Gebel (Jebel) al-Mawta in the Siwa Oasis

Gebel (Jebel) al-Mawta in the Siwa Oasis

By Jimmy Dunn writing as Kelly Smith

Gebel al-Mawta in the Siwa Oasis of Egypt from a distance

Gebel (Jebel) al-Mawta in the Siwa Oasis of Egypt is known, for fairly obvious reasons, as the Mountain of the Dead, because it is here in this conical mountain a little over a kilometer to the north of Shali along the main road from the escarpment that a number of tombs are situated. Local residents also call it Gebel (Qaret) al-Musabbarin (Missabbarin), meaning Mountain of the Embalmed. The tombs, which cover every inch of its base and are situated on its terraces and on all sides of the conical part, date from the 26th Dynasty, the Greek (Ptolemaic) and the Roman periods, though there appear to be no Christian burials.

Another view of Gebel al-Mawta

Note that the view from atop the small mountain provides a spectacular panorama of the surrounding area.

This necropolis was one of the focuses of the early visitors to the Siwa. Browne was permitted to visit it in 1792, and at that time stated that the tombs contained neither inscriptions nor paintings. Hornemann, who visited the Siwa in 1798 mentions that the Siwans had found gold inside the tombs, and that they were ravaging the ancient burials in search of more. The first traveler to mention drawings and paintings in the tombs was Cailliaud, who visited Gebel al-Mawta on December 12th, 1819. He records that:

"One of the most remarkable tombs contained three rooms, one after the other, whose total length is 11 metres. At right and left sides there are five chambers. On the walls of subterranean grottoes one finds the remains of hieroglyphs and Egyptian figures painted on the stucco; at the end there are two mutilated statues of a man and a woman cut in the rock, as it is generally seen in the Nile Valley."

Interestingly, this tomb seems to be unidentified at this time.

Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman ruler of Egypt, conquered the Siwa in 1820. The French consul from Cairo and other distinguished friends were allowed to accompany the troops and go wherever they wished, which was not always the case. They visited the mountain, but the notes of Drovetti add little to the writings of earlier visitors. However, later that same year, the German Consul from Egypt, Von Minutoli, visited the Siwa and he refers to the tombs, stating that some of them were painted with green, red, yellow and blue colors and contained hieroglyphs. He also mentioned that the Siwans lived in some of the tombs, and that during his stay a few hundred Bedouin of the Mjabir tribe from Tripoli were living in the tombs.

A. Silva White was perhaps the first to publish photographs of the tombs, after he visited the Siwa in 1897. Among other items, he acquired "a fairly large piece of painted wrapping", which was later described by Professor Sayce as:

"A mummy shroud, not incased in a coffin, but buried in the sand with bitumen. At the upper end is a picture of the deceased on his bier, with Anubis standing beside him and pouring the waters of life over the body, while a worshipper is standing on either side in an attitude of prayer. Below, on either side of the shroud, are figures of the four genii of the dead: Amost (Amesti), Duau-Mutef, Hapi and Qebehsenouf. The genii are placed one above the other two on each side and between them are bands of rosettes."

This shroud was presented to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and was dated as Roman. Fakhry explains that: "Although the author did not publish a photograph, we can easily understand from the notes of Sayce that the scene shows Osiris on his bier with the goddess Isis at his feet and Nephthys at his head, while Anubis is embalming he body. The four canopic jars representing the four sons of Horus are depicted below this scene."

Closer view of the hillside at Gebel al-Mawta

Gebel al-Mawta is also where the emerald mines of the Siwa are thought to exist. According to G. E. Simpson in "The Heart of Libya", Cailliaud found emeralds on Mount Zabarah and presented ten pounds of them to Muhammad Ali, the ruler of Egypt at the time.

Though there are some notable ones, most of the tombs on Gebel al-Mawta are barren, and bones once littered the mountain. Tradition maintains that Radwan, the king of Siwa at the time of the Arab invasion of Egypt, took the bodies from Gebel al-Mawta and threw them into many of the springs in an attempt to poison the enemy. Also, despite the fact that the people of the Siwa believe the mountain to be haunted and will not venture there at night, it is here, in times of great rains and invasions by modern armies, that the inhabitants go for protection, living in the caves with the dead. Unfortunately, they also destroyed many of the caves, chipping away the inscriptions and even violating the mummies in search of amulets.

