The Rock Inscriptions of the Matna el-Barqa

Although Predynastic, Protodynastic, and early Old Kingdom remains are relatively plentiful at several sites on and around the Matna el-Barqa, the rock inscriptions of the site are sparse. Aside from a single pharaonic (New Kingdom) image of Seth with associated inscription, the images and texts at the site cluster in and next to a shallow cave; most of the these are in red pigment, with but a few inscribed.

All of the latter material is post- pharaonic, and apparently of a relatively late Coptic date, probably executed well after the time of the Arab conquest.

Matna el-Barqa No. 1: A Priest of Seth

The highest of the pharaonic rock inscriptions on the hill consists of three columns of essentially hieroglyphic text to the right, with the figure of a Seth animal seated atop a large gold sign to the left. Seth’s ears are typically slightly wider and flat at the tips; his tail stands just to the left of vertical, with an elongated oval expansion to the end (looking like the spike on the stem of a cattail/bulrush [genus typha]), surmounted by a forked end.

Figure 1 The inscription of a priest of Seth on the Matna el-Barqa.


Made by the wAyinb-priest Userhat for his lord, Seth the Ombite. The w‘b-priest Userhat who authored this inscription may be identical with the ḥm-nṯr-priest of Seth, Userhat, known from a lintel of the Seth temple of Ombos, apparently dating to the reign of Ramesses III.1 The image of Seth as the seated Sethian animal is consistent with a Twentieth Dynasty date for Userhat, and his inscription on the Matna el-Barqa.2

The Red Cave

Below the pharaonic rock inscriptions on the northern tip of the Matna el-Barqa, down at the lower, northern end of the sloping stratum of good, graffitiable stone, is a shallow cave. No trace of any pre-Coptic inscription appears within the cave, suggesting that the natural shelter was either covered earlier, or for some reason did not appeal to any pre-Coptic visitors as a suitable location for either art or textual inscription. The cave did appeal to at least a few Coptic visitors, however, and they created a series of interesting images — and a few inscriptions — at the site.

Figure 2 (left) The exterior of the Red Cave, Matna al-Barqa. Figure 3, the longest Coptic text in the Red Cave.

With the exception of two incised Coptic texts (in Red Cave Nos. 20 and 21), the decoration within the cave cosists of red painted images and a few red painted texts. The latter are two Coptic dipinti — one perhaps originally providing the name of the “Master of the Red Cave” — and a brief line of Arabic. The images are a combination of geometric and stylized shapes, and depictions of humans and animals; the latter predominate, with horses and horsemen being the most ubiquitous of the depictions. Many of the human figures, and primarily mounted men, are armed. At least one of the more abstract groups (Red Cave No. 34) appears to incorporate versions of the magical characters (for further examples of which in the present sorpus see Paḥu No. 17, DAB B6 and B9). The human and animal figures are in a combination of Huyge’s “stylized visual realistic” and “linear schematic,” with most belonging to the latter style. The bellicosity of some of the images is in keeping with much of the late rock art in Upper Egypt, in which armed riders and stick-fighting stick figures abound.3 The closest parallels to the images in the Red Cave, in terms of the content of the images, the technique for producing them, and their location primarily on the ceiling of the cave, are images recorded from Fuqundi and Arminna in Nubia. Those red images provide parallels for the stick-figure human images — at least one armed with a sword — and roughly oval and rectangular images, many of the later with internal criss-crossing lines and dots, although the animal figures from the Nubian sites are not as well drawn as those from the Red Cave.4

In the light of the Coptic texts in red within the cave, apparently associated with the images, the mounted figures may be saints, their antagonists then being zoomorphic and anthropomorphic manifestations of evil. The red painted Coptic texts certainly suggest — although they do not prove — a Coptic Christian authorship for the images in the cave. The identity of the schematically drawn structure may ultimately hold the key to a more precise dating of the images (see below).

Main Coptic Text in Red on the Ceiling of the Cave, Red Cave No. 29

This text is written in the same red color as that employed in most of the decoration of the cave.


Red Cave


(As for) anyone who shall live with those of the places (i.e. monasteries) — the spirit will come from God against the female serpent.

Text notes
  • ane- for Coptic na- is a Fayumic touch; a use of Coptic e for Coptic a occurs in various contexts in texts from the monastery of Epiphanius — Winlock and Crum, Epiphanius I, p. 237.
  • b Coptic I following the abbreviation Coptic +na (cf. Förster, Wörterbuch, p. 657) is an alternate spelling of Coptic ei in Boharic and Fayumic (Crum, Coptic Dictionary, p. 70a).
  • c For the addition of Coptic e before M, see Layton, A Coptic Grammar, §25.
  • d The orthography Coptic noy cross is also an indication of a potential Bohairic/Fayumic background for the author of the inscription.
  • e The group here read as Coptic noy cross Coptic e could be read alternatively as  moyte, although the damage is more suited to N than M, and the shape of Coptic cross is assured. Considering the Fayumic characteristics of the text, and that dialect’s preference for Coptic 2wtb (Crum, Coptic Dictionary, p. 201a), a reference to “killing the serpent” is unlikely. Reading  moyte Coptic e, “to call to, to enchant” (ibid., p. 191b), is another possible reading, but does not work precisely with the Fayumic dialect.
  • f The orthography Coptic 2aq is not expected as the feminine form, indicated by Coptic te, but is consistent with a possible Fayumic origin of the author.

