Abydos (Egypte) : A Pharaoh’s Massive Tomb Unveiled
The tomb of King Senwosret III, one of the most renowned pharaohs of ancient Egypt’sMiddle Kingdom, is expected to open to the public in about a year or two, allowing tourists to appreciate the architecture of Egyptian builders who constructed the burial complex almost four thousand years ago, according to Dr. Josef Wegner, Associate Curator of the Egyptian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). He has been excavating in Abydos for decades.
Dated to 1850 BC, it is the largest tomb at Abydo, which is one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt. The tomb measures 200 meters in length and 45 meters deep. To visualize how massive this is, one would need to imagine a 13 story building underground. “The architecture is amazing,” says Wegner. “It’s like going into a pyramid. It’s architecture is symbolic – depicting the sacred journey into the afterlife.”
The entrance of the tomb faces westwards (symbolizing death, because the sun sets in the west) and then the underground complex curls under a sacred natural mountain, anciently known as Anubis-Mountain, to face the eastern horizon, the direction from which the sun rises, symbolizing rebirth, explained Wegner. “For the Egyptians, that the sun vanishes in the west and magically rises in the east is one of the secrets of the universe, giving them the power of rejuvenation,” he said.
The burial complex features chambers with ceilings six meters high, as well as narrow passageways with blocking stones. The chambers are connected to each other with sloping passages. To navigate the tomb structure, archaeologists, while exploring it, had to slide down at approximately a 30 degree angle. Some blocking stones in these passages weigh as much as 40 to 50 tons. The air inside is stuffy, which makes some people uncomfortable, Wegner admitted. “Some people get a little nervous going into it. When we first opened it, it was full of debris, so we had to crawl on our hands and knees and slither like a snake.”
Luckily, tourists will not have to slither like snakes when they visit the tomb. Stairs with handrails, lights, and a ventilation system were installed and debris and broken blocking stones were removed to make it possible for visitors to walk upright. Work is currently underway to complete the signage in the tombs, and to prepare a parking area for buses, Wegner said.
The significance of the tomb
Although first discovered and explored in 1901 by Arthur Weigall, the tomb was not systematically excavated until Wegner and a team reopened it in 2005 with a plan for full excavation, publication and restoration of the tomb. Since then, more detailed features of the tomb structure have been revealed. It was found to be devoid of wall decoration, but its interior was lined with well-dressed masonry of Tura limestone and red Aswan quartzite. The burial chamber contained the broken remains of the king’s granite sarcophagus and canopic box, and was protected by an elaborate system of massive stone blocks and architectural techniques for concealing the royal burial’s location. Several of the blocking stones weighed over 50 tons, designed to prevent access by tomb robbers into the burial chamber itself.
Most significantly, the Senwosret III tomb is now the first known example of a hidden royal tomb, representing a change from the ancient traditional concept of the royal pyramid to that of a royal subterranean complex like those of the later royal burials in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Describing the tomb, Wegner and researchers write that “the tomb itself extends beneath the peak of Anubis-Mountain which serves as a substitute for the built pyramid. This name occurs on many clay impressions produced by a necropolis seal that was used extensively in a variety of administrative and ceremonial activities at the tomb site.” The tomb is thus a massively monumental example of a major shift in ancient Egyptian royal burial practices.
Panorama of the landscape of the Anubis-Mountain necropolis. Courtesy Josef Wegner and the Penn Museum
Overall plan of the complex of Senwosret III at South Abydos. Courtesy Josef Wegner and the Penn Museum
Cut-away view of the Senwosret III tomb. Courtesy Josef Wegner and the Penn Museum
The tomb features sloping passages between chambers. Courtesy Josef Wegner and the Penn Museum
Above and below: Views within the newly revealed massive tomb complex of Senwosret III. Note the remarkable interior of well-dressed masonry. Courtesy Josef Wegner and the Penn Museum
Red Aswan quartzite is a major material feature of the tomb. Courtesy Josef Wegner and the Penn Museum