and marshy lands of the Fayum that are irrigated by the multiple streams radiating out from the Bahr Yusuf and signified by the two waterways literally curving out of her elbows. This terrestrial expanse terminated at the great lake itself, which is represented in the next vignette of section 2.

Here the lake is seen as the place of solar rebirth, with Re literally half-emergent from its waters (fig. 2.15), as if the lake represents the amniotic sac and birth canal of Mehetweret, who is shown in the appropriate position to give birth to Re. However, the lake also embodies the interface between external chaos and the orderly interior world which constitutes the cosmos; the Fayum’s god, in the form of Sobek-Re, traverses the northern and southern parts of the lake in a celestial boat. Thus the endlessly repeated cultic regeneration of Sobek is equated with the endless rebirths of the sun, and Sobek’s eternal existence with the repeated experience of the solar cycle.

Section 3 shows the lake as an immensely elongated oval, in which are depicted deities who dwell in its mysterious depths, and then (in some versions of the book) the fish which dwell in its upper waters. At top and bottom are various cultic centers running along the banks of the lake, manifested by the relevant deity and representing actual places, not all of them necessarily towns or settlements.

FIGURE 2.14 The “Book of the Fayum,” second section, correlated with the topography of the Fayum. Reproduced from H. Beinlich, Das Buch von Fayum, Textband (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), 85, abb. 25, with permission of the publisher.

Beyond, in section 4, the next vignette focuses on Shedyet and is not very well preserved. Its most conspicuous surviving feature is a dense cluster of compartments in which the primeval deities are organized according to the province or region to which each was central; each deity has taken on the crocodile form of Sobek, as if he can manifest himself as any of these powerful beings or even all of them, and in fact assume the role of the creator god. In reality, chapels representative of these deities would have clustered together within the actual temple of Sobek in Shedyet or around it, thus assigning to the Fayum, in Beinlich’s view, “the central position . . . within the cosmos,” with the Fayum as “the egg, as the seed . . . the place of origin for the generation of Upper and Lower Egypt” (1991, 121; author’s translation). From section 4, as we have seen above, representations and text move on to two further cult centers (secs. 5–7) of significance to Sobek’s cult and mythology, and then to the concluding vignette (in sec. 8).

FIGURE 2.15 In the “Book of the Fayum,” second section (fig. 2.14, bottom right), Re emerges from the Fayum lake (center left) while Sobek-Re sails over the lake and mimics the solar cycle. Reproduced from H. Beinlich, Das Buch von Fayum, Textband (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), 85, abb. 26, with permission of the publisher.


The function of this extraordinary book, which has few if any close parallels in Egypt, has been much discussed. One point seems certain: given the book’s content, and the sophistication displayed in both text and image, its various examples are products of “houses of life” (mentioned above) that were attached to temples and no doubt encompassed a surprisingly wide range of information in their records. After all, the breadth of interests typically assigned to Egyptian deities was expansive: they focus simultaneously on cosmic issues, national concerns, and local or regional needs. All these houses of life were probably located in the Fayum itself, although other centers of Sobek’s cult surely utilized the ideas and matter represented, as evidenced by the wall inscriptions at the temple of Kom Ombo.

What use might have been made of the multiple versions of the “Book of the Fayum,” which was a “fixed and well known text” (Tait 2003, 201)? Its primary users and “readers” were presumably priests during the Greco-Roman period, within a milieu where temples and their houses of life had become the primary custodians of traditional Egyptian concepts and data, and elaborated upon them further. Tait (2003, 202) seems to regard examples of the “Book of the Fayum” as utilitarian in function (in an exalted sense): “Its mix of scribal and artistic dexterity and the eloquence of its longer textual passages were seen as essential in priestly training.” However, it remains conceivable that the book was sometimes a source of inspiration to fully professional priests interested in its matter for its own sake. Moreover, some or all of its verbal content might have been employed in temple liturgies; this can be imagined especially of papyrus rolls bearing only the text of the book, written in a hieratic script which educated priests would have found relatively easy to read, and lacking illustrations.

Even so, the most elaborate versions of the book do not readily fit any of the possible functional categories just mentioned. These versions—the lavishly and skillfully illustrated Boulaq/Hood/Amherst example among them—always have their texts in the hieroglyphic script, the one most esteemed and normally chosen to accompany images on temple walls. As both Beinlich and Tait observe, the “reader” of such a version of the book faces awkward issues—when, for example, some of the texts actually present themselves upside down due to the compositional requirements of the images to which they relate. Moreover, while some informative images—such as the vignette depicting the Fayum lake with Sobek-Re twice sailing upon it, or the concluding vignette—could be displayed in their entirety in the normal practice of reading a papyrus roll, others, such as the enormously elongated version of the lake, could not. In addition, the full richness of the illustrations, and in particular their carefully structured layout overall, are aspects of the book that could not be easily absorbed by means of normal reading practice. On the other hand, as noted above, the idea that the entire unrolled papyrus was displayed all at the same time poses problems of its own.

