Briton rediscovers carvings of ancients in Sinai Hotel manager finds inscriptions on rocks


NUWEIBA, Egypt -- From the start, running the Taba Hilton was a challenge. When Neil Mathieson took over as general manager of the resort hotel almost two years ago, Israel had just been forced to hand the Taba enclave at Israel's southern tip back to Egypt after years of argument and negotiation.

Bitter and angry, Israeli tourists, the hotel's only natural clientele, stopped coming. And they began to return only after more than a year of coaxing, price cuts and carefully crafted package deals.

Even then, the cold complexities of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship still seemed to entangle and confuse everything that happened in Taba. Now Mr. Mathieson's magnificent archaeological find is proving to be equally entangled and confusing.

When the Persian Gulf crisis began, tourism throughout the region ground to a virtual halt. Even with its lovely setting on the Gulf of Aqaba, on some weekends the Taba Hilton was, once again, lucky to have even two or three guests.

"Thanks to [Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein]," recalled Mr. Mathieson, a 44-year-old career hotelier from northern England, "I had a lot of free time on my hands." So he started talking walks in his neighborhood.

At first glance, the Sinai Desert behind the hotel is a forbidding place, nothing but dry, barren stones and sheer granite slopes. Only an occasional Bedouin nomad and a few barely green acacia trees break the arid monotony.

Still, "a lot of my guests had asked about the desert," he said. "But there was no information about it." When Mr. Mathieson came to Taba from Cairo, where he had managed another Hilton hotel, "the Egyptians didn't know anything about what might be out here," he said. "So I had some maps, and I set out to discover things myself."

Barren as it looks, Sinai is the source of much history. The area is named for Mount Sinai, where according to the Bible, God spoke to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Countless other peoples, ancient and modern, have passed through here, traveling from Africa to the Middle East and Asia, or heading south from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

So, not surprisingly, on his walks Mr. Mathieson eventually stumbled on some history. He found a trove of inscriptions carefully chiseled into the rocks. And, given the subject matter, they were obviously quite old.

The area several miles south of the Israeli border is called Wadi Twaiba. A wadi is a dry river bed, and this one served as a north-south trade route in ancient times. The rich lodes of copper still visible in the rocks also made it an occasional mining site as well. As ancient traders, warriors, miners and other travelers hiked or rode through the area, some stopped to record their presence or commemorate their deeds.

Mr. Mathieson found dozens of these carvings chiseled into the granite and sandstone. Some showed warriors on horseback preparing to spear other fighters facing them with shields in hand. Others showed rams, ewes and other long-antlered animals that have not been native to Sinai for centuries.

There were ancient writings, too -- Greek from the region's Hellenic period before and just after the birth of Jesus. One carved piece of text told of a great army's passage through the wadi.

There were a host of other depictions -- animals and battle scenes, weapons for hunting and war. "And I think I've only scratched the surface," Mr. Mathieson said as he showed off what he found.

Exhilarated at his find, Mr. Mathieson called the minister of tourism in Cairo. He told Egyptian antiquities experts, too, and they seemed thrilled to learn that the inscriptions were there. Mr. Mathieson said they were also enthusiastic about his idea to turn parts of the area into a national park.

That would be good for his hotel, good for Egypt too, he reasoned. Soon, he said, the Egyptians plan to send experts to have a look.

But a careful examination of the area suggested that someone had already been there for a look. Near one of the boulders bearing a vast array of inscriptions was a little stripe of blue and white paint -- a trail marker put there by Israel's Society of Protection of Nature, back before 1982, when Israel turned Sinai back to Egypt.

While to the Egyptians Mr. Mathieson's discovery was a great archaeological find, the Israelis shook their heads with wonder that no one in Cairo, Nuweiba or Taba knew about these inscriptions long before now.

"Oh yes, we used to run a lot of tours through there," recalled Yaron Avin, of the Israeli nature society. "It's a very beautiful place. Some of those inscriptions are very old."

Avner Goren was Israel's archaeologist of Sinai between 1967 and 1982, and he chuckled as he heard of the Egyptian discovery.

"You mean the signs are gone?" he asked. "We had signs posted in English, Hebrew and Arabic explaining what all the inscriptions were."

Most of the inscriptions are Nabatean, Mr. Goren said. The Nabateans were an industrious people who populated much of the area for a few hundred years before and about 200 years after the birth of Christ. They also built the great rock city of Petra in what is now southwestern Jordan.

"We gave the Egyptians files showing them everything we had found, including the inscriptions in Wadi Twaiba," Mr. Goren said. But now there are no explanatory signs in the Wadi and almost nothing but the faded trail marker to suggest any current-era presence. The Egyptians also appeared to have forgotten about the Israeli files.

After four years in Egypt, Mr. Mathieson said of the Egyptians: "They don't know much about the desert. They don't like the desert. They're afraid of it."

And so it took a British hotel manager to rediscover for the Egyptians inscriptions that have been in Sinai for 2,000 years.

"I understand now why the Israelis bemoan the loss of the Sinai," Mr. Mathieson said. "They're the ones who know what's up there."

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