The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology
Asyut: capital that never was

Thursday 20 July 2017,
18.00–19.00
BP Lecture Theatre
Tickets £30
Members/Concessions £25

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This year’s lecture will be given by Jochem Kahl, Free University Berlin.

Located 375km south of Cairo, the city of Asyut was a gateway to important trade routes leading to the oases of Dakhla and Kharga, and on to Darfur in present-day Sudan. Asyut’s very name – translated into English as 'Guardian City' – highlights the city’s considerable strategic importance, which almost inevitably consigned it to the fate of becoming what cultural anthropologists have termed a 'wounded city'. Its geographical location in the middle of Egypt placed Asyut between rival blocs of power on several occasions in the course of history, with damage inflicted in the wake of civil wars and occupation by foreign rule – yet it would appear that the city’s changing fortunes prompted its culture to thrive and flourish. Asyut’s history as a major population centre and a regional capital stretches back more than 4,500 years. Indeed, the ancient Egyptians held Asyut’s artistic and cultural knowhow in high esteem – reusing, reconfiguring and recontextualising products of Asyuti expertise for more than 2,000 years.

The quality of artwork, craftsmanship and architecture originating from pharaonic Asyut has been met with great acclaim by contemporaries and modern Egyptologists alike. Asyut’s heritage of texts, images and architecture forms an integral part of ancient Egypt’s cultural memory, an intellectual reservoir maintained and cultivated by Egyptian elites in order to boost their claim to power, and stabilise and convey their self-image. The texts, iconography and architectural layouts used to great effect in the nomarch tombs from the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, were passed on to later generations and emulated repeatedly all over Egypt. Unfortunately, Asyut’s temples, palaces, and mansions have all been buried under strata of alluvial plain and the sprawling modern city. Only written sources or clues retrieved from the pharaonic necropolis in the city’s mountainous vicinity, the Gebel Asyut al-gharbi, can shed light on the city.

The Gebel Asyut al-gharbi was not only used as a necropolis, however, but housed military facilities, monasteries, places of prayer, quarries and even a temple, over a period of 6,000 years. Since 2003, a joint German-Egyptian research project has been reinvestigating the Gebel Asyut al-gharbi and its archaeological structures in light of their longue durée. The wealth of material discovered here allow us to write a specific regional history of Asyut emphasising local patterns of thought and craftsmanship in comparison with, for example, the customs followed at the royal residence(s).

The lecture is part of the annual Egyptological colloquium and will be followed by a reception in Room 4, the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.


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‘Wepwawet, lord of Asyut’, on the ceiling of the tomb of Djefaihapi. Photo: Jochem Kahl.