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Rock-Cut Tombs of the Middle Kingdom

Rock-Cut Tombs of the Middle Kingdom

Location, Plans, and Political Power.

One indication of the central government's control over its officials in ancient Egypt was the location and plan of official's tombs. At times when the central government exercised strong control over the provinces, officials wanted to be buried near the king. This was clearly the case in the Old Kingdom when cities of the dead surrounded the pyramids. These Old Kingdom mastabas were gifts from the king to his top officials. In general their plans were similar since they were all built in the same place by the same people. In contrast, during the early Middle Kingdom, provincial officials preferred to locate their tombs in their home provinces. Nomarchs, the officials who ruled the 42 Egyptian provinces that Egyptologists call nomes, established their own cities of the dead that included many local officials. This tradition of local burial began in the First Intermediate Period (2130–2008 b.c.e.), a time when the absence of a central government caused the individual nomes to behave as independent entities. Even with the reestablishment of strong central government in the Twelfth Dynasty, nomarchs who lived during the first four reigns of the period (1938–1837 b.c.e.) preferred burial in their hometowns rather than in Itj-tawy, the national capital. Furthermore, in the Middle Kingdom, local variations in tomb plans were common. Local traditions, especially of rock-cut tombs, grew in Beni Hasan, Bersheh, and Asyut, among other places. Then in the reign of Senwosret III (1836–1818 b.c.e.), the burial of provincial officials returned to the area around the king's pyramid in relatively similar mastaba tombs. Egyptologists regard this change as evidence that the king had reasserted his authority over the provinces. A comparison of three provincial tombs demonstrates how Egyptologists have analyzed this situation: the tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan, the tomb of Djeheutyhotep at Bersheh, and the tomb of Hepdjefa I at Asyut—all built in the early Twelfth Dynasty.

The Tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan.

Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt is 23 miles south of the modern city of Minya on the east bank of the Nile. Eight of the 39 tombs excavated in the mountains belonged to a succession of men who held the title "Great Overlord of the Oryx Nome," the ancient name of Beni Hasan. Amenemhet was Great Overlord, or nomarch, during the reign of Senwosret I (1919–1875 b.c.e.). The pathway to his tomb led up the mountain from the cultivated plain in the river valley to a court cut directly into the bedrock of the mountain. The face of the mountain itself was smoothed to form a façade. The façade is supported by two columns, also cut from the mountain itself. The columns are octagonal and support an architrave, the series of beams that columns support. The architrave carries a cornice, a projecting moulding that imitates the ends of rafters made of wood, though carved in stone. The columns taper to the top and carry an abacus, a plain slab of stone balanced between the top of the columns and the bottom of the architrave, while standing on a wide base. The abacus helps to distribute the weight of the architrave over the column. The base also supports the column and spreads its weight on the floor. Though built more than 1,500 years earlier, the columns and architrave resemble classical Greek architecture. The visitor would then pass between the columns into a square room cut into the mountain. The roof of this room is supported by four columns, each with sixteen sides. The columns support two architraves that run from the front to the back of the room. The architraves appear to support three vaults. The vaults spring from the two sidewalls to the architraves on the two columns and another vault between the columns. The columns, architraves, and vaults all were carved from the stone of the mountain. Centered in the rear is a niche containing a statue of Amenemhet, also carved from the mountain itself. Paintings illustrating daily life in the Oryx nome and military training decorate the sidewalls.

The Tomb of Djeheutyhotep at Bersheh.

