The remote site of Serabit el-Khadem in Sinai is home to a remote and unusual Egyptian temple. It was used for a few months at a time, every couple of years at best, more often once in a generation.
From ca. 1910 to 1764 and from the late 16th century BCE to ca. 1139 BCE, the Egyptians sent expeditions to Serabit el-Khadem to mine for turquoise, a luxury item used in men’s and women’s jewellery. The journey to the mines was long, difficult and dangerous: the miners suffered from thirst, wild beasts, and snakes. The turquoise itself was problematic; too much exposure to harsh sunlight or extreme heat, and the turquoise crumbles or its colour deteriorates from heavenly blue to pale green, and the miners’ toil would be in vain.
The Egyptians felt the need for divine aid in their efforts, and built a shrine in honour of the king, and another in honour of the goddess Hathor, patron of natural resources abroad. Later kings expanded the shrine, as was the custom in Egypt, adding more rooms, more monuments, more gods. Many expeditions generated their own specific monument, a commemorative stela engraved with text and symbolic pictures. Sometimes the expedition leader and other participants also erected monuments of their own.
Major excavations and surveys at Serabit el-Khadem
1762 Carsten Niehbuhr first reports the existence of the temple
1845 McDonald survey
1856 Wilson survey
1904-5 Petrie excavations
1917 Gardiner and Peet, Inscriptions of Sinai, 1st edition
1927, 1930, 1935 Harvard University expeditions
1952 Černý, Inscriptions of Sinai, 2nd edition
1968-1978 Tel Aviv University expeditions
1991 Chartier-Raymond survey
1993-1995 Valbelle and Bonnet excavations
2006 onwards Tallet surveys
The material collected by the Israeli expeditions has never been fully published. Izhaq Beit-Ariyeh worked on material at the mines themselves, and Benjamin Sass on the protosinaitic inscriptions, and published their findings. Raphael Giveon and Raphael Ventura made preliminary publications of the major reliefs and inscriptions at the temple, and the New Kingdom material from the temple was summarized by Yossi Mizrachi in an unpublished MA thesis.
Over the last decade, I have arranged for about 600 of the photographs from the temple to be scanned and entered into spreadsheets. Recently, I have had all the lists of findspots and film numbers scanned, so that digital backups of this important information can be preserved. We are currently compiling a list of all the negative numbers from various sources in the documentation in order to identify exactly how many photographs originally existed, and meanwhile have reached a total of between 1,400 and 1,500 negatives.
Over the last three millennia, the temple has fallen into ruin, due to erosion, theft and (in recent years) the stress of tourism. The ceilings and the pillars supporting them have collapsed, and many of the reliefs are in fragments. In particular, many of the monuments originally published by Gardiner, Peet and Černý have deteriorated further since they were originally copied. The Tel Aviv photographs of inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim may provide clues to reading texts when they were in better condition than they are now, and the findspot data from the expedition will help reconstruct the original locations of wall reliefs, stelae and votive statues. Findspot data plays a key role in piecing together the building history of the New Kingdom temple; the Tel Aviv expedition discovered over thirty New Kingdom reliefs which Petrie been described, but which Černý could not locate in 1935, which may provide useful information about the New Kingdom temple at Serabit el-Khadem.