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Place names
Arabicالكوم الأحمر سوارس | شارونة
EnglishKom al-Ahmar
Site map
Site information
DEChriM ID54
Trismegistos GeoID2793
Pleiades ID736925
PAThs ID432
Ancient name-
Modern nameKūm al-Aḥmar Sawāris
Date from-2700
Date to850
Dating criteria-

Šārūna/al-Kūm al-Aḥmar, denoted el-Kom el-Aḥmar/Sawāris in older publications, is located in Middle Egypt on the eastern bank of the Nile, 3km south of the village of Šārūna, hence the name. Qarāra is 8.6km to the north and al-Bahnasā (Oxyrhynchos) 21km to the west. It is situated on the border between the modern-day extension of the agricultural area and the desert. The site dates back to the Second/Third Dynasty and has traditionally been identified with the Pharaonic locality of Ḥw.t-nsw, which is documented since the Old Kingdom (Gonzálvez et al., 2009: 266). In the Middle Kingdom, it appears to have served as the capital of the 18th nome of Upper Egypt, while in the Ptolemaic era it was the capital of the 17th nome (Gonzálvez et al., 2009: 266). Written sources are basically non-existent after the Ptolemaic period, and the Coptic name of the site has not survived. The site comprises a main necropolis area with associated rock-cut tombs dating from the Sixth Dynasty, the first intermediate period and the Ptolemaic period, with the remains of a temple built by Ptolemies I and II, on top of which is a funerary basilica, as well as other areas of Christian (re-)occupation (Huber 2017: 1). It is understood that the whole settlement was abandoned in the seventh or eighth century (Huber 2007: 37)

Settlement Area
Excavations were conducted in the settlement area (in the 1980s), located on a mound currently situated in the cultivated land occupied by a small farming village called ʿIzba Šārūna (Huber 2017: 2). Stratigraphy here shows settlement layers nearly 5m high, and while the earliest archaeological remains date from the Second or Third Dynasty, geological coring has revealed evidence dating to the late predynastic period (Huber 2017: 3). The occupation of this area appears to have been restricted to domestic and artisanal life, with no religious buildings uncovered. Very few structures have been found in situ here, as walls appear to have been carefully deconstructed in order for the materials to be re-used (Huber 2017: 4). Deeply disturbed layers dating from the Roman and Byzantine periods cover those of the Old Kingdom. Further archaeological research in this area is impossible, however, due to the modern farming village.

Main Necropolis
Between 1984-1989, work was concentrated in the rock tombs of the main cemetery, which date from the Sixth Dynasty to the Roman period (Huber 2017: 2). Only tombs of the Old Kingdom and the Ptolemaic period (as well as a monumental shaft-tomb of the Late Period) have been identified with certainty due to plundering and lack of inscriptions (Huber 2017: 29). After ceasing in 1989, work in this area resumed in 2005 when a collaboration was established with the Museu Egipci de Barcelona. This work was concentrated on the eastern end of the necropolis, where a structure denoted as ‘U20’ is located. This is a large funerary structure formed by a rectangular patio accessed from the south, and porticoed to the north, excavated in the limestone substrate (Gonzálvez et al. 2009: 268). In the centre of the north wall of this portico was a door that connected to a huge underground room, which appears to have been part of a burial chapel (Huber 2017: 2).

Although several phases of occupation of U20 have so-far been identified, it is difficult to develop a secure chronology due to the excessive looting and subsequent destruction of much of the area. In the courtyard of the tomb are several funerary shafts, totaling to at least 20, one of which was reused during the Byzantine period when the underground section of the hypogeum was transformed into a kitchen (Gonzálvez et al. 2009: 265, 269; Isodoro et al. 2009: 244). Numerous shaft tombs were excavated during the Ptolemaic period, partially destroying the eastern end of the portico (Gonzálvez et al. 2009: 271). The second-best represented period of occupation was roughly between the fifth and sixth centuries CE, which perhaps included an industrial installation dedicated to textiles (Gonzálvez et al. 2009: 271). The latest phases show that the sudden collapse of a large part of the roof restricted the occupation, but still saw occasional use as a seasonal shelter for livestock (Gonzálvez et al. 2009: 272).  