Also, locals of the Siwa, as in other desert oases, have a certain mania for buried treasure and diggers often come to the mountain in search of riches. No doubt, the mountain has been the focus of such searches because of a passage in the written history of the Siwa known as the Siwan Manuscript. It states that:

"In one of the tombs which is at its northern site there is a passage which leads downwards and then turns eastwards until it reaches the treasury of King Khuraybish at Aghurmi."

Looking into a tomb at Gebel al-Mawta in the Siwa Oasis of Egypt

According to the same document, the treasury of King Khuraybish, the last king of Siwa, is buried in the Temple of the Oracle at Aghurmi.

Finally, there were the reburials. Most of the tombs were robbed, probably in Roman times, and were reused for burying the dead over many centuries afterwards. Side recesses (loculli) were cut in the walls for family burial places, without regard for the previous tomb decorations.

Most of the tombs are small and consist of only one or two chambers. Nevertheless, there are four tombs worth seeing, and possibly others. Most of what we know about these tombs seems little updated since the work of Ahmed Fakhry. The four include the tomb of Niperpathot, one named the tomb of the Crocodile, another known as the tomb of Mesu-Isis, who was really the wife of the tomb owner, for his name was unreadable, and the tomb of Si-Amun, which is probably the best of them.

The Tomb of Niperpathot is a large one, and one of the oldest in the oasis, dating probably to the 26th Dynasty. It has a court with three rooms on either side and is one of the few tombs on the mountain with inscriptions, here drawn in red. Niperpathot was the Prophet of Osiris and Scribe of the Divine Documents. His tomb contains his effigy and images of Osiris and Hathor.

The grave known as the Tomb of the Crocodile, is a three room structure that was excavated in 1941. The decorations are poor, but depict the goddess Hathor, the god Osiris, the tomb owner, and several animals, including a fox and of course, a crocodile. The tomb has been dated from the fourth to the second centuries BC.

A depiction of cobras in the Unfinished tomb of Mesu-Isis

The Unfinished Tomb of Mesu-Isis is decorated on only one wall, but has an excellent depiction of uraiae (rows of cobras) painted in red and blue on the cornice of the entrance. This tomb was discovered in 1940 and there is evidence that it was robbed in antiquity. The owner's name cannot be deciphered, but his wife's name is legible and the tomb is known by her name.

Finally, there is the Tomb of Si-Amun. Ahmed Fakhry, who excavated all over the Western Desert, called this one the most beautiful in the Western Desert. Si-Amun appears to have been a wealthy man, perhaps even a Greek, but a follower of the ancient Egyptian religion. His tomb contains images from the Egyptian pantheon, including a fine painting of the Goddess Nut standing beside a sycamore tree. This tomb was discovered in 1940, and has unfortunately deteriorated since then, though there is still much to see.

A better tomp painting in the tomb of Si-Amun

There are many other un-inscribed tombs at Gebel al-Mawta and Ahmed Fakhry, who excavated here in 1938 and 1939, was optimistic that more inscribed tombs would be discovered once additional excavations were carried out. He points out that most of the bodies he found were poorly mummified and prepared in more or less the same way as in the Nile Valley. The coffins and amulets were also the same as in the Nile Valley, and therefore Fakhry believed that the people of the Siwa, at least during Ptolemaic and Roman times, were completely "Egyptianized".

Fakhry further notes that many of the skulls and other bones found in the ravaged tombs of the Siwa were brought to Cairo in the 1920's and carefully studied by Professor D. Derry. Though we now have little information on how closely Dr. Derry's methods would compare to modern analysis, he concluded that the Siwans of Ptolemaic and Roman times were not exactly the same as contemporary Nile Valley Egyptians, being more similar to Europeans racially.

Note that on a spur of the mountain below the tombs is an ethnographic exhibit that fills the interior of a traditional mudbrick house. It mostly contains displays of tools and pottery used by the locals.






Reference Number

Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The

Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul


Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers

ISBN 0-8109-3225-3

Siwa Oasis

Fakhry, Ahmed


American University of Cairo Press

ISBN 977 424 123 1

Western Desert of Egypt, The

Vivian, Cassandra


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 527 X