The author of this inscription — perhaps of Fayumic origin — mentions a serpent in what appears to be a reference to Satan.5 More specifically, the specification of a female serpent recalls “theological” puns on Aramic words related to the name of Eve (ḥayyayyā’) ,including importantly the word for snake (ḥew∂yā’).6 Through such puns, the tempting creature in much more recent depictions of the events in the Garden of Eden may have the head of the object of its temptating talents.7 To the right of Coptic teCoptic 2aq is a thick, fairly long, and somewhat sinuous red design, perhaps a depiction of a serpent as illustration of the text.

Re​d Cave Figural, No. 4 — Mounted Man and Attendant

The mounted man and his apparent horse face right; the rider holds his hands out to thesides, the reigns in one hand. The mane of the equid — the genitalia indicate that the beast is a stallion — is represented as a series of relatively widely spaced, short, vertical lines, as though the mane were roached. In front of the horse and its rider is a man walking toward the right, holding a stick or spear before him.

Figure 4 Depiction of a mounted man and attendant in the Red Cave.

The saddle depicted here, and elsewhere in the Red Cave, has high cantle and pommel orbow, or more properly continuous forward arch8 — the saddles appearing in the imagery of the Red Cave probably approximated in appearance the modern western saddle. As they appear as vertical lines entirely separate from the rider, these elements of the saddle probably do not represent the horned, solid-treed saddles of Roman design, which curved in toward the rider as he sat his mount. The saddles of the Red Cave more probably are schematic depictions of the more rigid saddles of medieval date, whose development coincided with the adoption of stirrups.9

The north end of the Matna el-Barqa marks the northern extent of the region of desert road termini linking the southeastern portion of the Qena Bend with points beyond to the northwest and west. Between the southern border of the Rayayna Desert in the south, and the Darb Naqadiya in the north, a succession of desert roads and associated passes gave access to the Western Desert. North of the Darb Naqadiya the desert filling the Qena Bend is steep and narrow, the hills behind the region of Deir el- Ballas as steep and inaccessible to regular desert traffic as those just north of the Wadi Arqub el-Baghla, due west of Naqada. North of the Darb Naqadiya, the distance to be saved by crossing the desert to the west would have been indeed modest compared to a trip around the northeastern tip of the Bend in the vicinity of Dendera. Where none traveled, none wrote, and at the Darb Naqadiya the rock inscriptions of the Theban Western Desert find their northern border. What may yet await discovery to the north belongs to the environment of ancient people seeking their hideaways or resting places just beyond the cultivation in the near desert hinterland of the Nile Valley, not to the world of those crossing the high desert filling the Qena Bend, bound either for the region of Hou or ultimately the vast wastes of the Libyan Desert, on their way to the oases of the Western Desert and points beyond.

  1. 1. Petrie and Quibell, Naqada and Ballas, p, 70 and pl. 79; Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions 5, p. 429; Hope and Kaper, in Collier and Snape, eds., Ramesside Studies, p. 231.
  2. 2. Compare Janssen, Village Varia, pp. 139-145; Cherpion and Corteggiani, Le tombeau d’Inherkhâouy, p. 199 and n. 199.
  3. 3. See Huyge, in Clarysse, Schoors, and Willems, eds., Egyptian Religion 2, 1377-1392.
  4. 4. Dunbar, Rock-Pictures, pp. 54-55 and pl. 25.
  5. 5. Compare Frankfurter, Elijah in Upper Egypt, pp. 138-139 and 232-233, concerning Christian integration of the earlier concept of the ophidian Apep-Typhon.
  6. 6. So in the Gnostic Hypostasis of the Archons, MS NHC II, p. 89, l. 31 — see Layton, Harvard Theological Review 67 (1974): 54-55; idem, Harvard Theological Review 69 (1976): 55-56, n. 57; idem, Gnostic Scriptures, p. 71, n. 89; Gilhus, Nature of the Archons, p. 67. Note also Butterworth, Clement of Alexandria, p. 30, ll. 1-9.
  7. 7. As recently as the parallel scenes of the Original Sin and Expulsion from Paradise in Michelangelo’s decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the serpent at the Tree of Life terminates in a female torso mirroring that of Eve herself — De Vecchi, ed., Sistine Chapel, pp. 90-91. Literary echoes of the concept appear in Spenser, Fairie Queene, First Book, First Canto, (Spenserian) stanzas 14 and 15, and Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 2, stanzas 648-653.
  8. 8. Parallels for the appearance of the saddles in the Red Cave appear in Morrow and Morrow, Desert RATS, p. 175, fig. I; Dunbar, Rock-Pictures, pl. 14, fig. 67. For early medieval parallels in Western Art, cf. Wilson, Bayeux Tapestry, p. 176 et passim.
  9. 9. For the Roman saddle see A. Hyland, Training the Roman Cavalry, pp. 45-51; for the development of the saddle into the Middle Ages, see idem, Medieval Warhorse, pp. 4-12. The development of the front arch, here equal in height to the cantle, suggests the activities of a mounted warrior standing in his stirrups (ibid., 10). Riders with stirrups and bareback riders appear in Islamic art of the seventh and eighth centuries CE — see Fowden, Quṣayr AyinAmra, p. 99 n. 40.