Christian Occupation
The Roman period settlement appears to have extended some 70 hectares, comprising a necropolis in the east and a settlement in the west. The religious center of this period of occupation was a funerary basilica, which is surrounded by a vast cemetery. Only the foundations of this church remain, including many re-used, partly decorated and inscribed limestone blocks from the Ptolemaic temple it was constructed on top of, which was built by Ptolemies I and II (perhaps the one mentioned by l’Hôte) (Huber 2006: 58; Huber 2017: 4). The church has been completely excavated during five seasons (1994-2002), revealing two main phases of construction, with the floor of the second church about 30cm higher than that of the original church, but having a floorplan of much the same size (Huber 2017: 5). The earlier church appears to have been a three-aisled basilica with a western (transversal) return aisle and a narthex. A rectangular annex with an unknown function was added in the east, while in the west the naos is closed by a narrow narthex with a stair tower towards the roof in the south corner. In the church’s final state, the naos is divided into 5 aisles by colonnades, each composed of a row of five single columns, the function of which could have been related to the structural stability of the roof (Huber 2017: 5).

The original church appears to have been erected over a single chambered tomb constructed of burned brick, thought to have been the tomb of a saint, or perhaps a local hermit, which was subsequently transformed into a crypt with the construction of the church (Huber 2017: 5). This crypt was accessible from the church via the addition of a staircase, and was situated under the sanctuary. The floor of the church’s nave is densely packed with graves and is surrounded by a vast cemetery (extending more than 200m around the church), only some of which has been excavated, revealing some 1000 burials (Huber 2006: 58; Huber 2007: 37). All of these burials are simple pits, with the deceased extended supine, oriented on an east-west axis (with their heads to the west). A few datable artefacts, including coins, allow the construction of the first church to be situated in the last quarter of the fourth century, or the beginning of the fifth, with the second church constructed perhaps in the middle of the sixth century (Huber 2017: 5). A lamp found beneath the foundations of the church dates from the third century (Huber 2007: 37). The entire site appears to have originally served as a Ptolemaic cemetery comprised of simple pit burials, which acted as the counterpart of the necropolis of rock-cut tombs. Material from these earlier graves have included pottery, offering tables, animal bones, and a number of skeletons adorned with amulets depicting Egyptian deities and symbols (Huber 2017: 6).

Dayr al-Qarābīn
Dayr al-Qarābīn is a small monastic complex located in the desert, 900m east of the church and probably contemporaneous with it. The site is understood to form the religious and economic center of a laura, 20 cells of which have so far been inventoried, a number of which were established in the Pharaonic rock-cut tombs (Huber 2012: 70). The complex is formed by two distinct sections, that in the north, which includes a tower, cistern and production areas, including wine and textiles, and that in the south, which comprises the sacred area, comprising an extended religious compound which includes a burial area fronted by an assembly room and flanked by a small chapel to the north and a church to the south (Huber 2007: 39). Only the lowest courses of brick remain in situ. 17 complete interments were found in the burial area, while the remains of an additional 11 bodies were also identified, all of which were interred on an east-west axis (Huber 2007: 39). At least 30 individuals were originally interred beneath the floor level, men, women, children and infants, indicating that the cemetery was not of a monastic community, with the monastic burials from the nearby hermitage of al-Ġalīda differing markedly from these (Huber 2007: 39). Ceramic assemblages from the complex date generally fifth through to the seventh/eighth centuries. This period of occupation can be refined via the radiocarbon date acquired from one of the bodies from the cemetery (380-560, 95.4% probability), as well as coins, none of which are from after Anastasius’ coin reform at the beginning of the sixth century (Huber 2007: 39). A great deal of information regarding funerary practices was obtained through a meticulous study of the body from where the radiocarbon date derives (see: Huber 2007).

The tower is almost a perfect square, the walls of which are only three brick length wide and are made of unfired brick. There does not appear to have been external access to the tower on the ground floor, the building being instead accessed on the first floor via the help of a wooden draw-bridge which connected to a free-standing staircase (Huber 2012: 73). Within the tower is a vertical shaft which opens into a horizontal corridor leading east into an underground complex. This appears to have been a storage area, and includes a large water cistern. This complex appears to have been accessible from the outside via a small, and secret entrance, making it possible to enter the tower unobserved from the outside, which in turn provided access to these supplies (Huber 2012: 72, 76).

