Friday, March 21, 2008

Fourth Century cave found in Sinai

Al Ahram Weekly (Nevine El-Aref)

A rock-hewn cave used by Christians hiding from official church authorities has been found by chance at Hammamat Pharaon on the west Sinai coast, reports Nevine El-Aref

It was an ordinary morning at Hammamat Pharaon (Pharaoh's bath), the mini-resort south of Ras Sedr on the west coast of Sinai where for centuries locals and travellers have enjoyed the spa waters of the natural hot spring. The water, smelling slightly unpleasantly of sulphur, bubbles from the rock inside a cave and flows down into the sea. In the cave, where the darkness is heavy with steam, clients were enjoying a soak in the rock bath, or else waiting their turn for a therapeutic treatment for rheumatism, skin diseases or other ailments.

Meanwhile, an Egyptian archaeological mission from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) carrying out a routine cleaning operation in the area near the spring stumbled upon what is believed to be a fourth-century rock-hewn grotto decorated with Christian murals.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said last week's discovery was the second cave of its type to be discovered in Hammamat Pharaon and was only 25 metres away from first cave, which was used one to two hundred years later. The entrance to the new cave was blocked by a large amount of sand, stones and rubble. By removing all the dust and debris the team uncovered a one metre high vaulted entrance, which allowed the excavators to surmise that it could contain a church altar similar to the one found at Abu Suwera in Al-Tor, the capital town of South Sinai. However, further excavation revealed that the cave was not a church but may have been used by Christian followers or monks during the fourth and fifth centuries, a time of schism in the Christian doctrine of the Roman Byzantine Empire, when they needed to practise their preferred religious rituals far from the eyes of the leaders of the official church.

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