Old Kingdom Tombs of Mastaba
The Saqqara complex is one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt. It is the burial ground of the first dynasties of the Old Kingdom.
The old kingdom was a period of prosperity and ease, reflected in the structures constructed in this era. Pyramids, like the step pyramid of Djoser, the most ancient rock structure in history, and the pyramid of Unas, tombs like the tomb of Irukaptah and Mehu, Mastaba tombs like the Mastaba tomb of Mereruka and Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, make the Saqqara complex one of the most important tourist attractions in Egypt.
In this article, I will shed some light on the most critical tombs at Saqqara.
The Tomb Of Irukaptah:
This tomb is nicknamed the Butcher's Tomb because it belongs to Irukaptah, the butcher of a king from the 5th dynasty. His formal titles were "Head of the Butchers of the Great House" and "Waab Priest of the King."
The tomb of Irukaptah in Saqqara has particular significance for two reasons:
- The first reason is that its design differs from any other Saqqara tomb.
- The second reason is that it is the finest preserved example of the old kingdom's art and architecture.
The most famous tomb in Saqqara is that of Irukaptah, located just to the north of the passageway leading to the pyramid of Unas. Completely cut out of rock, the tomb's opening almost faces the north, leading to a semi-rectangular offering room.
The most remarkable feature of the tomb of Irukaptah is the set of statues carved out of a rock. Some of these statues are completed, while others were left in different stages of construction; therefore, this tomb represents an essential demonstration of the rock construction of the old kingdom. These rock-cut statues are not found anywhere else in Saqqara. They are only found in some tombs of the ancient empire in Giza. Some of these statues belong to Irukaptah's family, and some belong to him.
Aside from their architectural finesse, these statues give a reliable example of the clothes the royal family's servants wore in the old kingdom. While the skin was painted dark red, it seems like the servants at that time were employed to wear skirts painted yellow with bright colored belts around them and a short black wig on the head, which is a common feature of the costumes of the old kingdom.
On the eastern walls of the tomb and above the remarkable statues, there are famous butchering scenes showing several men in daily life slaughtering an ox.
The Mastaba of Kagemni:
This Mastaba tomb belongs to an officially appointed chief of justice, the highest governmental post in old Egypt. He served during the reign of King Teti, the first king of the 6th dynasty. Kagemni was a son-in-law to the king, so he trusted him with such a high post. This enabled Kagemni to build an extraordinarily ornamented tomb close to the pyramid of his king, Teti. With his high standing and royal connections, Kagemni got the best Egyptian workers to build his tomb.
The Mastaba is located precisely north of the pyramid of Teti and northeast of the main pyramid at the Saqqara complex, the Djoser pyramid. This location reflects the incredible power of such a high governmental post during the time. This Mastaba tomb is essential in transitioning from the Mastaba building to the pyramids. It was first discovered by pioneering Prussian Egyptologist, linguist, and superstar of modern archaeology Richard Lepsius in 1843.
Once one enters the tomb, one finds oneself inside a room that contains three pillars with magnificent scenes of fishing and different animals drawn on the walls. Then, another room to the right holds several reliefs with monkeys and greyhounds. There is a relief of Kagemni himself in this room. There are also remarkable sketches of birds.
The Tomb of Mehu:
This tomb houses the body of Mehu, Chief of Justice and Vizier, during the fifth dynasty. Mehu had three wives. One of them, Iku, was known as " the king's daughter of his body," which indicates she was a significant figure at the time. The tomb of Mehu is located north of the passageway to the pyramid of Unas, along with many other tombs. It is considered one of the Saqqara complex's most colorful and best-preserved tombs.
The tomb of Mehu, unlike many other tombs in Saqqara, was discovered by Egyptian scholars, not Western archaeologists. It was found by Zaky Saad and excavated by Salam Hussein in 1940. The tomb contains four highly decorated rooms with an expansive courtyard.
The wall to the left of the first room displays scenes of trapping different colorful birds using nets. In contrast, the other room division shows Mehu in different hunting scenes, a common characteristic of the tombs of the old kingdom, as hunting was considered a symbol of power and intelligence. At the end of this room, there is a long passageway going westwards and decorated with many scenes of the daily life of Egyptians during the reign of the old kingdom with drawings of boat sailing, fishing, harvest, and hunting.
