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The Red Sea Scrolls: world's oldest surviving written documents reveal secrets of the Pyramids

Another fascinating new book has been published by Thames & Hudson entitled The Red Sea Scrolls. How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids by Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner. Many people interested in history and archaeology will have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but may be unaware of the Red Sea Scrolls.

These scrolls were found, as the name suggests, at the Wadi el-Jaraf, the site of an ancient harbour on the Red Sea. What makes the scrolls so exciting, is that the are the world's oldest surviving written documents, written 4,600 years ago, and they relate to the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

Archaeologist Pierre Tallet was looking for hieroglyphic rock inscriptions in Egyptian deserts when he discovered the papyri, which turned out to include the diary of an Inspector Merer, who oversaw workers in the reign of King Khufu at the ancient harbour site.

The scrolls came to light in 2013. Tallet was on his third season of excavations at Wadi el-Jarf, and had already located the world's oldest harbour installation as well as numerous artificial galleries inland, carved into the rock of the hillsides, where the ancient Egyptians had stored disassembled boats and other items.

View of the Wadi el-Jarf galleries photographed from a kite with galleries G1 and G2 at left and G4-G6 centre right. © Pierre Tallet

Tallet had initially aimed to study the ancient Egyptian's navigation of the Red Sea and their expeditions to Sinai and the mysterious land of Punt. He had known of the existence of Wadi el-Jarf, but had spent several years trying to find it, finally finding success in 2008. It took three more years to put together a team and gain permissions to excavate, and his first season started in 2011.

But it was in the third season of excavations that the team started finding small fragments of well-preserved papyri, until they found one fragment that was 21 cm high and 31cm in length, located in front of Gallery G2. The papyri was a significant discovery, not just because of its size, but because the first column featured a specific date in the reign of King Khufu. The text, inscribed in black ink and comprising very detailed hieroglyphic signs, mentioned 'the year after the 13th census of large and small cattle', which is thought to be the 26th year of Khufu's reign.

Accounts papyri from Wadi el-Jarf at the time of the discovery, before conservation. © Pierre Tallet

More excavations revealed 'an absolute flood' of papyrus fragments, including a logbook filled in by a scribe, day by day, which recorded the activities of a team of sailors. The most important fragments referred to Khufu's funerary complex at Giza and focused on the work of a minor official, an inspector called Merer, who was responsible, among other things, for the transportation of limestone blocks to the massive building site around the Great Pyramid for several months.

For the first time ever, archaeologists had the direct written testimony of a contemporary eyewitness who had participated in the construction of the pyramid complex of Kufu.

Now, for the first time ever, archaeologists had the direct written testimony of a contemporary eyewitness who had participated in the construction of the pyramid complex of Kufu. The papyri also linked to fellow Egyptologist Mark Lehner's work in the vicinity of the pyramid itself.

The fragments constitute the archives of a single work gang, numbering 160 men, named 'The Escort Team of The Uraeus of Khufu is its Prow'. The records cover a period of about a year, and some were the logbooks of Inspector Merer, a middle ranking official who was in charge of a group of about 40 men, who recorded their daily activities. During the period covered, the gang was responsible for a number of activities including transportation of a labour force, maintenance of a system of canals and artificial lakes created at the foot of the Giza Plateau and transporting limestone blocks from the quarries at Tura on the opposite bank of the Nile from Giza to the site of the pyramid.

This fascinating book is split into six sections, the first detailing the quest to find the trail of the pryamid builders, then why the Red Sea and pyramids are linked, to a section on the papyri themselves. There is a whole chapter on Inspector Merer, followed by an explanation of how the Great Pyramid was built, finishing with the legacy of the discovery where the authors explore how the building of the pyramids helped create a unified state, propelling Egyptian civilization forward.

The book is filled with many detailed photographs and illustrations and it is difficult to put down, as it is so enthralling and well written. This is a must for anyone interested in Egyptology and would be a welcome addition to everyone's library. It is an account of how 'astonishing it is to discover a contemporary eyewitness testimony to the creation of the only remaining Wonder of the Ancient World' - and there aren't many of those in existence today.

The Red Sea Scrolls. How Ancient Papyri Revel the Secrets of the Pyramids

Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner

Published by Thames & Hudson

January 2022

Hardback £30

About the authors

Mark Lehner is president of Ancient Egypt Research Associates and research associate at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He has conducted fieldwork at Giza for over forty years. He is the author of the bestselling The Complete Pyramids and the definitive volume on the subject, Giza and the Pyramids.

Pierre Tallet is a professor of Egyptology at the Sorbonne and president of the French Society of Egyptology. He is the leader of the archaeological mission at Wadi el-Jarf, where he discovered the Red Sea Papyri.


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