Early dynasties to the Middle Kingdom — II

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 12 Mar 2024

Zahi Hawass continues his review of ancient Egyptian sites dating from the Old to the Middle Kingdom in the second of two articles

Early dynasties to the Middle Kingdom   II
Temple of king seti 1 in Abydos


nother important Middle Kingdom settlement was located at Lisht, where 12th Dynasty kings Amenemhat I and Senwosret I built their pyramids.

Some scholars, myself included, believe that this might be part of ancient Itj-tawy, following the pattern set out in the Old Kingdom in which the palace of each king was located near his pyramid. The remains here include a number of pottery dumps along the edges of the desert, along with three granite altars. The town centre lies deep beneath the cultivation, and thus cannot be excavated, but there appear to have been suburbs that extended into the low desert.

Most of this settlement dates to the middle of the 13th Dynasty. The inhabitants were primarily from a middle class of low-level officials and craftsmen. The houses tend to be medium-sized: larger than the average Kahun house but smaller than a Kahun mansion. They are comparable in size to houses from Elephantine in Upper Egypt and in the Old Kingdom priestly settlements at Giza and Dahshur.

One characteristic house was located at the western end of the settlement attached to a large faience workshop and likely belonging to the chief faience-maker. This house has a typical plan for a person of middle status and also shows a number of building phases, demonstrating the adaptability for long-term use of such structures.

The entrance was probably through a wooden door, which sat on a stone threshold. Through the doorway lies a wide entryway, which gives access at the south to a small chamber used at some point for cooking, and at the west to a courtyard that was used both as a kitchen and a stable. In the back was a square room, beneath the floor of which an infant was buried. To the north, a corridor leads to an antechamber and a small storage room. There may have been a staircase here, leading to the roof.

The antechamber provided access to the private area of the house, with a hall for gatherings and then a private chamber. The roof of the hall was supported by two brick pillars, and a low brick structure with a fragment of a limestone stela near one pillar suggests that there may have been a household altar here. The walls of this room, as well as those of the antechamber, were plastered and painted, the lower part in black and the upper part in yellow.

Later in the building’s occupation history, another set of living quarters was added to the west, entered through a doorway in the original private chamber. One of the rooms here was vaulted, with a small window set into the vault. Still later, another set of chambers was added to the north, including a second entrance to the house.

A team from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has recently carried out more excavations at Lisht. In one of the houses they excavated, they found a platform on which was a wooden fragment with traces of yellow paint that may be from a piece of furniture, perhaps a chair or box. This was renovated several times, with major rebuilding done at one point and minor additions and changes at other times. Of interest here were a number of artefacts that suggest the inhabitants may have done their own fishing and weaving and perhaps even done some copper casting.

There was a small storage bin filled with grain outside the house, probably received by the house’s owners in return for their services. There was also a lump of pumice and some obsidian, both probably imported from the Aegean.



IDDLE KINGDOM PALACES: There are no well-preserved royal residences from the Middle Kingdom, but a passage in the Story of Sinuhe, a literary composition set in the time of king Senwosret I, tells us something about what a palace of this period might have looked like.

Sinuhe, a high courtier who has just returned from a long exile abroad, describes the royal complex: “My forehead touched the ground between the sphinxes, and the royal children stood in the gateway to meet me. The courtiers who usher through the forecourt set me on the way to the audience-hall. I found His Majesty on the great throne in a kiosk of gold.

Stretched out on my belly, I did not know myself before him, while this god greeted me pleasantly.

“I left the audience-hall, the royal daughters giving me their hands. We went through the great portals, and I was put in the house of a prince. In it were luxuries: a bathroom and mirrors. In it were riches from the treasury; clothes of royal linen, myrrh, and the choice perfume of the king and of his favourite courtiers were in every room.

“Every servant was at his task. Years were removed from my body. I was shaved; my hair was combed. Thus was my squalor returned to the foreign land, my dress to the Sand-farers. I was clothed in fine linen; I was anointed with fine oil. I slept on a bed. I had returned the sand to those who dwell in it, the tree-oil to those who grease themselves with it.” (Translation by Miriam Lichtheim).

The Intef princes and Mentuhotep kings of the 11th Dynasty ruled from Thebes, but there is neither archaeological nor textual evidence for their palaces. However, from the 13th Dynasty (although this is almost 300 years later) comes an account book detailing deliveries and expenses at a Theban palace during visits of the royal court over a period of several months.

This papyrus was found at Dra Abu Naga on the west bank of the Nile, and it is likely that the residence was nearby. At this point, the capital was still at Itj-tawy in the north, but the kings would have had palaces in other towns to visit during festivals and other state occasions. The Theban sojourn of the 13th Dynasty kings was during the feast of Montu, an important warrior god whose state cult place was here.

