Gebel El-Arak Knife – A Link to Ancient Egypt’s Distant Beginnings

Gebel El-Arak Knife – A Link to Ancient Egypt’s Distant Beginnings

Gebel El-Arak Knife – A Link to Ancient Egypt’s Distant Beginnings

The ancient, far-reaching civilizations of the world are a continuous source of inspiration for many people. Ancient, ageless myths and wonders of new civilizations and archaic technologies are not just remarkable – but often baffling as well.

The achievements of ancient man are always difficult to fully understand, from the megalithic structures of Neolithic Europe, to the enigmatic Easter Island statues, all the way to ancient Egypt.

As we explore endlessly the numerous wonders that emerged from ancient Egyptian civilization, we come across many magnificent creations— ancient items crafted with extreme precision.

One such item that is one of the earliest wonders of emerging Egypt, is the so-called Gebel el-Arak knife. A ritual item of a great and elaborate design, this knife comes from a very early, formative period of what was to become ancient Egypt as we know it today. It shows us the important early connections of the region and gives us a glimpse into the major events of the period.

Discovering the Gebel el-Arak Knife

For the pioneering Egyptologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, the predynastic period of ancient Egypt was often the most puzzling, mysterious era of its history.

A variety of emerging and disappearing cultures muddled cohesion, and a lack of defining archaeological finds led to a difficult task of piecing together that puzzle and learning more about the formative years of such a lavish civilization.

But with the discovery of the Gebel el-Arak knife, that far reaching picture would change immensely.

During the early 1900’s, Egyptologists often had to rely on the seedy back alleys of Cairo, private antique dealers, whispered tips, and many other somewhat shady sources – all in hopes of purchasing new and defining relics of ancient Egypt.

In a setting that is largely reminiscent of an exciting Indiana Jones movie, these devoted scholars and archaeologists merged with the Cairo society and scanned the black market for items of worth.

It can safely be said that many of the ancient Egyptian relics that came from such street vendors of Cairo and elsewhere where looted – men who recognized the worth in old items always disregarded the magnificence of ancient history.

And thus they did not hesitate to go grave robbing and sifting through known ancient locations for items of worth. During that period, any tourist could have purchased a proper mummy of an animal or even a person – for the lowest amounts of money imaginable.

But finding a truly ground-breaking artifact was often near impossible. Nonetheless, one French Egyptologist did find it. That man was Georges Aaron Bénédite, one of the leading men in his field. In February 1914, he purchased a pristine, highly-decorated ivory and flint knife – he discovered it in two pieces at a Cairo antique dealership owned by Mr. Nahman.

The Back Alley Markets of Dusty Cairo and the Treasures They Kept

Bénédite at once recognized that such a lavish item held significance, and knew from the style of its manufacture that it certainly comes from the predynastic period. The Cairo antiques dealer didn’t recognize the item as a knife. He was selling the handle and the blade as two separate pieces.

The man stated to have discovered the handle part at a location he called Gebel el-Arak (جبل العركى), a historic plateau that is located roughly 25 miles (40 km) from the important Ancient Egyptian city of Abydos.

But when he presented Bénédite a lot of items – among which was the flint blade – the dealer said he had recently discovered those at Abydos itself. Thus Bénédite was able to conclude that the complete knife certainly belonged in Abydos and was discovered there, as such a significant item would have no place at the Gebel el-Arak site.

Bénédite purchased the item at once for the Paris’ Louvre museum . Excited, he immediately wrote about his discovery to the Louvre’s head of the department of Egyptian antiquities, Charles Boreux. Dated to March 16, 1914, the letter survives – and from the following excerpt we can understand the weight that the discovery carried at the time.

“[…] an archaic flint knife with an ivory handle of the greatest beauty. This is the masterpiece of predynastic sculpture […] executed with remarkable finesse and elegance. This is a work of great detail […] and the interest of what is represented extends even beyond the artistic value of the artifact. On one side is a hunting scene; on the other a scene of war or a raid. At the top of the hunting scene […] the hunter wears a large Chaldean garment: he head is covered by a hat like that of our Gudea […] and he grasps two lions standing against him. You can judge the importance of this asiatic representation […] we will own one of the most important prehistoric monuments, if not more . It is, in definitive, in tangible and summary form, the first chapter of the history of Egypt. ”

The passion with which Bénédite writes, and the acute recognition of the styles and influences presented on the artifact, clearly shows us that he and other Egyptologists had a good understanding of the earliest influences on the predynastic period. And through the details and scenes depicted on the knife, we can certainly understand a lot more about the era.

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