The lost city

A discovery in the desert could rewrite the history of ancient Egypt.

Heather Pringle is a contributing editor at Archaeology magazine.

Theban Desert Road Survey

Theban Desert Road Survey

Deborah Darnell, from the Yale Egyptological Institute, works at an excavation site along the Girga Road. This site yielded pottery shards dating from 2570–2470 BCE—the period when the great pyramid complex was built at Giza. View full image

For much of the twentieth century, Egyptologists shied away from explorations in the vast sand sea known as the Western Desert. An expanse of desolation the size of Texas, the desert seemed too harsh, too implacable, too unforgiving a place for an ancient civilization nurtured on the abundance of the Nile. In spring, a hot, stifling wind known as the Khamsin roars across the Western Desert, sweeping up walls of suffocating sand and dust; in summer, daytime heat sometimes pushes the mercury into the 130 degree–Fahrenheit range. The animals, what few there are, tend to be unfriendly. Scorpions lurk under the rocks, cobras bask in the early morning sun. Vipers lie buried under the sand.

When Egyptologists finally began investigating the Western Desert, they gravitated first to the oases. But in 1992, a young American graduate student, John Coleman Darnell, and his wife and fellow graduate student, Deborah, decided to take a very different tack. The couple began trekking ancient desert roads and caravan tracks along what they called "the final frontier of Egyptology.” Today, John Darnell, an Egyptologist in Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department, and his team have succeeded in doing what most Egyptologists merely dream of: discovering a lost pharaonic city of administrative buildings, military housing, small industries, and artisan workshops. Says Darnell, of a find that promises to rewrite a major chapter in ancient Egyptian history, "We were really shocked.”

Umm Mawagir, as the city is now known, flourished in the Western Desert from 1650 to 1550 BCE, nearly a millennium after the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza. This was a dark, tumultuous period of Egyptian history. Entire villages lay abandoned in the Nile River Delta, victims, perhaps of an ancient epidemic. Taking advantage of the turmoil, Bedouin groups from Syria and Palestine edged westward under the leadership of wealthy merchants, gaining control of the delta. Meanwhile, far to the south, Sudan’s powerful Kerma kingdom expanded into southern Egypt. In the wake of these incursions, Egypt’s pharaohs presided over a diminished realm whose capital lay at Thebes, in present-day Luxor.

For decades, Egyptologists thought the foreigners roamed the Western Desert at will, controlling the lucrative caravan trade. But the discovery of Umm Mawagir, in concert with finds from the more westerly Dakhla Oasis, says Darnell, reveals clearly how the Theban dynasty succeeded in extending its power and military might more than 100 miles into the hostile desert, building an entire city, and controlling a vital crossroads of trade routes. Umm Mawagir, says Darnell, is a testament to "the incredible organizational abilities of the Egyptians.”

The discovery is stirring major interest in Egyptology circles. "I think this is a very important find," says Monash University Egyptologist Colin Hope in Melbourne, Australia. "It’s from a period that we don’t know much about, and he’s got this large economic center in the desert.” Dirk Huyge, curator of the Egyptian Collection at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, says, "The mass of new data that springs from the Yale surveys has produced information beyond the expectation of any scholar working in Egypt.”


Relaxing in a Yale office decorated with traditional African weapons, prints, and paintings of the Nile Valley—and a small statue of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose eighteenth-century expedition to Egypt marked the beginning of scientific Egyptology—John Darnell has just returned from the field and is awaiting the publication of his first paper on Umm Mawagir in an international conference volume. The discovery, he explains, is the result of years of dogged sleuthing along one of the most important routes in the Western Desert, the 110-mile-long Girga Road.

Darnell first became interested in looking at desert roads in 1988, while studying ancient Egyptian texts in Luxor. His office window at the time looked out across the Nile, and he was struck by the sight of desert tracks crossing both the east and west banks. "We knew that the ancient Egyptians went into the desert," he recalls. "But we didn’t know precisely how they got there. And I began wondering if there was any way to date those tracks.”

Curious, he and Deborah decided to hike a route running above the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile—one of the most intensively studied regions in all Egypt. Below, they could hear the rumblings of tour buses and the voices of excited tourists. "We didn’t think we’d find anything new," says Darnell. "We assumed we’d just find some pottery remains. But within the first three minutes, we came across a fragmentary stela [a carved stone slab] and mountains of ceramic materials.”

Realizing that they had stumbled onto a new field of Egyptological research—desert road archaeology—the Darnells began hiking the tracks leading out from Luxor. Packing as much water as possible on their treks, the two Egyptologists walked the roads that crisscross nearly 17,000 square miles of desert. They recorded the ancient sites that lay beside the roads and patiently examined and tallied pottery shards littering the ground. The distinctive ceramic styles of different eras allowed them to date both roads and sites, and the two researchers were astounded by the antiquity of some of the finds. In a place known as Wadi el-Hol, or "Gulch of Terror" in Arabic, the Darnells discovered two 3,800-year-old inscriptions featuring the world’s earliest known phonetic alphabet.

