Early dynasties to the Middle Kingdom

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 13 Feb 2024

Zahi Hawass reviews ancient Egyptian sites dating from the Old to the Middle Kingdom in the first of two articles.

Zahi Hawass
Zahi Hawass


From our vantage point 5,000 years later, the transition between the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods in Egypt looks very smooth. Many key Predynastic sites, such as Hierakonpolis and Abydos, show continuous occupation. The settlements and palaces of the Early Dynastic, Old, and Middle kingdoms show a gradual development.

There are still large gaps in our evidence, however: the key town of Ineb-hedj/Memphis is, for all practical purposes, unexcavated, and the exact location of the Middle Kingdom capital of Itj-tawy is not known. However, we can see that population centres grew gradually larger, and houses in far-flung sites were built according to similar patterns.

There is a clear continuum in house size and elaboration from lower to higher-status, and all types of dwellings, from huts to palaces, were modified as the needs of the inhabitants changed.


MEMPHIS: There are no archaeological traces of the early capital at Ineb-hedj, and the Early Dynastic remains here are limited to tombs. In fact, no settlement sites dating to before the First Intermediate Period have vet been uncovered in the Memphite area. Archaeologist David Jeffries is working in the area now, exploring what little is left.

Although we have no archaeological traces of the Memphite palaces of the First Dynasty, it is widely believed the royal complex was surrounded by mud-brick walls elaborated with simple and complex niches. This displays the influence of Mesopotamia, far away to the northeast. It is certain that the two cultures were in contact with one another through long-distance trade.

The niched wall of the palace enclosure at the Memphite capital became an important symbol of the king. Incised onto labels or carved onto stone monoliths, images of this “palace façade”, surmounted by a rectangle, were used to hold the royal name. These symbols, known as serekhs, can be said to represent the king inside his palace (the ancient Egyptians did not use perspective the way we do — and the rectangle is meant to be interpreted as behind the niched façade). Perched on top is a falcon, symbolising the protection the falcon-god Horus affords the king.

The principal royal residence remained in the Memphite area throughout the Old Kingdom. However, it is likely that each king built a palace near the site of his pyramid so that he could oversee the construction of his eternal home, and it is now thought that his court moved with him. By the mid-Sixth Dynasty, the main centre was across the river from South Saqqara, and had been renamed Mennefer after the pyramid complex of Pepi I.

During the Middle Kingdom, the principal residence was at Itj-tawy, with a second temporary residence at Thebes, attested to in an account papyrus that records a visit of the king and his family to Thebes for the feast of Montu. Although the kings must have had rest houses near their Pyramids, it seems that the entire court no longer moved with each successive king.


HIERAKONPOLIS: The town of Hierakonpolis, already of great consequence in the Predynastic era, continued as a major centre through the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom.

The town lay inside a massive wall of mud-brick and consisted of closely-built houses. In the southern part of the city lay a mound of sand held together by a stone revetment, probably the foundation of a temple.

The last king of the Second Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, built a large mud-brick enclosure in the low desert at Hierakonpolis. This is now called the Fort and covers an area of about 67 by 57 m. Its walls are five m thick, and in some places it still stands to its original height of nine m. In keeping with the icon of the Early Dynastic palace complex, its exterior is niched. Once covered with white plaster, it was entered through a single projecting gate. On either side of this gate are narrow stairwells that presumably once gave access to the top of the wall.

There was some sort of structure in the centre of this enclosure, of which little remains. Its roof was supported by two large wooden columns that stood on a pair of granite column bases with recessed centres. The most recent excavator, archaeologist Renée Friedman, estimates that the Second-Dynasty King Khasekhem, as he was called in the early part of his reign, might have ruled from this site that was in fact a palace.

In 1999, her team found fragments of granite that she believes once belonged to jambs or a lintel. These match a lintel inscribed with the name of Khasekhemwy and images of the king in ceremonial costume found earlier near the Fort.

The pottery found in the Fort dates to the middle of Khasekhemwy’s reign, rather than to the end.

Some scholars have suggested that it was built during the hypothetical period of civil war that marred the Second Dynasty. Khasekhem might have ruled from Hierakonpolis (where a number of important artefacts bearing his name in this form have been found) and built the Fort as a funerary enclosure during this time, expecting to be buried here. Once he reunited Egypt, he moved his burial site to Abydos, traditional necropolis for the Early Dynastic Egyptian kings.

