The Pyramid of El-Lahun: A Remarkable Ancient Egyptian Site
The El-Lahun Pyramid is an ancient Egyptian monument located in Faiyum, Egypt, which was built during the 12th dynasty under the reign of Pharaoh Senusret II (1897 B.C. - 1878 B.C.). This impressive structure has a unique design and construction that sets it apart from other pyramids in Egypt. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the history, architecture, and fascinating discoveries made at the El-Lahun Pyramid.
The El-Lahun Pyramid was constructed as a burial monument for the Pharaoh Senusret II, who was the fourth king of the 12th dynasty. The pyramid's location, near the opening of the Hawara Channel from the Nile Valley into the Fayum basin, highlights the growing importance of the Fayum oasis during this period. The ancient name of the site was r ꜣ-ḥn.t, literally meaning "Mouth (or Opening) of the Canal." It was also known as Ptolemais Hormos (Ancient Greek: Πτολεμαῒς ὅρμος, romanized: port of Ptolemy) in Ptolemaic Egypt.
Discovery and Excavations
The El-Lahun Pyramid was first discovered by British archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1889. Over the years, significant excavations have been conducted at the site, with a focus on the pyramid, the workmen's village, and the tombs of nobles and princesses. In 2009, a cache of pharaonic-era mummies in brightly painted wooden coffins was discovered, further emphasizing the importance of this site.
Architectural Design and Construction
The El-Lahun Pyramid stands out among other Egyptian pyramids due to its unique design and construction methods. Unlike the majority of pyramids, which were built using limestone, the El-Lahun Pyramid is made primarily of mudbrick. However, the core of the pyramid consists of a network of stone walls that were infilled by mudbrick, providing extra stability to the structure.
Another unusual aspect of the El-Lahun Pyramid's design is that its entrance is located on the south side of the structure, rather than the more common north side. This peculiar design choice has puzzled archaeologists for years.
The Pyramid's Inner Structure
The inner structure of the El-Lahun Pyramid is markedly different from its older counterparts. The entrance to the burial chamber is found at the bottom of a narrow shaft near the southeast corner of the pyramid. This entrance shaft was too narrow for the sarcophagus, so a second, wider shaft was dug into the ground at a short distance to the south, hidden beneath a sloping passage leading to the tomb of an unidentified princess.
The entrance shaft opens into a horizontal corridor, which leads to a hall with a vaulted ceiling. In the east of this hall, a well is dug into the floor – its depth unknown, but it is believed to have reached the groundwater level. This well may have been intended to allow primeval water, considered by the Ancient Egyptians as the source of creation, into the pyramid. This feature has also been found in some tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Thebes, dating some 300 or 400 years after Senusret II.
The Burial Chamber
The burial chamber of the El-Lahun Pyramid is clad entirely in granite and has a garbled roof. Measuring 5 by 3 meters and 3 meters high, the red granite sarcophagus was placed at the far end of the chamber. A small chamber opens to the south of the burial chamber, where the only remains of the burial were found: a golden uraeus (a symbol of royalty) that once adorned the king's head and some leg bones, possibly belonging to the pharaoh.
A passage in the north wall loops around the burial chamber and enters the antechamber in the south. This unique feature is thought to symbolize the king's departure to the north and his re-emergence in the pyramid to the east of the burial chamber. It may also have been created to symbolically make an island out of the burial chamber, an important aspect of the cult of Osiris, the god of the dead and resurrection.
The Pyramid Complex
The El-Lahun Pyramid complex is enclosed by two walls: an inner limestone wall decorated with niches and an outer mudbrick wall. Rows of trees were planted parallel to the outer wall, possibly as a reference to the cult of Osiris.
Within the outer enclosure, eight mastabas were built against the north wall, intended as tombs for some princesses. In the northeastern corner, there is a small 18-meter-high pyramid, the entrance of which has never been found. It has been suggested that this structure was either a queen's pyramid or a satellite pyramid and may have served a symbolic purpose.
The causeway leading to the complex has never been investigated, and the valley temple is now completely destroyed.
The Workmen's Village
Located about 800 meters from the pyramid, the workmen's village, often referred to as Kahun, is a fascinating site that provides insight into the lives of the people who constructed the pyramid and served the king's funerary cult. The village was excavated by Petrie in 1888-90 and again in 1914, revealing several buildings that were still intact up to roof height at the time of discovery.
The village's layout showcases an impressive degree of town planning, with many structures still present and intact, giving archaeologists valuable information about the daily lives of the workers who built the pyramid. Numerous tools and objects of everyday life were discovered within the houses, suggesting that the departure of the workmen may have been sudden and unpremeditated.
Among the peculiar findings in the village were wooden boxes buried beneath the floors of many houses, containing the skeletons of infants, sometimes two or three in a box, who were only a few months old at the time of their death. Petrie reburied these human remains in the desert.
The Kahun Papyri
In addition to the physical structures and artifacts found at the El-Lahun site, the Kahun papyri were discovered in the town, consisting of about 1,000 fragments covering legal and medical matters. The papyri provide valuable insight into the lives and concerns of the people who lived and worked in the area.
Later Occupation and Significance
The site of El-Lahun was occupied into the late 13th dynasty and again during the New Kingdom, when large land reclamation schemes were undertaken in the area. Excavations in the early 21st century revealed that it was a significant site even during the Early Dynastic period (c. 2925-c. 2575 BCE), further emphasizing the importance and long history of El-Lahun.
Recent Discoveries and Developments
In 2009, a significant excavation at El-Lahun yielded several notable finds, including the body of a man identified as a senior government official. Engravings on his wooden coffin dated the body to the 2nd dynasty (c. 2775-c. 2650 BCE), indicating that the site had been significant far earlier than previously believed.
In June 2019, the El-Lahun Pyramid opened to the public for the first time following extensive conservation and preservation work. The restoration efforts included removing debris from the pyramid's corridors and burial chamber, installing wooden stairs for easier access, re-installing fallen stones, restoring the deteriorated floor stones, and implementing a new lighting system.
The El-Lahun Pyramid is a remarkable ancient Egyptian site that offers valuable insights into the history, architecture, and lives of the people who inhabited the area. As a unique example of pyramid construction and design, as well as the wealth of artifacts and information discovered within the complex, the El-Lahun site continues to captivate archaeologists and history enthusiasts alike.