The rock art of Egypt was largely unknown outside of the region until the beginning of the 20th century. The rock paintings and engravings of Egypt feature a range of subjects and styles, including domestic cattle, wild animals, humans, boat images and inscriptions. Much of the rock art appears to date from within the last 8,000 years. However, earlier Palaeolithic engravings have also been found near the Nile, suggesting a longer time frame for the practice. The majority of Egypt’s most famous rock art, including the ‘Cave of Swimmers’, is found in the desert in the far south-west of the country.View featured rock art site
Mostly 6,000 BC – 30 BC
Nile valley, Gilf Kebir Plateau
Engravings, brush paintings, blown pigment paintings
Boats, cattle, wild animals, handprints, inscriptions
The rock art of Egypt was largely unknown outside of the region until the beginning of the 20th century. The rock paintings and engravings of Egypt feature a range of subjects and styles, including domestic cattle, wild animals, humans, boat images and inscriptions. Much of the rock art appears to date from within the last 8,000 years. However, earlier Palaeolithic engravings have also been found near the Nile, suggesting a longer time frame for the practice. The majority of Egypt’s most famous rock art, including the ‘Cave of Swimmers’, is found in the desert in the far south-west of the country.
Egypt covers about 996,000km² at Africa’s north-east corner and until the creation of the Suez Canal in 1869, contained Africa’s only direct physical connection to Eurasia. The country’s most prominent geographical feature, the river Nile, flows from the highlands of Ethiopia and Central Africa into the Mediterranean, dividing the eastern portion of the Sahara into the Western and Eastern Deserts, with the Sinai Peninsula to the east.
The presence of rock art in Egypt has been noticed by European scholars since the early 19th century. Geographically isolated from the bulk of rock art in the country, the paintings and engravings of Gilf Kebir and Jebel Uweinat were first catalogued in the 1920s by the Egyptian explorers and public figures Hassanein Bey and Prince Kemal el Dine, and thereafter by renowned early twentieth century explorers and ethnographers such as László Almásy, Leo Frobenius, Ralph Bagnold and Abbé Breuil, whose expeditions helped bring Saharan rock art into wider public consciousness.
Hans Winkler’s seminal Rock Drawings of Southern Upper Egypt (1938-9) was one of the first regional catalogues and remains a pre-eminent review of finds. Further cataloguing of rock art images and sites in the southern Nile valley took place at the time of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Where rock art historically was part of larger archaeological research in the area, in recent years it has been subject to more direct and rigorous study which will contribute to a better understanding of chronologies and relationships.
In desert areas, recognisably stylised Pharaonic-period inscriptions and engravings from between 3,100 and 30 BC can be found on rock faces, particularly at oases and quarry sites such as Kharga Oasis and Wadi Hammamat in the Western and Eastern deserts. There is also rock art from later periods like that at Matna el-Barqa in the Western Desert hinterland, where both Pharaonic and later Coptic inscriptions mix with images of gods and horsemen. Earlier examples of engraved rock art may be found in the Nile valley, in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, linked to progenitors of ancient Egyptian cultures, most particularly the people of the Naqada Periods (4,000-3,100 BC). This art is characterised by frequent depictions on pottery of river boats, which occur in much of the rock art near the Nile, and include, pecked on a boulder at Nag el-Hamdulab near Aswan, what is considered the first known depiction of a Pharaoh, on just such a boat. Also prevalent in these areas are numerous engravings of animals and human figures.
Possible links between ancient Egyptian culture and wider Saharan rock art traditions have been discussed since the rock art of northern Africa first met European academic attention in the early 20th century. Although the arid Western Desert appears to have been a significant barrier, relations remain unclear.
Certainly, not all rock art found in Egypt has direct links to Pharaonic cultures. Recently, the rock art at Qurta, south of Edfu, of naturalistic outline engravings of ancient aurochs (ancestors of domestic cattle), were dated reliably to the Palaeolithic Period, between 16,000 and 15,000 years ago, making them the oldest known rock art in northern Africa. Between the eighth and fourth millennia BC, Egypt’s climate was generally temperate, interrupted only briefly by dry spells, until the increasing aridity thereafter concentrated life in the Eastern Sahara around the river’s banks.
This development fostered both ancient Egyptian culture and isolated populations of animals elsewhere driven out of their environments by encroaching desert, some of which, like crocodiles, are represented in the rock engravings found along the alluvial plains. Engravings of wild fauna continue to be uncovered, such as that recently found near the Farafra Oasis, with depictions of giraffe and antelope scratched into the rock face. In a cave nearby, alongside engraved lion paw prints, are blown-pigment negative paintings of human hands.
Some of Egypt’s most striking and famous rock art is found far from the Nile at Gilf Kebir, a vast sandstone plateau in the desert near the Libyan border. As elsewhere in the Sahara, there are frequent depictions of domestic cattle, people and wild animals. Like most rock art, the paintings and engravings here are hard to date accurately but may refer to the ‘Bovidian Period’ (Pastoral Period) rock art of the wider Sahara, typified by paintings and engravings of cattle and people (Huyge, 2009). However, the scholarly community recognises the inherent difficulty of formulating conclusions of direct links with wider rock art practices. Some evidence of pastoralists in the area means that this rock art could have been made as early as the fifth millennium BC and are thus possibly contemporaneous with Predynastic Egyptian cultures, but not necessarily connected (Riemer, 2013).
The motivation behind producing these images remains elusive. Where a particular cosmology is better known, it can be speculated, such as the Nile boat paintings have been suggested to evoke funerary beliefs and practices. If nothing else, the cattle paintings of Gilf Kebir demonstrate the importance of cattle in the pastoralist culture that produced them. Despite still being relatively little known, the ‘mystique’ behind rock art has cultivated popular curiosity, in particular in Gilf Kebir’s famous ‘Cave of Swimmers’. This is a shallow rock shelter featuring many painted human figures in strange contortions, as if swimming – images which have captured the popular imagination, with their glimpse of life in Egypt millennia before the Pharaohs and their hints at a watery Sahara.