The monastery complex of Dayr el-Qarābīn and its associated tower appear to have been abandoned and replaced by the hermitage of al-Ġalīda, which is situated 500m to the north-east. The center of the settlement comprises the main room, an anteroom and the courtyard of a re-occupied Pharaonic rock-cut tomb (Huber 2012: 77). The settlement seems to have extended out from this chamber to a radius of c. 100m. Here, there are numerous remains of walls of unfired brick, as well as remnants of economic institutions. Looting in 1997 revealed numerous bodies, all of males, between the ages of 10 and 60. According to the locals, these bodies were dressed in a kind of leather apron (Huber 2012: 77). A piece of such an apron has since been discovered, reaffirming the accounts of the locals, and supporting the monastic nature of the cemetery, with remains of monks excavated at other locations, such as Qurna Murʿay, adorned with a type of leather apron. The excavators consider the cemetery to have originally contained at least 30 burials (Huber 2007: 39).

There is a tower at the highest point of the hermitage. Like the one at Dayr al-Qarābīn, this tower is a square building of unbaked clay bricks (Huber 2012: 78). Similarly to that of Dayr al-Qarābīn, it shows the beginnings of an underground, unfurnished corridor. There is no access via the ground floor, and no indication of a free-standing staircase like at Dayr al-Qarābīn, indicating that access to the tower was gained via a pulley or a ladder. Based on the ceramic assemblages, the tower can be dated from the eighth to tenth centuries CE, with a high concentration of glazed pottery of the type “Fayyumi ware”, which is documented from the eight to ninth centuries, as well as a number of LRA7 amphorae (Huber 2012: 79). Radiocarbon analysis of one of the bodies in the ‘monk cemetery’ appears to be from the ninth to tenth centuries (890-1020 AD, 95.4% probability) (Huber 2012: 79). The hermitage of al-Ġalīda became the center of religious life after Dayr al-Qarābīn was abandoned.

Dayr Abū Kalba
Dayr Abū Kalba is a large hermitage situated 3km north-east of the monastic complex of Dayr al-Qarābīn. It lies on the eastern slope of marl deposits, which are c. 6.50m high. It is considered as part of the laura (Huber 2007: 39). The entire hill is covered with ceramic sherds of the same type found at Dayr al-Qarābīn (Huber 2012: 81). Fragments of limestone pillars have been identified, which could have possibly been part of a sacred building. The core of the settlement is an underground complex extending 21x14m. The whole is made up of six courtyards “laid out around two courtyard chambers carved deep into the rock”. Above this underground complex are traces of economic activity, including fragments of bread plates and storage jars, as well as the remains of a 3m high tower (Huber 2012: 80). Scattered human remains indicate the presence of a cemetery, but this has not yet been located. Along the base of the hill, numerous caves have been identified, the entrances of which are almost completely covered by sand, with only the top-most part visible.

Archaeological research

The first recorded mention of the site was by John Gardner Wilkinson in 1835, then, three years later, by Nestor l’Hôte, who noted the presence of a razed Ptolemaic temple built under Ptolemies I and II, and described the tomb of Pepianj-Jui. Mary Brodrick and A. Anderson Morten published a work on the tomb described by l’Hôte in 1899. This was followed by a visit by Grenfell and Hunt in 1907, who conducted limited excavation of a number of New Kingdom and Ptolemaic tombs, and noted that the structure mentioned by l’Hôte had since disappeared. They eventually abandoned the site due to the lack of papyri finds. Polish Egyptologist Tadeus Smolenski was responsible for the first extensive work on the site in 1907, carrying out exhaustive copying of the hieroglyphic texts of the tomb of Pepianj-Jui, and uncovering 18 blocks from a Ptolemaic temple which included the names of Ptolemies I and II. This was followed by sporadic expeditions by a number of Europeans, including Hermann Ranke in 1913 and Jean Capart in 1927.

