The inscription of Mentuhotep II (Nebhepetre) at Jebel Uweinat

Until recently there was strong circumstantial evidence that a trade route linked Dakhla Oasis with the interior of the Lybyan Desert via Abu Ballas in pharaonic times. Proof was lacking however that the Ancient Egyptians themselves ventured out into the deep desert. Several researchers expressed their strong belief that this was indeed the case, however I have often challenged them to show a single hieroglyph anywhere in the interior desert outside the vicinities of oases. The Ancient Egyptians, much like the worst of modern day tourists, have invariably left a trace of their passing through grafitti and inscriptions wherever they went. An incredible find by Mark Borda & Mahmoud Marei in December 2007 has finally provided the dramatic and irrefutable proof that Ancient Egyptians did do long range desert travel, leaving an inscription commemorating their visit to Jebel Uweinat some 4000 years ago. I have been one of the privileged few to have seen the actual inscription, the precise location of which is left undisclosed to preserve the surrounding pristine area for future archaeological research.

The inscription is made on the vertical face of a large rock in a prominent position on a hillside. The inscription has been published in detail in Sahara 19 (CLayton, Joseph, Aloisa de Trafford, Mark Borda, A hyeroglyphic Inscription found at Jebel uweinat mentioning Yam and Tekhebet, 2008). The following is a brief description, with a couple of my own thoughts and comments added.

The inscription is composed of three parts, from left to right the seated figure of the King wearing the red crown and holding a staff, followed by the name of the king in a cartouche and the associated royal titulary. On the right there are two separate pieces of text that refer to two "lands" (i.e. the people of these lands) bringing tribute to the king. While the whole scene suggests the two named lands bringing tribute and by implication accepting the overlordship of Mentuhotep, more realistically it commemorates a trading event.

It is just barely possible to discern the nsw-bity ("King of Upper & Lower Egypt") titles above the cartouche, this portion of the inscription is the most weathered. The inscription inside the cartouche reads Sa Re mntw-htp ("Son of Re, Mentuhotep"). Below and left of the cartouche is the customary Hr ankh djt ("The Horus, living forever"). The inclusion of the Sa Re title inside the cartouche is significant (normally it precedes the cartouche), as this spelling is only known from the royal titulary of Mentuhotep II (Nebhepetre), the founder of the XIth Dynasty, reunifier of the Two Lands following a lengthy period civil war. Both his successors with the same name used the regular way of writing the Sa Re title and nomen, with the title outside the cartouche.

The upper inscription on the right reads Iam hr ms ntr... ("Yam bringing ..."). The land of Yam was the destination of three lengthy voyages made by Harkhouf, whose autobiographical texts on the facade of his rock tomb in Aswan are among the most important Ancient Egyptian historical records. While the three voyages are described in much detail, the location of Yam has been a total mystery, with most Egyptologists placing it somewhere in Nubia and west of the Nile. The reference to Yam at Uweinat suggests that the route starting at Dakhla, and clearly passing by Uweinat, could possibly have continued on to Yam, which in this case could have been further south-west (with Uweinat possibly being a meeting and trading point). Possible areas thay may be identified as Yam are Darfur, Ennedi or even the Tibesti mountains. Unfortunately the name of the produce is too weathered to be clearly readable, but the figure holding a bowl or basket full of some substance behind the prostrate figure would indicate a powdered or granular substance. The first sign of the produce is ntr, Clayton and Trafford suggest a reading of Sn-ntr (incense), as this was a produce of Yam referred to by Harkhouf. Having had a good close look, I'm reasonably convinced that no more than one sign could be after ntr, the other patterns are simply weathering. This would not fit sn-ntr, however there is an alternate reading/produce, ntr-y (a kind of Natron). We do know that Natron is a key produce of the Chad region to this day, and with the ongoing civil war in Egypt, Mentuhotep in Thebes may have been cut off from the only major supply of this material crucial for mummification, Wadi Natrun in the north. However at this moment this reading is nothing more than speculation.

The lower inscription is the repetition of the upper one, with the name of the land and the produce replaced. It reads Tkhb-t(n?) hr ms ... ("Tekhebet bringing ..."). This is the only known reference to this land. Clayton and Trafford suggest the reading of Tkhb-t, suggesting the "n" sign to be a duplicate determinative (the Tkhb root means "watered, irrigated"). However at close look, I can only see a single "n" sign, which would make the reading an alternate Tkhb-tn. In both cases the name would seem to imply "The place with water". There is tantalizing logical jump to the present day name of Jebel Uweinat, in Arabic "The mountain of the little springs". The produce is totally illegible with the exception of the first sign which is clearly a "t", however the image of an oryx antelope would fit the wildlife expectable at an Uweinat mountain slightly wetter than today. However this is purely a hypothesis at the moment, that cannot be proven either way until further references to this place are found.

Of course the most important question is what prompted this exceptional expedition (it's uniqueness clearly demonstrated by the lack of any other known Ancient Egyptian inscription elsewhere in the central Libyan Desert). The date of the inscription is intriguing by itself, as based on the spelling of the King's name, the Uweinat visit apparently took place in the period of the King's reign that predated final victory and reunification. I am currently doing research on the historical context of the inscription, as well as trying to identify the possible individuals who could have set up and led such an expedition that was a major undertaking in those times (the King being very unlikely to have participated himself, it was probably the expedition leader who made the inscription on Mentuhotep's behalf). There are a couple of tantalizing clues, I hope to have an article on the results by the end of the year.