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Necropolises of Middle Egypt, from the Middle Empire to the Roman period

Date of Submission: 28/07/2003
Criteria: (ii)(iii)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture - Supreme Council of Antiquities
Coordinates: El-Eshmounein: 2°46' N / 30°44' E Amarna with Akhenaton: 27°38' N / 30°55' E
Ref.: 1825

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Chronology In the four necropolises, the tombs can be all dated between the Middle Empire and the low Roman period over a long period of about 2500 years which chronologically is as follows: 1°) necropolises of Beni Hassan and Deir al-Barsha Two necropolises representative of nobiliary tombs of the Middle Empire (2064-1797) in Middle Egypt. 2°) necropolis of Tell el Amarna It belongs to quite an exceptional period in the history of ancient Egypt and the New Empire (1543-1078) corresponding to the reign of Akhenaton (1348-1331) which only lasted for 17 years but had longlasting consequences and left us with an astonishingly original legacy. 3°) necropolis of Touna al-Gabal There are some tombs (in the southern part) dating from the ancient Empire. But this necropolis is above all remarkable for its tombs from the low period with its happy combination of Greco-Roman and Egyptian art. 1° Necropolises of Beni Hassan and Deir el-Barsha Necropolis of Beni Hassen It harbours the sepultures of the great feudal lords who controlled the nome of Oryx (16th nome) during the Middle Empire with a great degree of independence vis-à-vis the central authority until this central authority decided to strengthen its authority even if it meant breaking the family ties of the nomarchs in the whole of Middle Egypt, striking a fatal blow at the construction of these great and costly tombs hewn out of the rock and thus interrupting their construction. Architecture of the tombs Dug out of the limestone cliff, the ancient necropolis lines the facades with its tombs on a 100 m long terrace which dominates the Nile. Among the 39 hygogeums, there are those that follow the traditional plan of the mastabas, (chapel for the priests, stele "false-door", serdab, funerary wells leading to the sarcophagus room), then there are tombs with one or several rooms without columns (most of them), tombs with fasciculated columns, lotus-shaped capitals and a great hall with two or three bays, tombs with fluted columns, vestibule in antes, a big rectangular room with two or three bays and a naos with the statue of the deceased. The decor exists only on 12 tombs out of the 39 listed and consists exclusively of paintings on a background prepared with a rough coat of plaster, rarely with painted reliefs as in most tombs of the Ancient Empire. The scenes are in the form of long horizontal registers dealing with classical subjects in the Ancient Empire (agricultural work, arts and crafts) but there was however, a new element pertaining to the status of the persons for whom these monuments had been set up, namely feudal military life. Decor of the tombs: Khety (n° 17), Bagit (n° 15), of Khnoumhopte (n° 3) and Amenemhat (n° 2) The themes portrayed are many and cover practically all aspects of human life and of nature. Just some examples of exceptional nature because of their rarity, originality and even their uniqueness. 1°) Classical themes: navigation, arts and crafts, scenes of offerings, tax collection, hunting in the desert. In tomb n° 15 is the rare and unexpected portrayal of four imaginary animals in the midst of real animals, whilst on the wall of tomb n° 17 is a moving family scene of the deceased under an umbrella, with his servants, his two dwarves, his three dogs and his monkey. 2°) "Sports" themes with scenes of wrestling (about 200 positions), war scenes and military sieges depicted with great vivacity. On one of the walls of tomb n° 15 illustrating the turbulent life of these great feudal lords, as in tomb n° 2, can be seen physical and training exercises of sports games, and even ball games. 3°) Family themes: the deceased enumerates his genealogy and family history. In another theme the heroine is his wife, the priestess of Hathor who is represented besides another identical picture of King Amenemhat sitting in front of the offerings, his son presiding over the presentation of the gifts. Also shown in the tomb is the mystical navigation towards Abydos and Busiris, the two sacred cities of Osiris. These astonishing and captivating pictures of life (sports themes), worthy of being in a physical and sports exercises manual, deserve to be known throughout the world and recognized as the most ancient and most pertinent, never depicted anywhere else in the world. These images preceded the illustrations of the games of Ancient Greece by several countries. The tombs of Deir el-Barsha These too have been dug out of the rock on one of the escarpments of Wadi Ennakhla, in an area full of ancient quarries, not far from the great site of El Ashmounein. Some of the tombs of this necropolis go back to the Ancient Empire. The most spectacular is doubtlessly that of Jehutihope who lived in the reign of Amenemhat II, Senusert II and Senusert III. (These three kings of the XII dynasty reigned successively between 1919 and 1854). On the wall of this tomb, in a slight relief, was painted the famous scene of transporting a colossal alabaster statue. 