There was a lapse in scientific interest in the site until 1976, when the Egyptian Antiquities were forced to intervene in response to excessive looting. They closed the tomb of Pepianj-Jui and conducted three excavation campaigns between 1976 and 1981, which lead to the discovery of numerous tombs from the Old Kingdom. The Institute of Egyptology from the University of Tübingen became involved with the site in 1984, with six seasons of work conducted between 1984 and 1989, under the direction of Dr. Farouk Gomaà and Wolfgang Schenkel. This work included planimetric and epigraphic documentation of the decorated tombs of the Old Kingdom, as well as additional excavation work in the Old Kingdom cemetery and other parts of the necropolis. In 1990, Béatrice Huber takes over directorship, concentrating on the remains of the areas of Pharaonic occupation, and excavating the Christian basilica and the monastery of Dayr al-Qarābīn. Between 1994 and 2000, under the direction of Huber, the team focused on kom 5, where some of the previously cited temples appear to have been located. In 2004, Dr. Farouk Gomaà suggested the collaboration of the Museu Egipci de Barcelona, which was initiated in 2005. The work of the Catalan team would be concentrated in the main necropolis, including an imposing tomb from the Old Kingdom, while the team directed by Huber would continue to focus on the Byzantine occupation, specifically at Dayr al-Qarābīn (Gonzálvez et al., 2009: 268).


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Gestermann, L., F. Gomaà, B. Heiligmann, P. Jürgens and W. Schenkel. 1992. “Al-Kōm al-Ahmar/Šārūna 1991” Göttinger Miszellen 127: 89-111.
Gonzálvez, L. M. 2007. “Kom el-Ahmar/Sharuna. Primera campana de la Misión de la Universidad de Tübingen/Museu Egipci de Barcelona.” ArqueoClub 8: 18-21.
Gonzálvez, L. M. 2008. “Kom el-Ahmar/Sharuna. Segunda campana de la Misión de la Universidad de Tübingen/Museu Egipci de Barcelona.” ArqueoClub 9: 20-23.
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Gonzálvez, L. M., C. Belmonte, M. Taulé, F. Gomaà, B. Huber and A. Gamarra. 2009. “Trabajos de la Universidad de Tübingen en Kom al-Ahmar/Sharuna. La participación del Museu Egipci de Barcelona en el año 2006.” Trabajos de Egiptología. Papers on Ancient Egypt 265-275.
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Huber, B. 2004a. “Die Grabkirche von Kom al-Ahmar bei Šaruna (Mittelägypten). Archäologie und Baugeschichte.” In Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a new Millennium II, edited by M. Immerzeel and J. van der Vliet, 1081-1103. Louvain: Peeters.
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Huber, B 2007a. “The Textiles of an Early Christian Burial from el-Kom el-Ahmar/Sharuna (Middle Egypt).” In Methods of Dating Ancient Textiles of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt and Neighbouring Countries. Proceedings of the 4th Meeting of the Study Group 'Textiles of the Nile Valley, edited by A. De Moor and C. Fluck, 36-69. Tielt: Lannoo.
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Huber, B. 2008. “3000 ans d’histoire à Kom el-Ahmar/Saruna.” ArqueoClub 9: 24-28.
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• L’Hôte, N. 1840. Lettres écrites d’Égypte en 1838 et 1839, contenant des observations sur divers monuments égyptiens nouvellement explorés et dessinés. Paris: Firmin Didot Frères.

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• Pawlik, A. F. 2005. “The Lithic Industry of the Pharaonic Site Kom el-Ahmar in Middle Egypt and its Relationship to the Flint Mines of the Wadi el-Sheick.” Der Anschnitt 19: 193-209.
• Ranke, H. 1926. Koptische Friedhöfe bei Karâra und der Amontempel Scheschonks I. bei el Hibe. Berlin, Leipzig: de Gruyter.

Schenkel, W. and F. Gomaà. 2004. Scharuna I. 2 vols. Mainz am Rhein: Saverne.
• Smolenski, T. 1907. “Le tombeau d’un prince de la Vie dynastie à Charouna.” Annales du Service des antiquités de l'Égypte 8: 149-153.

Smolenski, T. 1908. “Les vestiges d’un temple ptolémaique à Kom-el-Ahmar près de Charouna.” Annales du Service des antiquités de l'Égypte 9: 3-6.
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Rhiannon Williams, Victor Ghica, 2021
Suggested citation
Rhiannon Williams, Victor Ghica, 2021, "Kūm al-Aḥmar Sawāris", 4CARE database - Fourth-Century Christian Archaeological Record of Egypt,
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