The inscription describes the soul's journey from death to life. Credit: © Uni. Leeds.

Archaeologists have uncovered a 500-year-old ostrich egg covered in Arabic poetry. The verses mourn the death of a loved one.

The egg was found in the Red Sea port of Quseir, Egypt. In the fifteenth century, Quseir was a hub for trade between the Middle East and India, and a stop on the pilgrim route between North Africa and Mecca.

"It was probably a fairly workaday place with mud-brick buildings," says archaeologist David Peacock of the University of Southampton, UK, whose team found the egg.

Quseir was built on the remains of a Roman port that occupied the same site a millennium before. "During the Roman period there may have been ostriches in that part of Egypt," says Peacock. "The egg seems to have become a sacred item."

The shell is covered with quotations from the Koran and poetry: "It describes the soul's journey from death to life," says historian Dionisius Agius, of the University of Leeds, who is analysing the text.

Eggs bearing Arabic writing are rare, although another was found in Quseir 20 years ago. The ancient Egyptians used ostrich eggs for perfume containers and drinking cups, and the country's Coptic Christians hung them as lanterns in their churches. Agius suggests that the egg's symbolism passed through Egypt's religious traditions.

No name is mentioned, but translation team believes the writings commemorate a young man. He must have been wealthy to have such a memorial, says Agius.

The fragments were found in the remains of a mausoleum that is currently being excavated. The egg is in storage in Egypt, awaiting further study.