Wadi el-Jarf: the Red Sea papyri, the port and the construction of the Great Pyramid

A few years ago, at the mouth of the Wadi Araba, an area located 24 kilometers south of Zaafarana and 119 from the city of Suez, along the eastern coast of Egypt, ancient fragments of papyrus were found that show information about the activities of a team of workers. The restoration and the philological study of these fragments have made it possible to understand that these are the workers who built the Great Pyramid, the funerary monument wanted by Khufu, better known as King Cheops, built on the Giza plateau about 4500 years ago. In the area, investigated by the team of Professor Pierre Tallet of the Sorbonne in Paris since 2011, there is a port already operational during the IV dynasty, a system of 31 caves dug into a small hill of calcareous rock and a source of fresh water. The dating of the archaeological area of ​​Wadi el-Jarf makes of its port the most ancient and complete maritime port structure known to us. It is thought in fact that it was designed during the reign of Snefru (2620-2580 BC about). In 2011 Tallet began excavating, initially focusing on the most visible part of the site: the galleries. These were dug on a rise near the port and used as storage to guard ships, dismantled boat parts, equipment, food, water supplies and other materials waiting to be shipped. Among all the material that emerged, what surprised most archaeologists was the discovery in 2013 of papyrus fragments in two different places in the area facing the ancient deposits. These are accounting and administrative documents, as well as diaries, disintegrated into hundreds of small pieces even just a few centimeters. At the end of the 2013 mission, the Tallet team had recomposed the fragments into about 70 sheets of glass. It is described how the central administration has sent food, mainly bread and beer, also recording deliveries to individual workers; from this document it is clear that the food came directly from the king’s granaries; other fragments instead are a real diary left us by Merer, a middle-ranking official from Memphis, who was the head of a team of sailors of about 200 men and who had been commissioned to draw up the logbook noting the activities of its subordinates, documenting the excellent and precise organization of working life and administration. There is also a description of how water resources related to seasonal floods were used, as well as transport from Tura on the east bank of the Nile to Giza. In addition to representing the oldest “paper” documents written in Egyptian writing ever discovered so far, the papyri illustrate a highly efficient administrative system, capable of organizing complex operations even at great distances. The immense and in some ways “visionary” project wanted by Khufu foresaw the supply of raw materials from different places: granite from Elefantina, pigments from the western desert, alabaster from Middle Egypt, basalt from Fayum, limestone from Tura and copper from Sinai. For the ancient Egyptians it was absolutely necessary to have large quantities of copper, without which it would not have been possible to quarry and cut the stones, a basic material for every important construction. And it is precisely for this reason that the port of Wadi el-Jarf has been created and kept active with its enormous influence, which saw descending from the north what was needed by the personnel and in the opposite direction the raw materials indispensable for the royal building. A project that united a people around its king by consolidating the foundations of an extraordinarily efficient administrative structure, the beating heart of a civilization that more than any other has been able to keep its awareness of its essence intact.

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