Bersheh is on the east bank of the Nile opposite Mallawi, a modern town in central Egypt. In ancient times it was in the Hare Nome. Djeheutyhotep was the Great Overlord of the Hare Nome during the reigns of Amenemhet II through the time of Senwosret III (1844–1818 b.c.e.). His tomb reflects a local tradition of rock-cut tombs that began in the First Intermediate Period. The court of the tomb stood before a façade cut from the mountain. Two round columns carved at the top to imitate palm leaves supported the entrance to the tomb that is behind the columns and leads upward to a rectangular room. Against the middle of the rear wall are three steps leading up to a shrine that once held a statue. The painted walls depict scenes of daily life, including a famous painting of workmen dragging a colossal statue of Djeheutyhotep. The shape and numbers of columns, shapes of the rooms, and arrangement of the shrine differ from the contemporary tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan, indicating that the two traditions of rock-cut tombs developed separately.


introduction: The Twelfth-dynasty monarch of the Oryx nome, modern Beni Hasan, Khnumhotep, left a long biographical inscription on the walls of his tomb. In the inscription he described the rebuilding of his father's tomb as his first act. He also described his pride in building a tomb for himself.

[On his father's tomb] I restored it and its riches in everything. I perpetuated the name of my father and I restored his ka-temple [i.e., his tomb]. I followed my statues to the temple. I presented to them their offerings of bread, beer, cool water, and wine, and meat offerings which were assigned to the ka-priest and I endowed him with fields and workers. I commanded invocation offerings of beef and fowl at every festival of the necropolis. … Now as for any ka-priest or anyone who will disturb it, he can no longer exist! His son does not exist in his place! … My chief dignity was the embellishing for myself of a tomb, that a man might imitate what his father did. My father had made for himself a ka-temple in Mernofret, made from stone of Anu, in order to perpetuate his name forever and that he might be distinguished forever, his name living in the mouth of the people and enduring in the mouth of the living, upon his tomb of the necropolis and in his splendid house of eternity and his place of eternity.

Translation byEdwardBleiberg.

The Tomb of Hepdjefa I at Asyut.

Asyut is located on the west bank of the Nile at a bend in the river that flows east to west. In ancient times it was the capital of the Lycopolite Nome. The Great Overlords of the Lycopolite Nome built their tombs in their home-towns from the end of the Sixth Dynasty until the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty. Hepdjefa I lived in the time of King Senwosret I and was also a contemporary of Amenemhet of Beni Hasan. Hepdjefa, who lived the farthest away from the seat of central power in Itj-tawy, built for himself the largest tomb known from the Middle Kingdom. It contains seven rooms cut into the mountain along a central axis. A wide passageway leads from a forecourt to a wide rectangular chamber. The rectangular chamber has three doors on the back wall. Two of the doors, located on the sides, lead to small rectangular rooms. The third door, located in the center of the back wall at the top of two steps, leads to another long hall that splits into a U-shaped room. Finally a smaller hallway located in the center of the "U" leads to a small square room. The front rooms contain inscriptions, notably the contract Hepdjefa made with his priests to continue his cult for eternity. The only scenes are in the back shrine. Here low reliefs depict scenes of sacrifice.

Local Traditions and Central Power.

In the generations following these three nomarchs, high officials were once again buried around the king's pyramid. The tombs at a central location were once again uniform in plan. This contrast with the earlier period is very suggestive for historians. The plans and decorations at the tombs of Amenemhet, Djeheutyhotep and Hepdjefa I clearly developed independently. Amenemhet and Djeheutyhotep developed tombs with a small number of rooms. Amenemhet's tomb utilized a colonnade in the front and four columns in the interior room. Djeheutyhotep used only two columns in the front, but they were carved to resemble palms while Amenemhet's columns were carved with geometric facets. Hepdjefa's tomb was even more elaborate with seven rooms, but no columns at all. Decoration also differed. Amenemhet gave much space to depicting military training. Djeheutyhotep emphasized his colossal statue. Hepdjefa recorded an inscription. This variety, especially when it disappears in the reign of Senwosret III, suggests that the nomarchs were also much more independent politically. Thus architecture can be extremely informative about the political history of Egypt.


Alexander Badawy, A History of Egyptian Architecture: The First Intermediate Period, the Middle Kingdom, and the Second Intermediate Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).

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