Altogether, these issues and the nature of such examples of the book—combining hieroglyphic text and image in a mode that recalls temple decoration without being by any means identical to it—seem to envisage a reader who would be unimpeded by any of the problems discussed, namely, the god Sobek-Re himself, an omniscient being free from such physical difficulties (fig. 2.16). Deities were provided with a multiplicity of votive objects intended to honor, attract, and placate them, above all richly inscribed and illustrated temples of their own. It is possible that the most elaborate versions of the “Book of the Fayum,” produced in the house of life, were then ceremonially deposited in the vicinity of the shrine of Sobek for his support and delectation. There each would stay indefinitely, rolled up and secure, until it was either ceremonially removed and disposed of (at intervals old votive items had to make space for new ones), or by accident it ended up in the rubbish heaps where such items were sometimes found.

FIGURE 2.16 The god Sobek from the “Book of the Fayum.” Reproduced from H. Beinlich, Das Buch von Fayum, Textband (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), 85, abb. 43, with permission of the publisher.

VI. Final Observations

The “maps” discussed above—the Turin papyrus and the “Book of the Fayum”—are the two produced by the ancient Egyptians that come closest to our modern concept of a map. Seemingly unique in each case, these “quasi maps” from Deir el Medina and the Fayum respectively are likely to have counterparts not yet discovered. More generally, they represent a strong sense of place as an orderly and recordable phenomenon that is reflected in a wide variety of the products of ancient Egyptian civilization. Some of these there has not been the space to include in the present discussion, although they should be noted—in particular, maps of the sky (based on direct observation)³⁵ and depictions of the geography of the underworld, the world of Osiris and the dead. The latter maps, found first on elite coffins and later (during the New Kingdom) on the walls of royal tombs, are purely imaginary. Nonetheless, such maps of the underworld evidently had great meaning to the Egyptians, not to mention a specificity that even involved the inclusion of dimensions, albeit on a fantastically large scale, appropriate to this mysterious realm.³⁶

For Egyptians to make maps in forms closer to modern concepts was to some degree impossible, because technical difficulties prevented accurate surveying of topography or of large-scale, built environments such as cities. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, Egyptian achievements in cartography are impressive and exciting, the more so when maps such as the Turin papyrus map and the “Book of the Fayum” are likely to constitute only the merest random samples of cartographic initiative. Particularly important is the evidence for an interest in landscape and topography in their own right, as much as in data needing to be recorded for purely utilitarian purposes. The detail of the Turin papyrus map indicates such a concern for landscape, while the “Book of the Fayum” renders topography with relative accuracy, at the same time as suffusing it with mythological significance. The better examples of Egyptian sky maps just mentioned are also noted for their accuracy as well as for the subtlety with which the temporal progressions of celestial phenomena are conveyed; by the same token, the transformation of celestial data into vividly rendered landscapes of the netherworld attests to extraordinary imagination.

Unquestionably, Egyptian maps and architectural renderings provided guidelines rather than the precise, fully detailed information found in their modern counterparts. Even so, Egyptians leave no doubt of their ability to perform, as it were, cartographically. Maps provided approximate itineraries for their expeditions abroad; they could be consulted in conjunction with the accumulated experience of Egyptian expedition leaders and their staffs, and with the use of local guides, such as the Puntites who accompanied the expedition dispatched by Hatshepsut during its remarkably deep penetration of northeast Africa. In the Nile Valley, Egyptians were capable of laying out complete towns, covering hundreds of hectares and involving a high degree of rectilinear planning; “master plans” must have preceded such initiatives, yet in all likelihood these were relatively approximate in nature. Actual construction was carried out under the supervision of master builders, who filled in the details with reference to their practically acquired skill and expertise.³⁷

In short, the Egyptian sense of structured space, whether naturally formed or involving built components, found a variety of expressions: maps and diagrams on the one hand, and the actual application of the knowledge they provided on the other. There is engagement here with all the major spheres of Egyptian life—political, economic, and religious. The interface between the two processes produced tantalizing masterpieces, of which further examples—no doubt with many problems of presentation—may well be discovered in the future.

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