Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 29 Jun 2021

Zahi Hawass goes on a tour of Pharaonic monuments at Saqqara outside Cairo and Beni Hassan and Amarna in Middle Egypt

Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs
Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs

To continue the magic of the Pharaohs, let us go to the popular mastaba (tomb) of Ti of the Fifth Dynasty at the site of Saqqara. Ti was a nobleman who was the overseer of the sun temples of the Pharaoh. The entry to his tomb is down a sloping area to a courtyard. At the bottom of the shaft off the courtyard was the burial chamber of Ti. 

In the rooms on the first level are depictions of Ti in this life, along with offering scenes for the next life. Over in the corner of his chamber, there is a cut in the wall. A statue of Ti was placed behind this, and the slit gave the deceased the ability to look out on his mourners and watch how they were keeping up his burial cult. 

This viewing would have been entirely at Ti’s discretion; he did not have to come back from eternity. If the next life was pleasant enough and the proper tribute continued on Earth, then the ancient Egyptian religion did not demand that Ti make a visit to this world.

Also at Saqqara is a very popular and ornate tomb, that of the noble Mereruka. Visiting it means jumping forward in time by 200 years, but this 32-room palace for the dead justifies that leap.

Mereruka was a Sixth Dynasty vizier and priest of the Pharaoh Teti, whose pyramid cult he served. In fact, Mereruka’s mastaba is only about 150 feet from the entrance to Teti’s pyramid. He and his family have the largest mastaba in Saqqara. As we look around, there are scenes of hunting, goldsmiths, and furniture-making. The large hall with pillars is a feature that will be repeated as we travel south in all ages of tomb building.

It is tempting to stop here and build up evidence that would paint a picture of how the people lived and worked at the time this monument was produced. But that will have to wait for another journey into the past. Now we must begin a Nile river journey south. The ancients would travelled on the Nile in a romantic little bark, but modern man is in more of a hurry.

On this voyage, our first stop is at Beni Hassan. This is geographically considered to be in Middle Egypt and is off the standard tourist route. But since it was an important town from the time of Cheops in the Old Kingdom through the Middle Kingdom, it is a site not to be missed.

Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs
Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs

The rock-cut tombs of the nomarchs, men like local governors of provinces and the towns inside those areas in ancient times, are built on high cliffs. Before the Department of Antiquities put in stairs to reach them, the climb was brutal. But looking around the vista after arriving at the top, the view is worth the effort, at least for the living. It was the family of the deceased that had to keep up the cult of the dead in ancient times if the departed was to receive his proper position in the afterlife.

There is a formality and pattern to the tombs on this cliff as with other aspects of ancient Egyptian life and culture. Some of the scenes on the walls of the tomb of Khnumhotep are reminiscent of the Old Kingdom tombs at Saqqara even though they were painted 800 years later. A few years ago, you could hardly tell what was on the walls, but the recent cleaning has given a wonderful perspective. 

A similar scene of hunting in the marshes found in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara can be found here in what is clearly a traditional motif. But as we look around the chamber, it is also possible to see scenes that reflect more action and freedom of movement than the reliefs from the Old Kingdom. Here we see animated wrestling scenes, a special theme at Beni Hassan that did not appear prior to this point in the Middle Kingdom. 

What fun these men seem to be having, competing against each other in this sport of strength and cunning. You can almost hear the sound of hot flesh as they tear at one another for position. I wonder if this is a game, or perhaps a competition meant to settle an argument.

A few years ago, two families used to bring donkeys to the tourist boats for the tourists to ride up to the cliffs at Beni Hassan. These families fought each other for business to the extent that one family member was killed and a blood feud was declared on the other. The battle was so severe that the Department of Antiquities forbade either family from serving tourists with donkeys. It was an extreme situation. But who knows, maybe the wrestling scenes on the walls of this tomb mean more than we might think at first glance.

A scene on the wall of the tomb also depicts a visit by 37 Asiatics dressed in brightly coloured fringed robes. Each has a beard, and their dress and facial hair distinguish them from the nomarchs to whom they are paying tribute. The name of the leader of this group is written in hieroglyphs and reads “Epsha”. People who study the Bible have connected this man with the prophet Abraham. It is possible that they are one and the same. But there is a need for more research before a positive identification can be made.

One of the elements of the tribute is visible, showing a caravan bearing quantities of eye paint to give to the nomarch. The strong columns and open space of the tomb give a sense of a presentation hall for the living. There is a vitality that seems to infuse this room within a hill. There are also pillars cut inside the room of the sort seen at Mereruka’s tomb at Saqqara.

Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs
Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs

Exploring further: The next stop is the home of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. Since he established his capital away from ancient Egypt’s previous administrative centre, it takes a while to get to Amarna, the present name of Akhenaten’s city. 

When it was inhabited by the royal court of Akhenaten and his legendary wife Nefertiti, it was called Akhetaten, or “the horizon of the sun”. Sometimes visitors to the site are disappointed, as the broad plain may look as if nothing ever happened here. But upon taking a closer look, the outlines of a magnificent and self-contained city can still be seen, its perimeter marked by boundary stela such as the one at Tuna Al-Gabal.

The area within the 14 stela that outline the city is about 100km square or 66 square miles of territory. The majority of the built part of Akhetaten is here and covers about 10 square miles.

The bodies of Akhenaten and Nefertiti themselves have never been found. Most of the remains of Amarna art have been destroyed. But between the north and south cliffs that contain the rock-cut tombs of the nobles, there is a wadi, or depression between the cliffs, which acts as a path for the rain from the violent storms that drench the area without warning every 100 or 200 years. When water runs down the wadi, it destroys everything in its path. 

It is through this cut in the hills that Akhenaten chose to build his and Nefertiti’s tomb. The terrain that leads up to the tomb is barren and rock-filled. It is necessary to walk 5.5km to reach the desolate location that Akhenaten selected as his final earthly resting place. And when you arrive and enter the sacred area, you can see that it is a rather small tomb that has been hacked to bits by unknown persons intent upon destroying everything having to do with the Pharaoh and his wife. 

In their minds, this was the proper penance for the religious turmoil caused by Akhenaten when he forced his god, the Aten, on the people of Egypt and suppressed the pantheon of gods that the ancient Egyptians had worshipped for more than 1,000 years.

Initially, Egyptologists began work at Akhetaten in the royal areas. On the northern side of the town, there is the former palace of Nefertiti, now surrounded by wire fencing to keep visitors off its mud-brick walls. Akhenaten and other Pharaohs used mud-brick buildings for their homes on earth, but built in stone for the monuments to eternity that were their tombs.

In the centre of the city to the south of Nefertiti’s palace, we find the Great Temple of the Aten. The pits in front of the Temple used to contain trees to shade the royal worshippers as they came to bring tribute to the god. It was the royal family that received the grace that was given by Aten, as it seems that Akhenaten restricted access to the Aten to the royal family alone. 

If you were not one of his children or his wife, then you could only worship the Aten through the family. This restriction helped bring down the cult of the Aten. The god was too exclusive. He needed to be accessible to the people, not kept from them.

In this area, there is the central palace of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This dirt expanse was once the location of the “Window of Appearances” in which you can imagine Akhenaten and Nefertiti distributing gold necklaces to their loyal retainers who had done a special service for the family. These broad collars had the same shape as the gold collars in Mereruka’s tomb, showing the motif carried forward in Akhenaten’s reign 1,200 years after it was first introduced in ancient Egypt.

The more recent excavations at Amarna have been in areas once inhabited by the artisans that worked and lived in the city.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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