However, Friedman believes instead that it was built as a palace for the living king, perhaps on the occasion of his jubilee festival or to celebrate the end of the civil war.


BUTO: Buto or Tell Al-Farain, known in ancient times as per-Wadjet (the house of Wadjet), lies in the Nile Delta, about 40 km south of the Mediterranean coast. It was the cult centre of the tutelary deity of Lower Egypt, the cobra goddess Wadjet. 

The earliest settlement remains here date to the middle Predynastic Period and bear the hallmarks of the Maadi culture. The middle Predynastic level has yielded some clay artefacts that resemble cones used in Mesopotamia to adorn monumental mud-brick architecture. In the next occupation stratum, the Upper Egyptian material culture subsumes the local traditions.

The level belonging to the Early Dynastic period includes a massive building, of which only part has been explored. It is organised around two perpendicular corridors, a typical building style for this era, and Early Dynastic pottery found in the area confirms the date. The plastered and painted walls, with a black dado, then yellow with red stripes probably in imitation of matting, still stand to a height of up to 60 cm, and the rooms were once roofed with acacia. The floors were covered with charcoal, indicating that the building was destroyed by fire. 

The excavator of the site, archaeologist Thomas von der Way, has suggested that this might have been a provincial palace for the king, although it might also have been a temple or some other sort of cult place. It includes areas that he has interpreted as a king’s house, a harem for the royal women, an administrative centre, an armory, workshops, and gardens with pools.

One room, which could be entered only through a circuitous route, contained a thick layer of pure sand, and another chamber had a limestone slab, about 90 by 70 cm, set into the floor. This might have been for a royal throne, or perhaps for a statue of the king or a god.

The artefacts found here include many small flint blades, a small basalt weight, and about 30 impressions from cylinder seals. The seals bear the names and titles of officials, but no royal names. 

The pottery found at the site was mostly mediocre or poor in quality, but it included pot stands, tiny beakers, bowls, and plates. There were also fragments from ostrich eggshells found in one of the rooms.


ELEPHANTINE: In Pharaonic times, the southernmost border of Egypt proper lay at Aswan, where rocky outcrops of hard stone interrupted the flow of the river. One of these outcrops forms a large island right in the middle of the river, creating a perfect vantage point from which to monitor expeditions to and from the lands to the south. 

Traces of settlement here stretch back to the middle Predynastic Period and continue into Graeco-Roman times. With the founding of the Egyptian state, Elephantine became an official centre for trade with the south, and a fortress was built here in the Early Dynastic Period.

This fortress, whose inhabitants were not local, but instead were sent south from the capital at Memphis, was constructed on high ground on the eastern shore, with a settlement zone outside its walls. An additional wall was then built around the southern part of the island, enclosing the gradually growing residential area. This continued to grow in the Second Dynasty, and the fortress walls were expanded to include more of the eastern part of the island.

The fortified settlement at Elephantine continued into the Old Kingdom. In the late Third Dynasty, a new complex was built on the west side of the island, focused on a small step pyramid called “The Headband of King Huni” (last king of the Third Dynasty). This was not a tomb but seems instead to have stood as a symbol of royal authority. The excavator, archaeologist Werner Kaiser, suggests that there might even have been some sort of state cult centred here. In any case, it did not last for long, and by the late Fourth Dynasty, craft workshops had been built here instead, to be replaced soon afterward by part of the town cemetery.

The Old Kingdom houses at Elephantine were organised around a large central space that took up the entire width of the building. Smaller rooms were arranged around this, including an antechamber, a room with an oven or fireplace, and a room with a central column.


ABYDOS: Much of the town of Abydos is still unexcavated, and even more is now gone, but work carried out over the past decade by a US expedition under David O’Connor has uncovered many interesting features. 

The town grew around a temple of Khen-tiamentiu (an early deity later syncretised with Osiris) on top of the Pre- and Early Dynastic settlement. To the west and south of the temple lay houses and workshops. The area is organised around a narrow street, and so far a number of mud-brick houses and courtyards have been cleared. 

The row houses each had between seven and ten rooms, and their interiors show signs of occupation and modification over several generations. The residents were apparently farmers and baked their own bread and did their own cooking in their houses. Nearby was a larger house for someone of higher status. The ceramics found at the site were mostly locally made, although there were also some imports from as far away as Memphis.

Also at Abydos is a large planned town associated with the mortuary temple of the 12th-Dynasty King Senwosret III. The officials, priests, and workers associated with the royal cult lived here along with their families, perhaps a total of 1,000 people in all. 