The only extensive archaeological remains of a Middle Kingdom palace come from Bubastis (Tel Basta). However, although the king may have stayed here briefly, this structure seems mainly to be for the local rulers of this province. It is a great complex covering about one hectare, with an unexcavated area at the west that may have covered up to two more hectares.

The palace complex can be divided into three areas: administrative, ceremonial, and residential, all reached via a processional route from the Temple of Bastet. The exterior façade was defined by a 12-columned porch with a screen wall. From here, a stone-framed doorway leads in to a courtyard (22 metres a side), with rooms to the east for gatekeepers. On the west are more doorways, two of which lead to the


 administrative area, with storerooms and offices.

The heart of the palace complex is a large court surrounded by colonnades. From here, there is access to ceremonial rooms on the north and east and private apartments and their service areas to the west. In the private area is at least one miniature villa, complete with a reception court, a sitting room, and a bedchamber. Additional groups of rooms represent the cores of more private apartments, with chambers for servants, kitchens and work areas. A garden court here is equipped with a limestone basin and an elaborate drainage system.

North and east of the great court are ceremonial rooms. On one side, a deep porch with six massive pillars leads to a large main chamber. From here, a door in the northwest corner gives access to a series of semiprivate receptions rooms; to the northeast is the door to a formal bedchamber and to the southwest is another small chamber. Apart from three statues of the mayors of this area, the excavations did not turn up any particularly interesting artefacts.

The only royal monument that has been found here is a fragmentary limestone doorway of Amenemhat III. Perhaps the blind court was a gathering place, with a parapet that presaged the “Window of Appearances”, where the king stood to greet his subjects. It is most likely that this was a mayoral palace, with rooms available for the occasional royal visit.



UBIA: The land of Nubia extends from the first to the sixth Cataract of the Nile in Upper Egypt, covering an area of about 250,000 km. It was divided into Lower Nubia, up to the second Cataract, and Upper Nubia beyond.

Many scholars believe that the name Nubia derives from the ancient Egyptian word for gold, nub, because much of Egypt’s gold came from the deserts of Nubia, but there is no strong evidence for this etymology. The ancient Egyptians called this land by many other names. Lower Nubia was known as Wawat, and Upper Nubia as Kush. The inhabitants of these areas were seen as having different characters, with the Lower Nubians as peaceful and the Upper Nubians as more warlike.

In ancient times, Nubia was an important source of men, incense, gold, and other luxury materials. The relationship between Egypt and its closest neighbour changed over time. In the early Old Kingdom, Egyptian aggression is thought to have cleared Lower Nubia of most of its native inhabitants, although the area was resettled by the end of this era. Documents from the Third Dynasty provide evidence for an Egyptian presence in Nubia during this time, and the Palermo Stone mentions that Sneferu, first King of the Fourth Dynasty, made a campaign in the south lands.

Evidence for a trading relationship, sometimes peaceful and sometimes bellicose, is found in tomb autobiographies from the Sixth Dynasty at Abydos and Aswan. By the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptians were building an empire here, which was lost during the Second Intermediate Period and then expanded dramatically in the New Kingdom.

Nubia is important for a review of settlement archaeology because of the string of relatively well-preserved fortresses that have been excavated there. The earliest colonial remains are at Buhen, on the east bank of the Nile near Wadi Halfa, where a town of the Old Kingdom has been excavated, with traces of an earlier settlement of the Second Dynasty beneath. This town was fortified with a massive wall of irregularly laid stone.

Many of the artefacts excavated here are associated with copper smelting, and it has been suggested that its location was chosen because it is at the end of a road leading from the copper mines in the desert. The pottery is almost all Egyptian, and there were many sealings from the royal courts of Khafre and Menkaure, showing clearly that this was a state outpost.

The 12th Dynasty kings built a chain of 17 fortresses in Nubia to protect their mining, quarrying, and trading activities to the south. Most of the Egyptians living in these fortresses were garrison soldiers, workmen, and officials.

This complex of forts was begun under Senwosret I and his successors, then rebuilt and expanded by Senwosret III against the rising threat of the Kingdom of Kush based at Kerma. These fortresses represent an enormous outlay of resources and manpower, attesting to their great importance to the Middle Kingdom government.

The fortresses of Senwosret Ill are all different, planned according to their natural settings and purposes. Most important was to have easy access to the river, with a wall fronting the Nile. They ranged in size from about 50 to 200 metres square. The basic construction technique was to clear and level the bedrock, then build a ditch with sloping sides and a flat bottom to define the perimeter of the fort. The ditches were paved with stone or mud brick, and mud-brick walls were built on their parapets. This enclosure could be a simple, straight affair, or an elaborate fortification with bastions, crenellations, and complex sets of loopholes for archers.

Two or more metres behind the ditch, a curtain wall would be built of mud brick reinforced with grass and sometimes timber. Against the outer faces, rectangular piers were built to buttress these walls. The curtain wall could be linked with spur-walls or towers. Permanent gates were protected by pairs of towers called barbicans. If the fortress did not communicate directly with the river, access to the water supply was provided by a stone-covered stairway. The fortress walls were filled with buildings, mainly of rectilinear shape, along narrow streets. There were few open courts.

