The Kharga Oasis, located in the Western Desert of Egypt, was an important intersection connecting caravan roads from the Darfur province of Sudan (ancient Nubia) to the Nile Valley, a journey of 1,082 miles. As a result, objects and ideas from across Egypt, Nubia, and the eastern Mediterranean from the Pharaonic to early Byzantine periods made their way to Kharga. In late antiquity (fourth to seventh century), the region also bore witness to an expansive and vibrant Christian community, evidenced by new sacred spaces and the reuse of forts and temples as churches and monasteries.
In 1908, The Metropolitan Museum of Art began excavations of late antique sites in Kharga. The Met's archaeologists uncovered two-story houses, painted tombs, and a church. A selection of objects from these sites are on view in this gallery, revealing the multiple cultural and religious identities of people who lived in the region between the third and seventh centuries, a time of transition between the Roman and Byzantine periods. The finds represent a society that integrated Egyptian, Greek, and Roman culture and art. Presenting objects according to the archaeological context in which they were discovered, this exhibition explores these ancient identities and artifacts and demonstrates how archaeological documentation can aid in understanding an object's original function.
El Bagawat, an ancient Christian necropolis, contains more than 200 well-preserved tombs. The tomb structures resemble small houses with multiple rooms, evoking the Greek term necropolis, or "city of the dead." Kharga's elite were likely buried in the tombs, some of which were adorned with impressive grave goods, mosaic-like domes, and painted walls. This site thus came to be called the "Pompeii of Egypt."
Seventy-nine pit graves, excavated in 1909, held mostly pottery and personal items such as combs, writing utensils, and textiles. The modesty of these objects, and the burial practices involved, indicate that those buried in such graves were likely from a lower socioeconomic class.
The material from Bagawat on view comes from two tombs. While some objects date to the Greco-Roman era, they were actually used in Kharga by Byzantine Christians. The mixture of traditional Egyptian and Christian objects in the Bagawat burials suggests that the religious identities of the Kharga peoples were fluid.
The Temple of Amun-Re, also known as the Temple of Hibis, is one of the best-preserved temples in the Western Desert. Built in the sixth century B.C., the sandstone structure was used continuously for nearly 1,000 years. As Christianity spread across the Mediterranean in the fourth century A.D., Pharaonic temples such as this one were converted into Christian churches.
Next to the temple are ruins from a Christian community, including numerous Late Antique houses and buildings. Hundreds of objects—from pottery to jewelry and coins—were discovered in this area, and many are now part of The Met's collection of medieval art. In the archaeologists' records from the excavations, it's noted that these pieces were uncovered from mounds called koms. Some of these artifacts are on view in the exhibition.
Ain et Turba, located between the Bagawat necropolis and the Temple of Hibis, comprises an ancient well and a cluster of third- to fourth-century homes. The mud-brick houses are one or two stories high, with vaulted ceilings, intact foundations, and subterranean areas. Some have painted frescoes that parallel wall paintings found in homes of the elite across Roman Egypt.
The finds include pottery, Greek ostraca (pottery shards that were used as writing surfaces) and wooden tablets, high-quality glassware, and coins. Limestone household altars, plaster statuettes, and bronzes of Egyptian gods are among the other notable items collected. These objects, together with the cluster of homes, reflect the wealth of the community.
The site of el-Deir is located in the northeastern part of Kharga Oasis. By the end of the third century, a Roman mud-brick fortress had been constructed at el-Deir; this likely had a customs office that facilitated economic exchanges, oversaw the transport of valuable goods, and controlled the circulation of goods (wine, olive oil, alum, and cotton) along the caravan route. The Roman army sent as many as 1,000 men to Kharga due to its important role in the trade networks of Egypt. In addition to manning the fort at el-Deir, these soldiers were also stationed in Hibis and other sites within the oasis. The area surrounding the fortress includes a village with a church and a cemetery. The term el-Deir means "monastery" which points to its possible use during the Late Antique and Medieval periods. Pottery from this site is on view in the exhibition.
Bowl with interior geometric decoration, 4th–7th century. Kharga Oasis, Byzantine Egypt. Coptic. Earthenware, slip decoration, 5 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. (13.2 x 28.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1925 (18.104.22.168)