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The Girga Road from the Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom

The shortest route between the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley and Kharga Oasis is the Girga Road, connecting north Kharga with the Thebaïd.1 Ceramic evidence from various points along the road, and at some of the Khargan termini thereof — including Gebel Yabsa and Garn el-Ghinneh2 — indicates that activity on the route began already during the Predynastic Period. An Early Dynastic serekh in north Kharga (probably of Qa-a3) is suggestive of royal interest in Kharga Oasis, perhaps part of an overall “desert policy” during the reign of Qa-a,4 also evident in the region of Figure 1Elkab.5 An apparent gap in the archaeological record within Dakhla Oasis until the Fourth Dynasty has now been shown to be non-existent, with Early Dynastic through Fourth Dynasty evidence in abundance from Mut el-Kharab.6 Although evidence from north Kharga itself is apparently lacking, two campsites along the Girga Road provide evidence for pharaonic activity on roads connecting the Upper Egyptian Nile Valley with Kharga Oasis during the high Old Kingdom.

Clearance of one of these sites, West Old Kingdom 1 (W-OK-1), on the Girga Road approximately two-thirds of the way across the plateau from the Thebaïd to Kharga Oasis (Figure 1), has revealed abundant Fourth Dynasty material. Two Carbon 14 dates from the abundant charcoal collected at the campsite support a Fourth Dynasty date (IFAO Sample 235, calibrated C-14 2574-2473 BC and IFAO Sample 236 calibrated C-14 2572-2470 BC) for the camp. Perhaps more importantly, the Meidum Bowls present at the site Figure 2— by far the most common form at the site — reveal the use of both Nile Valley and oasis fabrics (Figure 2), indicating movement of people in both directions along the route, and suggesting the possible presence of an Old Kingdom outpost near the terminus of the route in northern Kharga Oasis.

The Old Kingdom appears to have focused its Western Desert activities almost exclusively on Dakhla Oasis, with limited expeditions sent further afield southwest of Dakhla.7 Following the upheavals of the First Intermediate Period and the reunification of Egypt, Monthuhotep II established a much more widespread desert policy. In the Eleventh Dynasty Deir el-Ballas inscription a Theban ruler, almost certainly Monthuhotep II, describes — for the first time in the the administrative history of Egypt — the economic integration of the Western Desert oases and Lower Nubia into the pharaonic state.8 In an satisfying agreement of disparate sources, archaeological and epigraphic evidence from the Girga Road and Kurkur Oasis reveal the implementation of the economic integration described in the Ballas inscription, and by the early Middle Kingdom officially sponsored outposts appear at key points in the network of Western Desert routes;9 a newly published text from Dakhla suggests that at least one official carried out Montuhotep II’s policies in at Mut at Dakhla Oasis.10

The approach of the Egyptian administration to the use of the Girga Road appears to change at the dawnof the Middle Kingdom. During the Middle Kingdom, traffic within the Western Desert concentrates along a few roads, each supplied with a series of outposts. The economic integration of the oasis region, which apparently originates in the plans of Monthuhotep II, may explain the difference in the types and locations of Middle Kingdom sites and routes in the Western Desert, compared both to what came before and to what comes after. The site of Abu Ziyar, roughly one third of the distance out from the Nile Valley on the main northern route to Kharga Oasis, reveals this conscious effort to expend funds and considerable efforts from the Nilotic tax base to build up routes to the southern oases, at least one goal of this expansion being the development of Kharga — and particularly northern and central Kharga — beyond what appears to have been its former, Old Kingdom condition.

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1 J.C. Darnell et al., Theban Desert Road Survey I (Chicago, 2002), pp. 43-46 (http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/pubs/catalog/oip/oip119.html).

2 D. Darnell, . Gravel of the Desert and Broken Pots in the Road: Ceramic Evidence from the Routes between the Nile and Kharga Oasis,“ in R. Friedman, ed., Egypt and Nubia — Gifts of the Desert (London, 2002), pp. 165-166, 168.

3 S. Hendrickx, et al. “Late Predynastic/Early Dynastic rock scenes of Barbary sheep hunting in Egypt’s Western Desert. From capturing wild animals to the women of the ‘Acacia House’,” in, H. Riemer, et al., eds. Desert Animals in the Eastern Sahara (Cologne, 2010), p. 230.

4 J. C. Darnell, “Iconographic Attraction, Iconographic Syntax, and Tableaux of Royal Ritual Power in the Pre- and Proto-Dynastic Rock Inscription of the Theban Western Desert,” Archéo Nil 19 (2009): 102-110; J.C. Darnell, “The Wadi of the Horus Qa-a: A Tableau of Royal Ritual Power in the Theban Western Desert,” in R. Friedman, et al., eds., Proceedings of Egypt at its Origins 3, forthcoming.

5 D. Huyge, ”Horus Qa-a in the Elkab Area, Upper Egypt,” Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 15 (1984): 5-9.

6 C. Hope, “Report on the 2009 Season of Excavations at Mut el-Kharab, Dakhleh Oasis,” BACE 20 (2009): 63.

7 F. Förster, “With donkeys, jars and water bags into the Libyan Desert: the Abu Ballas Trail in the late Old Kingdom/First Intermediate Period. British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 7 (2007): 1-36 (http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/research/publications/bmsaes/issue_7/foerster.aspx)

8 J.C. Darnell, “The Eleventh Dynasty Royal Inscription from Deir el-Ballas,” Revue de Égyptologie 59 (2009): 81-109.

9 J.C. Darnell, forthcoming; for an overview of the work in Kurkur oasis, see www.yale.edu/egyptology/ae_kurkur.htm.

10 C. Hope and O. Kaper, ”A Governor of Dakhleh Oasis in the Early Middle Kingdom,” in A. Woods, A. McFarlane, and S. Binder, eds. Egyptian Culture and Society, Studies in Honour of Naguib Kanawati (Cairo, 2010), pp. 219-246.