The town site covers about 300 m from north to south and lies at the edge of the desert near the king’s funerary complex. It extends another 300 m into the floodplain, where it is now covered by modern construction. The houses are laid out in blocks and rows, arranged according to the status of their owners.

One of the buildings excavated thus far is an enormous mansion, built for the mayor of the town. This is the largest non-royal residence ever found and was used for food preparation and granaries.

A number of interesting small artefacts were found in the mayor’s house, including jewellery made from semi-precious stones, cosmetic containers of alabaster, bits of stone statues, and many other things. There were also many clay seal impressions bearing the names and titles of the town’s top officials. 

Four mayors are attested here, probably a sequence of fathers and sons. These men were closely allied with the royal house. It was not only the where the mayor and his family lived, but it was also a centre for the administrative business of the town. Its thick walls are of mud-brick, plastered and then painted. It may even have had a second storey. The thresholds were of stone, the doors framed with wood, and the door leaves were of cedar wood, imported from far to the north.

The mansion contained many rooms, including the private apartments of the family, large columned halls in which the mayor and his staff carried out town business, and chambers for food storage. One of the mayors may even have married a princess named Renyseneb.

One of the most interesting artefacts found here was a mud brick decorated with an image of a mother with a newborn child flanked by female attendants and Hathor-headed standards. The town’s excavator, Josef Wegner, believes that this is a birth brick, one of two used by a woman in labour.

She would have squatted with her feet on these, and their magical decoration would have protected her from evil spirits. Birth bricks are known from ancient texts, but this is the first actual example ever found.


GIZA: There were most likely settlements and palaces associated with all of the major Pyramid Complexes of the Old Kingdom. Some of these are known only from textual sources, such as an inscription from the tomb of Senedjemib Inty at Giza. 

On the façade there is a letter from the Fifth-Dynasty king Djedkare-Isesi thanking his royal architect for the plan of a palace to be built within his mortuary complex at South Saqqara. Another Fifth-Dynasty palace, that of Sahure, is mentioned in the texts. This was born out archaeologically when the Czech team excavating at Abusir found traces of column bases near this king’s pyramid.

In addition to the settlement associated with the royal administration and the construction crew associated with each pyramid, priestly towns grew up around each complex where the cult continued for any length of time. Such small, organic villages have been excavated at Dahshur, Abusir, and Saqqara.

At Giza, we have found examples of each of these types of settlements. In the late 1980s and 1990s, during the construction of a new sewage system below the modern suburbs that press against the plateau at Giza, we were able to catch tantalising glimpses of an Old Kingdom settlement, perhaps the “downtown” of Egypt’s capital city at the time. 

This lies east of the Pyramids and covers more than six km. We were able to clear several areas and found evidence that there was a town here made up of groups of mud-brick buildings. The artefacts we uncovered included many Old Kingdom potsherds, mostly from domestic vessels such as beer jars, but also some fine tableware and pottery in which goods from Upper Egypt were imported. There were animal bones showing signs of butchering and the microscopic remains of pollen.

In 1994, I discovered part of a monumental building of mud-brick faced with limestone laid on a basalt foundation about 1,250 m from the Great Pyramid. This was more than 300 feet long, and I believe that it may be the remains of Khufu’s Palace. Nearby should be the area where the royal court and administration was centred. Unfortunately, the modern houses above make it impossible to excavate here.

Giza is also the site of one of the most spectacular finds of recent years, the most completely excavated example of a settlement for Pyramid builders. In 1990, a woman riding a horse in the desert south of the Great Sphinx was thrown when her mount stumbled over a low mud-brick wall. This turned out to be part of a tomb belonging to one of the Pyramid builders.

Subsequent excavations have revealed that the entire area is a necropolis filled with hundreds of tombs, and my team has been working there for over a decade now. In the low desert east of the cemetery is a large settlement site, which is being excavated by Mark Lehner.

Lehner’s work is uncovering the royal installation serving the crew that built the Pyramids. The settlement is bounded on the north by a great wall (the Wall of the Crow) and on the west by a smaller enclosure. Inside, a number of long galleries have been laid out along wide east-west streets. These galleries, arranged in blocks of eight, are each about 15 feet wide (east-west) and 103 feet long (north-south). The galleries were most likely barracks in which temporary workmen sent from the provinces slept, about 55 to each barracks, and they might also have served as workshops. 