2. Necropolis of Tell al-Amarna Amenophis IV (1353-1337) neglected Thebes and its gods, took the name of Akhenaton, and built his capital, Akhenaton, in honour of a new god, Aton (the solar disc). This political and religious "revolution" had repercussions on the arts which were characterized by well specified esthetic criteria. When he died the city was destroyed by his successors, the capital city reverted to Thebes and the cult of Amon was restored. The "art of Amarna" survived and was resuscitated through the excavations and especially the discovery of tombs which the court dignitaries had prepared for themselves but we don't know if these had ever been used. Two groups of 25 tombs, at a distance of 4 km one from the other, were hewn out of the wall of the desert cirque surrounded by cliffs and opening only on to the Nile. Many are damaged and the figures of the "heretic" king and the queen had been systematically badlyhammered. The bas-reliefs decorating the walls have, however, the characteristics of the "Amarna style" such as the clear striving for realism so that the king was represented with all his physical defects and with his private life, a realism which made him a man amongst men, adoring a single deity accessible to all, Aton the solar disc. Even when the sovereign is represented with his family on the walls of tombs belonging to individuals, the scenes basically reflect the cult of Aton and those who represent him, namely the king, his wife Nefertiti and their son. Tomb n° 4 (that of Meryra the high priest of Aton) is one of the most beautiful and most important tombs of the necropolis, even if the nature of the highly granulated rock is illsuited for sculpture (it had to be rendered smooth by a layer of lime mortar into which a sunken relief was applied which replaced the bas-reliefs). Apart from the testimony of the tombs, Amarna has yielded thousands of objects which confirm just how the "art of Amarna" represents, as stated by a contemporary specialist, one of the undeniable heights of artistic production in the world of all times. The art of Amarna"The inventions of Aton marked a break in Egyptian history; art hitherto had been in celebration of the canons of the past, the Amarna style had liberated itself from its canons to illustrate the living present, a gift from Aton. The stereotyped iconography of divinities and of scenes beyond the grave, was replaced by scenes from daily life and when death had to be portrayed as when some princesses died and funerals took place, then the death was shown as something momentarily tragic with pain which also affected the ruling families, without any false prudishness or abstract idealisation.""The pictures of daily life, the spirit of universal love received from Aton which infused the scenes of the Pharaoh's private family life, are to be found in his own tomb. A revolutionary novelty was that at the four corners of the sarcophagus was the figure of queen Nefertiti protecting the deceased king. The following Pharaohs adopted this solution as well, but without daring to use the figures of their respective wives and using instead the four tutelary goddesses of the cardinal points (Isis, Nephtys, Selkis and Neith).""Akhenaton was dead, but his art survived under Tutankhamon, Ay and Horemheb: such as Tutankhamon's funerary belongings, scenes from the feast of Opet in Luxor and the reliefs of the tomb (partly in Bologna today). It is only under the Ramessides that there was a rejection of the art of Amarna and an archaistic re-introduction of art perhaps due to the strong return in full force of the priests of Amon."(Maurizio Damiano-Aphla, Egypt, encyclopaedic dictionary of Ancient Egypt and Nubian civilisations p. 43-44). 3. Necropolis of Touna al-Gabal An extremely important religious centre from remote antiquity up to the Christian era, capital of the XVth nome of Upper Egypt where Thot was worshipped (the Hermes of the Greeks) assisted by the Ogdoad (the eight primordial deities), El-Eshmounein (Hermopolis) is at present an immense site with remains from various periods including a very beautiful Christian basilica from the Vth century AD dedicated to the Virgin. Apart from the necropolis of Deir el-Barsha, hewn out of the rock of the eastern mountain of Gabal An-Nahla, on the right bank of the Nile, with its tombs of the Middle Dynasty, Hermopolis harbours, in the desert plain along the foot of the Libyan cliff, west of the Nile, the great cemetery of Touna al-Gabal which includes three necropolises of sacred animals (ibis and baboons) and a real city of the dead. The city of the dead: it has a grid layout, with orthogonal streets, tombs with several rooms and sometimes even with a kitchen and a storey just as in a house, (reminiscent of the Cairo cemeteries from the Islamic era where people came to stay with the dead on certain feastdays, right up to the present time). Some tombs date from the Ptolemaic period with an architecture where both Egyptian and Greek elements prevail (the frontons for example). Among the most remarkable tombs is doubtlessly that of Isidore (120 AD) and that of Neith (1st century BC) with scenes painted with great realism. The catacomb of sacred animals: this is an immense network of catacombs and some of the alleys sometimes stretch for several hundred metres where thousands of mummies of animals sacred to Thot (ibis and baboons) are located in recesses hewn out of the rock. The tomb of Petosiris: This is the main monument of the necropolis and the only example of a monumental tomb of the Hellenistic era of Middle Egypt, where there was a strong will to create a new style by associating both Greek and Egyptian art styles, an attempt, no doubt, which can be compared to that of Alexandria. Description From the outside looking like a small Ptolemaic temple, the tomb of Petosiris is made up of two parts; a wide rectangular vestibule with scenes about the arts and crafts (working and weighing of metals, preparation of unguents, wood work) and about pastoral life (tillage, harvests, wheat threshing, herds, grape harvests) and a long chapel supported by four pillars and two pilasters, the back pillars being intercalated by the funerary well.Facing the entrance, the deceased's children, boys and girls, form long processions. The traditional scenes of the Ancient Empire are replaced here by scenes where the figures are freely and less conventionally portrayed (of young women in transparent cloths, turning round to talk to the peasants and shepherds in the procession or young persons dressed in tunics). As for the chapel itself, it was decorated with funerary and mythological scenes in pure Egyptian tradition. The owner, Petosiris, belonged to a family of the high priests of Thot (a family that lived under the second Persian domination until the end of the IVth century) designed his project to serve as a family tomb worthy of the great tombs of nobles and princes of Ancient Egypt, but influenced by the tastes of the time which were dominated by Hellenism.