Prehistoric Masterpieces: The Swimmers and The Beast

The inhospitable plateau of Gilf Kebir in the far south-west Egyptian desert was once home to an early Egyptian civilization, who left behind spectacular cave art. We took a look, and brought our video camera.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could have once lived on the Gilf Kebir, an arid, remote, desolate sandstone plateau the size of Switzerland, located in the far southwest of Egypt. Yet, as we discover in this video report by Nico Piazza, around 10,000 years ago water, and with it vegetation and animal and human life, once ran through the barren land Egyptians today call “the Great Barrier.”

This long-forgotten prehistoric civilization that once called Gilf Kebir home left their mark in the form of cave paintings and other forms of rock art, in locations such as the spectacular Cave of Swimmers. Located in the 1930s by Hungarian Count and explorer László Almásy (who was later fictionalised as the core character in Michael Ondaatje’s book The English Patient, which was adapted into a multi-Academy Award-winning film) it features images of scores of tiny people swimming elegantly across the walls.

Even they pale in comparison to the scenes depicted in the Foggini-Mestekawi Cave, however, discovered much more recently – in 2003 – by members of a party led by desert tours company Zarzora Expeditions. It bears silhouettes of dozens of hands (not dissimilar to Cueva de la Manos in Argentina) as well as representations of hunting, fishing, games, parents holding their children’s hands – even, in some cases, what looks a bit like people taking dancing lessons.

Animals feature heavily too – gazelles, giraffes, dogs and lions. Most strange and fascinating of all is “the beast” – a weird, headless creature, with a body like a bull or elephant and the legs of a man. It features frequently, and often appears to be feasting on humans. “The big question everyone’s asking,” ponders tour guide Mahmoud Nour El Din in the video, “is: what the heck are these animals?”

They were probably imagined by the prehistoric Egyptian artists, and somehow represent their understanding of the transition from life to death. Hybrid creatures – such as the god of the desert and chaos Set – were a common element in the belief system of later Egyptian civilizations, many of whom worshipped animal cults. As Foggini-Mestekawi Cave proves, the germ of the idea of the afterlife – and man’s ability to communicate with it – clearly began to gestate very early in the minds of Egyptians, in a long-forgotten corner of the cradle of civilization.

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