The growing mountain of data revealed just how much traffic once flowed along the Girga Road, which stretched 110 miles westward from Thebes in the Nile Valley to remote Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert. "This was a major route in antiquity," says John Darnell. And it possessed an impressive infrastructure to keep traffic moving. Along the road, the Darnells discovered a series of official outposts that had served as food and water depots for travelers. These depots dated to Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, a period extending between 2125 and 1650 BCE. Yet the earliest Kharga Oasis settlements then known to scholars had been built more than 1,000 years after the end of the Middle Kingdom.

Who had created this elaborate desert infrastructure, and why? While mulling over these questions, Darnell recalled an inscription left by an unidentified Middle Kingdom pharaoh, most likely Monthuhotep II. In the text, the pharaoh proudly described his decision to incorporate the Western Desert oases into his Nile Valley realm. Most Egyptologists had flatly dismissed the statement, believing, says Deborah Darnell, that "pharaonic Egyptians had not the technological ability or knowledge to exploit the water resources in Kharga Oasis.” But the string of Middle Kingdom outposts lying along the Girga Road suggested otherwise.

To the Darnells, all the new evidence pointed to the existence of a large Middle Kingdom city at the terminus of the Girga Road, in Kharga Oasis. No such urban center had ever come to light. But in 2000, while visiting the ruins of a temple in Kharga Oasis that dated to a much later period, Deborah,  who is co-director and co-founder of the expedition,  spied a small fragment of a pharaonic-era amphora, protruding from a thick scatter of other pottery. “Few people know what pharaonic oasis pottery looks like,” she notes—possibly the reason no one had ever before noticed it at the site. Strongly suspecting they were closing in on the lost city, the team began carefully surveying the immediate region.

In 2005, the team found a dense litter of ceramic molds for baking bread—vestiges of a large industrial bakery—about half a mile north of the temple. And this summer, John Darnell and his colleagues located the expansive ruins of a major undisturbed city, including the foundation of a significant mud-brick administrative building. Darnell, who leads the excavations there, named the desert metropolis Umm Mawagir—an Arabic phrase meaning, memorably, "Mother of Bread Molds.”


"Baking was done on a rather massive scale at Umm Mawagir," says Darnell. To understand why, he and his team dug up part of the bakery, exposing an area roughly the size of a small bedroom. As they brushed away a matrix of ash and sand, the excavators discovered further dense layers of broken ceramic molds—nearly half a ton of pottery in an area just four meters by four meters square, a quantity that astonished Darnell. Some molds were large and circular in shape, suitable for single loaves; most were double "cupcake" molds, similar in style to the baking tins modern Egyptians use for making certain sweetened breads. In addition, the team found two large baking ovens, a stone mortar for husking grain, and an assortment of stones for grinding flour.

The sheer scale of the operation, says Darnell, suggests that Umm Mawagir was producing a huge surplus of bread, enough to feed an army of soldiers. The team found other signs that the ancient desert city once served as a major military garrison. Scattered across the site were the broken cooking pots of Nubian desert soldiers known as the Medjoy, troops highly valued by the Egyptian pharaohs. Some of these pots were made of Nubian clays, indicating that they had been made far to the south and carried all the way to Umm Mawagir. Others, however, were fashioned from local clays from Kharga Oasis itself, suggesting that the Nubian troops brought their pottery-making wives with them.

"We can imagine a group of Medjoy soldiers being hired by the Egyptians—there’s no evidence of slaves here—and stationed in Kharga," says Egyptologist Colleen Manassa ’01, ’04PhD, an associate professor in Yale’s Near Eastern Languages and Civilization department, who recently excavated a cemetery of Medjoy soldiers near Luxor. Finding the cooking pots of the Medjoy troops at Umm Mawagir, she adds, increases "the probability that a strategic military center was involved there.”

To date, the team has excavated less than half of one percent of the sprawling 218-acre site. While the strong desert winds have scoured down the city’s ancient mud-brick walls, preservation at the site is excellent, with many walls more than three feet high. Early indications, says Darnell, show that the ancient city was home to a wide range of ancient Egyptian inhabitants, from important officials to artisans who produced small clay figurines and glimmering white ostrich-shell beads.

While long years of patient excavation and research remain at Umm Mawagir, Darnell believes that the desert city will ultimately shed crucial light on a shadowy time in Egyptian history. For years, scholars have wondered how an impoverished and much diminished royal dynasty at Thebes in the late Middle Kingdom eventually managed to repel Egypt’s foreign invaders and rise to grandeur once again in the New Kingdom—the age of Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and Ramses the Great. The finds at Umm Mawagir now hint strongly at an answer. "The Theban dynasty," suggests Darnell, "may have used its military and economic control of the Western Desert to win the war against the invaders.”

For Darnell, however, the real wonder is the administrative genius that went into creating a city in the desert more than 3,600 years ago. "People always marvel at the great monuments of the Nile Valley and the incredible architectural feats they see there. But I think they should realize how much more work went into developing Kharga Oasis in one of the harshest, driest deserts on Earth.”


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