Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1383, (1 - 7 March 2018)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1383, (1 - 7 March 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A living legend

A newly discovered necropolis in Minya may lead to the long-missing cemetery of New Kingdom elites, reports Nevine El-Aref


Khaled El-Enany
Khaled El-Enany

Malawi, close to the site of the new capital established by the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten, continues to reveal its secrets. Egyptian archaeologists early this week stumbled across an amazing discovery that may soon lead to the missing cemetery of New Kingdom elites.  

Archaeological studies have shown that cemeteries of the old and middle kingdoms as well as the First Intermediate Period were on the east bank of the Nile in the Al-Sheikh Saad and Deir Al-Barsha areas of Malawi. During the Ptolemaic and Roman period the location of burials moved to Tuna Al-Gabal on the west bank of the Nile. But until now the burial place of New Kingdom elites, including priests and senior officials, remains a mystery.

In its search for the site an Egyptian archaeological mission led by Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), began excavations in December in the Al-Ghureifa area, 6km north of Tuna Al-Gabal.

The mission stumbled upon a cemetery of the priests of the god of wisdom Thoth containing dozens of mummies, sarcophagi and coffins that could date to the Late Period and Early Roman Period.

“It is a cemetery for priests and their families with no fewer than 40 graves and burial shafts,” Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany told Egyptian and foreign reporters who flocked to the site to hear the announcement of the new discovery.

Five showcases displaying collections of semi-precious beads, gilded necklaces, clay pots, offering tables and other artefacts were exhibited on site and guarded by inspectors.

“This is only the beginning,” El-Enany said, adding that uncovering all the burials within the cemetery would require at least five years of excavation and restoration. In the last three months alone, he said, the mission had uncovered 40 coffins and sarcophagi in eight burial shafts. Waziri told Al-Ahram Weekly he expected this number to triple as on site excavations continue.

To access one of these burials the Weekly had to pass through a narrow 8m-deep shaft before coming face-to-face with a beautifully carved wooden coffin with an anthropoid lid bearing the features of the deceased. The right eye was missing while the left was lined with kohl and decorated with ivory and crystal beads. A collection of limestone sarcophagi of other members of the deceased’s family lay nearby.

“It is one of the most impressive coffins found within the cemetery,” Waziri said.

He added that the beautifully carved necklace was one of the best finds from the tombs. Recovered on New Year’s Eve, it was a “wonderful coincidence” that it was inscribed with “happy new year” in hieroglyphics.

“This is a message sent to us from the afterlife,” Waziri told the Weekly.

One of the excavated tombs belongs to Hersa-Essei, a high priest of the god Thoth. The tomb houses 13 burials in which a large number of faience ushabti figurines (statuettes to serve the priests in the afterlife) were found. Some 1,000 figurines were in good condition while many more were found broken into pieces.

“Restorers are now busy collecting all the pieces for restoration,” said Waziri.

Four canopic jars made of alabaster with lids bearing the faces of the four sons of the god Horus were also unearthed.

Well preserved, and still containing the mummified organs of the deceased, the jars are decorated with hieroglyphic texts showing the name and different titles of their owner, the high priest Djehuty-Irdy-Es, whose mummy was also found.

The mummy is decorated with a bronze collar depicting the goddess Nut stretching out her wings to protect the deceased, a collection of blue and red beads, bronze gilded sheets, two eyes carved in bronze, and ivory and crystal beads. Four amulets of semi-precious stones were also found on the mummy.

The mission has unearthed 40 limestone sarcophagi of different shapes and sizes. Some have anthropoid lids decorated with the names and titles of their owners while one family tomb uncovered in the cemetery houses a collection of gigantic sarcophagi and ushabti figurines bearing the names of their owners, all priests.

Illegal excavations at the Al-Ghureifa site in 2002 prompted the SCA to begin its own work there under the supervision of archaeologist Atta Makram. In 2004 the area was declared an archaeological site under the supervision of the SCA.

In 2017 excavations resumed and uncovered a number of New Kingdom and Late Period burials.

To the south of Al-Ghureifa lies Tuna Al-Gabal where a cache of mummies dating from the Late to the Graeco-Roman periods was found in May. The discoveries included 32 mummies, 17 of which were in a good state of preservation.

Tuna Al-Gabal was known in ancient times as Tahni (the lake), because a lake would form there during the Nile flood. In Graeco-Roman times it was known as Tawns, later corrupted to Tuna.

The oldest monument in the area is a boundary stele on top of the cliffs which dates to the rule of Akhenaten. It is now protected by a glass case to prevent further erosion. The catacombs in which the mummies were found were dug beneath the necropolis and used to store thousands of mummified falcons, baboons and ibis.

The site also houses the tomb of the fourth-century priest Petosiris, which in shape resembles the Temple of Dendara. While some walls are decorated in typical Late Period style the outer court bears Greek ornamentation.

The tomb and chapel of Isadora, a wealthy young woman who was said to have fallen in love with a soldier, is also at the site. According to local legend, the couple wanted to get married but Isadora’s father refused. They decided to elope but Isadora drowned while crossing the Nile after which her heartbroken father built an elaborate tomb which incorporates a 10-line poem inscribed in Greek couplets in its decoration.

Following her death a cult developed around the tomb. Isadora’s mummified remains are still present at the site, encased in glass.

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