On the wall to the right of this corridor is a door leading to the vast courtyard that hosts two large pillars with reliefs of Mehu on both sides. On the back of these two pillars is the false door leading to the tomb of Kahotep, Mehu's son. At the end of the corridor are amazingly well-preserved scenes of different men presenting offerings. These reliefs show some colors not present in any tomb that returns to the old kingdom. These paintings continue in the next small room with other drawings of men dancing, singing, and celebrating. A door to the right-hand side leads to a rectangular chapel that contains the false entrance of the tomb, which was unusually decorated with a dark red color, and the inscriptions were made in yellow, which resulted in an astonishing detailed piece of art.
A small chamber at the end of this chapel contains the body of Meryre-ankh, the inspector of the priests responsible for the pyramid of Pepi. Most scholars believe that Mehu took this tomb from its original owner. However, he left his offering room intact.
The Mastaba of Mereruka:
Mereruka held many important official posts during the reign of Teti, like the Chief Justice and vizier, Inspector of Priests attached to the Pyramid of Teti, Scribe of the Divine Books, and Chief Lector Priest. He was one of Teti's favorite men. J. de Morgan discovered the Mastaba of Mereruka in July 1893 and went through many stages of excavation afterward. It is located to the northeast of the complex of Saqqara, just to the north of the pyramid of Teti.
The considerable size and quality of the Mastaba of Mereruka and the Mastaba of Kagemni reflect the power and prestige of aristocratic families during this period, in contradiction to the poor quality and size of the pyramids of the kings of this period, which reflects the decline in the kingly power.
The Tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum:
It is believed that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were the sons of Khabaw-Khufu and Rewedzaweres. Khnumhotep was married to Khentikawes, with three sons and three daughters, while Khnumhotep was married to Khenut, with five sons and one daughter.
This tomb is sometimes called "the tomb of the two brothers." These two men were buried in the same tomb because of their close relationship, as it was said that they were brothers who shared the same lifestyle, and some assumptions say they were twins. However, there is no clear and accurate proof of twins. Some other notions suggest a homosexual relationship between the two men, but most scholars largely rejected this idea because both men had wives and children.
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum lived in the reign of Neussere, the sixth king of the fifth dynasty of the old kingdom. They held the titles of the " prophets of Ra" and were also "web priests" of the pyramid and the sun temple of the king, Neussere, located in Abu Ghaleb to the west of modern Cairo.
The Mastaba tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum is located in the northern part of the complex of Saqqara and near the Pyramid of King Unas. It was discovered in 1964 and is considered one of Saqqara's most significant and remarkable Mastaba tombs.
The construction of the Mastaba tomb, built in three phases, underwent many modifications and transformations. The first phase consisted of cutting out the tomb's northern part. This chamber was enlarged to the south to double its size and add an offering chamber, which was the second construction phase. The third phase included adding the primary passageway that leads to the original antechamber.
The first scenes one sees when entering the tomb are baking bread from barley and making beer. Other inscriptions display building ships, harvesting, sailing, and netting of birds. The eastern wall contains the names of the other family members buried in this Mastaba tomb. At the lower part of this wall, Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are drawn inside a large ship. The antechamber contains a lot of rock-cut ornaments that include mainly agricultural scenes like sowing seeds and taking care of animals. There are also some fantastic inscriptions of the two men with their sons and daughters.
This tomb is considered the most famous in Saqqara and is visited the most by tourists. This is mainly due to two factors: the tomb is located near the pyramids of Saqqara and Unas, and most of its magnificent colors remain, a testament to its beauty.
The Tomb of Queen Nebt:
Queen Nebt and Khenut were the wives of King Unas. They were buried in the same tomb beside his pyramid in the Saqqara complex, precisely to the north of the pyramid. Her grave is one of the area's most remarkable and finely preserved tombs, so all tourists visiting the Saqqara complex should visit this tomb.
The tomb of Nebt and Khenut is a double Mastaba tomb divided into two parts: one for Nebt and the other for Khenut. Both parts of the tomb are equal in size and layout.
However, history had its say in their preservation. The part constructed for Khenut is ruined, while the amount of Nebt is well-preserved and highly exceptional.
The tomb of Nebt contains three rooms, with the second being considered the most remarkable. It has beautifully decorated walls with many inscriptions of the queen.
The entrance to the tomb is from its southeast side, and it leads to an antechamber highly decorated with scenes of the queen sailing along with many funerary scenes of offerings and women servants. Afterward, a passageway leads to a small chapel with many votive offerings of the queen and her daughter.