A majority of the houses were magazines and granaries, but there were also offices and dwellings. Some buildings may have had more than one storey, but only the ground floors have been preserved. The larger forts could have outbuildings, such as magazines and residences, against the walls. These would then be surrounded by outer fortifications.

Bits and pieces of accounts and dispatches have been found in these fortresses, along with sealings that once closed jars, boxes, documents, and door-bolts. This fragmentary evidence, along with other textual sources, tell us that trade and the movement of the native Nubians were tightly controlled by the soldiers and administrators manning these fortresses. Most of these sites were burned to the ground during the Second Intermediate Period, perhaps when the Kushites from Kerma took over Lower Nubia or, more likely, when the early Pharaohs of the New Kingdom re-conquered the area.



VARIS: The site of Avaris (Tel Al-Daba) lies in the eastern Delta along the now-desiccated Pelusium Branch of the Nile. Active excavations have been going on here for several decades under the leadership of Egyptologist Manfried Bietak.

The first traces of settlement in the area, identified as a small royal estate, date from the time of Amenemhat I, although it would seem that there was an earlier endowment as well that has not been uncovered. A temple was built here by Amenemhat I and renewed by Senwosret III. Just to the south of the temple area was a planned settlement from the time of Amenemhat I and Senwosret I, similar in many ways to Illahun, for the workers who built the temple and its associated town.

There was then a break in occupation until the late 12th Dynasty, when the town expanded to the south; by the 13th Dynasty, it covered about 75 hectares (750 square metres). The administrators and high elite of this town were Egyptian, but a majority of the inhabitants were from Palestine.

After another period of abandonment, perhaps due to an epidemic, the town continued to grow. During the Hyksos Period, it became even more important and has now been convincingly identified as the capital city of these foreign rulers. At some point during the Second Intermediate Period, a citadel was built at Avaris.

The carefully planned worker’s settlement of the early 12th Dynasty was built of mud brick and enclosed by a wall. The living units, each with a floor area of about 25 square metres, were arranged in long rectangular blocks along narrow streets. The houses here are very much like the mansions at Illahun. Most are oriented with the entrance to the north, perhaps to take advantage of the cool northern breeze and avoid the hotter southern winds. The entrance door could be offset, so that passersby could not see directly into the main living room.

The first chamber is a broad entry vestibule, leading to the central feature of the house: a living chamber with one or two side rooms. One of the side rooms typically contains a niche with a raised platform, generally identified as a sleeping alcove. Additional rooms in the southern part of the house could serve as bathrooms and dressing rooms, and a portico could be added to the north.

Almost half of the excavated area at Avaris was occupied by a large building, now identified as a palace of the early 13th Dynasty. This appears to have been in use for about 30 years, and underwent several changes of plan. Not all of it has been excavated to date; the complex appears to continue to the north, east, and west.

The palace complex consists of four principal areas: the entrance portico, the great colonnaded court, and the western and eastern halls and bedroom suites. The entrance portico leads to two sets of chambers laid out like the smaller houses, each with a larger public room and a smaller private room, with a third chamber across the back. A door in the western wall of the portico leads to a long corridor and then to the great colonnaded court. Access to the western of the two halls and bedroom sets is through this court; the eastern, which was built later, is reached via the western. The halls in these sets of chambers are supported by columns.

The main chambers are surrounded by vestibules and subsidiary buildings such as kitchens and magazines; a building with limestone slabs and a columned portico probably served as a chapel. There does not appear to have been a second storey, but there were stairways leading up to the roof. The southern part of the site was given over to a garden and later to a necropolis.

The palace lies on a bed of clean yellow sand constructed of sun-dried bricks of sand and silt. The walls still stand to a height of up to one metre and are still coated with mud plaster in some places. Bits of wall paintings, all geometric patterns in white, black, red and blue on a yellow background, were found on the floors of various rooms. Thresholds and several door-jambs of stone were discovered in situ. Floors could also be paved with bricks, then covered with a layer of sand and plastered.

One of the most interesting features of this palace was the water-supply system, which was built of burnt bricks and consisted of conduits leading to brick basins. Around the basins, the excavators found many pot-sherds, both of drinking cups and larger water jars. The water may have been carried to the entrance of the system by donkeys.

The gardens were arranged in rows of plots about one cubit (about 50 cm) square. Interspersed throughout these were circular tree pits. The gardens were taken over later by a cemetery, with subterranean chambers of brick roofed by vaults. Although the palace itself is quite Egyptian in its layout and features, the cemetery is not: a number of the tombs were accompanied by the burial of two donkeys, a practice seen at this time in Syria-Palestine. Above these tombs, another garden was laid out.

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