A columned hall nearby may have been a cafeteria where the workers ate. Larger houses at the ends of the main streets may have been the homes of officials, administration buildings, or both. In either case, they would have controlled the gates in and out of the installation.

Other houses inside the complex are simple affairs built with rough fieldstone foundations, and they may have been workers’ housing. West of the entire gallery complex are some small chambers, also of fieldstone, arranged around an open courtyard, which may have been storerooms.

Dominating the southern part of the site is a monumental building with buttressed stone walls. This has been partly excavated, as it runs under a modern soccer field. The visible part is 45 m wide and 35 m from north to south; it may be as long as 100 m. It was used during the reigns of Khafre and Menkaure for administration and storage. One of the most interesting features of the building is a sunken court containing round silos used to store grain.

Faunal remains found in the royal installation tell us that cattle were being butchered every day here, so that the inhabitants, who needed a great deal of strength to drag the stones for the Pyramids, would eat very well.

The animals slaughtered here, 11 cows and 33 goats a day, would have fed 10,000 people, the most likely estimate for the size of the team employed in building each Pyramid. These workers were the elite construction crew for the Giza Kings, and they were treated well. To the east, the site continues under the houses of the nearby village. 

Lehner has caught glimpses of what look like houses here; these may have served as living units for the artisans and higher-level crew chiefs. It is also likely that this settlement joins with the pyramid town glimpsed during the sewage excavations.

Priestly towns were clustered around the valley temples of both Menkaure and Khentkawes I (a queen regnant from the end of the Fourth Dynasty) to house the men and women who served the royal cults. In both of these towns the houses are small, consisting generally of two small rooms in the front and a large room (which can be a hall or a court) in the back. 

Larger houses were found in the Complex of Khentkawes. These have an elongated central chamber with a portico at the south end and private chambers, one of which has a sleeping niche.


AL-LAHUN: Most of our settlement evidence from the Middle Kingdom is from purpose-built towns associated with the royal administration or cult, like the town of Senwosret Ill at Abydos.

Another important site is Al-Lahun (also known as Kahun), which was built specifically for the workmen, overseers, officials, and support staff involved in the construction of the Pyramid Complex of Senwosret II, as well as the priests and other personnel assigned to celebrate the royal mortuary cult. 

It was laid out according to a regular plan, and now is thought to have been occupied continuously from the 12th Dynasty through to the early 18th Dynasty. Al-Lahun, like most towns excavated so far, was enclosed by a mud-brick wall. An area of high ground to the east most likely once housed a temporary palace for the king to use on his visits of inspection.

Surrounding this high ground are large villas for the high officials connected with the pyramid project. These range in size from 1,000 to 2,400 m square. Each was arranged around a large courtyard, with porticos along the sides leading to pillared reception halls or kitchens and storerooms. Chambers for women and servants were also around the large court, and the private chambers of the house owner were reached down a long corridor. In addition to bedrooms, there were bathrooms and lavatories. Each villa might have had as many as 70 rooms.

The western part of the site is filled with row houses for the workers. These were of mud brick, one story each, with stairs to the roof. The walls were plastered and sometimes painted in red and yellow. Wood could be used for columns in the larger rooms and for the thresholds.

The excavator, British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie, found some houses still standing and discovered artefacts that seemed to have been left behind when the town was abandoned. There were domestic items such as pottery, jewellery, cosmetic equipment, toys and games, and a firestick. 

One house, which contained wooden dolls and a large amount of hair, might have belonged to a toymaker. A group of artefacts perhaps owned by the local magician was also found. Stone, wood-working, and weaving tools, as well as a metal-caster’s shop, provide important information about technology in this era. The town produced its own food, and Petrie also found agricultural implements and fishing gear. 

In addition, there was a papyrus archive, from which scholars have been able to glean information about legal matters, medicine (both human and veterinary), and the working conditions for the inhabitants.

There also seem to have been foreigners living on the site. Some were from Crete, as is shown by the presence of a type of pottery known as Kamares ware. Some of these vessels were imported, and others were local copies. Other non-Egyptian finds were stone stands in the form of human figures used for making offerings in houses, infants buried in boxes, and a copper torque.

Many foreigners are also named in the papyri, most as household servants or participants in temple festivals. The non-Egyptian origin of these men and woman is indicated by the word aamu, which means Asiatic, placed after their names. There was even an officer in charge of the aamu troops, and a scribe of the aamu.

Some of these non-Egyptians might have been descendants of captives from foreign wars, while others may have been traders or craftsmen.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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