Umm Mawagir in Kharga Oasis: Implications of the Site

An ultimate implication of the new site is that the policies of Monthuhotep II at the dawn of the Middle Kingdom set into motion a series of events that resulted in the creation of an Egyptian — or at least Egyptianized — population center, with perhaps modest but temporally pervasive Nubian affinities, in Kharga and Dakhla.

The similarities between the architectural forms, ceramic corpora, and overall activity patterns at Umm Mawagir and ‘Ain Asîl suggest that they may have formed a single administrative and economic unit, which was in contact with the other geo-political entities that existed during the Thirteenth through Seventeenth Dynasties. Neither the ceramic assemblage nor other artifacts at Umm Mawagir or ‘Ain Asîl provides evidence of a direct, hegemonic control of Kharga or Dakhla by another political power, as we see in evidence of the archaeological remains of the Second Cataract forts of the Middle Kingdom. An Upper Egyptian influence is the strongest of the overall relatively weak outer influences visible in the archaeological remains at Umm Mawagir. Although at the present time we do not yet know what specific political or economic ties the oasis “polity” may or may not have had with their neighboring powers, they were not a colony of the Hyksos or the Kermans, and thus far nothing suggests that they were a colony of Thebes. The oasis culture in evidence at Umm Mawagir and ‘Ain Asîl is sufficiently distinct from the other three entities of the period, and at the same time of such remarkable homogeneity in Kharga and Dakhla, to suggest a fourth distinct geo-political group in the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period in the Western Desert, perhaps centered at Kharga. The local production of ceramics and foodstuffs suggests that this group may have been economically self-sufficient, although additional excavations are needed to determine any political relationships and interdependencies, in addition to the positively attested trade connections with the far north and far south and some technological affinity to basic Upper Egyptian material.

The archaeological material presented above represents a small percentage of the vast extent of the site of Umm Mawagir and related material at Garn el-Ghinneh and Gebel Ghueita. However, much like the discovery of Old Kingdom material in Dakhla, the very existence of a substantial population center in Kharga Oasis during the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period allows for preliminary historical conclusions that will continue to be revised and refined as excavations proceed at Umm Mawagir and other Western Desert sites. The remains at Umm Mawagir and ‘Ain Asîl suggest that simple reconstructions of a weak, embattled Thebes sandwiched between Kerman and Hyksos states are untenable for three basic reasons: (1) during at least the initial stages of the Second Intermediate Period, a fourth major population group, and possible political entity — thus far unconsidered in most reconstructions — was present in the Western Desert; (2) evidence is lacking for direct Hyksos control of desert routes between the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley and Kharga, and indications of Hyksos activity is also absent in the Nubian oases of the Sinn el-Kaddab; (3) evidence from Western Desert road sites such as the Wadi el-Hôl and Tundaba reveal an expansion into the west by the Theban state during the late Seventeenth Dynasty. Although the Hyksos appear belatedly to have attempted to extend their influence into the Western Desert, via Bahariya Oasis,1 both the existing population group and possible political structure in the southern oases and the western expansion of the Seventeenth Dynasty left them little room to maneuver.

The Second Intermediate Period was not a time of only three warring parties in northeast Africa, with the Hyksos and Kerman worlds connected via the Western Desert roads, their emissaries and armies bypassing a weak and cowering Thebaid.2 Instead, a fourth group existed in the Western Desert: the Southern Oasis, capable of producing what must have been a considerable surplus of food. The nature of the organization of the apparently culturally homogeneous group in Kharga and Dakhla is uncertain, but the intensive nature of the baking activity at Umm Mawagir suggests a well-organized administration supporting at least some elements of the population — perhaps a combined Khargan/Dakhlan community, already technologically linked to Upper Egypt, an administrative and economic entity towards which the late Seventeenth Dynasty made a concerted effort to expand. Both the sites of Umm Mawagir in Kharga Oasis and ‘Ain Asîl in Dakhla Oasis reveal a marked decline in activity between the late Seventeenth Dynasty and the early New Kingdom. Whether this results from some disruption in occupation and activity during the time of the final conflict between the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Dynasties, or from a late transition from Middle Kingdom administration and settlement patterns in the oases, remains to be seen. A scattering of New Kingdom material atop some portions of the Umm Mawagir site and more substantial and continuous New Kingdom deposits at the nearby Gebel Ghueita,3 suggest a shift of focus south toward the hill of Ghueita at the time of transition from late Middle Kingdom/early Second Intermediate Period to high Second Intermediate Period in the area of Umm Mawagir and Gebel Ghueita. Future seasons of work in the great spread of ancient remains stretching between Garn el-Gineh and the southern environs of Gebel Ghueita in Kharga Oasis should reveal more about the mechanism of these changes in the oases, and shed new and welcome light on a period in need of clarification.

  1. 1. F. Colin, “Kamose et les Hyksos dans l’oasis de Djesdjes,” BIFAO 105 (2005): 35-47
  2. 2. Compare D. O’Connor, :The Hyksos Period in Egypt,” in E. Oren, ed., The Hyksos, New Historical and Archaeological Perspectives (Philadelphia, 1997), pp. 45-67; J. Bourriau, “Some Archaeological Notes on the Kamose Texts,” in A. Leahy and J. Tait, eds., Studies on Ancient Egypt in Honour of H.S. Smith (London, 1999), pp. 43-48.
  3. 3. D. Darnell, in Friedman, ed., Egypt and Nubia, p. 173.